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America's Railroad Museum
by
Bob Brooke

 

As the oldest railroad in the United States, it’s only fitting that the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Museum be the one that represents the history of railroading in America. And with all the esteem of this grand old line, people would think that it had a grand beginning. But that wasn’t so.



After it’s meager start, the B&O linked the City of Baltimore with Tidewater Maryland and Wheeling, West Virginia. It was the first commercial railway line, carrying passengers and cargo and even mail for the U.S. Postal Service.

The Launch of the B&O Railroad Museum
The B&O Railroad Museum grew out of a trade show exhibit which survived to become a "national treasure" of railroad artifacts. Today, it comprises the Museum’s collection and is the oldest, most comprehensive American railroad collection in the world.



Located among Baltimore City's historic southwest neighborhoods, at the original site of the historic Mt. Clare Shops where Baltimore businessmen, surveyors, and engineers set about building the B&O Railroad in 1829, laying the first commercial long-distance track, and building the first passenger station.

The collection encompasses artifacts related to early American railroading, particularly the Baltimore & Ohio, Chesapeake & Ohio, Western Maryland, and other mid-Atlantic railroads. Nearly 200 locomotives and pieces of rolling stock provide a look back at railroad technology from 1830 through the present day while hundreds of thousands of small artifacts provide a unique glimpse of railroading through tools, exquisite time-pieces, fine art, presentation silver, uniforms, furniture, and personal memorabilia. Additionally, an extensive collection of scale models and toy trains illustrate America's long fascination with trains and railroading. And the grounds of the Museum encompass significant historic structures, many of which are restored as well as bridges, earthworks, and archaeological resources.

But how did this all come about? The B&O became the first railroad to hire a publicity agent. In 1880, it hired “Major” Joseph G. Pangborn, a western newspaper publicist and showman, to market the railroad. Pangborn saved a number of the B&O’s obsolete but historic locomotives for an extensive exhibit planned for the World’s Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago in 1892 and 1893. In addition, he designed and built a series of full-sized wooden replicas of the world’s pioneering locomotives and mounted an exhibit documenting the continuum of railroad history heretofore unmatched in size, completeness, and significance. For its creative look backward in history, in the midst of a celebration of “modern” technology, the B&O received the highest honors awarded. Marshall Field requested that the railroad loan him the collection and exhibit from the Exposition to be part of a new museum of technology that he proposed. But the Field Museum elected to focus on natural history, so the collection returned to the B&O.

Panghorn expanded and redeveloped the exhibits for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and, again, walked away with gold medals in every category. After that exposition, the collection went to an unused roundhouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to be stored.

When the passenger car department abandoned the magnificent roundhouse at Mt. Clare, however, the Public Relations Department saw an opportunity to consolidate all of its historic collections in one location. The railroad opened the B&O Transportation Museum at Mt. Clare on July 2, 1953.

The Museum’ houses an impressive collection of locomotives with many unique examples of historically significant pieces from the B&O and other Maryland railroads and includes the finest collection of 19th century steam locomotives. The Museum’s roster of locomotives and rolling stock represent the first, last, best or only of their kind in existence today.



The small objects collection covers almost every facet of railroading and includes clocks, pocket watches, textiles, lanterns, dining car china, silver, fine art, communication devices, signals, shop equipment, and an assortment tools and artifacts used on historic occasions such as the laying of the B&O’s ceremonial First Stone on July 4, 1828, which marked the beginning of construction of America’s first railroad.

Today, the Museum covers a 40-acre site. Dating from the beginning of American railroading, the collection contains locomotives and rolling stock, historic buildings, and small objects that document the impact of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) on the growth and development of early railroading and cover almost every aspect of an industry that left a permanent mark on the folklore and culture of America.
 

WATCH A VIDEO:  B&O Railroad Museum

The Roundhouse
The centerpiece of the museum’s collection is the Roundhouse. Noted architect, E. Francis Baldwin had originally designed the Mt. Clare Roundhouse as a passenger car repair and maintenance shop. Fully enclosed, it was the largest circular industrial building in the world when completed covering more than an acre of ground and rising 125 feet into the air.

Completed by the B&O in 1884 at a cost of $100,471.97, this 22 sided structure is 245' in diameter, 135' high and contains almost 1 acre beneath its slate roof. Built of wrought-iron, brick, wood, and slate, it contained 22 bays, a turntable, and three rows of windows that allowed the maximum amount of natural light to illuminate the building.

In the middle of the Roundhouse is the 60' turntable which the railroad used to position passenger cars in an available bay for necessary repairs and maintenance work. By the 1920s passenger cars became increasingly longer and the Roundhouse's usefulness was limited due to the small size of the turntable. Subsequently, the B&O used the building less and less.



Disaster struck the museum in February 2003 when half of the gigantic roof over the roundhouse collapsed from the weight of a record snowfall, damaging numerous priceless historic locomotives and rolling stock.

During reconstruction, the museum returned the interior of the building to its 1884 appearance. Today, the Roundhouse contains exhibits and the most significant collection of 19th century railroad equipment in the world. The museum staff uses the functional turntable to demonstrate how railcars were turned when the building was in use.



Small Objects and Artifacts
In addition to the significant collection of locomotives and train cars, the Museum also contains over 6,000 small objects. The collection covers almost every facet of railroading and includes clocks, pocket watches, textiles, lanterns, dining car china, silver, fine art, communication devices, signals, shop equipment, and an assortment tools and artifacts used on historic occasions, such as the laying of the B&O’s ceremonial First Stone on July 4, 1828, which marked the beginning of construction of America’s first railroad.

Precision timekeeping and accurate schedules were essential to the safe and efficient operation of railroads. Variations or inaccuracies could literally be the difference between life and death. Learn the important role the railroads played in standardizing how we tell time. Exhibited are unique clocks and pocket watches used by the B&O Railroad and its employees.

And last, but not least, the Museum features an exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution’s Collection of Railroad Models: This exhibition features a comprehensive collection of models depicting the history of locomotive and rolling stock technology originally displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of History and Technology (currently the National Museum of American History). The exhibit was the brainchild of transportation curator John H. White. White gathered, in model form, examples of locomotives and cars that represented significant advancements in railroad technology. The models in the exhibit are considered by many to be the finest examples of railroad scale models ever produced.

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