New library at B&O museum keeps track of artifacts

April 04, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Wearing white gloves, Shawn Cunningham gingerly removed a heavy canvas-bound book from its shelf in a vault at the B&O Railroad Museum.

In the adjacent reading room of the museum's new research library, Mr. Cunningham placed the book on the polished antique boardroom table and opened the volume to its first entry -- the minutes of the April 24, 1827, meeting of the board of directors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Written in an ornate, almost artistic, 19th-century hand, this first record of America's first commercial railroad begins, "At a meeting of the directors Elect of the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road Company the following certificates were produced and read to wit."

Further down the page are the names of those in attendance. Somestill having a familiar ring a century and a half later: Charles Carroll, Alexander Brown, Thomas Ellicott.

Almost everyone who has spent any time in Baltimore knows about the museum's collection of antique rail cars and replicas, but few are aware of the trove of documents, publications and photographs chronicling the history of the B&O and its descendants.

That historic store of railroad artifacts has a new, more secure home -- the Hays T. Watkins Research Library. Named after the recently retired chairman of CSX Corp., which now operates the former B&O as part of a much bigger railroad system, the library was built in the museum with a $150,000 grant from CSX. It was dedicated last night.

The B&O was always proud of its history as the nation's first commercial railroad, said Mr. Cunningham,the museum's managing director. "They were not the biggest and they were not the richest, but they were definitely the oldest," he observed.

That consciousness permeated the company and affected the way it promoted itself. The masthead of the January 1935 B&O magazine depicts a steam locomotive flanked by profiles of some of the older engines once used on the system, including Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb, the famous little machine that, as the story goes, raced a horse to prove the value of steam power on rails.

The cover photograph itself reinforces this idea of the importance of history at the B&O. It depicts a scene two decades earlier, a dramatic shot of a team of two steam locomotives belching smoke as they clear their own path across the snowy landscape of Deer Park, Md., in 1916.

"A lot of businesses scrap their old equipment and documents. The B&O tended to hang onto this stuff," Mr. Cunningham observed.

As a descendant of the B&O, CSX seems to have inherited the interest in history. CSX owned the B&O museum collection until 1987, when it turned it over to a foundation, the B&O Museum Inc. The company has continued its involvement with the museum since. It continues to donate old cars and engines. CSX has also donated its corporate records. Just the inventory of those records fills 92 single-spaced pages, Mr. Cunningham said.

Collecting and preserving are not necessarily the same thing. One of the principle problems facing the museum has been protecting the aging documents and organizing them so they can be of value to scholars.

That's where the new research library will be the most help. The largest part of the CSX grant was spent on an air system to control the temperature and humidity of the archives, to prevent the sensitive materials from deterioration. The new library's reading room, located on the second floor, will provide a space for researchers to examine the documents.

While access will be limited for now to scholars, Mr. Cunningham hopes that the research library will become "the brains of the institution," generating the knowledge needed to create exciting new exhibitions at the museum that will shed light on U.S. history through the history of American business.

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