Where American Railroading Began

ANTERO PIETILA

May 30, 1992|By ANTERO PIETILA

$TC Many of the nation's museums have been hit hard by the recession. Don't tell John Ott. He is too busy trying to redefine and expand the B&O Railroad Museum.

''There is this incredible thirst for the nostalgic,'' he declared the other day at the museum, just 10 blocks west of the Inner Harbor.

It's been a bit over a year since the 48-year-old Mr. Ott left his post as the head of the Atlanta Historical Society and headed north. In Baltimore, he took charge of a recently privatized company museum with 125 locomotives, rail cars and other pieces of rolling stock, 15,000 railroad artifacts and mountains of archival material. He hasn't had a dull day since.

New programs have been introduced. And recently, a train the museum operates between its Mount Clare base and Carroll Park became hostage in a fight between two juvenile gangs.

No one was hurt. But the incident underscored Mr. Ott's belief that the museum has to build bridges to the surrounding neighborhoods. ''We could isolate ourselves by erecting electrified fences. But I don't think that would solve anything. If we are to succeed, we will need the help of our neighbors,'' he said.

Those neighborhoods are a key to the B&O Museum's future. A mile-long stretch of railroad track cuts through them, enabling historic trains to shuffle visitors between Mount Clare and Carroll Park during weekends.

Until recently, that swath was a no-man's land, littered with garbage, abandoned tires and dead dogs. (When the museum organized a neighborhood clean-up, more than 300 tons of trash was removed from the area this spring).

If Mr. Ott and his lieutenants -- managing director Shawn Cunningham and curator John Hankey -- have it their way, the stretch bordering Carroll Park will become the Williamsburg of railroading. It will be filled with memorabilia and working exhibits to show how railroads changed America.

This is literally where America's first railroad had its beginnings in 1828. Even the original railbed is still there -- hidden by six feet of accumulated dirt under the current tracks! In the 1920s, more than 3,000 people worked for the B&O at a multitude of Mount Clare shops.

''This is probably the single most important site in railroad history,'' said Mr. Hankey, 38, who represents the fifth generation of his family to work at Mount Clare.

The 37-acre museum property is a unique piece of Americana. Just by facing different directions, one can see an 18th-century plantation at Carroll Park, Dickensian neighborhoods surrounding the 19th-century railroad depot or skyscrapers of a 20th-century metropolis.

More than 82,000 visitors came to the B&O Museum last year. Another 20,000 attended private functions in its Roundhouse, a landmark noted by its lighted dome. By developing current exhibits and adding new ones, museum officials think that number could be increased to 250,000-500,000 a year.

''We don't regard ourselves as a railroad museum, we regard ourselves as a history museum,'' Mr. Hankey explained. ''The railroad is just a way to get to other history, just as railroad itself was a way to get somewhere else; it was a tool.''

Aided by a $20,000 federal grant, the museum is now completing a self-study of its mission. By next year, it plans to create a master plan for expansion. ''The museum is in a position to borrow not only from the history of technology and business but also from urban history, labor history, women's history, black history and other sub-fields of American history,'' an internal document says.

The B&O Railroad Museum is at a turning point. It has one of the finest collections of railroad memorabilia in the United States. It now wants to become even more versatile and better known, a national exponent of social change in an industrialized society.

Museum officials are bursting with ideas. Their enthusiasm has been infectious enough to draw increasing numbers of volunteers and members to the museum, which has also branched out to tour business. The museum now arranges train excursions to scenic destinations in Western Maryland. A Christmas trip is scheduled to Williamsburg, Virginia.

However, much of the museum's immediate success will be determined along its track through Pigtown to Carroll Park. The museum will have to be able to pacify the area's warring juvenile gangs. It also has to forge a lasting cooperative relationship among no fewer than three rival Mount Clare-area organizations and the city parks department. Add to that a busy network of railroad enthusiasts' groups, each with its own turf.

The museum's initial success will be tested next year. That is when it hopes to launch a capital campaign ''to put the place completely on its feet,'' as Mr. Cunningham put it.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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