B&O exhibit showcases evolution of 'Great Road'

February 26, 1994|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff Writer

Just what is a railroad?

The answer to that essay question can be found in the B&O Railroad Museum's new permanent exhibit, "America's Great Road."

This large show has been designed so that visitors to the Southwest Baltimore museum can grasp the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's sprawling grasp on peoples' lives, the national economy and other forms of transport.

"We have children coming in here who have never ridden a railroad and have no idea how they got built," says Herbert Harwood, a retired B&O Railroad executive and author of several histories on Baltimore's hometown line.

"America's Great Road," is a show about telegraph keys, iron rails, trussed bridges, coal loads and railway unions. It is designed as a serious teaching and educational component that will complement the museum's extensive collection of locomotives and freight and passenger cars the railroad began assembling more than 100 years ago.

"Railroading was not just the glory of the steam locomotive. It was hard, labor-intensive work. It caused people to lose hands and lives," says John Ott, the museum's director.

His show looks beyond the technology of a steam or diesel engine. It is about economics, politics and people, including Irish construction gangs, African-American dining-car waiters and female office stenographers.

"We want people to realize that the B&O was once all over Baltimore and Maryland. It has immigration piers at Locust Point, an office headquarters downtown and a tremendous shop works here at Mount Clare," Mr. Ott says.

A critic once said of this line: "The B&O was never really a chic railroad, but it always seemed to have an air of comfortable dignity and hospitality that outshone the cosmetic Hollywood glamour and gaudy excesses that passed for sophistication on other railroads."

The exhibit is much like it. It disdains cheap railroad nostalgia. Instead, it concentrates on how Baltimore merchants found a way to move goods from the city's harbor over the mountains to the natural navigation system of the Ohio River.

The line's founders almost had to invent a railroad by experimenting with every engineering feat available. A line that was budgeted to cost $5 million of pre-Civil War capital wound up costing $18 million. It was, however, an act of financial courage that proved a foundation of Baltimore's potency as a major-league 9th-century city.

"The longest railroad in the world before the B&O was conceived was 25 miles long. The Baltimore people went ahead and said they were going to build one 380 miles over the mountains," Mr. Harwood says.

The railroad historians have designed 12 walk-through sections, somewhat arranged like chapters in a book. The titles include: Baltimore at the Crossroads; From England, the Rail Road; A Network of Iron and Steel; Making the Way Easy; The Great Road; The New Technology; The Mount Clare Shops; The Tom Thumb; Making the Nation; Working on the Railroad; The Railroaders' Life; and Traveling by Train.

Mr. Harwood, along with former B&O curator John Hankey and James Dilts, author of "The Great Road," a detailed history of the line's beginning, collaborated on producing the text that accompanies the show. A walk through the exhibit requires some patience and thought. This is not meant to be an amusement park ride on a 1920s day coach. It is a comprehensive overview of how the B&O harnessed technology and was a pioneer in building the railroad in the years before the Civil War.

Each section contains physical objects to be viewed and touched. Some, like a telegraph key, actually work. There are also scale models of locomotives, freight cars and bridges, as well as photographs and a considerable amount of printed text to read. Early cast-iron wheels, an actual British coal-mining car, signals, couplers, whistles, barrels of flour and a carpet bag figure in the show.

This presentation does not forget the men and women who built and ran the line. "Railroaders were subjected at times to brutal, 24-hour-work days. It was dangerous work. Crews were called out at any time. No wonder railroads were home to the earliest industrial unions," Mr. Harwood says.

The B&O, once the largest employer in Baltimore, relied on tremendous labor pools. That also meant there were B&O baseball teams, bowling leagues and a glee club.

"We sometimes forget that before World War I, 98 percent of all intercity passenger travel was by railroad," Mr. Harwood says.

'America's Great Road'

Where: B&O Railroad Museum, 901 W. Pratt St. at Poppleton

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily

Admission: Adults, $5; seniors, $4; students 5 to 12, $3; children under 4, free

Call: (410) 752-2490

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