Baltimore native is chosen to head B&O Railroad Museum

Wilson, expert on trains, had been interim director

March 23, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Courtney B. Wilson, a Baltimore native and an expert on trains, has been named executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum, museum officials said yesterday.

After a national search that considered more than 50 candidates, the museum's board of directors chose a known quantity. Wilson was the museum's interim director while the six-month search took place, and before that he had been the museum's chief curator since 1997.

"The institution knows who I am," Wilson said yesterday.

Museum spokeswoman Christine Broda-Bahm said one reason for choosing Wilson was his commitment to making the railroad complex more family-friendly. "He's more humanistic in his approach, not just looking at inventions but the people behind them," she added.

At 46, Wilson is the same age as the railroad museum on Pratt Street, founded in 1953. Like many Baltimore baby boomers, he recalls visiting the trains there in the late 1950s.

He said he thinks the museum is sometimes lost in the shadows, even with its historic collection, including the first mile of track laid and the room where the first telegraph message -- "What hath God wrought?"-- was received in Baltimore from inventor Samuel F. B. Morse in Washington.

The museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, is "taken for granted, particularly by Baltimoreans," Wilson said.

His twin goals are to "nationalize the scope" of the museum, drawing visitors from outside Baltimore and Maryland, and to "tell the story of the American railroad."

Wilson, along with many other train aficionados and historians, believes the building of the railroads across America in the 19th century was a transforming accomplishment -- comparable, in present-day terms, to the creation of the Internet.

The museum, which is open seven days a week, has an operating budget of just under $2 million. Its next event, which Wilson plans to put his signature on, will be called "The Fair of the Iron Horse," celebrating the 175th birthday of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 2002.

"We should draw hundreds of thousands of people to Baltimore," Wilson said.

He is aware of the challenge of piquing the interest of 21st-century children.

"How do you make these big antique machines alive to kids? You show them the personalities, the people in the system, the Irish immigrants who built the tracks, the role of the railroad in the Civil War."

He noted that the B&O was known as Mr. Lincoln's railroad" during the war and that Lincoln had been a railroad lawyer in Springfield, Ill.

Wilson also wants to stage exhibits that draw a link to everyday life -- providing food for the table and heat in the house -- and the advent of the railroad.

His predecessor, John H. Ott, made it his mission to broaden the audience and enhance the museum's reputation, a legacy Wilson seems eager to build on.

A resident of Brooklandville, Wilson is a graduate of Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore County and Western Maryland College. He also earned a master's degree from Morgan State University.

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