Museum is a fond walk through time and wonder

March 03, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

IT WAS welcome news when I learned that our B&O Railroad Museum will be re-staging the Fair of the Iron Horse next year. While I wasn't around for this 1927 pageant, both my parents attended. They never stopped talking about it.

This past Saturday my sister Ann, the mother of three, issued the order that all would be off to Pratt and Poppleton streets in Southwest Baltimore for a visit to the B&O Museum, a favorite family visiting location for almost 50 years. It's the hallowed rail address where so many of the rail relics from that 1927 exhibition found a quiet, wonderful sanctuary.

When I rolled into the parking lot, Ann and her husband and happy brood were tumbling over the cobblestones and waving the kind of hello that people once got when stepping off a train platform. I knew it was going to be a fine Saturday in old Baltimore.

The parking lot was full to overflowing; the train enthusiasts were lined up at the admission door. One ill-tempered man was loudly complaining about the time it was taking him to gain entry to the museum's portals.

This Saturday happened to be some sort of a model train sales exhibit -- very low-key, with people from Brooklyn Park who were offering handsome wood cabinets to display the cast brass models other small-time vendors were offering for sale. A fellow from Columbia was making these finely detailed miniature scenes out of balsa wood, hobby glue and paint. A jolly woman sitting behind a table instructed me (in vain, but I'll give her high marks for patience) how to make a realistic miniature tree out of bathtub caulking material and some sort of wispy weed.

The old roundhouse was packed and jammed with happy train people, a niche market of special Baltimoreans. For a moment I considered all the people lined up that very day on Pratt Street a half dozen blocks to the east -- at the Convention Center for the winter craft show. Then I realized these train-crazed B&O people, myself included, were so much more at home wedged between the Royal Blue passenger car and the big wheels of the Jersey Central loco.

I'm not a fair judge of my nephew and nieces, but the B&O Museum totally captured the children's attention. The girls took over the old M&P mail car -- the one I used to see in actual service as it passed across the bed of Belvedere Avenue (oops, Northern Parkway) in the 1950s. They were also fascinated by the inside of a red caboose.

One of the reasons I like the B&O Museum is that it doesn't dumb down what it's presenting. The collection is monumental, often oddball, and carefully preserved. It's a testament to the romance of railroading -- and doing a very honest day's work. I like the sense of reverence here for all the generations who dug the ditches, laid the rail and made the boilers.

How many museums have little movies that glory in the army of railroad workers who sat behind desks and tabulated shipping bills in the old B&O Building at Charles and Baltimore streets?

Many of the cases are wonder cabinets of strange industrial curiosities. And how many railroad museums display Staffordshire china (decorated with train scenes, of course) and silver tea services, likewise chased with and inscribed with railroadiana.

When it was time to leave, I picked up a book at the gift shop, where there was some sort of sale going on. It was a volume of English railroad cartoons from the 1950s. The price was as non-arrogant as the museum itself -- one dollar.

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