Riding the B&O for 175 years

UP FRONT

February 28, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It was conceived out of worry that Baltimore would lose its commercial preeminence to the Erie Canal. It was born in the home of a Baltimore merchant prince.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which turned 175 years old yesterday, had a less-dramatic beginning than you might think.

On Saturday, the B&O Railroad Museum will begin a 16th-month celebration of that humble founding and the railroad's long, storied history. And the public is invited to hop aboard and go along for the ride. (See box on this page and listing on Page 4.)

The B&O Railroad, which linked Baltimore and Tidewater Maryland with Wheeling, W.Va., was the nation's first common carrier railroad. That means it carried people or cargo from place to place for compensation.

As the first such railroad, it begat many other "firsts," including first to publish a timetable (1830); first to have a government contract to carry mail (1838); first to place an electric locomotive in regular service (1895); and first to operate a completely air-conditioned car (1931).

"175 Years: America on Track," the name given to the celebration of the B&O, begins with Founder's Weekend, this Saturday and Sunday at the museum, 901 W. Pratt St. The highlight of the event is Portraits of American Railroading, an exhibition of paintings, drawings and images of important railroad figures from the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery collection, as well as paintings, portraits and drawings from the railroad museum's extensive collection of railroad art.

It will be the first time since 1927 that the portraits have been seen publicly together. They were displayed at the B&O's Fair of the Iron Horse, the railroad's 100th birthday celebration.

"We were the first railroad in the country, and now that the technology is changing toward high-speed and [magnetic-levitation] trains, the celebration of the B&O's founding takes on a new significance and meaning," says Edward M. Williams, the B&O Railroad Museum's deputy director and curator. "After all, it was the railroad that bound the nation together. And much of what we use in our daily lives still arrives by train."

The founding and building of the B&O represented not only inventiveness on the part of its builders but also an attempt to preserve Baltimore's position as an important commercial center and port.

It was the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 - linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and New York City - that worried Baltimore's merchant princes. They rightfully feared the loss of commerce that flowed through the city to the West.

In the fall of 1826, John Eager Howard, Revolutionary War hero and Baltimore businessman, gave a dinner at his home, Belvedere, where the concept of a railroad was seriously debated.

One of the guests that night was Baltimore merchant Evan Thomas, who had just returned from England. There he had witnessed the operation of the Stockton & Darlington Railroad, a small road whose diminutive but effective steam engines hauled coal from the mines to the docks and waiting colliers.

It was Thomas who suggested that a railroad on a grand scale could be built here, and pointed out that Baltimore, facing an economic decline because of competition from the Erie Canal, had no choice but to wager on such a proposition.

On Feb. 27, 1827, 25 merchants and bankers gathered at the Holliday Street home of George Brown, of the financial firm of Alexander Brown & Sons. Their purpose was to take "under consideration the best means of restoring the city of Baltimore that portion of the Western trade which has recently been diverted from it by the introduction of steam navigation and other causes."

In short order, the men came up with a charter for a railroad, the first line of which reads: "Resolved, That immediate application be made to the Legislature of Maryland for an act incorporating a joint stock company to be styled `The Baltimore & Ohio Railway,' and clothing such company with all the powers necessary to the construction of a railroad, with two or more sets of rails, from the city of Baltimore to the Ohio River."

The railroad's charter remained essentially unchanged for the next 100 years.

"I don't think [too much can be said] of the vision and daring of what those men conceived. What they were conceiving in the 19th century was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon in the 20th century," says Herbert H. Harwood Jr., nationally known railroad historian and author of Impossible Challenge: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland.

"Nothing was known. They only had crude and basic technology, yet they conceived something that had never been thought of before. They managed to build a railroad through hostile terrain and across mountains. Because of New York, the Erie Canal and the importance of Philadelphia as a commercial center, this was something they had to do," he adds.

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