Plans for fair fall through with roof

B&O Railroad Museum cancels its `World's Fair' to focus on repairing site

March 01, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Fair of the Iron Horse 175, the pageant of locomotives and rail cars that was to be the biggest ever of its kind in the United States and boost the B&O Railroad Museum's stature, has been canceled.

The decision was a blow but a necessary one, officials said, as the B&O tries to recover from a Feb. 17 roof collapse over the museum's centerpiece roundhouse where many railway artifacts and several vehicles were destroyed or damaged.

The 10-day fair was expected to draw a national and international crowd of more than 350,000 people to Baltimore this summer and was to be the highlight of the museum's 16-month celebration marking the founding of the B&O Railroad in 1827.

The roundhouse and its collection were to be the gems of the fair. Now, museum officials are more concerned about when the facility will reopen.

"It was a hard decision to make, but we need to focus every effort, every fund-raising effort, on restoring the museum," said Courtney B. Wilson, the B&O's executive director.

"It really is in consideration of the fact that the museum comes first. We couldn't be raising money for the fair when we're going to have to raise some pretty significant funds to restore the roundhouse and its collection."

The decision was made yesterday by museum officers after they met Thursday with Wilson.

Wilson said he had pressed them for a decision so he would know whether to keep pursuing corporate sponsors for the fair.

In the end, as cleanup from the collapse was about to stretch into a third week - far slower than Wilson thought it would take - museum officials began to realize the magnitude of the problem.

Wilson said he doesn't know when the roundhouse will be completely repaired, but it would certainly not be before June 27, the scheduled first day of the fair.

Canceling the fair and closing the museum are costly, not only for the museum but the local economy.

The convention and visitors bureau is promoting the fair on the cover of its upcoming visitor's guide and had sold 30,000 tickets to the event.

Tickets sold

The museum has sold 8,000 tickets. Corporate sponsors committed big money. And railroad museums from as far away as California have been planning to send historic locomotives from their collection to the Baltimore fair.

Dan M. Lincoln, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said the museum's closing is "devastating" to area tourism.

"Especially right now with the economy and threat of war, you need everything in your arsenal to attract visitors," Lincoln said.

"And [the B&O] has always been a popular attraction, an increasingly popular attraction in the last few years."

The fair would have boosted the B&O's fund-raising efforts by bringing in an expected $500,000 to $1 million, and earned it respect from railroad historians and enthusiasts.

Museum officials hoped to promote the B&O as a leading center of industrial history.

"After this fair, I wanted anyone who thinks of railroad history to think of Maryland first," Wilson said before the decision to cancel. "We were calling it the World's Fair of railroading."

He said he doesn't know how much rebuilding is going to cost, nor how much revenue the museum will lose by being closed.

The museum typically draws 160,000 visitors a year and sometimes holds catered events at night. All that revenue will be lost.

Everything changed Feb. 17 when half the slate roof over the roundhouse came crashing down under the weight of a record snowfall.

Below the gaping hole in the roundhouse's roof, iron workers are removing mangled trusses, forklift drivers are scooping up sheets of broken slate roof and rubble, and contractors have begun erecting scaffolding underneath the remaining portion of roof.

Wooden rail cars are smashed. An 1867 steam locomotive is buried under rubble, but its attached tender looks relatively unscathed.

A diesel locomotive with broken windows, headlights and railings was removed to make a path for construction equipment.

And outside the museum, workers have begun salvaging unbroken slate roof shingles and stacking them on wooden pallets. They will be reused when the new roof is built.

Roof rumors

Wilson has heard rumors that B&O officials knew in the mid-1990s that the roof was weak but never did anything about it. He says that's not true - he was more worried about fire or vandalism than the roof failing.

An engineering firm has told Wilson that the roof failed because of the weight of a snowfall that measured 28 inches in the Baltimore area.

Wilson is seeking a second opinion, wondering if there was a structural flaw.

"I just want to know for sure whether something failed before we tell the public this is what happened," said Wilson, who thought the roof, which was last repaired in 1974, could withstand such a storm.

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