Working to put B&O back on track

Museum director's goal shifts from raising stature to rebuilding after storm

Director works to put B&O back on track

March 11, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Courtney B. Wilson longs for those 15-hour days when he came to work dressed in a two-piece suit ready to schmooze civic and business leaders for money to support his railroad museum.

"I was the man with the smile and glad hand," said the executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum.

Now Wilson comes to work in jeans and work boots and dons a hard hat, extending that same hand to contractors, engineers and insurance adjusters working to fix the broken museum. His days are shorter. There has been little need for after-work chats about money over cocktails.

From museum promoter to museum foreman, Wilson -- a 49-year-old Civil War buff with the confidence of a salesman -- is the man in charge of bringing the B&O back from the most traumatic episode of its 50-year history.

Until the museum was damaged in last month's record snowstorm, Wilson was working hard to make the B&O a tourist attraction. A city tourism official recently said more visitors are asking to see the museum. But Wilson's approach has brought him a few critics, too: historians who say the B&O is losing its grip on history by looking to compete as an entertainment outlet.

When the snow-covered roof over the B&O's landmark roundhouse caved in Feb. 17 on its historic railway collection, Wilson said he shed some tears. By the next day, no one could tell. In the face of adversity, Wilson smiles through it all.

Grace under pressure

"As someone once said, almost anyone can manage when things are going normally," said William L. Withuhn, transportation curator for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "The test of true management skills is when the unexpected occurs. And that's certainly the case here. I think he and his staff are responding fantastically."

The money-challenged museum is closed indefinitely, has had to cancel dozens of catered events and called off an international fair that could have netted $500,000 to $1 million. Herbert H. Harwood, railroad historian and interim director of the B&O in 1988, says Wilson is up to the challenge.

"My impression of Courtney is that he is a very imaginative guy. He's got a lot of flair," said Harwood. "He can handle this."

Wilson grew up near Pikesville and graduated from Milford Mill High School. He has bachelor's degrees in music and history from what is now McDaniel College and a master's degree in history from Morgan State University.

In 1974, he took a job as a park ranger at Hampton National Historic Site in Towson. In 1979, he opened an antiques store, American Military Antiques, in Ellicott City. In 1986, he started a Revolutionary War and Civil War consulting firm.

He gave up his store in the mid-1990s and quit his consulting firm not long after accepting the chief curator job with the B&O in 1997. In 2000, after serving as interim director, Wilson was promoted to executive director.

He doesn't like it, but Wilson's tenure as B&O executive director will always be linked to the roof cave-in and indefinite closure of one of the world's most notable sites for railroading history. Such irony for a leader who acknowledges trying to bring the museum worldwide attention -- but not this way.

Celebration cut short

When the roof fell, the B&O was nearing the end of a 16-month celebration of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad -- the museum's most ambitious undertaking.

The celebration was to culminate in June with the largest railroading festival ever -- the 10-day Fair of the Iron Horse 175, which was expected to attract at least 350,000 people.

The museum's officers decided at the end of last month to cancel the event after determining that the museum would not be repaired by the start of the fair. The decision was a defeat almost as wrenching as the roof collapse that set off this chain of events, Wilson says.

The fair was supposed to be Wilson's legacy. He was supposed to be the man who led the most significant rail car and locomotive pageant in this country's history, and who would have done it in Baltimore. It was all part of his strategic plan for remaking the museum when he took over as executive director.

Few railroad museums have the history and collection that the B&O has, yet the museum is not thought of nationally as highly as Wilson would like. Railroad museums in California and Pennsylvania are among a few often mentioned ahead of the B&O. Wilson said his personal mission has been about putting the B&O "on the map."

"When I started, it was regarded as a museum, a collection of historic items in a historic building," he said.

"This museum has 40 acres. There's more here than one building. We have a mile and a half of track and other things to see," Wilson said. "I came here wanting to make the museum not just a building but a historic site for people to enjoy."

Critical of approach

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