Wounded iron horses

March 15, 2003

Surveying the damage wreaked by the recent collapse of the B&O Railroad Museum's Roundhouse is a heartbreaking experience.

Train fans can only weep at the wounds inflicted on this irreplaceable collection. Many were superficial, but some wounds were grave. A few were fatal.

Casualties include this summer's much-anticipated Fair of the Iron Horse, potentially a major money-maker, which had to be canceled.

The museum will be closed indefinitely as all efforts are directed toward expensive repairs and restoration.

The 10-day cavalcade of historic locomotives and train cars was intended to commemorate the 175th anniversary of American railroading.

That history began at West Baltimore's Mount Clare depot July 4, 1828, when ground was broken for the first B&O tracks.

At the time, only a handful of short rail spurs existed, and they were in England. Building the first important line in the world became the ambition of Baltimore's Alex. Brown & Sons investment house, which had closely followed rail inventions.

Baltimore badly needed an infusion of new energy. Steam navigation and the opening of New York's Erie Canal to the west had eroded the city's business prominence. If a railroad was built from the city to the Ohio River, "it will resuscitate Baltimore, and from the immense advantage of local situation, will make her in a short time second to no city in the union," predicted an Alex. Brown report to London.

The earliest days were touch and go. The first cars were powered by horses. The name of Relay reflects that fact; the Baltimore County hamlet was one of the points where horses were changed. Sails were tried briefly, as were propellers on the cars.

By 1830, when the B&O inaugurated the first U.S. railroad line -- from Baltimore to Ellicott City -- the importance of steam had been recognized. That same year, Peter Cooper completed his pioneering Tom Thumb locomotive. (The original, alas, was scrapped just four years later, but a conjectural 1926 replica remains at the B&O Museum's collection. It was not damaged.)

As its tracks grew and bridges and stations were built, the B&O established an amazing record of railroad history firsts.

In 1833, Andrew Jackson became the first president to ride the rails. In 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first telegraph message. As he tapped "What Hath God Wrought" at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, the message was received at Mount Clare Depot, the B&O hub of operations.

By 1884, when the distinctive Roundhouse was completed, a transcontinental rail link had been in operation for two decades and trains had transformed the country. Mount Clare shops employed thousands. They retained their importance until the 1950s.

Despite the devastating roof collapse during a record-breaking snowstorm, the B&O Railroad Museum will recover. But it will require help from individuals and corporations in Baltimore and beyond. A fund-raising campaign is planned once damage and repair estimates have been completed and insurance coverage ascertained.

The B&O Railroad Museum is one of the most important institutions of its kind in the nation. When the appeals come, the community should respond generously.

Mount Clare is not only hallowed ground in America's railroading history but a significant milepost in Baltimore's development. The Roundhouse, with its distinctive cupola, is a symbol of both.

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