Salvaging pieces of history

Cleanup: As recovery efforts continue, curators assess the damage at the railroad museum.

April 06, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Gently arranged in a section of the B&O roundhouse between an enormous Civil War-era locomotive and an 1862 iron boxcar was a place setting found aboard a railroad dining car a half century ago -- complete with chinaware, silver utensils, a check stub and an unused tea bag.

It was precious history to the folks at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore and feared lost in the twisted rubble of wrought iron beams, wood planks and slate shingles in the collapse of the roundhouse Feb. 17 during a record snowfall.

Within weeks of the collapse, broken pieces of china, a water-logged waiter's jacket and unscathed knives and forks were found. But not the tiny tea bag that, by then, was likely lying in a tea-colored pool of melted snow.

"I told the iron workers, `A case of beer to whoever finds that tea bag,'" said Edward Williams, B&O deputy director and chief curator. A worker found the tea bag within a few days and Williams gladly fulfilled his promise.

For the past month, B&O officials have been busy trying to catalog their 15,000 small pieces of railroading artifacts and store them in boxes until the museum can reopen. They're also assessing damage to about a dozen of the 200 rail vehicles.

While officials are confident insurance will cover rebuilding the roundhouse, they're also sure it won't pay enough to restore what will go in it: at least 12 damaged or destroyed railcars and thousands of smaller artifacts and pieces.

Establishing values for insurance purposes promises to be contentious for the museum and its insurer, Atlantic Mutual, because there is no market for many of the pieces, such as a 1950s tea bag with `B&O' stamped on its tag.

"That tea bag was the only one we know of still left of its kind," said B&O curator Shawn Herne. "It demonstrates the diversity that we have here, from a 3- or 4-ounce tea bag to 400-ton locomotives. It was important for us to find it."

The museum is planning a fund-raiser for collection restoration.

"I mean, we're talking such a wide scope of things, from locomotives to porcelain teacups," Williams said. "The insurance company can appraise it and we can challenge it, if we want, but ultimately we just have to wait to see what they tell us."

Atlantic Mutual had two appraisers complete an analysis of the collection recently, with the objective of issuing a report of damage estimates this month.

The museum is preparing a package that shows the before and after pictures and what the museum thinks each artifact or railcar is worth. The B&O is getting outside help in its analysis of the damaged locomotives and railcars.

Experts from railroad museums in California, Pennsylvania and North Carolina began visiting the B&O last week to further assess the railcars and help bolster the museum's case for reimbursement.

"Each of these people coming has a different specialty and can point out things about specific locomotives that maybe we overlooked," Herne said.

B&O officials believe they won't have the money to restore everything at once and might have to put off saving some pieces for several years.

Some of the more significant pieces damaged or destroyed included a World War II-era diesel locomotive, the only known example of a railroad fire engine, a rare 19th-century wooden passenger railcar and a baggage railcar. Also lost or damaged were rare rail station benches and signs, scale-model railcars with movable parts, and sheet music and ticket stubs from the 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse held in Halethorpe.

The roof collapse forced the B&O to cancel its Fair of the Iron Horse, which was supposed to start in late June and be the largest railroading pageant and exhibit ever in the United States. At least 350,000 people were expected to attend the fair celebrating the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Baltimore museum is not affiliated with the B&O Railroad Station Museum in Ellicott City, which is also planning an anniversary event.

Construction workers have cleared debris from the roundhouse and have established piles of rubble outside the building. The force of the collapse is most evident in the once-straight wrought-iron trusses that are now kinked and bow-shaped from the weight of snow that conquered the roof.

The museum is keeping the iron trusses for now because iron is considered a valuable commodity, and the B&O may try to use the metal in some other fashion in the rebuilding, Williams said. But the new trusses will be made of steel and will not be riveted together, as the old ones were. They will probably be welded.

The museum cannot easily get rid of the roof's wood planks and piping because they are laden with lead-based paint, as were the iron trusses. That debris will be sent to a Michigan company that can properly destroy the materials.

The 45,000-square-foot roundhouse was built in 1884 and is considered one of the jewels of railroad museums in the United States. The B&O is noted worldwide for its rare 19th-century collection of railcars and artifacts.

Though they hope the roundhouse will be rebuilt by Christmas, officials have said the museum will not reopen this year.

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