B&O museum shows off legendary locomotives

Renovations after 2003 snowstorm allowed expansion of exhibit space


News from around the Baltimore region

September 05, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

It took a catastrophic blizzard to bring Baltimore's railroad legends indoors and out of nature's eroding elements.

Without the Presidents Day snowstorm of 2003, the President Washington locomotive - a star in railroading the way the Spirit of St. Louis is in aviation - would still be rusting outdoors at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.

Instead, the first and last-remaining Pacific steam locomotive and other rusting revolutionaries of rail moved indoors at the expanded and restored B&O Museum. After the roof of the museum's 19th-century roundhouse collapsed under the weight of snow two years ago, the rebuilt museum tripled its membership to 18,000 and nearly tripled its exhibit space, from 46,000 to 122,000 square feet.

This allowed its neglected artifacts to move indoors. Today, the President Washington shares a roof with the first streamlined diesel-electric locomotive, named simply No. 51; and with one of only two remaining Alleghenies, the most powerful and heaviest American steam locomotive.

Labor Day weekend marked the grand opening of the B&O Museum's "North Car Shop" exhibit, 20,000 square feet once reserved for restoration work. With the addition of a restoration shop, built in the blizzard's aftermath with $5 million of insurance money, the old workshop became a sort of hall of fame - the last stop for some of rail's biggest celebrities.

"We unfortunately had very rare pieces of railroad history stored outside," said chief curator Edward M. Williams. "Every day outside was another day closer to the grave."

The museum is closed today, but more than 1,600 people visited the museum Saturday and yesterday, Williams said. That attendance tops the museum's 500-per-day summer average and the 600 to 700 visitors it receives on its busiest summer Saturdays.

Yesterday, families wandered the museum's historic 40-acre site, especially the activity area with pump-car rides, a stationary wooden train play set for kids to climb on, and a Chill Zone mist of water for children to walk through.

Williams said the museum's expansion of educational and child-friendly exhibits altered its demographics. What he calls the "rail fan" - a hobbyist at heart - made up 80 percent of the museum's membership three years ago. Now, families with children claim 70 percent of the membership.

"Rail fans are like dinosaurs," said Williams, who grew up in a railroad family in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. "They are passing into extinction. There just aren't as many of them as there used to be."

But in the North Car Shop is a rail fan's dream. Or dream team. From the President Washington to the Allegheny, the stalwarts of railroading were on reverent display.

The original Pacific steam locomotive, the President Washington, was introduced in 1927 and "changed railroad history," Williams said. It had 6-foot-high wheels and could travel 80 mph pulling a trail of cars.

The Allegheny, meanwhile, was the ultimate freight locomotive. At 389 tons, it is more than twice as heavy as the President Washington and it could haul coal trains over a 2,072-foot summit in the Allegheny Mountains.

Until last week, this workhorse had been parked outside for 49 years.

Its new home - the 137-year-old North Car Shop - took eight years and $4 million in state and federal grants to renovate into exhibit space.

"Railroading as we know it began right here. It changed us as a people forever," Williams said, referring to the old locomotives that transported products and people. "Fifty percent of everything you own traveled to you by train, even today. ... Americans are still very much impacted by the railroad, they just don't always notice it."

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