A steamy history comes to life

The B&O Railroad Museum gives visitors a ride and a lesson on life in Baltimore 100 years ago

April 30, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

With an ear-splitting hiss, a rumble and a thump, and a hearty Whooooo-hoooo-wooooo! the 57-year-old locomotive St. Elizabeth lugged away from Baltimore's historic Mount Clare Station yesterday with a load of passengers happy to be going nowhere on a steam train.

David Hendrix, on board with his son Cameron ("I'm almost 5!") and daughter Sarah, 3, was clearly getting his money's worth.

"My son's a fanatic. Everything's about trains," the 39-year-old Towson resident said. Toy trains aren't good enough. Neither is Thomas the Tank Engine. His sister is into princesses, but "he likes the authentic steam engines," the father said.

The St. Elizabeth's whistle whooped again and Cameron, wide-eyed, clapped his hands over his ears. He'll need to get over that if he hopes to realize his ambition of becoming a locomotive engineer some day.

The locomotive ride was offered at the first of two Steam Days weekends planned for 2007 at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. They're opportunities for the museum's volunteers to fire up the boilers on two of the museum's four working locomotives and take them out on the tracks for hundreds of visitors and their kids.

And for a few short hours, clouds of white steam, black coal smoke and the howl of steam whistles - as unfamiliar to Baltimoreans today as they were commonplace in the city 80 or 100 years ago - were carried into the surrounding neighborhood on stiff northwest winds.

Previously an annual October event, Steam Days has been throttled up to add an April weekend, and as many as 1,000 people were expected at the old roundhouse yesterday.

Oiling up the locomotives, lighting the boilers and running them a mile or so up the tracks is important for their maintenance, said the museum's chief curator, Dave Shackelford. But "that's not why we do it," he said. It's to remind Marylanders where they came from.

"The real young ones today have never experienced a steam engine," he said. A century ago, he said, "you would have seen that steam all over town."

Steam Days is meant "to remind people what steam engines meant to the railroads, and to the whole economy, especially in Baltimore," Shackelford said. The B&O was one of the region's biggest employers. Railroad stocks provided most of the $7 million bequest in 1873 from financier Johns Hopkins that founded the Johns Hopkins University and its hospital.

It's no small matter putting steam engines on the rails in 2007.

"All steam engines that operate have to have an annual inspection," Shackelford said. The Federal Railroad Administration must check to be sure the boilers are sound and safe for public rides.

And volunteers have to show up early to light the fires and bring the water to a boil slowly enough to avoid damage.

Engineer/fireman Chris France and his crew were there at 5 a.m. Saturday, and again at 7 a.m. yesterday. Fueling themselves with doughnuts, they stacked the hardwood fuel and stoked the wood-fired boiler that powers the B&O's old No. 25, the William Mason.

Ordered in 1856 from the Mason Machine Works in Taunton, Mass., the 28-ton locomotive hauled passengers between Baltimore and Washington at the breakneck speed of 40 mph - faster than Interstate 95 on some mornings. It also transported Union troops and supplies during the Civil War.

In addition to its Steam Days service for museum visitors, the green, brass and black William Mason has starred in a list of Hollywood movies, including, most recently, Gods and Generals (2003), Tuck Everlasting (2002) and Wild, Wild West (1999).

A private-school transportation director in real life, France, 33, of Laurel, explains that he's always loved trains. While in college, he got a job with the Short Line, a Connecticut freight railroad. "I originally thought I wanted it for a career," he said. But, he found, "it gets old."

So trains are a hobby for him, and he was busy yesterday polishing, oiling and running the old trains and talking with visitors.

The William Mason doesn't haul passengers, he said - something about it having no brakes. To stop, the engineer has to throw it into reverse and let the locomotive's pistons slow it down.

Not so for the St. Elizabeth. One of the last American-built steam locomotives constructed for domestic use, the coal-burning engine was built by the H.K. Porter Co. in 1950. It was used by St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington to haul coal from a B&O spur to the hospital's power plant.

Stanley Kazmarek, 58, of Baltimore was in the engineer's seat for the 11 a.m. ride yesterday. A retired BGE control designer, he said he caught the train bug ages ago on a field trip to the B&O museum with Miss Cobb's second-grade class. "That's where it started," he said. He's been volunteering at the museum since the mid-1980s, working his way up to engineer.

As he eased the St. Elizabeth out of the yard behind the old roundhouse at Mount Clare - beautifully restored since its roof collapsed in a record snowstorm in February 2003 - he made sure the neighbors knew he was coming.

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