February 22, 2003
IVE OFTEN thought that Baltimore possesses three truly great object collections: the Cone sisters' canvases, the treasure of Henry and William Walters and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Yes, the rail museum at Pratt and Poppleton, which suffered such a direct hit from this week's snowstorm, is this country's knockout stable of iron-horse history.
And each, in its own way, casts the emotional blanket that a group of things creates when massed in one place. To a Baltimorean, to visit and revisit these addresses is like meeting up with a batch of friends and relatives.
Let's pray that the rest of the B&O roof holds and that emergency repairs will hold the damage in check. It was a kick in the stomach to open Wednesday's paper and see Doug Kapustin's photo of those yellow 19th-century rail coaches all smashed up like a train wreck. And that poor red caboose, amid who-knows-what fate befell the steam locomotives.
I was precisely the right age to come under the sway of that magical space. In the Baltimore of 1955, when the museum was newly opened, it was one of my family's favorite Sunday destinations, a spot we visited over and over again.
It was an adventure to exit Guilford Avenue and drive through Baltimore's coal-soaked, semi-industrial neighborhoods, past the brick lofts of the lithographers, the garment warehouses and the medical labs. My father's old Buick rumbled over the paving stones that held the streetcar and rail tracks.
Just west of the old wharves that once lined Pratt and Light streets, the B&O Museum was still sitting squarely in an energetic, working rail setting. Hundreds of workers toiled behind the museum's back wall at the old Mount Clare Shops.
For many years, the museum was free, and it did not have a gaudy souvenir store, something my mother hated. She had six children and feared when we started screaming for toys at a museum. She also gave her blessing to all B&O employees, whom she said displayed her every courtesy as a young woman when she was commuting to Washington during World War II to receive her master's degree. She said travel during the war was rough, but the B&O people she encountered earned her deep respect.
It was an act of blessed foresight on the part of then-B&O president Howard R. Simpson to give his line's collection of historic pieces a permanent home at Pratt and Poppleton.
Great collections take generations of careful saving to assemble. And that was just what happened to the venerable B&O. Not so many people know how all those machines came to rest in Baltimore.
Many of the oldest gems of American railroading were located, restored and set out for the grand 1893 Columbus Exposition along Lake Michigan in Chicago. The railroad exhibited them again at the St. Louis World's Fair, and, of course, trotted them out again in 1927 for the Fair of the Iron Horse, for the railroad's centennial. Then, in the 1950s, all these wonderful pieces found permanent preservation at the circular car shop on West Pratt Street.
Like the Walters and Cone objects, the B&O's delightfully varied stuff made for a marvelous afternoon of just plain looking. I think of the wonderful names, the locomotive known as the Mogul, the A.J. Cromwell, the Camelback and the Thatcher Perkins. Even the super ancient coal cars held their own against the elegant Royal Blue coaches.
At this point, I hope the damage is repaired quickly. That said, I also hope that Baltimoreans may be reminded of their history, if a little coal-stained.
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