Luke Curlett, 6, clutched his train-theme library books and stared at the photo of a locomotive exhibited 84 years ago at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad centennial celebration in Halethorpe. The image is one of 11 in the Arbutus Historic Mural Project on display at the Arbutus Library.
Any train book, photo or toy enthralls the kindergarten student at Relay Elementary, who visits the library branch at least weekly, said his mother, Kerri Curlett.
"I like that they make that big whistling sound," said Luke of the trains he hears rambling through his neighborhood. "I like the old ones better than the new ones. They just look bigger."
Kerri Curlett waited in an idling car at the library entrance, knowing how reluctant her son would be to leave.
"He just loves trains and these pictures," Curlett said. "It runs in the family. His brother just got a job with CSX."
The locomotive photo, part of the permanent exhibit at Baltimore County's newest library, was shot at the monthlong 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse, an event that drew 12,000 visitors to the southwestern communities linked to the rail industry. Canvas-covered grandstands appear in the background of several fair photos, with one showing women in cloche hats and men in fedoras traipsing through a muddy rail yard.
"We chose it because it shows a time when you didn't go out without a hat," said Gail Ross, branch manager, who helped organize the display. "There they are walking in the mud in their dress shoes just to get a look at the trains."
Many library patrons are conversant in the local rail lore, she said.
"I know the bridges and the hotels in these photos and I have hiked these areas many times," said Gene Walls, 66. "When I was young, I even walked across the Thomas Viaduct, even though it was illegal. There is so much history here, and I am glad the library is showing off."
The image of that 612-foot span, the world's oldest multiple-arched stone railroad bridge, hangs at the entrance to the library. Reprinted from a circa 1940 Maryland Historical Society photo, the picture shows a passenger train on the route between Baltimore and Washington. The bridge dates to 1835 and survived the Civil War, when Union troops guarded it from the Southern forces; flooding along the Patapsco River and the ravages of time.
"Nothing could ever wipe that bridge out," Walls said.
The gracefully arched granite figures into many of the images lining the library walls. One features a man waving from atop the span to a group fishing on the sandy riverbank.
"It is so beautiful and dramatic," Ross said. "It draws you in. You feel like you can walk into it and be with them."
The murals grew from a partnership of community and business leaders, who relied on the resources and technological assistance from faculty and students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"The idea was to share our resources and focus on the railroad history so important to southwestern Baltimore County," Ross said. "This was a real transportation hub with some of the first stagecoaches and trains in the area. We were a railroad stop with hotels and springs for tourists. The photos help you step into another time."
Lynn Cazabon, associate professor of art at UMBC, said the project gave students an opportunity to be involved in the community.
The students searched area archives and combed through donated images for the best photographs. They selected images with local landmarks, such as the viaduct, and those with long-forgotten sites, like what became a panoramic view of the Adamantex Brick Company, the longest mural in the exhibit.
"The photo provides so much detail of a building that no longer exists," Cazabon said. "Yet so many who saw it knew exactly where it was."
From the Catonsville Library archives came an 1897 image of the Relay House, a hotel that overlooked the viaduct and sat across from the train station, until it was razed 60 years ago. An 1857 print from the Maryland Historical Society shows the hotel, two trains and several passengers waiting on platforms.
"The period costumes are wonderful and the clarity of the image is astounding," Ross said.
Instead of posting captions with the photos, the library printed 150 brochures with the information. Patrons found a few historical errors, which were corrected in the second printing of 500 brochures, Ross said.
That photo that drew a young boy's attention is the last in the series.
"The exhibit is all about the journey we are taking," said Ross. "This engine walks you out of the library."