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Back Story: Historic B&O steam engine is being painstakingly restored

J.C. Davis, No. 600, was damaged during the partial roof collapse of B&O Railroad Museum

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

6:14 PM EDT, October 17, 2013

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The restoration has begun of the J.C. Davis, No. 600, an 1875 Baltimore & Ohio steam engine that was a casualty of a roof collapse at the B&O Railroad Museum's roof during the 2003 Presidents Day snowstorm.

The work, which is being conducted at the museum's South Fulton Street restoration facility near Mount Clare, was aided by a $135,000 grant received last month from the Institute of Museum and Library Services' Museums for America program.

Because of its size, power and design, the Davis was considered to be one of the post-Civil War period's most significant examples of American rail power.

"It is a key piece of the collection. It was a one-of-a-kind locomotive for the B&O, and the big thing is that it is the last steam engine to be restored," David Shackelford, the museum's chief curator, said the other day as he showed a visitor around the noisy shop facility where the work is being conducted.

"Because of its extensive damage, we saved it for last," said Shackelford.

This work marks the end of a decade-long process that saw seven other locomotives restored to their condition before the roof collapse, along with several other cars.

As the roof gave way during the storm, the engine and its tender suffered a direct hit and were covered with roof trusses and other debris.

While its cab was crushed and splintered, its boiler fared a bit better. But its running boards, handrails, bell and other fixtures such as its whistle suffered damage.

Remarkably, its frame held up and its wheels did not cantilever against the onslaught of the fallen roof. Its gauges and other mechanical components in the cab seemed to have escaped serious damage.

While the Davis is disassembled, workers will conduct asbestos abatement and make a paint analysis to determine its original color scheme, among other tasks necessary to bring the engine back to its original 1875 appearance.

It will be nonoperational when the work is finished. "To do that, we would have to have its boiler retubed, and that would cost $250,000," said Shackelford.

The man in charge of rebuilding the cab is Zell Olson, a colorful character and a master carpenter who hails from Minnesota and has made a career out of restoring railroad equipment.

Dressed in bib overalls, a work shirt, rimless glasses and a well-worn Western Maryland Railway cap, Olson was busy working recently on a white oak replacement door that one day will go back into the engine's cab where it belongs.

"This is going to take me a while," he said, as he gently checked a mortise-and-tenon joint on the cab door.

Olson carefully removed the entire damaged cab, saving all of its pieces so he can refashion replacements.

The vintage wood is spread on the floor and tables, and while it may look like a puzzle to a visitor, Olson knows exactly where it all goes,

Shackelford said the process is one of learning, as all parts of the damaged and nondamaged engine are studied.

"We slowly work our way through it and then make a determination as what to do," he said.

Shackelford said he has located a Maryland Institute College of Art artist who will handle the stenciling and lettering, as well as the delicate pin-striping of the locomotive's spoked driving and pilot wheels.

The Davis' tender, which was also damaged, will have its front truck repaired, dents pounded out, and its fireman's awning, which was completely destroyed by the storm, rebuilt.

Shackelford estimated that the entire restoration process will take about a year and a half before the Davis is returned to its rightful place in the museum's roundhouse.

The Davis, a freight engine, is one of two locomotives in existence that were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia at the Maryland pavilion.