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B&O Museum unveils classic engine as part of birthday fest

Mitch Goldman had heard the buzz — that one of America's top railroad museums had made a major new acquisition — and was so intrigued that he traveled from his hometown of Philadelphia to Baltimore to check it out.

Shortly after noon on Sunday, he stood in the roundhouse of the B&O Railroad Museum, aimed his camera at a spindly looking antique steam locomotive known as the York, and eagerly snapped away.

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"There was a gap in the story of the B&O here, and this helps fill it in," the train buff said. "It's good to see it here."

Museum executive director Courtney B. Wilson, who purchased the 90-year-old specimen at auction last fall, said museum leaders decided to unveil it this weekend as part of their celebration of the historic railroad's 189th birthday.

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This weekend marked a homecoming of sorts for the York, a one-of-a-kind replica of a 3.5-ton locomotive the Baltimore & Ohio commissioned in 1831, when steam-engine technology was still so new that no one knew whether it had a future.

Designed and built by a York, Pa., clockmaker and entrepreneur named Phineas Davis, the original version marked an improvement in several ways over one of the earliest steam locomotives built in the United States, the diminutive Tom Thumb.

The Tom Thumb — introduced in 1830 by its inventor, Peter Cooper of New York — could haul 15 tons of cargo at 4 miles per hour. Without a load, it could gallop along at more than 15 miles per hour.

Officials with the B&O Railroad, then 3 years old, were intrigued by the Cooper design. But rather than buying it, they decided to stage an open competition for entrepreneurs working on prototypes of their own.

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The York — the first coal-burning steam locomotive demonstrated successfully in the United States, and the first to use wheels coupled together by an external bar — could haul 15 tons at four times the Tom Thumb's speed.

It won the competition, netting Davis a $4,000 prize — and a high profile in the emerging industry.

Within a year, Davis had devised a sturdier, more durable steam locomotive, the Atlantic, a 6.5-ton model. But both were early exemplars of so-called "grasshopper" engines, a variety named for the up-and-down motion of their main rods.

The Atlantic would be in use for 60 years, and grasshoppers and their direct descendants would remain fixtures in the industry through the 1950s, Wilson said.

None of the few Yorks that were made survive, but in 1926, as the B&O prepared an exhibition to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the company commissioned the manufacture of an exact replica.

Craftsmen in the B&O's Mount Clare Shops used original plans to build working facsimiles of the Tom Thumb, the York, and a later steam locomotive, the Lafayette, for exhibition at the "Fair of the Iron Horse." The centennial affair drew tens of thousands of visitors to Halethorpe in 1927.

The Tom Thumb and Lafayette replicas have long been staples of the B&O Museum's permanent collection, but the B&O gave the York to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry for inclusion in that city's Century of Progress fair in 1933.

The York has been part of the Chicago museum's collection since then, except for a 10-year period when it was loaned to a museum in York, Pa., and 1977, when the B&O Museum displayed it as part of its 150th anniversary celebration.

Wilson reacquired it at auction in Goshen, Pa., last fall. He said the total cost to the B&O museum, including transportation to Baltimore, was about $130,000.

The York made its debut Friday night as the museum kicked off its birthday weekend.

Positioned for now among newer, much larger locomotives in the roundhouse, the York looked smaller and more peculiar than it otherwise might.

But with its vertical boiler, up-and-down pistons, and slight profile, it had the kind of historic feel a Model T might, if it were displayed among classic muscle cars.

Jesse Warr, a history buff and tour guide visiting from Oakland, Calif., said he'd come to visit the museum that celebrates America's oldest railroad, and found himself drawn to the York.

"You see these kinds of engines in the movies, but it's different to see one up close," he said. "It's pretty amazing."

As children, families and others stopped to pose beside the historic engine, Goldman continued taking photos and peppering the museum's floor manager, Harrison van Waes, with questions.

Van Waes said the York would be moved across the roundhouse to a place between replicas of the Tom Thumb and the Atlantic, where it will remain on permanent display.

That pleased Goldman. He looked up from his camera.

"I enjoy seeing a story come together," he said.

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