The Presidents' Day storm of 2003 that swept into Maryland and dumped 26.8 inches of snow on Baltimore — a record-breaker — caused a partial collapse of the B&O; Railroad Museum roof on Feb. 17, wreaking havoc on its collection of historic locomotives and cars.
It was this sickening sight that greeted us when my colleague Jacques Kelly and I made our way to the museum a day or two later through snow-rutted streets. There we met our friend, Courtney B. Wilson, the museum's executive director, who with his characteristic ebullience and optimism was trying desperately to put a good face on a dire situation.
We were not allowed through the locked gates and onto the museum's grounds and had to confine our inspection tour to the Pratt Street sidewalk with Wilson leading the way.
Wilson has known for years that one of my favorite locomotives in the collection is a 1901 Alco-built Central Railroad of New Jersey Camelback steam engine — one of three examples left in the world — which is classified as a 4-4-2 Atlantic for its wheel arrangement.
As we crunched through the snow, he caught me looking for my engine, whose sisters, now all gone to the scrapper's yard, I clearly remembered from my childhood growing up in 1950s New Jersey.
"Fred, the 592 is OK," he said.
We peered through windows to the museum floor where debris that covered locomotives and cars was being sprinkled by snow particles drifting from the open roof.
Twisted and mangled columns of steel beams, heaps of brick and timbers added to the forlorn scene. None of us wanted to utter the words that were surely ricocheting through our hearts and minds: "Was this the end of the museum?"
The circular 1884 building has 22 sides and soars 123 feet from the floor to the top of its cupola or lantern. It was designed by noted B&O; architect Ephraim Francis Baldwin.
The recently published book "Tragedy to Triumph: Rebuilding the Majestic B&O; Roundhouse" — a joint effort by the museum and Century Engineering Inc., which rebuilt the damaged museum — is a detailed look at what caused the disaster and how those flaws were eliminated and corrected in the restoration.
Its two authors, William B. Rockey, who was principal-in-charge and chief engineer on the reconstruction of the roundhouse, was joined in the effort by Pamela S. Coleman, who was project manager and also one of the project engineers.
If you think this is a book only for engineering and math nerds, you'd be wrong. And it is helped greatly by the inclusion of a handy glossary of engineering terms.
The roundhouse, one of the defining elements on the skyline when approaching the city from the southwest, is one of the few surviving buildings from the once-vibrant Mount Clare Shops, where the B&O; built and repaired locomotives and cars and where many in the neighborhood worked.
"My goal was to keep the spirits of the staff and board up and at the same time bring in a forensic team to see what went wrong," Wilson said in an interview the other day.
"It was 24 to 48 hours later when the disaster finally hit me," said Wilson, who acknowledged shedding plenty of tears over what had happened.
"As a leader, it was my job to offer a positive attitude, even though I was wondering, 'Would the museum survive?' " he said. "Notes, letters, emails and contributions literally came in from around the world. It was then I realized: We're going to make it."
After meeting with architects, engineers and the insurance company, Wilson said that within a week and a half they were on the road to recovery, both physically and mentally.
"I think our board chairman at the time, Jim Brady, gave us our slogan: 'Going to rebuild better than ever,' " he said.
With the work being handled by the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., the restored museum opened 22 months later, in November 2004.
The authors conclude that "Baldwin's original design contained certain inadequacies that remained benign for 119 years," and that the record-breaking snow far exceeded the load-carrying capacity of the roof and resulted in "catastrophic failure."
Restoration of damaged equipment has taken nearly a decade. The last two pieces, the J.C. Davis, No. 600, a steam engine, and a B&O; baggage car, are being worked on now.
"As a gesture of thanks to the community, the museum will be open Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and there is no admission charge," said Wilson.
The museum is located at 901 W. Pratt St. For information, call 410-752-2462.