B&O; Museum chief engineers cleanup


Tired of the Inner Harbor? Then ride the scenic railway to a mini-Williamsburg in Southwest Baltimore.

Whoa! Reality check.

Scenic? Mini-Williamsburg? Southwest Baltimore?

Well, a $12.8 million plan is in the works to make Carroll Park and its 18th-century Mount Clare mansion a mini-Williamsburg. All that's missing so far is the $12.8 million.

But wait. A railway in Southwest Baltimore does carry passengers every weekend over the first mile of track of America's first passenger railroad. All that's missing is the scenery.

John H. Ott, executive director of the B&O; Railroad Museum, is out to change that.

A black Pere Marquette diesel switching engine pulls two 1940s-vintage B&O; coach cars and a caboose five times a day every weekend through a Southwest Baltimore no man's land. More than 6,000 museum visitors have ridden the train since Thanksgiving.

The no man's land is a mile-long, 300-foot-wide swath of property between the museum and the mansion bordered by what can be most charitably described as an urban landscape -- trash, graffiti, abandoned houses, razor-ribbon wire coiled atop fences guarding commercial buildings.

It was populated one recent morning by three truant schoolchildren and a large pack of stray dogs. At night and in warmer weather, beer drinkers, trash dumpers, glue sniffers, drug dealers, prostitutes and homeless people all spend time there.

It is the dividing line between Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods that often have little to say to one another, where residents think "you're on the wrong side of the tracks no matter which side you're on," Mr. Ott said.

This, of course, is not the scenery the museum director had in mind.

"There's a natural flow from the Inner Harbor and the new stadium to where we are. We want people to feel secure here," said Mr. Ott, who took over the private museum at Pratt and Poppleton streets last May and expects 100,000 visitors this year. "If kids throw stones at our trains, people will say the city is a terrible place."

As a first step, Mr. Ott is spearheading a cleanup of the 25 acres between the museum and the mansion, property that CSX Transportation Inc. will deed to the museum next month.

With a backhoe donated by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., museum staff has cleared out load after load of trash -- everything from hypodermic needles to a deer carcass.

Second, Mr. Ott called Southwest Baltimore community leaders together Thursday afternoon to give them a pep talk and to ask for their help.

"We can't be an effective museum, we can't make the visitors' experience meaningful and memorable unless you are an active part of what we do," Mr. Ott said.

It was a cheerleading session -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stopped by to tell the group of about 100 that the "future looks very bright" -- and no firm plans were made.

But the group seemed in need of cheering up and flattered by the attention. Several people said they couldn't remember such a broad-based group having met in Southwest Baltimore.

"I've been here 12 years, and I've never seen anyone approach the neighborhood from a positive angle," said Neetu Dhawan-Gray, of the Mount Clare Circle Improvement Association. "I think it's great."

Pamela F. Charshee of the Carroll Park Restoration Foundation is excited by the idea of linking the museum by train to the 1770 plantation her group hopes to re-create at Carroll Park after a five-year fund-raising campaign that is about to begin.

The city has given the private group the go-ahead to build a visitors' center, restore 18th century features such as slave quarters and terraced gardens, and upgrade the park's playing fields.

The Rev. Sam Ray, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church of Christ in the 1000 block of West Fayette Street, injected a note of caution. "We can talk about cleaning up. We clean up every day, and tomorrow morning before sunrise it's piled up again. What we have to do is reach out and bring the community in," he said.

A few people had specific ideas of what to do with the no man's land.

Louise Hintze, who has run a community gardening program on a patch of the property for 13 years, said she has seen children as young as 6 sniffing glue there.

"We need a place for children to be off the streets, to go roller skating, any kind of nighttime recreation," she said.

Melvin J. Brechin of Better Buildings Inc., a business in the 600 block of South Smallwood Street that backs up to the property, said he'd like the museum to move some of its locomotives into the area, plant some grass and trees, put up picnic tables.

"Right now, all that property is a dead spot, a forbidden place lTC you go because it's forbidden," he said. "I'd like to see a big old steam locomotive belching smoke go down there. That would draw kids in a positive vein."

For his part, Mr. Ott envisions a greenway in the heart of the city if the neighborhood cooperates and keeps the area clean.

"What a wonderful place to have a rail and trail, to be able to walk from the museum to Carroll Park," he said. "Instead of throwing up screens and fences, we can make this area a public corridor . . . to see if kids can have a place to play."

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