B&O; Railroad Museum rolls on with new vigor


The traffic gets hectic at the venerable B&O; Railroad Museum in Southwest Baltimore.

Visiting the rich collection of retired locomotives has become an entrenched Baltimore tradition once schools close for the holidays.

Thousands of families converge on the 1883 brick roundhouse for a day's worth of viewing the mighty show at the birthplace of American railroading. It's the time of the year when baby strollers outnumber the steam locomotives by about 10 to 1.

People who haven't been inside the museum (about five blocks due west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards) since a school field trip 30 years ago will be in for a surprise.

The place has a new vitality and sprightliness. Exhibits have been spiffed up; mechanical dioramas work at the press of a button. The museum has acquired many locomotives, coaches and freight cars new to its collection. Truncated versions of freight and passenger cars stand outside at Pratt Street.

And, most important, you can board and ride a train here.

Passenger rides are scheduled along the original main line from Pratt and Poppleton streets to a destination south of Catherine Street and Wilkens Avenue. That spot marks the ceremonial first cornerstone laid on the B&O; by Charles Carroll of Carrollton July 4, 1828.

A recently restored Western Maryland Railway (a B&O; subsidiary) diesel locomotive that once hauled long coal drags over the Alleghenies will head the string of vintage coaches on certain excursions. Other trips will be headed by a black diesel switcher that served the Pere Marquette Railroad.

"It's the time of the year that everybody here gears up for," says Shawn Cunningham, a museum official. "Our volunteers really love it. They get into explaining railroads to the children."

The week between Christmas and New Year's Day plus the following weekend account for an attendance jolt that should put the museum over the 100,000 mark in paid attendance. Last year, 82,000 people visited the place; as of last week, the figure was 98,000.

In 1953, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad established this permanent home for its antique rolling stock, treasured artifacts and the odd pieces associated with railroading. The railroad, which lost its corporate name several years ago and is now part of CSX, had long possessed a sense of its own history.

The basis of the B&O;'s collection was assembled and preserved beginning in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and was displayed time after time at other fairs and pageants, including the locally well-remembered Fair of the Iron Horse in 1927.

Although the collection contained many important pieces of railroading

equipment, it was static. None of the locomotives moved or offered trips to museum patrons.

But as the place has expanded in the past five years -- and come under the administration of a private board of directors -- the wheels started to roll. Members of a large and vigorous corps of museum volunteers accompany many of the rail trips and work to keep the place as spotless as a Royal Blue parlor car.

The museum's latest piece of equipment to roll again is a classic 1952 Western Maryland Railway F unit, once General Motors' best-selling loco.

The black, red and gold beauty (No. 236) was restored earlier this year by volunteers in the Western Maryland Railway Historical Society who donated 700 hours of work.

"The F-7 unit is the railroad equivalent of the '53 Chevy sedan. It was a workhorse, popular, long lasting and very successful," says John Hankey, curator of the museum. "Everything built after the F7's has been boxy, square and ugly by comparison."

Throughout the Christmas season, with the call of "All aboard," No. 236 will be off on the route of America's first railroad.

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