It was conceived out of worry that Baltimore would lose its commercial preeminence to the Erie Canal. It was born in the home of a Baltimore merchant prince.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which turned 175 years old yesterday, had a less-dramatic beginning than you might think.
On Saturday, the B&O; Railroad Museum will begin a 16th-month celebration of that humble founding and the railroad's long, storied history. And the public is invited to hop aboard and go along for the ride. (See box on this page and listing on Page 4.)
The B&O; Railroad, which linked Baltimore and Tidewater Maryland with Wheeling, W.Va., was the nation's first common carrier railroad. That means it carried people or cargo from place to place for compensation.
As the first such railroad, it begat many other "firsts," including first to publish a timetable (1830); first to have a government contract to carry mail (1838); first to place an electric locomotive in regular service (1895); and first to operate a completely air-conditioned car (1931).
"175 Years: America on Track," the name given to the celebration of the B&O;, begins with Founder's Weekend, this Saturday and Sunday at the museum, 901 W. Pratt St. The highlight of the event is Portraits of American Railroading, an exhibition of paintings, drawings and images of important railroad figures from the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery collection, as well as paintings, portraits and drawings from the railroad museum's extensive collection of railroad art.
It will be the first time since 1927 that the portraits have been seen publicly together. They were displayed at the B&O;'s Fair of the Iron Horse, the railroad's 100th birthday celebration.
"We were the first railroad in the country, and now that the technology is changing toward high-speed and [magnetic-levitation] trains, the celebration of the B&O;'s founding takes on a new significance and meaning," says Edward M. Williams, the B&O; Railroad Museum's deputy director and curator. "After all, it was the railroad that bound the nation together. And much of what we use in our daily lives still arrives by train."
The founding and building of the B&O; represented not only inventiveness on the part of its builders but also an attempt to preserve Baltimore's position as an important commercial center and port.
It was the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 - linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and New York City - that worried Baltimore's merchant princes. They rightfully feared the loss of commerce that flowed through the city to the West.
In the fall of 1826, John Eager Howard, Revolutionary War hero and Baltimore businessman, gave a dinner at his home, Belvedere, where the concept of a railroad was seriously debated.
One of the guests that night was Baltimore merchant Evan Thomas, who had just returned from England. There he had witnessed the operation of the Stockton & Darlington Railroad, a small road whose diminutive but effective steam engines hauled coal from the mines to the docks and waiting colliers.
It was Thomas who suggested that a railroad on a grand scale could be built here, and pointed out that Baltimore, facing an economic decline because of competition from the Erie Canal, had no choice but to wager on such a proposition.
On Feb. 27, 1827, 25 merchants and bankers gathered at the Holliday Street home of George Brown, of the financial firm of Alexander Brown & Sons. Their purpose was to take "under consideration the best means of restoring the city of Baltimore that portion of the Western trade which has recently been diverted from it by the introduction of steam navigation and other causes."
In short order, the men came up with a charter for a railroad, the first line of which reads: "Resolved, That immediate application be made to the Legislature of Maryland for an act incorporating a joint stock company to be styled 'The Baltimore & Ohio Railway,' and clothing such company with all the powers necessary to the construction of a railroad, with two or more sets of rails, from the city of Baltimore to the Ohio River."
The railroad's charter remained essentially unchanged for the next 100 years.
"I don't think [too much can be said] of the vision and daring of what those men conceived. What they were conceiving in the 19th century was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon in the 20th century," says Herbert H. Harwood Jr., nationally known railroad historian and author of Impossible Challenge: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland.
"Nothing was known. They only had crude and basic technology, yet they conceived something that had never been thought of before. They managed to build a railroad through hostile terrain and across mountains. Because of New York, the Erie Canal and the importance of Philadelphia as a commercial center, this was something they had to do," he adds.
"Baltimore had lived off turnpikes and the National Road that when built in the 1820s was the way to go, but the Erie Canal made all of that obsolete. They had to try an untried thing, and they were able to bring it off."
Time was of the essence. On the same date that it was drawn up, Feb. 27, 1827, the charter was presented to the state legislature by John V.L. McMahon, a lawyer. There was little opposition to the new railroad, and the legislature acted quickly. The state of Maryland incorporated the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on Feb. 28, 1827.
Reaction to the sale of stock was swift - some 20,000 investors poured nearly $5 million into the enterprise. The city of Baltimore itself bought 5,000 shares.
The corner of Pratt and Poppleton streets in West Baltimore was selected as the site of the first station, which became known as Mount Clare.
On July 4, 1828, with directors, businessmen, politicians, members of trade unions, masons and the simply curious looking on, the frail, 90-year-old Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned over the first shovelful of dirt that marked the ceremonial beginning of the railroad.
Plunging a silver spade into the ground, Carroll turned to the assembled guests and said that he considered the event "among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, even if it be second to that!"
Two years later, the original track line opened. It ran from Mount Clare to Ellicott Mills, now Ellicott City. Among those aboard for that first ride on a horse-drawn car were the B&O;'s directors and Carroll. At Relay, the horse was exchanged for a fresh animal, and the journey was completed.
Regular rail service began May 24, 1830, with a round-trip ticket costing passengers 75 cents. In August of the same year, Peter Cooper's steam engine, the Tom Thumb, operated over the line, presaging the end of horse-drawn trains.
As quickly as things seemed to be moving along, the original plan of the B&O;'s founders to build a 379-mile line from Baltimore to Wheeling in 10 years for $10 million wasn't realized. It took 25 years and $30 million to get that first train steaming into Wheeling. The historic date was Christmas Eve, 1852.
"The B&O; established railroad technology for the United States, and it was truly the mother of railroads," Harwood says. "Everyone who came along after the B&O; copied what it had done except for its mistakes."
The noble enterprise that was born in worry and bankrolled by Baltimore businessmen eventually linked 13 states. In 1973, it was absorbed by the Chessie System. Today it lives on as a major component of CSX, the successor company to Chessie.
What: The B&O; Railroad Museum kicks off its celebration of 175 years of railroading with Founder's Weekend events.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Where: The B&O; Railroad Museum, 901 W. Pratt St.
Highlights: Opening of the exhibit Portraits of American Railroading in the 19th Century, featuring images of important railroad figures; living-history interpreters in period dress; train rides; and musical entertainment provided by Bethel A.M.E. Church Choir, St. Veronica's Youth Steel Orchestra and the Baltimore Hebrew University Klezmer Band.
Web site: www.borail.org
All aboard for 16 months
Portraits of American Railroading in the 19th Century
March 2 -July 2003
Exhibition of paintings, drawings and images of important American railroad figures from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's collection. The show will also feature paintings, portraits and drawings from the Baltimore Railroad Museum's extensive collection of railroad artwork. Runs through July 2003.
Women on the Railroad
The debut of a continuing educational program that will highlight the various roles women had as passengers and employees on the railroad from the early 19th century through the present day.
It's About Time
Weekend program highlights the railroad's role in standardizing time, as well as the impact that the railroad had on the clock and watch industry in America. Visitors may bring old clocks and watches for evaluation by experts.
Society in Motion I
The debut of a continuing educational program that will explore how passenger and freight trains altered American society and culture.
All Aboard Days
A weekend of train rides behind classic steam and diesel locomotives. Round-trip rides between Carroll Park and the B&O; Railroad Museum. Also, other family activities and refreshments.
Thomas the Tank Engine
The famed storybook steam engine returns to the B&O; Railroad Museum to offer rides. Sir Topham Hatt will also be on hand. Kids can play games, watch Thomas videos and enjoy story-telling, face-painting and many hands-on activities.
150th Anniversary of Western Maryland Railway
The B&O; Railroad Museum celebrates the landmark anniversary of one of the region's most historic railroads, the Western Maryland. Historic locomotives and rolling stock from this railroad will run rides throughout the day.
I've Been Working on the Railroad
The debut of a continuing educational program that will showcase the diversity, role and importance of the people who built the railroad and made it run.
All Aboard Days: Reinventing the Wheel
Cutting-edge railroad technology and ideas for the future will be featured throughout the weekend as another continuing educational program debuts. Train rides will be offered all weekend between the B&O; Railroad Museum and Carroll Park.
Fall Foliage Excursion
The B&O; Railroad Museum, in conjunction with MARC Train Service and CSX, will offer an excursion across historic rails from Baltimore's Camden Station to Frederick.
Private Palaces on the Rails
The 25th anniversary convention of the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners will bring approximately 25 historic, privately owned palace and passenger cars to the B&O; Railroad Museum.
Inner Harbor Train Show
Model-train hobbyists will offer many gauges and types of model trains and accessories for sale or trade at the B&O; Railroad Museum's roundhouse.
Holiday Traditions at the B&O; Railroad Museum
Nov. 29-Dec. 1
A three-day kick-off of the museum's winter-holiday celebration, featuring Santa's arrival, traditional model-train gardens and seasonal entertainment.
Holiday Traditions at the B&O; Railroad Museum
A month-long celebration of model railroading in America. Operating model-train layouts and holiday gardens. Seasonal entertainment. Museum closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
Jan. 25-26, 2003
The debut of a continuing educational program that will show how things move. Real horsepower, steam, diesel, electric and magnetic-levitation concepts will be explored.
Ambassadors of Service
Feb. 8, 2003
A day-long educational program featuring the traditions and role of African-American railroad employees at work and in society. Lectures, tours and programs presented by retired railroad employees.
50 Years on Track
Feb. 27-March 2, 2003
Four days of celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the B&O; Railroad Museum. Programs, family activities and remembrances.
Women at Work on the Railroad
March 15, 2003
A day-long educational program featuring the groundbreaking roles of women working in the railroad industry from World War I through the present day.
Society in Motion II
April 26-27, 2003
The B&O; Railroad Museum unveils new, interpretive exhibits for the museum's roster of historic locomotives and rolling stock.
The Fair of the Iron Horse 175
June 27-July 6, 2003
A 10-day festival and pageant to be held throughout the B&O; Railroad Museum's 40-acre campus and in Baltimore City's Carroll Park. The festival features pavilions dedicated to model railroading, rail travel, railroad history and technology. Each day, a parade of historic locomotives from all over the United States and the world will tell the saga of American railroading. Live entertainment, train rides, food and activities for all ages.
This listing was provided by the B&O; Railroad Museum. Dates subject to change. For more information and event fees, call 410-752-2490 or visit www.borail.org.