Snow causes roof of railroad museum to partially cave in


The roof fell in on railroad history yesterday.

The landmark 1884 roundhouse - the center of the B&O; Railroad Museum complex a few blocks west of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and one of the shrines of American railroading - lost half its roof under the weight of the weekend's snowfall.

The collapse created a gaping hole in the signature building and alarm about possible damage to the historic trains housed there. The damage also caused the indefinite closure of the museum, which attracts 160,000 visitors a year and boasts one of the most significant collection of railroad treasures in the world at a site billed as the birthplace of American railroading.

"I've already cried a thousand tears," said Courtney B. Wilson, the B&O;'s executive director, as he stood beside the locked gate to the museum's compound. He said portions of the roof first caved in shortly after midnight yesterday and again a few hours later.

Railroad buffs shared Wilson's grief.

Herbert H. Harwood, a retired CSX executive and nationally known railroad historian and author, called the roundhouse "incomparable."

"It is truly a cathedral of transportation," said Harwood, who described it as "the largest circular industrial building in the world ... it really is symbolic of the late 19th century in that it's optimistic, looking forward and upward."

Yesterday afternoon, hours after the collapse, columns of mangled steel stuck out from the roundhouse at Pratt and Poppleton streets. Locomotives and passenger cars in the museum's collection, some dating from the 1830s, could be seen from street-level windows, covered with snow and debris.

Officials of the museum, which contains one of the world's most extensive train collections, were unable to enter the building to assess the harm to the trains or to the roundhouse itself.

To prevent deterioration to the roundhouse and further damage to the trains, a temporary cover will be placed over the roof when structural engineers determine it would be safe to do so, Wilson said. He said he hoped the roof could be repaired and that insurance would cover the cost.

In the meantime, trains may have to be moved, he said.

Wilson said he arrived at the museum amid swirling snow about 1 a.m., an hour after the first section of the slate roof collapsed.

"To have a hole that big in the middle of the night was a tough thing to look at," he said.

Dismayed, he returned to his home in Locust Point a few hours later only to receive a second call around dawn: a second, larger section of the roof had caved in.

A neighbor who lives on Pratt Street didn't see what happened - but heard it.

"I went downstairs to make a pot of coffee, and I heard a crumbling noise," Barbara Wrightsman said. "My husband told me it was the roundhouse."

The roundhouse - one of five historic structures in the B&O; Railroad Museum complex - opened in 1884 as a facility to build and repair passenger cars. The historic building, including the roof, was restored in the mid-1970s at a cost of about $1.5 million.

Besides housing historic trains - including a replica of the Tom Thumb built in 1927 - the roundhouse is a popular site for events such as political fund-raisers and private receptions. The museum's black-tie gala was set for March 1 in the roundhouse but will now have to be moved.

The museum - on the site of Mount Clare, the first train station in the United States - was founded 50 years ago and is completing a 16-month celebration of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1827.

Designed by Ephraim Francis Baldwin, a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad architect, the roundhouse's circular shape comes from 22 sides of equal size. It stands 123 feet from the floor to the top of the gold cupola, which survived the collapse.

The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has 45,000 square feet of space and takes up nearly an acre of ground. Among the roundhouse's distinguishing characteristics is a 60-foot wooden turntable inside the structure that was used to turn railroad cars.

It also has two pitches of roofs - the lower of which collapsed - and high windows to let in lots of light.

According to an early history published by the museum, the "roof section is hung onto an iron ring supported by iron struts which tie into the tops of 22 supporting columns."

James D. Dilts, a Baltimore-based railroad and architectural historian, said he was surprised that the roof collapsed.

"I thought that the structure was pretty solid," he said.

So did Wilson, the museum's executive director, who said he had no idea the roof was vulnerable.

"It's been here since 1884. That's a long time with a lot of snow," he said.

An event planned for the museum for Thursday on the building by the B&O; of the Russian czar's railroad from Moscow to St. Petersburg will go on as scheduled, but at a different location.

A since-demolished station on the site of the museum complex received Samuel Morse's historic telegraphed message from the Capitol in Washington on May, 24, 1844: "What hath God wrought?"

It was a question that was on the minds of many yesterday as they surveyed the roundhouse.

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