Museum rolls to celebration


When the roof of the B&O; railroad roundhouse in Baltimore collapsed during the snowstorm of 2003, so did plans to celebrate the 175th year of railroading with the "Fair of the Iron Horse" - a six-day festival with a parade of historic railroad equipment.

But while the downtown B&O; Railroad Museum is shoring up its structure and repairing its collection, the B&O; Railroad Station Museum in Ellicott City is rolling forward with its plans to celebrate the milestone.

The roundhouse damage "affects us, but we can still tell the story of 175 years of railroading," said Lisa A. Mason-Chaney, the station museum's executive director.

The Ellicott City station's history is intimately tied to the birth of railroads in Baltimore.

It is the nation's oldest railroad station; the first terminus of the first commercial railroad built in America - constructed at the end of 13 miles of track laid between Ellicott City and Baltimore.

When the construction of the C&O; canal bypassed Baltimore, then the nation's third-largest port, a group of businessmen built the railroad because they didn't want to lose trade, Mason-Chaney said.

Horses drew the first cars and had to be changed after seven miles. Right at the seven-mile mark is the town of Relay. It was named for its original purpose and is home to the St. Denis, a MARC commuter railroad station.

This was high-speed travel at the time. "To us, it's kind of silly, but in 1827, if you could travel at 15 miles an hour, it was preposterous," said Edward M. Williams, deputy director of the B&O; Railroad Museum and former director of the station museum.

For more than a century, the B&O; carried passengers and freight to Ellicott City. In the years after the station's completion, the community was a popular tourist destination. "At first, it was used as a vacation resort area," Mason-Chaney said.

Passenger service to the station ended in 1956, done in by an improved highway network and the railroad's increasing concentration on its freight business.

Freight trains continued to stop at the station until 1972, when a major storm knocked out one of two lines of track through the Patapsco valley, Mason-Chaney said.

CSX railroad, owner and operator of the rail line, wanted to tear down the station, she said. But residents and business owners who had formed a preservation organization called Historic Ellicott City stepped in to save it.

They completed renovations of the building in 1976.

A new era

"We went into business after Tropical Storm Agnes," said Janet Kusterer, president of Historic Ellicott City Inc., which oversees the museum.

The station has been closed in recent days for minor repairs but will reopen Friday.

Exhibits in the station include a display on soldiers stationed in Ellicott City during the Civil War and a model replica of the pioneering B&O; line.

Planning and exhibit preparations are continuing for the celebration, which will be held from June 27 to July 6.

Organizers plan to use volunteers to depict the Irish laborers who worked on the railroad and lived in the area.

Exhibits will be open at nearby historical sites showing how the railroad affected the development of Ellicott City, which was an important manufacturing center beginning in the first half of the 19th century, harnessing the swift waters of the Patapsco to run many textile and other mills.

"Railroading history is so important," Mason-Chaney said. "It revolutionized the history of America."

Planners hope the event will attract visitors to the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, the Howard County Historical Society and other nearby attractions.

Part of the ticket sales from the 10-day event will be donated to the B&O; roundhouse restoration fund, said Mason-Chaney. "We thought, 'If we canceled, it wouldn't help them,'" Kusterer said.

It's unclear how long rebuilding will take at the Baltimore museum.

"We're still trying to get our arms around that," said Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the B&O; Railroad Museum. "The weather slows us up every inch of the way."

World's fair

The first Fair of the Iron Horse was staged in 1927 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the B&O;, the first long-distance commercial railroad.

More than 1 million visitors attended the event, which was held in Halethorpe.

"The fair in 1927 was the biggest thing that the state had seen since probably the signing of the Declaration of Independence," Williams said.

Many countries shipped their finest locomotives to display at the world's fair of railroading, Williams said.

"They had great exhibition halls where they showed off the new technology of the day," he said.

The exhibits also included historic railroad equipment, including the first Pullman car, according to articles from The Sun.

The highlight of the event was a pageant with floats depicting the development of transportation, according to the Short History of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, published in 1937.

Company employees acted different roles, such as railroad passengers Samuel Morse and Abraham Lincoln.

The 2003 fair was to have been the culmination of 16 months of events celebrating railroading, and would have incorporated elements of the original.

Williams said a pageant of more than 35 operating pieces would have been paraded on tracks built for the event.

But the museum can have a fair anytime, Williams said.

"History is going to judge us now for every decision we make," Williams said. "If we do not focus now on the museum and on its collection, history will never forgive us."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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