B&O Museum, Back on the Fast Track
By Mary Jane Solomon
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 17, 2004
A PRESENT AWAITS train enthusiasts of all ages this holiday season, and it's too big to gift-wrap: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum reopened Nov. 13 following a 22-month restoration.
An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum houses the Western Hemisphere's oldest and most extensive collection of vintage railroad equipment. Visitors to the 40-acre complex -- located in Baltimore at the site of the country's first mile of commercial railroad track -- can look at trains big and small, from historic locomotives bearing a resemblance to "The Polar Express" steam engine to a detailed HO scale layout (in which 3.5 millimeters correspond to a foot in actual size). Throughout December, the museum offers train rides daily and showcases elaborate model train displays in its Holiday Festival of Trains.
The museum's reopening showcases its restored centerpiece, the 1884 Baldwin Roundhouse. Under the weight of a record snowfall in February 2003, the western half of the lower roundhouse roof collapsed, falling onto several pieces in the museum's collection and forcing an immediate closing. "We tried to make it look almost exactly as it did in 1884," says spokeswoman Amy Getz of the painstaking rebuilding and restoration of the 22-sided brick polygon. Inside, freshly painted white walls take advantage of the natural light streaming in through numerous windows. Engines and rail cars sit in a semi-circle, pointing toward the center and its functional turntable, which moves engines and cars to different sets of tracks outside.
The extended closing presented the museum with an opportunity to revisit and redesign exhibit spaces throughout the complex, Getz says. The entire facility is now wheelchair-accessible and includes such features as a new entrance and orientation center, new restrooms and an expanded museum store. A new exhibition gallery showcases the Smithsonian's collection of historic railroad models, displayed at the National Museum of American History until the Railroad Hall there closed in 2001. Another exhibit includes antique railroad china and silver, donated by a local family after they heard about the roof collapse.
On a recent afternoon, parents, grandparents and young children meandered through the site's attractions, most of which are staffed by railroad-loving volunteers who can discuss the exhibits. Inside the roundhouse, 70-year-old Al Stominski pointed out the museum's star locomotive, the 1856 William Mason, featured in numerous movies, including "Wild, Wild West." Through clear protective walls visitors can see several engines with shattered glass, crushed steel, peeling paint and other damage resulting from the collapse. Eventually, the locomotives will be repaired and restored in an on-site facility currently under construction.
A large-scale model train layout in the roundhouse during the holiday season includes a Christmas-themed train carrying evergreens, candy cane syrup and lumps of coal for naughty children. Thomas the Tank Engine pulls Annie and Clarabel around a loop of track atop green hills. The landscape includes a moving windmill and Ferris wheel. Outside, a garden-style G scale layout, in which 10 millimeters correspond to a foot in actual size, includes tunnels and a trestle bridge. Visitors can go inside a full-size red caboose and rail cars, and see a display of other engines and cars.
"Little toddlers are fascinated by seeing these big, giant trains that they've only played with," Getz says.
Miniature trains also draw youngsters, who can watch the little engines chug around the tracks and find realistic details throughout the landscapes. Inside a railcar, the museum's new, permanent HO scale layout features a city scene, busy port and rolling countryside designed to demonstrate how the railroad transports goods from the harbor to the West. "That's just like downtown Baltimore. That's the Bromo-Seltzer building," says a grandfather, pointing out a miniature version of the city's historic clock tower to his grandchild.
Visitors also can take a 20-minute ride on a MARC train, during which volunteers like Stominski point out Baltimore landmarks and talk about railroad history. "Many children come here and get their first train ride ever," Getz says.
The museum will hold its official grand reopening celebration on Memorial Day weekend. New attractions slated to open then include a living history and demonstration center, an outdoor activity area for families and the state-of-the-art restoration building, where visitors will be able to watch repairs being made to damaged equipment.
B&O RAILROAD MUSEUM -- 901 W. Pratt St., Baltimore. 410-752-2490. www.borail.org. Open Monday through Friday 10 to 4, Saturdays 10 to 5 and Sundays noon to 5. (Closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31, and Jan. 1.) $14; seniors $10; children 2-12 $8; children one and younger free. Train rides, included in the admission price, take place daily April through December, weekends in January; daily schedules vary. No rides take place during February and March. The Holiday Festival of Trains, running through Jan. 2, features layouts set up by the following model railroading groups (unless otherwise noted, layouts are in the roundhouse):