First Person Singular: Courtney B. Wilson, 58, Director, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum


Courtney B. Wilson, director of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, in front of a No. 5300 "President Washington" locomotive. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 18, 2012

I inherited my uncle’s train set from before World War II, and I took good care of it. I remember coming home from school and just being so excited because my dad would have put the basics up, and then he and I would put the train set together. We’d put the little buildings out, and these little metal figures that were skating on mirrors, and put the snow down.

I walked into this museum, for the first time, somewhere around 1957. I was about 4 years old when my father brought me. I remember it being a sort of dark, dusty, cranky place, but the feeling, as I remember it, was walking into a place and feeling the past. And maybe it was because it was a little dark and dank and dusty and all that, but these great locomotives, these great cars here, gave me a sense of the past. Having a pretty vibrant imagination as a child, I took the time to allow myself to [be] transported back into time to imagine what it would have been like to ride on this train during the Civil War, or to be a worker here, where they built the locomotives. Rather than being the kind of guy whose imagination launches a thought into the future, my imagination always went in the reverse and launched me into the past. My parents took me to places like Mount Vernon, to all the Civil War battlefields, to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell. So I fell in love with the idea of history — not necessarily railroad history, but history in general.

For about 15 years, I was a ranger for the National Park Service in the historical parks. Then I launched out on my own and started an antiques business. I’m very sort of object focused. I like tangible things that relate to history, but it’s not just the things themselves, it’s the stories of who made the thing, who used the thing, what difference that thing made in people’s lives.

The day I walked into work here, I took probably half that first day to just be left alone and see the locomotives again. I was recalling what I saw when I was here in 1957. I was able to begin to gather the concepts of where we should go in the future. Seeing the transition from here to here ...“Now what’s the next step for us, to take it to a place that people would love even more?”

The railroad was sort of the first Internet in the nation. It connected towns together, connected people together. Before railroading, people rarely ventured more than 50 miles away from their home. Here, we have now a technology that could transport people, relatively quickly, long distances across the country and back home again. I travel on a train whenever I can. I don’t understand, living in the Baltimore/D.C. area, why anyone would drive or fly to New York City.

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