In the late 19th century, an overzealous publicity agent developed a trade show exhibit for a major American railroad headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. This exhibit survived the railroad that sponsored it � and grew to become a "national treasure" of railroad artifacts. Today, it comprises the collection of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum � the oldest, most comprehensive American railroad collection in the world.
Located among Baltimore City's historic southwest neighborhoods, at the original site of the historic Mt. Clare Shops, the B&O Railroad Museum is recognized universally as the birthplace of American railroading. It was here within the Museum's 40-acre campus that Baltimore businessmen, surveyors, and engineers set about building the B&O Railroad in 1829 � laying the first commercial long-distance track, building the first passenger station, and inventing America's unique railroad. Railroad work has been conducted at Mt. Clare for over 130 years. And it continues today. A National Historic Landmark, Affiliate of the Smithsonian Museum, and independent educational resource, the B&O Railroad Museum collects, preserves and interprets artifacts related to early American railroading, particularly the Baltimore & Ohio, Chesapeake & Ohio, Western Maryland, and other mid-Atlantic railroads � to the delight of over 200,000 visitors a year. Nearly 200 pieces of locomotives and rolling stock provide a continuum of railroad technology history from 1830 through the present day, and hundreds of thousands of small artifacts provide a unique glimpse of railroading through tools, exquisite time-pieces, fine art, presentation silver, uniforms, furniture, and personal memorabilia. Additionally, an extensive collection of scale models and toy trains illustrate America's long fascination with trains and railroading. And the grounds of the Museum encompass significant historic structures � many of which are restored � as well as bridges, earthworks, and archaeological resources.
The B&O Railroad always maintained a keen awareness of its history. As America’s first commercial long-distance railroad, the B&O was also a railroad of “firsts.” Pioneers in the technology of American railroading, they initiated hundreds of innovative ideas throughout their history from operating the first American built steam locomotive to debuting the first air conditioned train. The American Railroad Journal of November 1835 called the B&O “...the Railroad University of the United States...” calling their annual reports “textbooks,” and their road and workshops “...a lecture room to thousands.”
The first published history of an American railroad was William Prescott Smith’s “A History and Description of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad” published in 1853. At the 1876 United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the B&O Railroad exhibited not only its newest and most powerful locomotive, but also the oldest in existence. This moment initiated the B&O’s commitment to preserving its heritage as “ America’s First Railroad” and set in motion a corporate philosophy of heritage preservation. By the 1880s, with fierce competition at hand, the B&O chose to advertise itself as America’s most historic railroad traveling through America’s most scenic countryside. The B&O became the first railroad to hire a publicity agent. In 1880, “Major” Joseph G. Pangborn, a western newspaper publicist and showman, was hired to market and create an advertising program for the Railroad. In the course of promotion, Pangborn saved a number of the B&O’s wheezing, ancient, obsolete but historic locomotives for an extensive exhibit planned for the World’s Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago in 1892-93. In addition, he designed and built a series of full-sized wooden replicas of the world’s pioneering locomotives and mounted an exhibit documenting the continuum of railroad history heretofore unmatched in size, completeness, and significance. For its creative look backward in history, in the midst of a celebration of “modern” technology, the B&O received the highest honors awarded. This magnificent collection and its exhibit were destined to be part of a new museum of technology proposed by Marshall Field. In the process of planning, however, the Field Museum elected to concentrate on natural history, and the collection was returned to the B&O.
The B&O; expanded and redeveloped their exhibits for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and, again, walked away with gold medals in every applicable category. Following this display, much of the collection was stored in an unused roundhouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia. From time to time the railroad sent the relics to fairs, local events, and celebrations where a public relations benefit was achievable. Often their eldest locomotive was sent with their newest to reinforce the ideals of modernism. Nonetheless, history and historic preservation had become part and parcel of the B&O corporate fabric.
When the B&O reached its centennial in 1927, it was the oldest continuously-operating railroad in the world. To mark this significant anniversary, the railroad staged an elaborate pageant called “The Fair of the Iron Horse” in Halethorpe, Maryland. In addition to inviting railroads from around the world to participate, the B&O restored all of her historic locomotives to operating order, recreated some long extinct and paraded them around a grandstand in front of over two million people in twenty-three days. Other exhibits, models, and historic artifacts were collected and on display in pavilions in world’s fair style. The Fair pavilions almost became the world’s first railroad and transportation museum, except for the economic despair prompted by the Great Depression and a devastating hurricane in 1935 which severely damaged the structures and many objects in the collection.
For nearly twenty years, the B&O kept the collections in storage in a Roundhouse once located at the site of Baltimore’s M&T Stadium-home of the Ravens NFL team. When the passenger car department abandoned the magnificent roundhouse at Mt. Clare, however, the Public Relations Department saw an opportunity to consolidate all of its historic collections in one location. The Musuem’s Roundhouse, originally constructed as a passenger car shop, was designed by noted architect, E. Francis Baldwin. Fully enclosed, it was the largest circular industrial building in the world when completed covering more than an acre of ground and rising 125 feet into the air. With the oldest and most significant railroad collection in America in hand, the railroad opened the B&O Transportation Museum at Mt. Clare on July 4, 1953. The Museum and its collections were designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Following mergers with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway into the Chessie System Railroads and, finally, CSX, the B&O Railroad ceased to exist as a corporate entity in 1987. During several periods of the museum’s corporate history, the Museum and the collection’s fate hung in the balance. In the early 1970s, Hays T. Watkins, the Chairman and CEO of the Chessie System, Inc., and later CSX, was largely responsible for saving the museum and collections. His personal sacrifices and commitment to railroad history combined with his friendship with then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, allowed the oldest American railroad collection and museum to be preserved, restored, and grow.
In 1990, the museum broke all corporate ties and became an independent nonprofit education institution. CSX deeded the buildings, real estate and collections to the newly formed Museum board and provided for a significant endowment. Shortly thereafter the Museum initiated its active rolling stock restoration program, continuing the unbroken continuum of railroad work at Mt. Clare since 1830.
In 1999 an historic affiliation agreement was signed between the Smithsonian Institution and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. The Museum became the first of seven museums in America so honored.
On Presidents’ Day, February 16, 2003, amid a record-breaking snowfall, one half of the Museum’s massive roof collapsed. The collapse occurred as a result of the weight of drifting snow on the western side of the building. Eyewitness accounts depict the drifts nearly six feet in depth. The first alarm was received at approximately 11:40 PM on February 16th. Museum officials responded to find two sections of the 22-sectioned roof collapsed. Two more sections fell on the opposite side of the building around 5:30 AM the following morning. The remaining seven sections caved in before 9:00 AM on the 17th. As a result of the roof collapse, tons of snow, slate, wood, and cast iron fell upon some of the most historic and important locomotives, rolling stock, Pangborn models, and small artifacts in the Museum’s collection.
A forensic structural engineering study was commissioned and determined that a number of architectural and engineering design flaws existed in E. F. Baldwin’s original plan. This, combined with age deterioration and the extreme weight of the drifted snowfall, caused the roof system to fail.
Work on restoration of the Roundhouse and rebuilding the Museum began immediately. Following a 22-month effort and a heroic fund raising campaign, the Museum reopened to the public on November 13, 2004. New and expanded visitor facilities and public programs were unveiled and an on-site, state-of-the-art locomotive and rolling stock restoration facility was designed to restore the damaged collections.
Flourishing in its expanded and newly restored state, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum is hosting record numbers of visitors to its internationally renown campus and collections. Through these collections and its historic buildings, it is the mission of this institution to reveal the drama of American railroading, its people, culture, and legacy to a wide and diverse audience. The Museum’s 40-acre historic site, its unrivalled collections and magnificent buildings combined with innovative education and public programming have earned it the sobriquet America’s railroad museum.