I hadn't realized it, but the B&O Railroad has been a part of my life for nearly as long as I remember.
And it's all because of the board game, Monopoly.
But while most of the real estate plots are named after real places in Atlantic City, New Jersey, one of its four railroads actually never served the Jersey Shore, maintaining an inland route from Baltimore to Philly, Trenton, Newark, and New York City.
And that was the B&O, a real railroad with a fascinating role in Civil War history—and the one that introduced most people to commercial railroading.
Many credit Baltimore as the birthplace of modern railroading—probably because of its Mount Clare Shops, the oldest manufacturing complex for railroads in the country.
Founded in 1829, it was just four years after the opening of the Erie Canal—and back then, people were more focused on transporting their goods by boat. But as the B&O Railroad expanded beyond the state of Maryland—westward into Virginia (now West Virginia) and eastward through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York—it didn't need waterways. In fact, thanks to groundbreaking civil engineering projects, its trains crossed the Potomac and the Ohio Rivers.
The largest and most notable of the Mount Clare Shops structures is the 22-sided passenger car shop, the largest circular industrial building in the world when it was completed in February 1884 (to replace a prior structure that had burned to the ground). Much to my delight, it now houses the B&O Railroad Museum.
Colloquially called the "roundhouse" (whose turntable was built to accommodate the longest trains of the time, at 60 feet in diameter), it was where passenger trains were built—not where they turned around at the end of the line.
Much of the rolling stock on display at the museum—and used by the B&O Railroad, even if not manufactured at Mount Clare—was used to transport troops and supplies during the Civil War. But even though Maryland was below the Mason-Dixon Line, and therefore located in the Confederate South, the B&O's efforts were largely in support of the Union Army.
The museum is perhaps best known for one particular locomotive in its collection: the William Mason, an "American type," Civil War-era passenger locomotive that was as good-looking as it was a hard worker. Its design rose against previous trains that looked like "cooking stoves on wheels," but this one wasn't just pretty—because it had an important job to do. It was one of the engines that brought Abraham Lincoln into Washington DC for his 1861 inauguration (at a time when assassination was already a concern).
Not all the rolling stock in the collection, however, actually looks like a train. In fact, the 1830s-era passenger rail car designs were based on the standard turnpike stagecoach—but they proved to be impractical for rail travel, exposing passengers to heat and ash and providing a nerve-wrackingly unstable ride.
The stagecoach-style rail car at the museum is a reproduction built in 1927, while the reproduction of a Concord-style stagecoach carriage by National Railroad Stage Company dates back to 2005.
Next door to and across the tracks from the roundhouse is the North Car Shop, which looks more like a typical train barn.
That's where you'll find the CNJ (Central Railroad of New Jersey) 1000, the first commercially successful diesel-electric locomotive, which was in service from 1925 to 1957.
There's also the C&O 377 built for the Cincinnati, Richmond & Muncie Railroad in 1902—now one of the oldest existing examples of steam locomotives from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.
The B&O No. 3316, "Washington" observation lounge car from 1949 (part of the Capitol Limited line, manufactured by Pullman) has also been parked here, in all its streamline glory, since retiring from service in 1971.
A major part of the B&O history was actually dedicated baggage cars, which became necessary as train travel became more popular, and more people brought more bags. B&O built its first baggage car in 1834 at the Mount Clare Shops, but it wasn't until 1875 that it built its No. 10. A half-century later, it was restored, but most recently it was damaged in a 2003 roof collapse and has not yet been rebuilt.
Looking at trains is one thing—and there are some beauties both inside the old shops and outside on the old tracks.
From 1950s-era refrigerator cars and 1920s-era wooden cabooses...
...to early 20th-century tank cars and a late-1960s "All American Diesel"...
...there's plenty of history for train fanatics and casual enthusiasts to absorb here.
But since there's really nothing like actually getting to ride a vintage train, I jumped at the chance to go first class on the "Royal Blue"...
...the New York Central #50 Tavern-Lounge Observation car, which retired in 1970 after more than two decades in service.
Designed to comfortably seat more than 50 passengers, it also features a lunch counter and dining tables...
...as well as a "round end" to maximize the view.
Of course, our jaunt—just one mile, easily completed in 20 minutes one way—was all too brief, but it was important to look out the windows and see where we were going.
After all, this mile of commercial railroad track was the first ever to be laid in this country.
Some might not think it's very scenic—perhaps a bit run-down, even.
But this is where the bodies are buried.
This is where you'll find the skeletons of the earliest days of American railroading.
It might not be pretty now.
But nobody ever said building trains or laying down track was pretty.
And as attractive as some of those luxury passenger cars were, it was more important that they functioned as workhorses—especially in an environment when real, living horses were too slow and too vulnerable to the elements to get the job done.
Hauling that many people and all their stuff—sometimes across enemy lines, as during the Civil War—required a different type of horse altogether.
That is, the iron horse.
And even today, there are certain routes that just make the most sense to take by train and certain types of cargo you'd rather ride the rails than send off afloat or airborne.
Maybe someday there will be a museum devoted to the last functioning railroad in the U.S. But for now, nearly two centuries after locomotives changed the way we move across long distances, it's a mode of transport that's still relevant enough to celebrate the first of it.
P.S. I feel obliged to admit that I've had meetings in the former B&O Warehouse at Camden Yards without knowing where I was or the significance of the locale, and I've had a drink at the B&O Brasserie in the Hotel Monaco without knowing that it was on the ground floor of the former B&O Headquarters building. Likewise, I just stayed at the Lord Baltimore Hotel without knowing it was directly adjacent to the B&O building. But now that I've visited the B&O Railroad Museum, it's all coming together now for me.
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