Tracing the History of Baltimore’s Great Railroad

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Inside the B&O Railroad Museum roundhouse. (public domain photo)
Inside the B&O Railroad Museum roundhouse. (public domain photo)

This summer, Lauren Eller is visiting some of Baltimore’s neighborhood-level museums. Like the communities they are located, these museums have a strong, colorful identity all their own. Each deserves a closer look, for though they may be off the beaten track, the history held within is both harrowing and fascinating in equal turns.

You may think that trains and railroads are merely artifacts of a bygone era. But if you visit the B&O Railroad Museum in Southwest Baltimore, you’ll see just how essential these engines have been in our country’s history. The legendary B&O — named for its headwaters in Baltimore and ending terminus in Ohio — began right in our hometown.

The B&O was the first of its kind in America. The railroad was built using largely untested technology over rough terrain between here and the Midwest. It was expensive and expansive, totaling 382 miles of track and $14 million in construction costs (in today’s money, that would be $392 million). Although it was not the first American railroad, it was the first to offer regular passenger and freight service. Merchants here hoped to outpace other bustling scenes of commerce in the nineteenth century, such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston. And the B&O certainly helped them on their way to bigger business.

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The railroad industry at large also significantly shaped two other developments in America: the creation of geographic time zones and precise timekeeping. Prior to the train boom, timekeeping was difficult in the nineteenth century; individual towns kept their own time based upon the position of the sun. But with the advent of travel by railroad, people needed this to be standardized. So the Standard Time Act was passed in 1918, and at first — as it is with all big changes — a lot of people were unhappy with it, but it gave us the time zones we have today. And because train conductors needed to make sure things were running on time, the clock and watch industry began making more accurate time pieces.

A Bobbler caboose, built in 1907. (via Wikimedia Commons/Barry Eagel
A Bobbler caboose, built in 1907. (via Wikimedia Commons/Barry Eagel)

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The museum and the roundhouse are located where the historic station once was when it was still in operation. Visiting the museum doesn’t feel particularly out of the way, especially since the B&O is a well-known name in Baltimore’s history, and the location on Pratt Street feels fairly central.

Seeing all the model and replica trains alone, especially in the Roundhouse, make the trip to the museum worth it. But there is a ton of history packed into the exhibits that many have forgotten or do not know about the famous B&O.

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