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THIS IS AMERICA - May 20, 2002: B&O Railroad Museum - 2002-05-16


The American city of Baltimore, Maryland is home to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum. Museum officials have organized a special sixteen-month event. It celebrates the one-hundred-seventy-fifth anniversary of railroads in America. I’m Sarah Long.


And I’m Steve Ember. This celebration of American railroads is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

((Sound of old steam engine and whistle))


The one-hundred-seventy-fifth anniversary celebration honors two important dates in railroad history. The first is when lawmakers in Maryland approved a resolution to create the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. That happened on February twenty-seventh, eighteen-twenty-seven. The other event is the ceremonial laying of the first stone to build the railroad. That happened on July fourth, eighteen-twenty-eight.

The B-and-O Railroad Museum in Baltimore has planned a number of activities during the anniversary period. The museum will present special shows, train trips and other events through July of next year. The celebration is called “One-Hundred-Seventy-Five Years: America On Track.”


Courtney Wilson is the Railroad Museum’s executive director and a historian. He says one way to study American history is through the development of American railroads.

Baltimore, Maryland is a major port in the eastern United States. Early in the nineteenth century, the Erie Canal threatened Baltimore’s economy. The Erie Canal was the first major waterway built in America. It provided an easy way to transport goods from the Great Lakes area to the port of New York City.

Mister Wilson notes that people in England created what we know today as the railroad. He says businessmen from Baltimore sent representatives to England to study the early railroad technology. When the railroad was brought to the United States, the technology almost had to be reinvented. The English countryside was mostly flat. The Baltimore area, however, had large rivers, mountains, and roads that were not straight.


The name Baltimore and Ohio comes from the idea of operating a railroad from Baltimore in the East to the Ohio River in the Middle West. At first, there were disputes about exactly where the railroad would be built. Organizers asked United States Army engineers to design a path to the West. Difficult negotiations and a political debate followed. Finally, the Carroll family, one of the oldest in Maryland, provided land for the railroad’s headquarters. The B-and-O Railroad Museum now occupies the property.

((Sound of railroad crossing and old steam engine))

The B-and-O Railroad was the first railroad built in North America. The first railroad line was powered by horses. By Eighteen-Thirty, the B-and-O operated three horse-powered trains each day to the nearby town of Ellicott’s Mills. Soon, the railroad was carrying more than four-hundred passengers a day. The company added new cars to the system as soon as they were built.


By this time, trains powered by steam had been successfully tested in England. This development was of great interest to Peter Cooper, an inventor from New York. He told B-and-O officials that he had an idea for building a steam-powered engine. Mister Cooper developed the first steam engine for the new railroad. The engine was later called “Tom Thumb.”

One story says the Tom Thumb steam engine once raced against a horse pulling a passenger train car. Just as the little engine moved into the lead, a piece of equipment broke. After that, the horse easily won the race. The details have never been confirmed, but the story is often repeated.


The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was never the largest or most powerful railroad in the United States. However, it was the first railroad in many ways. The B-and-O was the first to publish a timetable -- the list of the times the trains left and arrived. The B-and-O operated America’s first train station to earn money from paying passengers. The B-and-O was the first railroad to enter the nation’s capital, Washington, D-C. It also was the first railroad to have an agreement with the federal government to transport the mail.

The B-and-O was the first railroad from the eastern United States to reach the Ohio River. That happened in Eighteen-Fifty-Two. Forty-three years later, the B-and-O was the first American railroad to use an electric-powered train.

((Sound of old steam engine))


One reason for the B-and-O’s success was the Mount Clare Shops in Baltimore. This is where workers repaired engines, train cars and other equipment. The Mount Clare Shops also were active in research and development. Courtney Wilson says the shops developed all the ideas for railroads in America. This included how to build a rail line and what kinds of materials would be used.

At one time, the Mount Clare Shops employed more than four-thousand people. Steam engines, passenger and freight cars were built here. Once, workers built a bridge, and then transported it by train to its new home.

For more than one-hundred years, the B-and-O and the Mount Clare Shops were the largest employers in Baltimore. Mount Clare is now part of the museum.


Today, the B-and-O Railroad Museum occupies fifteen hectares of land in the center of Baltimore. It is a short walk from the city’s popular Inner Harbor area. About one-hundred-sixty-thousand people visit the museum each year. It operates as a private business. The government provides little financial help.

Much of the money comes from people who pay to visit the museum or to become supporting members. Other money comes as gifts from individuals, businesses and non-profit groups.

VOICE TWO: The B-and-O Railroad Museum occupies five buildings. One is called The Roundhouse. The Roundhouse is not really round, but has twenty-two sides. It also may be the world’s largest circular industrial building. It is more than thirty-seven meters tall.

When first built, the Roundhouse was a place where passenger cars were repaired. In the center is a turntable. It turns in a circle to move engines and cars from one train track to another.

The museum has more than two-hundred major pieces of railroad equipment, records and other objects. Visitors are permitted to study and explore a number of historic railroad engines and cars. Some are more than one-hundred years old.

((Train sounds))


One room in the museum has paintings of people who were important to the development of American railroads. For example, one painting shows the man who started the meat business Swift and Company. In the late eighteen-hundreds, Gustavus Swift developed the first refrigerator car – a railroad car that was kept cold. He had the idea of killing farm animals in one area and transporting their meat across the country. For this to be done safely, the meat had to be kept cold in such a refrigerator car. Mister Swift’s idea was a great success.

Another painting at the Railroad Museum shows a young Abraham Lincoln. Before he became President, Lincoln worked as a lawyer for a railroad company. As President, Lincoln supported calls to build a railroad across the country. He died in Eighteen-Sixty-Five, four years before the railroad line was completed.

((Train sounds))


For many months, B-and-O Railroad Museum officials have been organizing the celebration of American railroads. The main event will be held next summer. It is called “The Fair of the Iron Horse, One-Hundred-Seventy-Five.” It will include historic trains from railroads and private collections around the world. The trains will operate on the first mile of railroad built in the United States. The event also will include railroad technology, toy trains and other activities.

Museum officials say they expect as many as two-million visitors during the railroad anniversary. The visitors will help celebrate an important part of American history.

For more information, you can write to the B-and-O Railroad Museum, nine-oh-one West Pratt Street; Baltimore, Maryland, two-one-two-two-three, U-S-A. Computer users can find this information at w-w-w-dot-b-o-r-a-i-l-dot-o-r-g.



This program was written by George Grow. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I’m Sarah Long.


And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.