This past Saturday I meandered over to Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum, something I had wanted to do for years. Although many historic buildings have been removed after the B&O merged and absorbed it’s way into CSX transportation, there is still the amazing 22-sided “roundhouse” and some old car shop buildings on site. The big draw, however, are the ancient locomotives, passenger cars and other supporting rolling stock.
The B&O railroad was one of the first in the world, with the short trip from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills (20 kilometers) being the first self-powered line in the USA. There are many priceless rail vehicles dating from the earliest days, as well as some incredible monster locomotives from the 20th century. I brought my camera and wandered through the old buildings getting close up to all the iron and dust.
What I didn’t know is that we would be able to climb aboard many of the train cars and engines and imagine what it would have been like back in the railroad’s glory days. Most of my pictures were taken in the southern car shop, out of the way of the train-crazy children and demonstrations.
It wasn’t my intention to shoot everything that had a grey-blue and black hue, but the old trains were speaking to me, drawing me to the shadows to study the age marks and wrinkles in the incredible old surfaces.
4 or 5 impossibly large locomotives are berthed next to each other in the old shop, possibly 120 or 150 centimeters shoulders apart. There really is no way to step back and get a full shot of these magnificent beasts, but I was happy to get close and smell the waxy grease and study the giant forged mechanicals.
The most impressive locomotive was one of the last steam engines built in the USA, the early 1940’s #1604 “Allegeny” 2-6-6-6 coal-hauling monster. The numbers refer to how many wheels the engine has. The main wheels are 160cm tall and the locomotive + tender (the coal cart behind the engine) together are as long as the building they are parked in. The engine was built to haul coal trains from West Virginia up to the coal dumper in Baltimore’s middle branch harbor. Standing next to or on top of this thing is awe-inspiring. The engine itself weighs 389 tons. That is 778,000 pounds. The coal tender, loaded weighed 215 tons. Now, they rest in darkness, silent and regal.
Because these relics are safely indoors, their state of preservation feels as if they could awake at any moment. Almost completely free of signage or modern interpretation, the big engines feel as if they rolled up for their last journey, the barn doors were shut and the overhead lights turned out.
Listen close to the pipes and hoses and you can almost hear the hissing of steam.
Considering the weight of these giants, it is amazing the condition of the concrete floor. This particular car shop was not originally built for locomotives, but merely for the fitting out of passenger car interiors. This building was constructed to last.
The volunteers at the B&O are very friendly and helpful. The old boy sitting by the front door of the car shop jumped out of his seat to talk to me and give information about the building and the locomotives. The yellow crane below is still functional, and the docent pointed out some recent activity with some diesel engine restoration in one corner. On this day however, it was a quiet winter afternoon in the old train shed.
When I was a small boy I witnessed the ’76 Freedom Train go by the tracks near my neighborhood in NJ. It was a restored steam engine pulling historic cars filled with Americana. We only saw the train pass by, but it was an intoxicating and unforgettable sensory experience.
There is something magical about the billowing steam, the aching moan of a steam whistle, the jerking motion of the piston and cranks working away at speed. To see something like the Allegeny #1604 pulling a train of coal cars up a mountain must have been an impressive sight. Sleep well old iron, after a life of burden you have earned your rest.