Exploring Railroad History at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore

Most visitors don’t realize that Baltimore City holds the birthplace of American railroading at the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Museum in its Mount Clare neighborhood. If you’re a railroading enthusiast, you probably knew that, and of course the B&O Railroad Museum is already on your bucket list.

The museum possesses the oldest and most expansive American railroad collections in the world, thanks in part to the B&O Railroad collecting and preserving important artifacts, locomotives and rail cars throughout its history — and then Chessie System and CSX railroads, which allowed the collection to remain intact, even after the B&O Railroad ceased to exist, and eventually transferred the property, the collection, and a sizable endowment to the museum. 

This is where you’ll come to see historic engines and rail cars — some 250 of them — many dating back to before the Civil War. The museum is located in the B&O Railroad’s old Mount Clare Station and adjacent roundhouse — truly the birthplace of railroading in America, the first railroad traversed the 13 miles between the Mount Clare Station and the station in Ellicott City (then called Ellicott Mills) — and retains 40 acres of the B&O’s sprawling Mount Clare Shops site.

Birthplace of American Railroads

It was here that in 1829, the B&O began America’s first railroad; the Mount Clare Shops form the oldest railroad manufacturing complex in the United States and the North Car Shop is the oldest surviving railroad manufacturing facility in the world. In addition to more than 15 thousand artifacts spanning the 19th and 20th centuries; the Mount Clare Shops (including the roundhouse and railroad station), there’s a mile of track that is considered to be the “most historic mile of railroad track in the United States.” In fact, the museum routinely offers train rides on that mile of track.

All this to say, this is a museum not just for kids, but for adults curious about another aspect of American history or are fascinated by railroad history. There’s a lot for kids there, to be sure. During the winter holidays, there are numerous holiday train displays, scattered throughout the museum; during the warmer months, the museum will hold the Day Out with Thomas (a favorite of my children) and other special events. There’s also an outdoor G-scale layout, two indoor HO scale model layouts in a railcar, a playroom, assorted wooden toy trainsets in various places, and a wooden model train for children to climb on.

The museum has created wooden steps and decking in the historic roundhouse to allow visitors to explore the historic trains and rail cars safely; several are completely wheel chair accessible. As you wander through the exhibits, you can’t help but be impressed with the ingenuity of the massive locomotives and railcars, which served as rolling U.S. mail delivery stations and more.

Iconic Building

The roundhouse is an iconic Baltimore building. Designed by Ephraim Francis Baldwin, the roundhouse was built in 1884 to service the B&O’s passenger cars. Many of us who live local to Baltimore still recall the devastating blizzard on Presidents Day in February 2003, which partially collapsed the roundhouse roof, damaging the locomotives and rail cars below. My eldest son, a 6-year-old train fanatic at the time, was devastated; I think we all felt a little devastated by that.

But by the following year, the roof had been repaired and by 2015, the damaged rolling stock had all been repaired. In fact, fundraising to support all the needed repairs was so good that the museum was able to add a new service facility to help restore and repair historic locomotives and railcars.

While you’re there, be sure to stop by the Smithsonian Exhibit of train models, which carries you through the design advancements of railway locomotives and rolling stock throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and holds some of the most exceptional railroad scale models ever crafted.

In addition to the coolness factor of seeing these massive locomotives, climbing up into and exploring the various railcars, there’s also the sobering history of seeing Jim Crow-era passenger cars, as well as exhibits detailing what little is known about freedom seekers, six of whom are known to have passed through the Mount Clare Station. The museum also discusses the importance of the railroad during the Civil War and the role that the B&O Railroad played.

Know Before You Go

If you don’t have kids and want to avoid the crowds that come during the special event days, be sure to check the website below. We visited on a super hot summer weekday in August and were just about the only visitors there. Although portions of the museum are air conditioned, not every rail car or building is. There is limited parking onsite, but there is street parking if you can find it. The museum offers a small cafe.

Getting there: 901 W Pratt St, Baltimore, MD
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Hours may change for special events.
Website: B&O Railroad Museum

Check out other articles about America’s railroad history!

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