From the very first time Tommy encountered a train table at a toy store in Stoke Newington, the London neighborhood where we spent a month in 2003, he was hooked on all things locomotive. Since he was our first born, this meant that for a number of years trains ruled everyone’s imaginations at our house. As a consequence, we’ve been to train-related attractions around the United States from the small-gage railroad in Zilker Park in Austin to Travel Town in Griffith Park in Los Angeles to the Strasburg Railroad in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And since our stay in Baltimore included a night at the Hotel Monaco, which is housed in the former headquarters of the B&O Railroad, I knew that we had to visit the nearby B&O Railroad Museum.
Tommy’s passion for trains has diminished since he discovered baseball, but he was still excited when he learned that Baltimore is considered the birthplace of the American railroad. In fact, the first stone of the B&O Railroad was laid here in 1828 by Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. The railroad was for many years an important part of the city’s identity and economic landscape.
The museum’s main building is a magnificent 1884 roundhouse that is full of natural light (prudent for one-time railroad workers – now a photographer’s dream). Engines and train cars encircle a turntable in the middle of the building that is so perfectly balanced that one man can push a huge engine around on it by himself. Visitors are free to wander among the trains, some of which are open for viewing.
We visited the museum during its annual holiday celebration, which runs between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. The roundhouse was decorated within an inch of its life, Santa was available for photographs, and a local dance troupe performed selections from its version of The Nutcracker in the middle of the turntable. But most fun of all were the model train layouts. Every weekend features a different model railroading club’s layout; the one we saw was very festive.
When Tommy was a toddler, I’m fairly certain we would have spent the majority of our time in the Kids Zone, perched between a passenger and luggage car. So I was more than a little amused to find that both boys still wanted to hang out there. Teddy (who never displayed the same kind of interest in trains) even dressed up as an engineer.
I’ll admit right now that I didn’t look closely at many of the exhibits in this museum because I’m not actually all that interested in the history of the railroad. To me, this museum is more about my own history as a mother. But I did stroll through the museum’s impressive exhibition titled “The War Came by Train” commemorating the B&O Railroad’s role in the American Civil War. For five years from 2011 through the end of 2015 the museum will remember the war on its sesquicentennial, changing the exhibit each year to reflect on the corresponding year of the war (1861-1865).
Even without paying attention to their historical significance, the trains are beautiful to look at. I especially liked to see the ways that passenger cars on trains once resembled stage coaches. I also liked the Friendship Train, sent by the French to tour the United States after World War II. These trains once moved American and British soldiers around Europe; after the war, the cars were filled with gifts like French wine and were sent to every state and Hawaii – which at that point was still just a territory.
Outside the roundhouse there are still more trains to see, including a caboose kids can climb all around. There are also several model layouts as well as a station from which you can board a train and ride for 20 minutes along the first commercial mile of train track laid in the United States. If you think your children won’t be impressed by that fact alone, you might plan your ride for a weekend in December when Frosty the Snowman and Santa will be along for the ride. Or perhaps you might just take them for a ride on the Train Carousel, which moves inside during the colder months.
Or maybe your children, like mine, will just be contented to watch the magic of the model trains traveling endlessly in their perfect landscapes of childhood dreams.
- The museum has a snack bar with vending machines and a seasonal menu of items like pizza and hot dogs. You aren’t allowed to bring your own food into the museum. The museum is in a residential area but there aren’t good family dining options immediately adjacent. It’s an easy five-minute drive to the restaurants in the Inner Harbor area.
- Although the museum is open daily, train rides are offered only Wednesday to Sunday from April to December and on weekends in January. Tickets for train rides are not included in museum admission and are sold on a first-come, first-served basis – get there early on weekends during the holiday season to make sure you get to ride with Santa.
- It’s worth checking out the museum’s events page to see what’s happening – there are different special events each month including Toddler Time, which runs on the first and third Wednesdays of the month from January through October and includes stories, crafts, and playtime in the Kid Zone.