While we definitely loved the American Visionary Art Museum, our new favorite Baltimore attraction has to be the B&O Railroad Museum. We’re suckers for anything train related, and weren’t we surprised when we arrived at this museum! It’s quite large and exceeded our expectations in every way. If you’re visiting Baltimore sometime soon, you’ll want to be sure to add this stop to your itinerary.
The museum is housed in several historic buildings, all connected to the original B&O Railroad. Baltimore is a port city and back in the 1800s, they wanted to be able to compete with the likes of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston when it came to transporting goods westward from the East Coast. The opening of the Erie Canal was the spark needed to light the fire for Baltimore, which broke ground on the B&O Railroad in 1828 (and continued building it up until 1852), making the B&O the first commercial long-distance railroad in the country.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, traveling exhibits highlighting the B&O’s equipment and history eventually turned into the B&O Railroad Museum, which is visited by 200,000 people each year. Much of the museum’s collection is from the B&O days, but there are plenty of items from other rail lines as well. The museum had ties to rail corporations over the early years of its existence before becoming an independent nonprofit in the 1990s and then later an affiliate of the Smithsonian. The museum and its collections have received the designation of National Historic Landmark, and the 40-acre property offers plenty to delight any visitor!
We arrived shortly before 1:00 pm on a cold and drizzly Friday and were delighted to find the place was mostly empty (they were in the midst of setting up for a kids’ Witches and Wizards party the following day, as it was very close to Halloween, and we’re super happy we didn’t arrive in the midst of that!) Fortunately, there was a tour about to start, and so we joined in with the volunteer, Marshall, who gave us a bit of history about the museum, the B&O Railroad and the gorgeous, historic building we were standing in, the Mt. Clare Roundhouse.
Technically not round, the Mt. Clare Roundhouse is a 22-sided building (which is called an icosikaidigon, or so we were informed) that was built in 1884 for building and maintaining B&O Railroad passenger cars. The building is huge! It’s 125 feet from top to bottom and 240 feet across. The Roundhouse has plenty of windows to let in natural light and to show off the impressive collection of locomotives centered around the 60-foot turntable in the center of the building. We were told that the turntable still works and that they still use it to move stuff in and out of the Roundhouse. Apparently, despite being able to move 70 tons, the turntable was built in such a way that it can be operated by a single individual simply pushing it from a space below a trap door in the floor. Yay, physics!
The Roundhouse is beautiful and appeared to be in excellent shape, but we found out that in 2003, a huge snowfall led to a collapse of nearly half of its roof. The collapse caused quite a bit of damage to the collection, but over the course of the next 22 months, the Roundhouse’s roof was fully replaced and the damaged trains were restored to their current glory (which, in the opinion of our tour guide Marshall, is a whole lot nicer than they were before the roof collapsed!)
Marshall walked us through the Roundhouse and pointed out some of the beautiful locomotives on display. We learned about Peter Cooper’s first design for a steam engine, we saw one of the first passenger cars (designed by a stagecoach builder and hence it had a stagecoach design to it!), we got a lesson in how tunnel clearance cars work, and why trains once had a caboose.
We even saw a movie star! That would be the William Mason, one of the oldest and longest-running steam trains in their fleet. It was used in the Civil War and can be seen in action in movies such as Tuck Everlasting, Gods and Generals, The Wild, Wild West, and The Great Locomotive Chase. Sadly, the William Mason was found to have some instability (which isn’t ideal for a steam engine!) and was taken out of service in 2012. However, it went through a restoration period and the beautiful locomotive is now on display in the Roundhouse.
After touring the Roundhouse, we headed over to the car shop, which was built in 1869. They do have an off-site restoration facility now as well, but they still use the car shop for small repairs and maintenance. Here there are even MORE locomotives and train cars, and we took another tour to learn about how steam engines actually work and the various roles the people who operated steam engines would play.
Something I particularly liked that they had on display in the car shop was called the French Gratitude Train, or the Merci Train. After World War II, the U.S. sent money and supplies to the French in something called the American Friendship Train, and France wanted to do something to thank the U.S. They received donations from more than 6 million French and Italian citizens (all private citizens, by the way) and then loaded them up onto 49 different boxcars, one for each state in existence at the time and another to be shared by D.C. and Hawaii. The boxcars were packed with wine, cheese, toys, clothes, and more and shipped to the U.S. where they were then distributed to their respective states. Maryland’s boxcar now resides at the B&O Railroad Museum. How lovely is that story???
After touring the car shop, we wandered around to view the various trains on the tracks outside and discovered that there is not one but two model train displays. The first is actually inside one of the trains outside along the viewing platform. Had we not walked down the platform to peek into all the cars we would have missed this one entirely! The other is outside and consists of a G-scale track and models. There are little buttons you can push to get the trains started (though one half of the track seemed to be out of order when we were there).
Sadly, we arrived too late in the day for a train ride, but they do offer those Thursday through Sunday throughout the year and also on Wednesdays during the spring. Check the schedule on the website before you visit the museum if this is something you’d like to do because I know we were bummed to have missed out.
Once we were done checking out everything outside, we headed back inside where there are a bunch more model trains, as well as some spectacular old clocks. There was also a very cool exhibit on the telegraph and Morse code when we visited (the first telegraph message was actually sent from D.C. to Baltimore.) You can visit the museum website to see what they currently have on display for when you visit or you can just show up like we did and be delightfully surprised by what you find!
Regardless, I hope you’ll have a chance to visit the B&O Railroad Museum sometime soon. Do plan to spend a few hours, especially if you intend to take the train ride or join any of the tours because their collection is rather extensive. We were surprised by how much they had on display and it became very clear very quickly that this is no rinky-dink museum! It’s the real deal, and train lover or not, it is a fun and interesting stop to add to any Baltimore adventure.
Have you already visited the B&O Railroad Museum? Let me know what you think!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- B&O Railroad Museum: 901 W. Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD 21223
- There is a large parking lot on-site, so no need to search for on-street parking!
When to Go
- The museum is open daily from 10 am – 4 pm (except Sundays when they open at 11 am instead) and the last admission is a half hour before closing.
- Train rides are available Thursday through Sunday from April through December and on weekends in January. They also offer rides on Wednesdays in April and May and have holiday train rides as well!
- Since they have a lot to see outdoors, I would recommend visiting on a day with good weather, such as in the spring or fall, when it’s neither too hot nor too cold (and not raining or snowing either!)
Tips for Visiting
- Call ahead to check the tour schedule if you’re interested in getting a bit more history on the railroad, museum, and the gorgeous collection of locomotives inside the Roundhouse and the car shop.
- You may also want to see if any special events will be happening the day you visit. They were setting up for a Halloween event that was taking place the day after we visited. It would have been a madhouse if we had come the next day instead (and also, all of the Halloween decorations they had set up for the event took a bit away from the beauty of the Roundhouse.)
- While wandering outside, walk along the train platforms and check out all the trains on display. One of those trains has a great model train display inside with a lovely layout of Baltimore–you don’t want to miss that!
- Be sure to give yourself a few hours to visit the Roundhouse, car shop, indoor and outdoor exhibits, and to take a train ride. There is A LOT to see here, and you’re going to be sad if you don’t allow enough time to see it all.