This August marked the 40th anniversary of the Ellicott City B & O Railroad Station being open as a museum. The occasion was to be commemorated by a weekend of special exhibits and reenactment programs on Aug. 20 and 21; however, the July 30 flash flood that ravaged Main Street in Ellicott City changed those plans.
Miraculously, the museum sustained minimal damage in the flood, but it will remain closed until the town starts to get back on its feet. Ironically, its existence as a museum today is due to a flood that occurred 44 years ago, Tropical Storm Agnes, which occurred in June of 1972.
Saving the Station
On Sunday, June 20, 2012, the Baltimore Sun recalled the storm as follows: “Locally, the storm, which had been a hurricane farther south, submerged the lower end of historic Ellicott City and wreaked havoc in Elkridge and other low-lying areas, destroying homes and businesses and washing out bridges and roads.” Forty years after the fact, Agnes remains a benchmark for county disasters.
The town was preparing for its 200th anniversary celebration that fall, and the flood infused the locals with a renewed energy that resulted in the creation of Historic Ellicott City Inc. (HEC Inc.), an organization still active today, which led revitalization efforts.
Agnes had devastated the ailing railroads in the Northeast as floodwaters destroyed many rail lines. Prior to the storm, a double tracked rail line operated by the Chessie System ran through the Patapsco River Valley. The decision was made to only restore a single line after the flood. This ended freight stops at the Ellicott City station, and that, along with the damage that had been done to the building, led to discussions of perhaps tearing down the station altogether.
When word got out about those discussions, local historic organizations were horrified and worked to put a plan in place to save the important landmark.
A Museum Is Born
Howard County Government worked hand in hand with the historians and in 1976 signed a lease agreement with the Chessie System for the station. Historic Ellicott City Inc. agreed to manage the station as a museum and completed the first phase of renovation, working to open the Ellicott City B & O Railroad Station Museum in August 1976.
The site consists of the oldest surviving train station in America, completed in 1831; the Freight House, constructed in 1885 and designed by noted architect Francis Baldwin; and a 1927 caboose, a Class I-5, built at the B & O shops in Washington, Ind. The caboose arrived at the site in early 1977, a gift from the Chessie System.
The Freight House diorama was begun, creating an HO gauge train layout showing the first 13 miles of commercial railroad in America. Volunteers, along with students from Catonsville Community College, conducted archeological digs at the turntable site, uncovering the original turntable pivot stone.
In 1996, CSX, the successor to the Chessie System, sold the building to Howard County for $10. A celebration was held to mark the occasion, with a visit from a replica of the Tom Thumb — the first successful American steam locomotive — and formal transfer of ownership. The Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks was and is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the building.
Living History & Model Trains
Historic Ellicott City Inc.’s stewardship of the B & O Railroad Museum – Ellicott City Station allowed it to enter the 21st century as a strong and vital entity.
Two major restorations, combined with continual maintenance with the assistance of the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, have helped keep the building a sound edifice.
HEC Inc.’s educational programs at the museum have told the history of Ellicott’s Mills, the National Road, early railroading (“Irish Laborers”), the Civil War (“The Maryland Story” and “The Patapsco Guards”) and the station’s role in the World Wars (“The Home Front”). All of these programs featured re-enactors for each era and were extremely popular events at the museum. The train layouts during the holiday season began under the curatorship of HEC Inc.
New programming, such as “Road to Rails” and “The War Came by Train,” have been developed, as well as “Telegraph Talk,” “All About the Caboose,” “Meet Billy Yank,” “The Women of the B & O Railroad,” “The Role of United State Colored Troops in the Civil War” and living history programs on the plaza and in the museum.
The museum’s annual holiday celebration of toy trains and model railroading continues. It is a great time for the whole family to see the museum transformed into a wonderland of model trains. The display runs from the day after Thanksgiving until the last Sunday in January and now features a miniature Thomas the Tank Engine G-scale model layout and LEGO train display custom-built by the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area LEGO Train Club and consisting of 250,000 to 500,000 LEGO pieces.
The future of the museum is bright, and it will be looking forward to 2027 when events centering on the 200th anniversary of the birth of American railroading will begin.
Ed Lilley is assistant site manager for the B & O Railroad Museum – Ellicott City Station. He can be reached at [email protected].