History of the Mt. Clare Historic Site
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was founded in 1827 and broke ground on July 4, 1828, for the construction of its headquarters and America’s first commercial railroad tracks. On our historic site, in 1830, the B&O built America’s first railroad station, calling it the West Pratt Street Depot (later renamed Mt. Clare Depot). Over time, as the B&O’s tracks stretched from Baltimore to Washington, DC, as well as to further points west. Mt. Clare remained the primary facility of the B&O throughout the rest of the 1800s. It continued to expand and eventually became a 100-acre complex of buildings in downtown Baltimore containing shops for the construction and repair of steam engines, passenger and freight cars, rails, and bridges. It also came to include an iron works, foundry, blacksmith, bridge fabrication shop, sawmill, machine shop, a grain elevator, and a tender shop.
Mt. Clare Station was the home of many firsts, including the first American steam engine in 1830, the Tom Thumb, and was the location of the receipt of the world’s first telecommunications message, a Morse Code telegram, in 1844. A new, larger station was built at Mt. Clare in 1851 to provide improved passenger service, containing two waiting rooms, a ticket booth, and offices, which still stands today on public display at the B&O Railroad Museum. The Mt. Clare Shops remained in continuous operation from the 1830s until 1990.
History of the Museum
In 1953, the B&O created the B&O Transportation Museum (later renamed the B&O Railroad Museum) as a division of its external relations department. The public museum consisted of the old Mt. Clare Station, the Annex building (built in 1891), and the historic Roundhouse (built in 1884), which is an iconic structure on the Baltimore skyline. The North and South Car Shops, built in 1869 and considered the world’s oldest existing railroad maintenance shops, over time became part of the Museum, as well. In 1961, the Museum campus was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior. As Mt. Clare is the birthplace of American Railroading, the Sesquicentennial of the B&O Railroad was also the 150th anniversary of America’s railroads, and in 1977, the B&O Railroad Museum hosted a series of public festivities to celebrate.
From the end of WWII through the 1960s, passenger rail traffic continued to drop and freight traffic faced stiff competition as America’s highway system and air travel infrastructure grew. The B&O faced financial difficulties, which led in part to the closing of various shops and buildings at Mt. Clare. By 1963, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, during which time the railroad continued to own the B&O Railroad Museum, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad gained control of the B&O – and its museum. In 1973, the Western Maryland Railroad was acquired, and all three companies were consolidated to form the Chessie System. In 1986, the Chessie System merged with the Seaboard System Railroad to form CSX Transportation. By this time, federal and state governments had taken over most of American passenger travel while CSX operated the old B&O lines for freight service. Finally, in 1990, CSX deeded the Mt. Clare property and the Museum’s core collection and independent non-profit, the B&O Railroad Museum, Inc., as well as a $5 million endowment. Since that time, the Museum has been independently managed by museum professionals and is overseen by a board of directors.
Towards the end of the 20th Century, the Museum continued to grow and receive accolades. In 1998, the North and South Car Shops received a special designation from the Maryland Historic Trust. And in 1999, the B&O Railroad Museum achieved the status of an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, being the first in Maryland and the first US railroad museum to receive this designation. However, tragedy struck in the winter of 2003 when an unprecedented amount of snow accumulation led to the collapse of the Roundhouse roof, severely damaging a significant portion of the Museum’s 19th Century locomotives and train car collection. After 14 months of restoration, the Museum was reopened in November 2004 with a state-of-the-art restoration facility.
The B&O Railroad Museum is currently working on various restoration projects and exhibitions to prepare for a national celebration of the 200th Anniversary of American Railroading and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 2027.