A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BALTIMORE STREETCAR MUSEUM
From Dream to Reality – The Baltimore Streetcar Museum
Text Credit: Andrew Blumberg
The Baltimore Streetcar Museum traces its roots back almost 90 years, well before the present-day museum was even a glimmer in the eyes of its founders.
In 1928, the United Railways and Electric Company of Baltimore (a forerunner to today’s Maryland Transit Administration), staged what came to be known as “The Fair of the Electric Pony.” Modeled after the Baltimore and Ohio’s centennial celebration “Fair of the Iron Horse” the year before, the United used the occasion to display and set aside a number of its older streetcars, no longer in service. The idea was to use this collection of vintage vehicles as the backbone of a future museum. However, the company’s bankruptcy in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, ended any such plans.
For more than a decade, the collection sat in limbo, deep inside the recesses of West Baltimore’s Irvington carhouse. By the late 1940s, The Baltimore Transit Company, successor to the United, deemed the wooden cars a fire hazard and wished to dispose of them. Now the collection’s very existence was in doubt.
At this point, transit historian and future Baltimore Streetcar Museum curator George F. Nixon, along with a handful of other devoted railfans, intervened. Convincing Baltimore Transit to hold off on its plans, Nixon and friends prevailed upon the Maryland Historical Society to act as temporary caretaker of the cars. The formal handoff occurred July 11, 1954, although the cars continued to be stored at Irvington.
The next six years saw several changes in venue, as the collection was moved in and out of different carhouses, due to shrinkage of the streetcar system and the availability of attendant facilities. Finally, in 1962, a site at Robert E. Lee Park and Lake Roland, just north of Baltimore, was secured. Weather and vandals began to take their toll soon after the cars were moved to the new site, however. It was clear the preservationists needed to find a more amicable location.
Baltimore City, spurred by Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin, came to the rescue. In 1966, the city identified a site along the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad right of way, paralleling Falls Road, in the Jones Falls Valley, as its new home. A modern, all-steel carhouse was erected in 1968, with the collection immediately transferred from the Lake Roland site. Now the creation of an actual operating museum could finally commence.
The next two years saw a flurry of activity as track (excavated from the streets of Baltimore) was laid; overhead (and the poles from which to suspend it) were installed; and car restoration (in a closed, protected environment); finally began in earnest. The BSM converted the old Ma & Pa freight building to the museum’s new shops. A substation to power the cars was also built. During this time, countless hours of volunteer labor coupled with meager finances helped to push the dream forward.
On July 3, 1970, less than seven years after the last Baltimore streetcar ran in revenue service, the Baltimore Streetcar Museum officially opened for business. The holiday weekend saw several thousand visitors experience the unique pleasure of clanging bells, squealing wheels, and a rolling, rocking ride on a vintage Baltimore streetcar.
Steady growth and expansion followed after that inaugural date. With the help of donations and public funding, the BSM constructed a modern visitors’ center in 1978. Complete with dispatcher’s office, auditorium, archive and exhibit space, and a museum store, it remains the focal point of the museum.
Trackwork and overhead installation also kept pace with a growing museum. The BSM originally operated on just a ¼ mile of track, enough to give riders a sense of what it was like to ride the rails in the heyday of the streetcar. In 1976, trackage was extended approximately another half mile to the north, with a turning loop added under the shadow of the 28th Street Bridge. Four years later, another loop was added at the south terminus, in front of the visitors’ center, thus giving the BSM visitor a total ride of almost 1 ¼ miles. A large portion of the line is now double-tracked, adding operating flexibility, and the treat of streetcars passing each other, a nod to realistic, in-service conditions.
The collection of vintage vehicles has expanded throughout the years as well. The original core, composed mostly of the streetcars first set aside by the United, is today complemented by a number of work cars, historic transit buses, and a small contingent of street railway equipment from the city of Philadelphia. As with trackwork and overhead, volunteers expend thousands of hours of labor, in this case to restore and repair the vehicles to keep them running for museum visitors.
Any institution such as the BSM, especially one operating vintage equipment, has to contend with any number of challenges over the years. Two natural events, in particular, have tested the museum’s resilience and mettle in its first nearly five decades of operation. In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes roared up the East Coast, flooding parts of the museum. A still more serious event occurred in September 1979 when Tropical Storm David inundated the BSM with four feet of water in the shops, carhouse, and visitors’ center. The museum, which suffered a quarter of a million dollars in damages, was shuttered for 10 months for repair and restoration. In July 1980, the BSM re-opened to the public, and remains in operation, telling the story of Baltimore’s glorious street railway past in sight, sound, and motion, almost 50 years later.