Railroading was a dangerous occupation, but it paid well and was filled with excitement, says Carroll Spitzer, curator of the museum.
Every red-blooded American boy's ambition was to be a railroad engineer, he says.
"Once the steam, smoke and cinders got in your bloodstream, you never got them out," Spitzer says.
Railroads played a vital role in shaping the community, and their importance continues today, he says.
The first to arrive in Washington County was the Franklin Railroad in 1841. Six others followed, including the Western Maryland Railroad in 1872, which became Western Maryland Railway in 1927.
The Western Maryland once was the largest employer in the county, with more than 3,000 working on three shifts, Spitzer says.
Entire families sometimes worked on the railroad.
Visitors to the museum can learn about the nine Rhodes brothers of Lancaster County, Pa., who were Western Maryland engineers and were featured in a Ripley's Believe It or Not column in 1952.
They also can sit behind the controls of a Winchester and Wesson diesel and imagine what it was like to guide the train.
The museum includes a trolley, three diesel locomotives and five railroad cars.
On a smaller scale, there are five model train layouts, including the museum's annual holiday display that begins operation Dec. 13 in a room on the first floor.
The eight-room museum has the bells and whistles you'd expect to find, as well as items ranging from china used in dining cars, a teletype machine used to type orders for the crews, a working railroad crossing sign and an engine speed recorder.
Other highlights include a library with historical books, model railroad magazines and operating manuals; a collection of toys related to different modes of transportation and a gift shop.
The museum is filled with historical photographs, most of which belong to Spitzer. He says a panel showing photos of railroad wrecks is a favorite stopping place for young visitors.
"Kids like to see things torn up and wrecked," he says.
The museum, which opened in 1990, has had visitors from every state and 33 foreign countries, Spitzer says. Attendance last year was 6,500.
The nonprofit museum has more than 100 members. All are volunteers.
"Each one of the charter members has spent thousands of dollars of their own money to support and maintain the museum, just for the love of railroading or history," Spitzer says.
Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum
Where: 300 S. Burhans Blvd., Hagerstown
Hours: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
Admission: $2.50 for adults and 50 cents for children 12 and younger
Details: Donations of artifacts, photos and other railroad memorabilia are welcome.
For information: Call 301-739-4665.
Christmas at the Museum
Holidays past and present will be featured in "The Trains of Christmas" show at Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum.
The show, which begins Dec. 13 and continues Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. through the end of January, has a snow scene with steam and diesel passenger trains operating on two levels. Visitors can see both day and night settings.
The layout has 600 feet of track and includes 12 trains, with six running at one time.
Bill Knode and Blaine Snyder, co-chairmen of the holiday layout committee, started working on the display the first week in November.
This year museum members spent about 1,000 hours on the display, Knode says.
"It's worth it when you see the eyes of 3- and 4-year-olds light up," he says.
Other shows can be arranged for groups and persons needing special accommodations.
Admission is $2.50 for adults and 50 cents for children 12 and younger.
Proceeds will benefit the museum's main project of acquiring the Hagerstown Roundhouse property.