Roundhouse museum officials still holding out hope

June 21, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

by RIC DUGAN / staff photographer


Still hope for roundhouse

Many people are already familiar with the plight of the Hagerstown roundhouse complex and its deplorable condition.

They've driven by the 40-acre complex along South Burhans Boulevard and inevitably seen the deteriorating heart of the complex - a crescent-shaped roundhouse - with its windows broken out from vandals.

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What they probably haven't seen is the behind-the-scenes battles to save the roundhouse and the people who in more than nine years haven't given up in the shadow of a corporate giant and unfulfilled promises of government assistance.


They are passionate about the roundhouse and everything that has to do with trains.

The core members will talk endlessly of steam locomotives, passenger cars made from kits and the good old days when the Western Maryland Railway employed 3,000 as the area's largest employer.

They are the members of the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum Inc., caretakers of the property for CSX Corp.

They are facing a doomsday July 3 deadline to raise $500,000 to save their beloved shrine so they can turn it into a major tourism attraction.

"This is the largest railroad complex from the steam era that's left. If it goes, that's the end of it," said William Knode, the museum's treasurer.

"We see this as something for the community. We're just not in this for ourselves," Knode said.

Museum officials are preparing a campaign to raise $5 million to renovate the roundhouse and stores building, a long building paralleling the railroad tracks along City Park that was used as a warehouse and offices. Renovations could take two years.

Blaine Snyder, the museum board's chairman, said it's hard to ask people for money when you can't say what's going to happen to the property.

Under their proposal, the museum would quadruple its space by moving from 300 S. Burhans Blvd. into the stores building.

Part of the roundhouse would once again become active with workers rehabilitating steam and diesel locomotives and guides educating tourists about railroad history.

The Western Maryland Railway operated the roundhouse in its heyday, from the 1870s through 1920s, until the mid 1950s, said Bob Tracey, museum president. Chessie, a forerunner of CSX, took over the complex until 1986, when the roundhouse finally shut down, he said.

When still in operation, railway employees would maintain steam locomotives from the Reading, B&O, Western Maryland and Norfolk Western railways, Tracey said.

Locomotives were often dismantled and rebuilt, with the parts made on site, he said.

The complex smelled like metal burning, full of steam with the sound of locomotives constantly being loaded and unloaded in the roundhouse, said Edwin Kershner, 75, who worked at the complex from 1941 until 1983.

It was so noisy that workers standing next to each other had to shout to hear each other over the 90-pound air hammers and train engines, said Kershner, of Noland Drive.

Several dozen trains would be washed, serviced and repaired at the same time, dumping their ashes as they arrived and loading up with coal on the way out, museum officials said.

The museum's plan calls for the roundhouse stalls to store and display railroad equipment, including pieces on loan from other museums.

This summer the museum will have a Western Maryland Railway railbus from the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Snyder said.

It looks like a short bus on railroad wheels and was used to transport railway crews, Snyder said.

Conversations with former railway employees are being videotaped for educational displays, Snyder said.

The museum is compiling a list of the more than 7,000 railroad employees who worked in Western Maryland between 1881 and 1981, he said.

Grander plans would turn a passenger car into a diner for tourists and restore a trolley car to carry them through the park to shop downtown. Short and long excursion rides also are in the plans.

If the MARC train extends to Hagerstown, Knode said, the complex would be a logical stop.

The complex could be a major draw for railroad buffs, some of whom have visited the museum from Switzerland or Tasmania, Knode said.

Part of the attraction is the machinery still in the complex, which would fascinate not only railroad buffs, but engineers or anyone mechanically inclined, Snyder said.

There are more than 200 pieces of equipment needed to maintain and rebuild steam and diesel engines on the property.

A renovated roundhouse complex has the potential to attract conventions for national railroad groups with 1,200 to 1,500 members, plus family, Snyder said.

While the roundhouse operated computer free, there inevitably would be interactive and computer-related railroad exhibits for children, he said.

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