W.Va roundhouse takes new route to preservation

October 14, 1998


Martinsburg roundhouseBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Supporters haven't had to dig deeply to defend claims that the Martinsburg's B&O roundhouse complex should be preserved because of its historical significance.

The burning of the original complex - including two roundhouses used for maintenance of steam locomotives - by Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson in 1861 holds a colorful place in Civil War lore.

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Then there are claims that the roundhouse holds an important place in labor movement history as the site of the nation's first organized railway strike in 1877.


However interesting, the two oft-repeated merits couldn't get the site past the review process in a recent bid for National Historic Landmark status, according to historian Michael Caplinger.

But shifting the focus of the nomination from the events to the cone-shaped structure itself could earn it that coveted distinction, believes Caplinger, whose research suggests the roundhouse, built in 1866, is the oldest engine house still standing in the country.

Earlier this month, the Berkeley County Commission voted to buy time for the endangered roundhouse complex by putting up $29,000 in "good-faith" money in a tentative purchase agreement with owner CSX Real Property Inc. and developer Moncure Chatfield-Taylor.

While the committee appointed by the commission works to secure grants and donations to renovate the three-building complex before the agreement expires next year, Caplinger is reworking the nomination to highlight noteworthy technological aspects of the roundhouse.

Researching deeper than he has in the past, Caplinger, a staff writer with West Virginia University's Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology, said he discovered the building was more significant than he originally thought.

"As I've started to get in to this, I'm getting more excited," Caplinger said. "It is a really important place indeed."

Pure age is just one of the reasons, he said.

Most contemporaries of the Martinsburg roundhouse were long ago torn down to make way for larger roundhouses to accommodate larger engines, Caplinger said.

A twin of the Martinsburg roundhouse built in 1866 in Grafton, W.Va., was torn down in 1918 and replaced with a C-shaped "roundhouse" that would fit the larger engines, he said.

The Martinsburg roundhouse escaped that fate through a lucky change in its use when locomotive repairs were moved down the line to Brunswick, Md., and the building was used for machining and bridge making, Caplinger said.

The roundhouse's age also accounts for much of its technological significance, including the use of hollow cast-iron columns and socket-and-pin joints and the fact the turntable used to direct engines into repair bays is inside the roundhouse building, he said.

Later, turntables were placed outside the buildings to minimize damage in case of fire, he said.

The internal skeletal framing system used to support the open, high-ceilinged building - based on the same technology later used to build skyscrapers - actually dates to the original cast-iron roundhouses engineer Albert Fink designed in the early 1850s, Caplinger said.

"It's sort of like the cathedral of railroad engineering," he said.

It appears the same casting molds were used to fashion exact replicas of the two roundhouses burned by Jackson, Caplinger said.

In the 1920s, the other roundhouse rebuilt on the property underwent a total rehabilitation, during which its cast-iron framing was replaced by wood, he said.

That roundhouse was burned by vandals several years ago.

"It's weird to say, but if one had to burn, they burned the right one," Caplinger said.

One of the considerations for landmark status is how much of the original building fabric remains, he said.

It will be six months to a year before the revamped nomination is submitted for committee approval, said Caplinger, who said a committee nod usually means the Secretary of Interior will grant final approval.

He's optimistic that the new approach will work. He also is optimistic about the fate of the complex, envisioned as a tourist attraction once it's renovated.

Federal funding is definitely there, said Caplinger, who has seen less significant sites receive substantial grants.

Given that he regularly fields calls from train buffs looking for vacation stops, the prognosis for its ability to cover operational expenses is excellent, he said.

"I don't think people realize what kind of a market there is for railroad-related history tourism," Caplinger said.

The Montclare Roundhouse in Baltimore, considered one of the most important railroad sites in the United States, was built in the early 1880s, when rolled wrought iron and different engineering techniques were used for framing, Caplinger said.

The building, which houses the B&O museum, is a National Historic Landmark, he said.

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