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It's the end of the line for Hagerstown Roundhouse

January 23, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

In a cold twilight, 10 men quietly stood in front of the dark, rusting, empty building that was once the center of railroad activity in this, the Hub City.

It was two days after the last push to save the Hagerstown roundhouse from demolition officially failed. They walked the grounds, remembering their effort to save the buildings that began more than 10 years ago, and said goodbye to their plans to turn the complex into a working museum.

Now their efforts turn toward the museum they had hoped would be only a temporary home.

"All along we had expected to move into the roundhouse," said Robert Tracey, president of the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum Inc.

"It'll be a roundhouse museum whether we have a roundhouse or not," said Robert Rollins, a member of the Roundhouse Museum's board of directors.

Rollins, 66, a retired NASA mechanical engineer, and Tracey, 56, a Herald-Mail Co. employee, are two of the founders of the museum group formed in 1988 to save Hagerstown's roundhouse.

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Rollins' love for trains grew with him as a child living outside Chicago with trains running through his backyard.

Tracey grew up around trains in Baltimore. Both of his grandfathers worked for railroad companies.

Like most of the museum members, Tracey and Rollins never worked at the roundhouse or even for a railroad company.

"A lot of people who worked in the roundhouse don't care about it," Tracey said. "It wasn't a very romantic place to work, as the working conditions weren't good. It would get cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and the railroad worked you pretty hard."

Beginning around 1910 and for almost 60 years after that, hundreds of men and, later, women, too, worked at the complex where locomotives would go for extensive repairs. Three active rail lines still converge on the site.

Tracey and other museum members who worked to save the site did it because of their love of railroads and trains, and because of the roundhouse complex's historical significance.

"Thousands of people worked there, and it built this area," Tracey said. "This was and still is a railroad town."

During the past 10 years, the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum group has grown to include more than 270 members from all over the country and the world.

About 75 of the members are active in the group, which has rallied politicians from City Hall to U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in Washington, D.C.

"The project made sense because Hagerstown is a transportation town and always has been a transportation town," said state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington. "It made sense to preserve the heritage, and from an economic perspective it would have been a good tourist attraction."

Despite all the support, the Hagerstown Roundhouse was not saved.

Just 30 miles away, a roundhouse in Martinsburg, W.Va., has been saved from demolition.

The Berkeley County Commissioners have agreed to buy the Martinsburg Roundhouse, which is owned by CSX Corp. The company has provided the county with a letter from the state stating that the property is free of contaminants, and the county has offered to protect CSX from future lawsuits related to the property.

In Hagerstown, the nonprofit museum group sought to take over the property. CSX, which also owns the Hagerstown roundhouse, offered to give it away if a government body would protect CSX from future lawsuits.

But no environmental assessment has been done on the 46 acres along South Burhans Boulevard in Hagerstown.

And for the same reasons CSX wanted the protection from lawsuits, known as indemnification, the state and local governments in Maryland would not take the risk.

CSX is in the middle of a state-ordered cleanup of the site, pumping petroleum-contaminated water from several wells at the complex, filtering the water and then pumping it back into the ground.

The cleanup is expected to take several more years to complete, said Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Quentin Banks.

No more cleanup is scheduled, and no one knows whether there are any more toxins at the site, Banks said.

He said the site does not appear to pose a danger to human health.

Once CSX is done with the forced cleanup, the company could either do an evaluation of the site and prepare it for resale or development or do nothing, Banks said.

Kevin Hurley, CSX director of real property, said the company does not know what will become of the Hagerstown roundhouse complex.

"Up until very recently we thought it was going to the museum, and so we had no reason to develop alternate plans," Hurley said.

Hurley said CSX probably will allow the museum to stay in the gray building on the edge of the property indefinitely.

The roundhouse still stands for now, a rusted shell with hundreds of shattered windows and decorated with graffiti. The demolition contractor has promised to make it the last building in the complex to come down.

And although the impetus for its founding is as good as gone, the roundhouse museum is doing well.

The museum doesn't have room for all its artifacts and apparently has the money to continue for many years.

The museum reportedly had about $500,000 in pledges and donations ready in case they got the chance to take over the roundhouse.

Museum members won't say how much money they have, but some said that about half of the money was in pledges contingent upon getting the roundhouse.

And some of the politicians that backed them in the past have promised continued support.

"I look forward to the establishing of a world-class transportation museum," Munson said. "And if the museum wants to move in the future, the delegation can probably help them with a bond bill sometime in the future."

Museum members aren't saying whether they'll move the museum or not.

They only promise they will keep operating the museum.

"We'll be around," Rollins said. "We just won't make as big waves as we did."

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