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Children's train museum on track for W.Va.

August 23, 2010

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- It's full steam ahead for a hands-on kids' museum at the Caperton Train Station.

Jim Castleman is the project manager for the planned "For the Kids, By George" Children's Museum, to be housed at the train station at 229 E. Martin St.

The museum, on track to open next spring, will provide young people with insight into how the railroad affected life in the Eastern Panhandle -- even influencing turning points in American history.

During the Civil War, the North and South staged continual fights over control of the Martinsburg area. That's because of the presence of the B & O Railroad, Castleman said.

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"The railroad is the reason this area is even in West Virginia," he said. "If it hadn't been here, we'd probably still be part of Virginia."

Castleman, a longtime tourism official, came on board to help plan the children's museum in 2007 after he was approached by leaders of the Washington Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway Welcome Center, which operates from the Caperton Train Station.

"Heritage tourism is absolutely vital to the city and to the region," said Castleman, a Martinsburg resident since 1989 whose maternal ancestors have resided in the Eastern Panhandle for generations.

During a recent tour of the site, Castleman pointed out why Martinsburg is an ideal location for a museum devoted to trains and history.

"Children are going to connect with history here because it's where so many key events unfolded," he said. "They can come here and stand on the spot where Stonewall Jackson ordered the roundhouses burned down."

Besides its Civil War ties, the train station also is a landmark site in U.S. labor history.

On a July day 133 years ago, the country's first nationwide strike began when rail workers in Martinsburg staged a protest after their pay was cut. The unrest soon spread to Baltimore and Pittsburgh and became known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Today, hundreds of travelers come and go daily on Amtrak as well as MARC trains that take commuters to jobs in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs.

Martinsburg's Caperton Station, where the first steam engine arrived in the spring of 1842, holds the distinction of being one of the nation's oldest continuously operating train stations. The building was named a national historic landmark six years ago.

Plans for a children's museum began to gain steam after efforts to save the historic Roundhouse -- built in 1866 and the only cast iron-framed structure of its kind still standing in the United States -- brought in millions of dollars in the late 1990s. Local leaders found themselves looking for ways to put the restored space to good use.

"Unless and until we start making use of this site, I don't think our downtown will thrive the way it should," he said.

Drawings for the museum are nearing completion and should be unveiled to the public within weeks, Castleman said.

The project is being funded with a mix of private support, grants and government money. Proceeds generated at the welcome center's bookstore and gift shop located on the porch of the Caperton Train Station also go toward the project.

"Excited doesn't begin to describe how we're feeling about this museum," Castleman said. "We're going to help children become living historians, and at the same time we'll create a catalyst for all kinds of things to come together for our downtown."

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