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An opportunity for discovery downtown

August 25, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

An interesting scene plays out fairly frequently at Discovery Station in downtown Hagerstown. Parents bring their children to see the exhibits, then sneak back on their own to take in the show in more detail.

Discovery Station is one of the inner city’s success stories. Established in 2005, the interactive museum attracts 12,000 people a year, many of whom are from other states. It has become a crucible for local lore, with donations coming from area sources who aren’t sure what to do with, for example, an antique M.P. Moller pipe organ.

Intriguing pieces from Moller populate the exhibit halls, along with artifacts from other Hagerstown businesses, including Fairchild and Mack Trucks. The Mack Bulldog that graced the company’s foyer for decades peers across the museum’s hall of transportation.

Agriculture, the C&O Canal and the Civil War all receive nice treatment. So does baseball, in perhaps the museum’s most ironic exhibit; it’s hard to swallow the fact that very shortly professional baseball in Hagerstown could be relegated to museum-only status, but it looks as if that will be the case.

There are also plenty of interactive exhibits for children, special programs on Saturdays, shipbuilding projects and lots more that can be perused at discoverystation.org.

The museum, says founder Marie Byers, is “a whole story of caring. People are anxious to share what they have.” Countywide, when residents have an artifact they’re not quite sure what to do with, they call Discovery Station. 

Morse Code keypads from the town’s old railroad days — along with a video of Jay Leno proving that the 170-year-old technology is a faster form of communication than text messaging — and a homemade airplane stapled out of aluminum sheets and countless rivets are a couple of other local contributions.

What Discovery Station proves is that people will come to downtown Hagerstown if there is an adequate measure of appeal. They will also come from afar. To date, visitors from 19 countries have walked through Discovery Station’s doors.

One of the more popular exhibits is a gallery dedicated to the Titanic, courtesy of Norm Little of Waynesboro, Pa., a man who, when properly dressed, bears a striking resemblance to Capt. John Smith, the fellow who was on watch when the great ship went down.

Over the course of 10 years, Little built an incredible, 15-foot replica of the Titanic, which is radio controlled and seaworthy, and is accurate to the finest detail, down to the stained glass windows in first class, a recording of the music played by the orchestra and the onboard running lights.

He also fashioned an accurate model of a third-class cabin, with pint-sized bunks that would have fit the average person a century ago. In today’s dollars, a ticket for third class would cost $1,000, while first-class tickets for the Titanic’s one and only voyage would fetch $70,000.

These tickets were affordable to the 40 multimillionaires who populated America in 1912. One fourth of these wealthy Americans went down with the ship.

Anything Titanic is a magnet, and Little’s exhibit is bound to contain information of which even the most dedicated student of the shipwreck is unaware. The exhibit haunts Little himself, as the Titanic has for generations. 

“There’s something strange about the darn thing,” he said. “I haven’t quite figured it out myself. I think it might be haunted.”

Indeed. Of all the nation’s disasters, the Titanic resonates more than any other.

There are also some disasters peculiar to Hagerstown chronicled in Discovery Station, most notably the virtual extinction of our manufacturing base.

The names are now like ghosts — Pangborn, Moller, Fairchild — representing a time when Hagerstown was humming with activity. In Discovery Station, these industries take on a second life, as our rich history becomes an attraction in itself.

And who knows? The young people who venture downtown, both here and at the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, might see the city in a different light than those of us who have become jaded by its seemingly endless failures.

They will have no institutional memory of a once-thriving downtown and will make no comparisons with the state of affairs today.

Perhaps some of these young people will see Hagerstown in a fresh light and see potential. New generations have a way of making things work that transcends the thought processes of their elders.

Packed with exhibits, Discovery Station has reached capacity at its current location at the corner of West Washington Street and Summit Avenue. In a city desperate for attractions, a bigger and more visible Discovery Station might be a good place to start.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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