Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 3, Page 3
Spring 1992
Corralling the Iron Horse

     John Hankey, Delaware '89M, grew up on the Baltimore and Ohio
railroad tracks. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather each
worked at Baltimore's Mt. Clare Station, the point of departure for
the first passenger train in America.
     Today, the family tradition continues as the most junior Hankey
serves as curator and director of interpretation for the B&O Railroad
Museum, which is located at the historic Mt. Clare Station, about 10
blocks from Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
     A graduate of the University's Department of History and Museum
Studies Program, Hankey is responsible for maintaining what some have
called the most comprehensive collection of railroading artifacts in
the Western Hemisphere. The B&O Railroad Museum contains more than 120
railroad cars built between 1804 and 1975, including steam, diesel and
electric locomotives, passenger and freight cars, cabooses, work cars
and track equipment.
     Hankey also is in charge of acquiring new pieces and overseeing a
staff of about 60 volunteers, none of whom were there when he arrived
in 1989.
     "I feel a bit schizophrenic some days," he says. "Being a
superintendent, as well as the staff disciplinarian and writer of rule
books, can be a little tiring."
     Nonetheless, Hankey is passionate about his mission to create a
credible educational museum, typically working seven days a week.
     He also speaks before about 15 groups each year and writes
articles on railroads and the history of technology for such
publications as Railway Preservation Magazine, Amtrak Express magazine
and The Sentinel, a bimonthly publication of the Baltimore and Ohio
Railroad Historical Society.
     The objective of Hankey's hard work is to help answer the big
question facing history and museums: "So what?"
     "Why," he asks, "would people in turn-of-the-century Germany
create a replica of a coal mine?
     "Why would the French establish, in 1794, after the end of the
Revolution, a technology museum in a 16th-century monastery in Paris?"

     The answer, he says, rests in a quickly changing society. "It is
my theory that as we become more urban, more electronic, more
bureaucratic- in a sense, more alienated-we correspondingly need
museums as examples of what has gone before, as touchstones."
     A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and one-time consultant to
PBS television on railroad folklore and storytelling, Hankey has a
wide-ranging knowledge of railroads and the history of technology. The
United States, he says, began saving bits of railroad history,
including engines, in the 1850s, three decades after the birth of
     By 1870, engines were being put on display. In 1927, the B&O
Railroad celebrated its centennial in Baltimore, attracting more than
1 million people to the "Fair of the Iron Horse." At the time, the B&O
was the largest operating railroad in the world, Hankey says.
     Public interest in the fair demonstrated to railroad executives
that the history of railroading was important to people, he says, and
plans to open a railroad museum soon followed. But when the Depression
and World War II came along, the museum was quickly forgotten.
     Almost exactly one century after the B&O fulfilled its charter by
completing a railroad from the Atlantic tidewater to the Ohio River in
1852, the B&O Railroad Museum opened. (The University's Hagley Program
in the History of Industrial America began in 1954-just a few years
later, notes Hankey, who was a fellow in the program from 1987 to
     Today, interest in railroading seems strong. There are more than
350 railroading tourist attractions in the United States, and
approximately 100,000 people visit the B&O Railroad Museum each year,
he says.
     At the B&O Museum, visitors enter through Mt. Clare Station,
which received Samuel F. B. Morse's first telegram in 1844, composed
of the words, "What hath God wrought?" Inside, the former headquarters
for the railroad's printing department contains hundreds of model
trains, paintings and equipment.
     But, the main attraction at the museum is a two-mile ride on the
first stretch of railway in America. Hankey says many visitors have
never ridden a train in their lives. A $1 fee covers fuel and
maintenance for the track and passenger train.
     Apart from the ride, there is the spectacular Roundhouse, a
22-sided structure with a 123-foot-high ceiling. Built in 1884 as a
passenger car construction and repair facility, it resembles a
European cathedral. Today, the 43,000 square feet of flooring are used
to display 22 restored steam and diesel locomotives.
     In addition, the museum contains a 480-square-foot, HO guage
model layout. Built in 1956, the layout depicts a post-Depression
American town, with miles of railroad track winding throughout.
     Other areas of the museum are not so elaborate, but Hankey is
working to upgrade them. The former brakeman/ locomotive fireman/
maintenance man/engineer says volunteers and a paid staff of about 20
are working to clean up a car shop that was built in 1870. It will be
used to display 19th-century industrial work.
     Specifically, the curator wants to operate a replica 19th-century
locomotive-on steam. "We'll build a coal fire in it, boil water and
use the steam to make it go," he says.
     "There are a lot of things we want to show in the museum," Hankey
says. "Railroading is a skeleton--a spine on which you can hang all
sorts of approaches to, and interpretations of, history."
     Hankey says that the ideal railroad museum would illuminate the
connections between social, ethnic, labor, business, architectural and
technological history. Museums should examine larger issues in
history, like the diffusion of social customs and trade, as well as
the advancement of technology and its applications, he says.
     "If not for the railroad, the United States would have looked
like Europe, with lots of little countries," Hankey explains.
     Before the dawn of airplanes and automobiles, the railroad
allowed the United States to be united, he says; the Midwest could
specialize in wheat and the South could produce a lot of vegetables,
without losing access to the goods of
     different regions.
     Hankey says he would like some day to return to school to pursue
a doctorate in
     American history. He is currently working on a book about the
philosophical foundations of railroading history.
                                    -Stephen Steenkamer, Delaware '92