Founder’s Day – Honoring the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad

This month at ModelTrainStuff we’re paying tribute to the founding of America’s first common carrier the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on February 27th, 1827. The B&O Railroad Museum once issued a poster with the legend “America Grew Up on Trains” and the B&O railroad started our Nation on that glorious journey. The B&O had to invent almost everything it needed since the fledging railroad industry was in its infancy and because of that, the company was saddled with a hefty debt load from the start. More disruptive was the fact that since the B&O bore the brunt of “research and development”, many of B&O’s newer competitors had a distinct advantage with “off the shelf” technology. But the B&O was always blessed with a resourceful management team that created many impressive “Firsts” in railroading.


Just as the B&O started our actual railroad network, the B&O also played a material role in the world of historical preservation and model railroading. To celebrate the centennial of the railroad in 1927, B&O staged the lavish “Fair of the Iron Horse” in late September and early October of that year at the Baltimore suburb of Halethorpe, MD.  Clearly the collection of railroad motive power and the daily railroad pageant were the stars of the show. But the B&O launched serious interest in scale model building by way of a 500 foot-long diorama that started in Baltimore in 1827 and ended in Chicago in 1927. To illustrate the development of the B&O, the railroad commissioned a professional model builder H. J. Coventry to construct ½” scale models of representative B&O locomotives, cars and bridges. The railroad also assigned six machinists to work with Coventry in a specially-equipped shop within the Mt. Clare Shop complex.


That display was placed in storage but sadly much of the scenery and structures were heavily damaged eight years later by a tornado that touched down at the Halethorpe site. Most of the locomotives and cars were saved, repaired and used as individual displays at various B&O publicity events. The stock market crash and resulting Great Depression briefly tempered any further enthusiasm and expense for model displays.

B&O rekindled its interest in scale models for public relations purposes by way of a display that their latter-day merger partner, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway sponsored for the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933 and 1934. The C&O commissioned pioneer “O” scale model builder Edwin P. Alexander to build a diorama of the C&O mainline from Cincinnati to Washington with off-line cities such as Richmond and Cleveland also represented. That display attracted much interest and the reliability of Alexander’s models convinced many that scale model railroading elevated “toy trains” to the status of being a respectable pastime for adults.

The success of the C&O display influenced B&O Director of Public Relations Robert M. Van Sant who used scale model railroading to promote the pace-setting B&O streamlined “Royal Blue” passenger train that was inaugurated in 1935. In 1936 the B&O in conjunction with the Model Craftsman Magazine staged a contest challenging model builders to build an “O” scale model of the Royal Blue locomotive and cars. B&O supplied the Craftsman with the blueprints that were released in monthly installments.  While model builders toiled B&O tapped its reservoir of talent for model builders employed by the railroad to build an “O” scale railroad to judge the entries.

Two employees R. Kenneth Henry and J. W. Sakers were among a dozen B&O employees that constructed the portable B&O “O” scale model railroad system that was loosely patterned after the interlocking’s and signal system on the Cumberland Division. After the contest the B&O sent the portable “O” scale railroad to many communities and public events from 1938 until 1960.

Lawrence W. Sagle joined the operation as Public Relations Representative in 1938 and proved to be another driving force in scale model railroading. Sagle worked with manufacturers and publishers to make certain everyone had access to B&O blueprints, photos and accordingly B&O prototypes soon dominated the scale train industry. Though not a model builder himself, Sagle successfully served as president of the NMRA in the early 1940s.

When the B&O opened the B&O Transportation Museum in 1953, Sagle was named curator and again made certain scale model trains were effectively used to showcase B&O operations. Since the portable “O” scale railroad was frequently on tour, Sagle constructed a permanent HO railroad that was considered by many to be ”state of the art” in every aspect. Sagle, assisted by Henry, Sakers, E. W. Elliott and G. W. Baldwin, captured a segment of the B&O mainline along the Potomac River and the Magnolia Cut Off in the Cumberland area along with a representative town and a complete locomotive servicing facility. The completed railroad was unveiled for the 1955 NMRA Convention in Baltimore and exceeded the popularity of all the earlier model railroad systems B&O had fielded.

The spirit of those pioneers is alive today by way of the historic collection of B&O equipment that has been preserved and many highly scale models of B&O prototypes that have been produced.

We hope you take time to reflect on the historic images of the Baltimore & Ohio, the impressive list of “Firsts”, photos of early B&O model railroad displays that accompany this article and most of all, to pay homage to the railroad that truly got our nation in motion.

FAW M. B. Klein, Inc.