In 1913 when our founder Benjamin Morris Klein founded our Company on the east side of Baltimore’s commercial district, selling basic hardware items was his primary goal. It was only logical that his product mix promptly changed due to the dominance of railroading in the fabric of Baltimore’s civic and economic culture.
The founding of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on February 27, 1827 gave the city the once coveted distinction of being the “Birthplace of American Railroading”. Though the US boasted several pioneer railroad lines, most of those operations were, experimental or limited in scope. The B&O holds the honors for being the first interstate railroad in the US. The Nation was profoundly inspired by Baltimore’s ambition to build west through difficult terrain to the Ohio River.
Innovation drives imitation and soon Baltimore businessman bonded with peers in York County, PA for a second rail line extending north from Baltimore. On February 13, 1828 the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad was chartered with a projected route extending north from Baltimore to York, Wrightsville and eventually Sunbury, PA. The mission of the B&S was to direct traffic from central Pennsylvania to the Port of Baltimore. In 1854 the B&S merged with several subsidiary operations to form the Northern Central Railway and between 1861 and 1872 the NCR became a vassal of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. Though never publically disclosed, the original seven miles of the B&S was the oldest component of the giant PRR since it predated the popularly recognized PPR Camden & Amboy Railroad by three years.
The intense rivalry between the B&O and PRR fueled railroad development and expansion in Maryland. Rail lines extended from the center of Baltimore like spokes radiate from the hub on a steam locomotive driving wheel. New railroads appeared including the Baltimore & Lehigh (later the famous Ma & Pa), Western Maryland, Canton Railroad, Patapsco & Back River, Washington Baltimore & Annapolis and privately-owned industrial lines and local trolley companies.
It was an era when most local journeys and nearly all longer outings began at the railroad station. Dad commuted to his occupation by rail, family arrived in town on crowded day coaches or stately Pullman cars. Long freight trains captivated trackside observers with cars that bore names of foreign line railroads and inspired dreams of far-off places and the whistle of the local freight train became a form of Big Ben each afternoon reminding all that the day was ending.
Railroads were the background music of the original M. B. Klein store that was located in the midst of Baltimore’s thriving railroad network. The B&O developed an innovative flair for public relations and remained the favorite “hometown” railroad. But within several blocks of the store, the expansive Calvert passenger and freight agencies of the PRR crammed the narrow, smoke-filled Jones Falls valley. The Western Maryland had tackage rights over the PRR from Fulton Junction is west Baltimore to the Calvert Yards and developed the Hillen Street passenger and freight agencies in that valley too. The sum total impact of the railroad era gave birth to an equally expansive new trend in the emerging US toy sector.
Toys were a luxury item for most families prior to the 1890s. In the mix of that pioneer market crude wooden or tin trains and cars gave impressionable young boys the opportunity to capture some of the excitement of “mainline railroading”. Europe was then recognized as the leader of a very expansive offering of quality miniature toy trains. But the high cost of those products and import duties placed them beyond the reach for all but the very wealthiest families.
The toy train market in the US got a huge boost in 1901 when Joshua LioneL Cohen introduced his “electric gondola”. The appeal of the car was its animation. Again, imitation soon followed in Baltimore when Voltamp trains opened. Voltamp electric trains favored B&O prototypes including tunnel motor #1 that operated on B&O’s Baltimore Belt Railroad. The “Belt” holds the distinction of being the first mainline railroad electrification in the US.
The arrival of affordable electric trains took hold in Baltimore and most homes eventually boasted “Christmas Gardens” each year. Families were creative and frequently scratch-built all structures and scenic details, that replicated family homes, local structures and landmarks. Friendly but aggressive competition evolved between families and friends to see who could be more creative and expansive.
The Klein family recognized that new demand and in 1920 the seasonal electric train line was added to the hardware store. That line expanded once again in the 1930s with introduction of scale model railroad equipment. The portable O scale model railroad that the B&O built in 1937 and the founding in that same era of the Baltimore Society of Model Engineers clearly fueled the popularity of scale model railroading in the region. Popularity soared once more in the 1950s with the arrival of mass production HO scale. By1970 the Company discontinued the hardware line and concentrated exclusively on model railroad equipment.
The Company stayed close to the center of Baltimore’s railroad network, but both the City and the face of railroading changed between 1990 and 2005. In 2007 the Company relocated the retail store and early internet operation to a larger facility that featured ample parking in Cockeysville, just north of Baltimore. Our website, ModelTrainStuff, flourished at the Cockeysville location and recently achieved first place among hobby stores in two surveys conducted by two leading publications. In 2018, we launched a completely overhauled website along with a brand new rewards program. In 2021, Newsweek magazine named our loyalty program as one of America’s best, and #1 in their hobby store and model making category. Contemporary prototype railroading remains our background music since the electric cars of the Central Light Rail Line speed passengers over the route several blocks away that was once a part of the pioneer Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad of 1828.
Each day this week we’ll release a new blog post detailing one of the five major eras of railroading. We hope you enjoy this background of our company and the history of railroading. And remember, make sure you take advantage of our award-winning rewards program and earn double points on every purchase all week long!
FAW- M B Klein, Inc.