The Historical Society of Mount Airy is calling “All Aboard!” on Saturday with the opening of a new museum in the former downtown train station.
As a tribute to the Main Line of the B&O Railroad, which transformed Mount Airy from a rural countryside to a booming industrial center, the historical society looks to recapture some of its lost railroad history for future generations to enjoy.
“Mount Airy history is B&O history,” said Larry Valett, a long-time Mount Airy resident and model train hobbyist who is helping design the museum.
A team of volunteers has devoted countless hours constructing a 1/4-scale model of the Main Line with working engines from 1870, 1890 and 1915, which will make stops at mills, factories and even a model replica of the train station itself.
While still a work in progress, the display will be expanded to include cut-away models of mills and warehouses that once stood in Mount Airy and shipped their goods as freight between Baltimore and the C&O Canal. Brian Hushour, another local model train enthusiast, is wiring the display to bring the motion and sounds of the railroad — including steam engines and whistles — to life again.
“It’ll be a long work in progress, but I think it’ll be fun for people in town to see it go up,” Valett said.
While the model is the single largest display inside the museum, the historical society aims to also highlight numerous industries that grew in Mount Airy due to the railroad.
Canning, bottling, grain mills and a chicken hatchery each took root in Mount Airy because of the B&O, said Mike Eacho, president of the historical society, during a special preview of the museum for The Frederick News-Post in early August.
“Most people worked right here, they lived here, they shopped here,” Eacho said.
Many of the displays will feature items donated to the historical society by current and former residents. Other items were purchased or refurbished by members of the group, including a neon prescriptions sign from one of the former downtown pharmacies.
A display on education in Mount Airy will feature a wood desk from the Mount Airy school, which was donated to the group. The historical society would love to find a second desk to show today’s children how the desks and chairs connected so the desk of one extended off the chair in front, Eacho said.
The historical society is most excited, however, to share newly uncovered research on the Robert Garrett Sanitarium. The sanitarium, located in Mount Airy, was rumored to be a tuberculosis hospital, but after further research, the historical society determined it was actually a hospital for children who couldn’t afford regular medical care in Baltimore. In the summers, the children would be sent via train from Baltimore to Mount Airy for care and fresh country air.
The children are believed to have been receiving care for ailments such as cleft pallets, club feet, appendicitis or tonsillitis, Eacho said. A large informational display on the Robert Garrett Sanitarium will be available at the museum.
Outside the train station, the single largest donation to the historical society will be on display year-round.
Dale Corn, an engineer for Amtrak and local train history enthusiast, was pivotal to bringing the original Mount Airy Junction signal back to its rightful home.
In the early 2000s, the region’s train signals were phased out and the B&O signals were cut down for scrap metal. A handful of “rail fans” sought out signals and made agreements to salvage them, Corn said.
However, Corn came across the Mount Airy Junction signal by accident while visiting a local collector. Among a pile of signals, the distinctive faces and color-light arrangements of the Mount Airy Junction and Halethorpe signals jumped out at him.
He made a barter with the collector and secured the signal, which was originally supposed to be erected on his mother’s property. However, after seeing the size of the signal, the idea was scrapped.
For years, the signal sat unused in his father’s garage, but after the town successfully restored the C-2095 caboose “Mackenzie” across the street from the museum, Corn approached now-Councilman Larry Hushour about donating it to the town.
Hushour was initially skeptical that Corn had found the real Mount Airy Junction signal based solely off the arrangement of green and red lights on its face. But after finding an old photo showing gunshots through the signal, which matched Corn’s signal, he was sold.
“This is part of that heritage,” Hushour said. “This is the way trains used to operate.”
Wally’s Iron Works donated its services to the historical society to galvanize the pole and power-coat the entire signal. On July 20, members of the town’s Public Works crew then lifted the signal and smaller marker light into place between the caboose and the entrance to Rails to Trails, which follows the tracks of the 1838 B&O railroad.
“We’ve managed to take several initiatives and bring them all together focused on the rail yard area,” Hushour said.
The museum will officially open to the public on Saturday, from 4 to 9 p.m., as part of the annual Celebrate Mount Airy gathering downtown. An official ribbon cutting will take place at the start of the event.