Fascinating and Historic Gaithersburg
Fun and Educational Adventure for Children and Adults
<< Return to Maryland Hiking and History Page
In 1765 this place was an agricultural area known as "Log Town." In time, that name shifted to Gaithersburg, after a local landholder and businessman, Benjamin Gaither. He operated a store that included the Forest Oak Post Office, which was named for a large tree in town. This tree, which fell down in 1997, was the inspiration for the city's current logo and flag.
So much has changed since the nineteenth century! Now Gaithersburg is the fourth largest incorporated city in Maryland, after Baltimore, Frederick, and Rockville. It's the location of major employers, such as NIST and IBM. Its historic downtown, known as "Olde Towne," features many historic buildings, including the train station complex. Would you like to learn more about the story of Gaithersburg?
Railroad History: Gaithersburg grew, especially around the B&O railroad station built in 1884 and designed by Ephraim Francis Baldwin who designed so many ornate railroad stations in Maryland. The station featured two buildings: the main Station House and a Freight House. They were purchased by the city in 1984 and refurbished, winning preservation awards and being designated in the National Register of Historic Places. The Station House continues in use today, including a MARC Train ticket counter, a coffee-shop, and a waiting room. The Freight House has been repurposed as the Gaithersburg Community Museum (see below), which includes rolling stock outside (steam engine, caboose, and commuter rail car). The museum features dynamic and interactive exhibits and photos showing off Gaithersburg's past. Step outside, and you will be able to connect the historical pictures of the past with Gaithersburg's modern present. This museum is not only appropriate for children, but adults find it fascinating, and there are some great places for little kids to play. This museum weaves it's learning magic in partnership with the Gaithersburg Historical Association.
(Click here to jump down to see the museum and the trains.)
Astronomy History: The historic Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory is little known today outside of Gaithersburg, but in its day it was part of a brave international scientific project to measure wobble in the earth's polar axis of rotation, and the findings of the project are relevant even today for navigation and GPS. In 1899 it was established as one among six observatories in different countries around the world at the same latitude (i.e., distance from the north pole). After a distinguished career, it was decommissioned in 1982, because automation made human observation no longer necessary. In 1989 the observatory and grounds were designated in the National Register of Historic Places. Today it is owned by the city and operated for the benefit and learning of its citizens.
(Click here to go to the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory page.)
Originally this building, located right by the tracks, was used for storing freight hauled on the B&O Railroad. It has now become the nucleus of the Gaithersburg Community Museum, a resource for the whole family, and the whole community. Note that this transportation and history museum includes both the Freight House and also the rolling stock (train cars on rails) behind the Freight House.
The Gaithersburg Community Museum, along with the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory (see below) are overseen by Nansie Wilde, Community Facility Manager, who works hard to keep Gaithersburg history alive.
With today's Gaithersburg and today's railroad right outside the door, this museum offers educational and entertaining exhibits and programs to explore the long history of the city and railroad. Like any good museum it offers a museum shop, and is attractive to both adults and children to learn. You can see Nansie Wilde (in red) near the door explaining the museum to a visitor. The exhibits include a historic school room, a Gaithersburg bank, and a store with historic merchandise on exhibit. This is a fun place for visitors of all ages,.
(Click here to see some of the museum's hands-on and interactive displays guaranteed to spark interest and imagination.
And also — you definitely will want to visit the museum's Facebook page for the schedule of special events held in the museum, such as Storytime Station for young kids, and Museum After Hours for adults.
This museum does not rest on its laurels, but continuously plans new educational and interesting opportunities to offer to the public. Here Ms. Wilde and her Program Coordinator Karen Lottes are working on planning an exciting new program, having just finished running the highly successful Gaithersburg Eclipse Party at the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory (see the telescope exhibit immediately below).
One of the most recent exhibits is this historic telescope, which was part of an international scientific study to measure the precession (wobble) of earth's polar axis of rotation. This is the original telescope used in the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory. The telescope was moved to a NASA facility, before returning home to Gaithersburg to be viewed in this wonderful museum.
Click here to get in your car and visit the grounds of the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory not too far a drive from the museum. You might also be interested in the evening "Skywatching" programs at the Observatory.
Right outside the backdoor of the museum is this Bay Window caboose, the C&O #904152 Chessie Class C-27A, made by the Fruit Growers Express company in the early 1980s. After it was retired functionally as a caboose, it played a part in promoting railroad safety. Now that it is parked by the museum, this caboose isn't just for admiring from the outside, but you and your children can go inside, where it's always playtime.
Click here to join the kids inside the caboose.
Ironically, the caboose is not the end of the rolling-stock. Right behind the caboose is the museum's Budd Car, which was a self-propelled diesel powered commuter car made by the historic Budd Company. This car carried commuters, for example to work and back, and the seats could be flopped from sitting in one direction to sitting in the other direction for the return trip, without having to turn around the train. These trains were used for short inter-city routes, but also sometimes for somewhat longer routes. Click here to enjoy a guided tour of the inside of the Budd Car, led by Louise Bradford. When you visit the museum, she would be happy to take you or your group on your own guided tour. There are also scheduled programs held in here, including Museum After Hours: check the museum's Facebook page for the schedule of the varied and interesting special events, such as movie night with a scary train theme.
Nestled cozily between the Station House and the Freight House museum is the lovely little Gaithersburg History Park, which features plaques explaining Gaithersburg history and peonies from the garden of the Schwartz family, which lived in what is now City Hall.
When you visit this park, you get a great view of the steam engine parked next to the museum. Sadly, you cannot climb aboard it, but you can examine it closely by the side of the track, and appreciate that muscular looking machine. This steam engine, the #14, was manufactured by Alco-Schenectady in 1918 as an 0-8-0 engine, meaning it had no front or back wheels to stabilize it, but it did have eight drive wheels; early in its life it was refitted with two front wheels, making it a 2-8-0 engine. The Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad acquired the engine in 1950 to haul coal.
Click here to get a better view of this engine's hulking muscles and mighty wheels.
If all that adventure gets you and your children hungry, you can go to Java Junction for tasty sandwiches in the Station House, and then eat and rest in the historic train passenger waiting room.
From the door of the Gaithersburg Community Museum you can look out see the Gaithersburg Olde Towne of today as well as the railroad of today! As you and the whole family explore the interactive exhibits, you can hear the CSX and Amtrak rumbling past the museum. Local history is full steam ahead.