Lessons from 'Railroad Preservation in a Nutshell'

Travis Dewitz
Union Pacific locomotives outside of the 400 Club bar on a foggy 2008 day in Altoona, Wis. UP predecessor Chicago & North Western's famous 400 streamliners passed through Altoona from 1935 until 1963.
What did I learn from the Center’s most recent publication, “Railroad Preservation in a Nutshell?”

First, that I am optimistic about the future. The seven-page gallery of young photographers’ work gives evidence of a promising future for railroading’s past. “I see … every time the shutter clicks as preservation,” says Travis Dewitz, a professional photographer in his early 30s based in Eau Claire, Wis. He photographed the 400 Club at Altoona, Wis., understanding that it is a throwback to the time between 1935 and 1963 when the fast 400 passenger trains passed through Altoona on the C&NW — years before he was born.

Nick Benson, of Burnsville, Minn., a photographer in his late 20s, says, “I think preservation and heritage get wrapped up into anything that’s related to railroad photography and art; there’s such a rich sense of time and place in nearly every railroad image.”

Second, I realized what a tremendous impact photography has on preservation, from early images in the 1860s to my personal documentation of preservation activities beginning in the 1960s.

The Center turned up some amazing, never-before-published photos by James F. Ryder of the Atlantic & Great Western, a predecessor of the Erie. Ryder made the pictures in 1862 as a commercial assignment, likely the first for an American railroad, with instructions to photograph completed sections of its track and equipment to impress and persuade investors. These were found in an album at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and at Allegheny College, Meadville, Pa. (The second album in the set, unfortunately for historians and preservationists, has been dispersed.)

Besides photographs, steam locomotives play an important part in preservation. Steam always draws crowds, and its popularity leads to preservation. Locomotive 4960, built for the Burlington in 1923 and shown on the Nutshell cover at a farewell-to-steam photo runby in 1966, moved from the Midwest to the West, where it is running on recycled vegetable oil at the Grand Canyon Railway. Norfolk Southern inaugurated its 21st century steam program in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Sept. 2 in the same city where Southern started its steam program in 1966 with locomotive 4501. I visited Chattanooga for both beginnings.

But preservation is more than steam equipment. The range is wide and far-reaching, touching all aspects of American culture. For example, it includes amateur photography, dining car china, toy trains, postcards, movies, fairs, federal preservation laws, civic reuse of stations, trains for children, and much more. (Many illustrations of these aspects of preservation can be seen on our Internet archive, www.railroadheritage.org.) A defining event was the destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan and a U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld New York City’s preservation ordinance.

For railroads, photographers and artists have played a critical role in preservation. Whenever a photographer of any kind takes a train picture, the resulting product is a preservation tool, whether it was taken in 1840 or 2011.

And whenever anyone — railfan or not — reflects on a railroad photograph or work of art, “reading” it for information and insights, that person becomes a railroad preservationist. Whenever anyone makes a memory of that image, that person enters into the ranks of preservationists and the memories become preservation tools. Nutshell shows engineering landmarks such as David Plowden’s picture of the giant concrete Tunkhannock Viaduct in Pennsylvania.

This is not the center’s only preservation effort this year. Scott Lothes and I wrote essays for a book, Steam: An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen, released this month.

With this Nutshell, we honor John H. White Jr., a professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who in 1990 retired from the Smithsonian Institution as its curator of transportation. He has thirteen books to his credit on early locomotives and passenger and freight cars. They provide a taxonomy of type and a history of rolling stock’s development, one of the signal achievements in the written history of America’s industries. The fourteenth book, forthcoming, is a history of travel in Victorian America.

We are grateful to North American Railway Foundation, which supported this project, the second in our Nutshell series.

So let’s look on the bright side about rail enthusiasts and the future, stop wringing our hands, crying in our beer, and whatever negatives you can think of to describe the state of fandom today, and starting celebrating the interest and progress we are making in preserving our railroad heritage, as proven in our second Nutshell.

JOHN GRUBER is a long-time Trains contributor, founder and president of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, and editor of Railroad Heritage. He has been a freelance railroad photographer since 1960, and received awards from the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in 1994 for lifetime achievement in photography and in 2010 for an article about Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg.
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