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This article has appeared in several forms in Pennsylvania Heritage, the Quarterly of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and in Milepost, the Journal of the Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Jim Alexander, who is also the Museum's webmaster, has written extensively on Pennsylvania railroad history.

 

 

 

 

 

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, a world class museum of railroad history in Strasburg, PA.
WHERE HISTORY AND MAGIC CONVERGE:
THE RAILROAD MUSEUM OF PENNSYLVANIA
  Continued...

K4s No. 3750, State Locomotive of PA.Fortunately, most of the equipment came to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, where it became the core of its collection. Yet in no way is the museum the Museum of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is the museum of all railroading in Pennsylvania, including all of its railroads, its manufacturers of locomotives and other railroad support, of the records, memories and dreams of hundreds of thousands of lives and businesses affected by the industry. It is the focal point of a story that is told throughout the Commonwealth, in other museums as well, in trains that still traverse the remaining trackage, in the faint impressions of abandoned rights of way up wooded valleys and through urban neighborhoods.

Strasburg has become a railroad Mecca. The Strasburg Rail Road, located across the road from the Museum, is a national focal point of steam equipment and rolling stock preservation, drawing thousands of visitors a year to its 45 minute steam train rides up to Paradise and back. The Train Collectors Association operates its Toy Train Museum nearby, displaying model railroad layouts of many types. Other commercial railroad-oriented enterprises have also located nearby.

But it's inside the Museum that the magic of trains can best be understood. How the magic is perceived depends on what the visitor brings with him.

"Old timers" bring with them memories of having worked for the railroad, and they look for familiar locomotives, tools and scenes. People who remember riding the trains or hearing the distant whistle across the valley may come just to confirm fond memories and assure themselves that it was all real. Tourists come to explore the unknown or inspect the unusual. Scholars and historians come to examine the museum's precious archives of railroad records, memorabilia, publications and photographs.

For each of these visitors, there can be a sense of purpose and fulfillment in a visit to the museum. Many return time and again. But it is to the young that the Museum increasingly targets its message, and for whom both the magic and the comprehension of the contemporary relevance of railroads can take hold.

The future, after all, will not see many visitors who remember steam locomotives in action, and few of them will have families whose lives were knowingly affected by railroads. Yet many of these youngsters possess an innate fascination with the physical legacy these old locomotives represent, and more importantly they show an ability to place railroads into a context of understanding when the story is told.

Having expanded its indoor exhibit hall several years ago, the Museum now has 100,000 square feet of protected space in which to display many of its distinguished relics, and a new indoor shop allows year round restoration activity. Freed of annual scraping and painting of rusting steel exposed to the elements, the Museum's staff and volunteers can now devote more of their efforts to telling the stories of these locomotives and cars and the legacy and future relevance they represent.

Station Agent at work.After all, it is the stories more so than the steel that ultimately represents the legacy of railroading. That legacy is interesting, can be presented to young and old alike with varying degrees of sophistication, and ultimately extends to an understanding of not only the physical wonders of the Industrial Age, but the force of human character and a refreshing perspective on how railroads are today an important (albeit often unrecognized) part of our lives. And the stories provide important lessons of the relationships between private enterprise, communities and individuals, in both the social and economic setting.

The Museum has been a leader in making use of a interpretive tools to tell these stories, ranging from well-planned explanatory signs to well-trained docents, from changing static exhibits to videotapes and sound effects. One of the most significant capabilities resulting from the expanded Railroaders' Hall is the ability to group equipment into thematic zones in which visual stories can be told.

For instance, upon entering the Hall, the visitor is confronted with a 1915 passenger train at the depot. The visitor is invited into the depot, where a video tells what the small town depot meant to life in the past, and can then see the passenger cars and the baggage awaiting loading, and hear the steam escaping from the boiler.

Story continues top of next column

John Stevens replica.A series of alcoves allow the visitor to consider the early history of railroads in Pennsylvania, see the John Stevens replica, read of the importance of the mining industry to Pennsylvania. Moving on, a complete freight train is encountered, so that instead of focusing on individual pieces of equipment, the concept of how freight moved can be considered. That today thirty eight percent of America's freight moves by rail may be considered.

Locomotives of individual historic significance are highlighted. No. 460, a speedy Atlantic class locomotive that raced an airplane to deliver films of aviator Charles Lindbergh's triumphal reception in Washington, DC, in 1927 to New York's Broadway theaters can be seen up close. In the future, a recreation of the "Lindbergh Special" will show how it beat the plane by processing the films en route. The fact that even today Amtrak's high speed Metroliners successfully race the air shuttle between New York and Washington will be highlighted.

The cab of famous K4 Pacific No. 3750, one of only two survivors of over 400 of that type of high-speed passenger locomotive, can be inspected, for a feel of the sheer magnitude of the mechanical giant. The visitor may be told that this is the locomotive that once hauled the funeral train of President Warren G. Harding, and might become aware that many presidents and their remains have traveled by train, even with diesel and electric locomotives.

Visitors looking into the cab of a GG1 electric locomotive may learn of the importance of clean electric locomotives pulling trains in urban areas today, in contrast to the polluting, land-consuming system of highway transportation. The possibility of high-speed magnetic levitation passenger trains may be contemplated. Yes, there are lessons for the future.

Museum artifacts.The Museum has any number of fascinating exhibits and displays. One of the most exciting is the Young Railroaders' Discovery Center. Created by the Friends of the Museum, an active support organization of over eight hundred members, this center is the focal point of a formal training program designed to bring both school classes and individual youngsters into contact with model and real trains, lectures, special tours, entertainment and exercises specifically targeted to growing minds.

Throughout the year, special events are conducted. The Museum is filled with Pennsylvania Railroad fans on Pennsy Day, with Reading fans on Reading weekend, with almost everybody on circus weekend (circuses traveled on special trains), with thrill-seekers for "Halloween Haunted Museum," and with happy families for "Home for the Holidays" at Christmas. Scholars come to visit the library and archives, and to participate in history lectures and slide shows by railroad experts. As part of the Grand Opening festivities for the new Railroaders' Hall, the Museum sponsored a Symposium of Reflection on the Relevance of Railroads, bringing together distinguished railroad historians and contemporary railroad practitioners.

A former Museum Director once observed:

"We aren't a place that just preserves old relics. We are in the business of interpreting an important part of our heritage, and of thinking about the broader relationships between transportation systems and our cultural and economic lives as a whole. The magic ultimately lies in this understanding."

Today, the museum pursues that vision with vigor and confidence, drawing on old strengths and the newest computer technologies.

Aerial view of Museum.With a respect and a reverence for the past, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania looks to the future with a confidence inspired by countless stories of an industry -- and yes, an era that helped shape the Pennsylvania that residents and visitors know today. As each day dawns in Strasburg, and as the doors of the museum are opened, Dunn and his dedicated staff and group of tireless volunteers ready themselves to perform their magic. For young and old. For all or one. And, in many ways, for the love of a most alluring heritage.

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