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Adapted from Milepost, the Journal of the Friends of the Railroad Museum, February 1996.

Other Milepost articles

For other real railroaders:
The Faces of Railroading

Museum Library and Archives (with photo of his son, Robert Donecker, who provided the original letter)



Although the Pennsylvania Railroad no longer exists, much of its physical plant does. The dedication of railroaders to their tasks continues.

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, a world class museum of railroad history in Strasburg, PA.


Richard DoneckerIn 1964, Richard Donecker retired after 47 years of service with the Pennsylvania Railroad's Passenger Traffic and Passenger Transporation Departments. In a long letter, he recounted many personal comments and observations directed to his Pennsy colleagues. Toward the end, he added the following. It pretty much sums up the Pennsy as well as anything written by the official historians.

Not so many months ago, I took a trip over New York way. We were in the rear car of the train, and I stood looking out the back door for 15 or 20 minutes between Princeton Junction and New Brunswick. What I saw was part of one of the busiest rail lines in the world  -- four tracks, straight as an arrow, the heaviest rail used anywhere, ties close together, clean stone ballast two feet or more in depth an altogether beautiful stretch of track.

PRR Main Line at Plainsboro.
PRR Main Line, late 19th Century

As I stood watching, I recalled a visitor we had back in the old Advertising Department (now the Time Table Bureau) about 1919. He was a retired PRR man, in his seventies, and he told us he remembered when that very stretch of railroad, between Trenton and New Brunswick, was a twisting, rickety thing of one or two tracks. His memory must have gone back to the 1860s or the 1870s, as I have since been told that in those days the Main Line did not run from Trenton to New Brunswick direct, as it does today, but extended from Trenton to Princeton, then to Rocky Hill, and then to New Brunswick.

Main Line Catenary. Main Line Electrified in 1930's,
Still Used Heavily by Amtrak

It has been built, and re-built, and re-built again, each time better than before. It has never been the football of politicians, or of speculators out to make a fast buck. Its management has always insisted on the best possible engineering, in all departments; and, it seems to me, has always taken quite seriously the first command given by God to man, the command to "subdue the earth," or at least to subdue that feature of the earth known as distance.

PRR logo.I am glad to have had a part in producing PRR passenger service for 47 years, and my gratitude must extend backward to include all those who have gone before, who have contributed to the planning and building and re-building of our Railroad for more than 130 years, and who have bequeathed us the great and powerful precision tool of transportation, which the Pennsylvania Railroad now is.

Richard Donecker obviously loved the Pennsy and said so in those exact words elsewhere in his letter. At a time when it seems fashionable to beat on big corporations and their management, those sentiments are kind of nice.

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