Chicago has been on my mind lately. One reason is what arrived in my mail last week, the new Trains special edition called Chicago: America’s Railroad Capital. It’s really terrific, 98 pages of reporting, analysis, photographs, and wonderful maps, all showing why Chicago always will be what poet Carl Sandburg called “Player with Railroads, and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Kudos to the publication’s editor, David Lassen, and the entire staff for doing the Windy City up right.
But my excitement over opening the magazine has been tempered by news that the venerable Chicago Chapter of Railway & Locomotive Historical Society has decided to call it quits. In a series of mailings to members, the chapter released some historical documents to members via CD, then dissolved.
How could this happen in the railroad capital, a city bursting with contemporary railroading and rife with railfans? And what does it say anything about the health of the R&LHS itself, America’s bellwether railroad historical organization?
The answers, it turns out, cheered me up a bit. The good news is the national R&LHS is just fine, thank you very much, and continues to pursue its mission with confidence. That’s the word from its current president, Robert Holzweiss. More on that in a moment.
And full disclosure: I’m an R&LHS member, affiliated with the Chicago Chapter, although I’m sorry to confess I never made a meeting. As a Milwaukee resident, I chalk that up to the 180-mile round trip.
So the R&LHS has, indeed, lost its chapter in the railroad capital. To try to find out why, I corresponded with Bob Holzweiss as well as Mike Blaszak, a veteran rail author and a longtime member of the chapter’s board of directors.
Both agreed that the chapter’s difficulties could be traced to the usual things affecting traditional social organizations these days: the power of social media in substituting for face-to-face interaction; the ease with which railfans can share images online; the familiar plaint about changing demographics as Baby Boomers (like me) begin signing up in droves for Medicare; and the never-ending sprawl of the typical metropolitan area. For a lot of members spread across the Chicago’s vast suburbs, getting to the program was a hassle, apparently.
Some of this is what you might expect in Chicago. The region still offers a lot of alternatives for “joiner” railfans, ranging from the Chicago Chapter of the NRHS to the Central Electric Railfans to the Illinois Railway Museum. And as railroad headquarters have nearly disappeared from Chicagoland, so has a traditional source of R&LHS members.
The result was that attendance at programs had dwindled in recent years, although overall membership in the chapter remained relatively strong. The last straw, apparently, was the group’s inability to come up with enough volunteers to sustain the board of directors. So a couple of weeks ago the chapter said adieu with a mailing that included a CD-ROM containing a 1902 history of the St. Charles Air Line.
Holzweiss is philosophical about the chapter’s demise. “The folks who ran the chapter did a terrific job keeping it going for several decades,” he told me. “It’s a shame to lose them, but I would rather they face reality than keep a dying organization on life support.”
It’s a good time, then, to look back on the chapter’s long history and thank its members for years of good work. Blaszak specifically singles out the dedication of longtime president Charles Stats. “By one account (I’ve never asked him specifically), he was there for 49 years. That’s 49 years of finding nine people a year willing to volunteer their time to assemble a credible and entertaining presentation.” So, hats off to Mr. Stats.
Meanwhile, the national R&LHS, formed way back in 1921, has plenty of momentum, reports Holzweiss. Although membership is not at an all-time high, it has been resurgent in recent years. Last year the Society had 2,251 members, short of its peak in 1988 but up encouragingly from 1,710 in 2009. Its strongest base continues to be California, where the Pacific Coast and Southern California Chapters continue to thrive.
The Society continues to do important work, with several of its chapters deeply involved in local or regional railroad preservation. R&LHS’s annual Railroad History Awards for senior achievement, books, articles, photography, and documentaries remain the most prestigious in the field. And the organization’s authoritative and colorful biennial publication, Railroad History, is terrific in the expert hands of Editor Pete Hansen, helping immensely with building membership. “After getting a copy of Railroad History,” says Holzweiss, “the product sells itself.”
That’s good to know, because the R&LHS is an essential part of our railroad history landscape. And Chicago isn’t going anywhere. It’s still the place to be. Meanwhile, we’ll quietly mourn the passing of an organization that dates back to an excursion on the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1936, when fans always wore coats and ties and railroad history was everywhere you looked.