What Can We Do? Part Two

Posted by John Hankey
on Friday, June 08, 2018

I’m going to come at this question from a different direction.

Yes—the 150th Anniversary of the First Transcontinental Railroad is a significant event in American and Transportation History. And we may lament the lack of general interest and formal celebrations outside of the Union Pacific and the major railroad heritage institutions.

We should support and appreciate their considerable efforts. But why do so many of us still think that someone else should be in charge, or organize celebrations for us? I have my thoughts, which I will run out in later conversations. What can we do ourselves?

How many of us have cameras? How many of us have computers (or even, typewriters)? Who still has a Super 8 movie camera—or a video camera—or a smart phone? Or a drone?

What tools do we have to document the next couple of years of contemporary railroading?

And how many of us have recollections with a connection to the overall story of the Transcontinental Railroad that might be preserved and archived?

Here is the idea: With or without overall coordination, what if we (all of us who might be interested) simply decided to document today’s railroading as best we can? The theme would be something like “this is the railroad—in all of its detail and sweep—in 2018 and 2019.”

It seems both unfair, and somewhat futile, to expect any single or coordinated effort to mark the Anniversary. That has seldom been part of railroading’s tradition. Ours has always been a sprawling, fractious, competitive enterprise, both on the operating side, and on the heritage side.

But what if we generally embraced the idea that 2018-2019 were sincerely important Anniversary years, and that we (all of us, collectively and individually) ought to go out and create a comprehensive snapshot of railroading as it exists now?

Best case, some organization or sponsor would step up to guide various efforts. I don’t know what that might look like, but what if there were some sort of program that brought the interests and enthusiasm of thousands of people to bear in coordinated ways?

This is one example: What if we went out on May 10, 2019, and took photos, shot videos, and generally detailed a “Day in the Life of the American Railroad”? I realize that is a Friday. Maybe we make it a weekend event.

To borrow an idea from my fields of history and museum work, one or two examples of something are mere artifacts and curiosities. A dozen examples allow you to begin forming conclusions and making educated guesses. A hundred (or thousand) examples of something paint a more complete picture, and help you to understand reality as it might have been.

At some point we would create a formal archive and gather the (hopefully) thousands of images and videos and accounts of typical railroading across the continent on the Anniversary weekend. It would become a formal record and trove of data and resources.

Who, for example, might collect and archive the hundreds of news accounts of the events of May 9 and 10, 2019? Wouldn’t it be interesting to easily call up all of the buzz about the May 10, 1969 Centennial activities?

That would take time, money, and an administrative structure. It might take years to raise the funds and set up the organizational framework. We have precedents—this might be the kind of project the Center for Railroad Photography and Art, or the Barriger Library could take on, with support and funding.

There is also a formal argument to be made for this kind of effort. The easier we make it for people to access and understand facts about railroad history and heritage, the more likely it is that people will use them. That is partly how we continue to make railroad history and heritage relevant to future generations.

Our part—the thousands of us who might participate—would simply be to get out there over the next couple of years and document things. We would especially need to be out there in all corners of the U.S. over the Anniversary weekend. It would represent a collective effort based on trust.

We would trust that someone—some institution or some coalition—would follow through and understand the project of seriously documenting a “moment” in American Railroading that happens to overlap the 150th Anniversary of the Golden Spike. That might take a few years. We should have thought about this idea a few years ago. But it is not too late.

In turn, whatever institution or project embracing this idea would need to trust that the resources were reliable, deep, and comprehensive. They would need to know that we had created a comprehensive record of American Railroading over a couple of years, and especially over a few days.

That goes back to the same point: The easier we make it for some entity to access the raw material of a moment in time, the more likely it would be that that moment is recognized as significant.

Our opportunity now might simply be to capture contemporary railroading in all of its glorious detail, and trust that in a few years we can shape it into a more lasting tribute to the Pacific Railroad’s Sesquicentennial, and the ifact that railroads were critical in the development of the United States.

Sorry if this seems theoretical or complicated. We’ve run out of time on the front end. But it isn’t too late to get out there and have fun with the next couple of years, and then sort things out. There is a lot we can do, one camera, one experience, and one recollection at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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