Will the NRHS Survive? Part Two: Whose NRHS is it, Anyway?

Posted by John Hankey
on Monday, September 8, 2014

Over the past couple of weeks the conversation about the future of the National Railway Historical Society has opened up considerably, and that is a good thing.

I have always had great respect for the NRHS and its accomplishments. It was 1968 or thereabouts when I signed on to the Baltimore Chapter, and I've been a member of the NRHS off and on, here and there, ever since. Whether the NRHS survives and prospers is not an abstract question to me, or to anyone interested in railroading. We should all wish for a healthy and prosperous NRHS, and do what we can to help it get there.

Still, some of the more pointed responses I've gotten are of the "Who the Hell do I think I am" variety, and they raise several important points.

For example, "Whose NRHS is it, anyway"?

Does the national organization "belong" to the chapters, and can they simply call the shots? Does the national organization have an independent role in the broader field of Railway Heritage, while individual chapters follow their own interests? Is the NRHS one institution—or is it really 120 or so distinct outfits that share only a vaguely-defined mission to "appreciate railroading in all its forms"?

Organizations such as the NRHS almost always experience tension between their local private purpose, and their broader public purpose. The same is true of the American Red Cross, the National Rifle Association, and hundreds of other special interest groups.

As part of a local organization, NRHS chapter members are expected to pursue their own interests with little coordination or limitation by the national organization, and they do so with great variety and creativity. We understand that as the local, private purpose of individual chapters, whether it be public programs, equipment restoration, private car operation, or social gatherings.

Then there is the more unified, public face of the national organization—and the overall mission it aspires to fulfill. From its beginnings in 1935, the NRHS (at a national level) represented itself as one of, if not the, leading organization dedicated to the support and enjoyment of American railroading and its heritage.

The NRHS Bulletin preceded Trains Magazine by almost five years and was an entirely new kind of general-interest railroad journalism (the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society's journal Railroad History had nicely evolved into a scholarly publication by then.  Railroad Magazine was a horse of an entirely different color.).

The NRHS founding documents explicitly described its public purpose: to increase general interest and participation in railroading, in all its forms, including modeling. In so many ways (excursions, public programs, working with railroads and other partners, publications), and over a very long time, the NRHS—as a whole—created a national reputation and presence. The "outward-looking" face of the NRHS has always been a priority.

With due respect for the members and governance of the NRHS, other people and other organizations have a legitimate stake in whatever unfolds. Those other people and organizations could be a resource for the NRHS and help it get through the present tough times.

At the very least, it is time to understand more broadly how the NRHS fits in with other railroad heritage institutions. That isn't a threat to either chapters or the national NRHS. It is common sense, good business, and the kind of real leadership and vision that has been absent for too many years.

NRHS does not exist by itself. It is part of a larger community, and will prosper or fade based on its willingness to be part of that community. Do you recall the line from the old Union song "Solidarity Forever," sung thousands of times a railroad labor organization meetings?

"... Yet what force on Earth is weaker than the feeble strength of One"?

Second, Times change. Organizations like the NRHS cannot survive by standing still, or worse yet, believing they can turn back the clock. Those are clichés, and I am sorry to beat a seemingly dead horse. But if memory serves, five years ago governance directed a committee to draft a new vision and plan for the reorganization of the NRHS in recognition of those commonplace ideas.

The world in which the NRHS exists today is dramatically different from that of just twenty years ago. NRHS tried to adapt to those new external—and internal—realities. But its efforts don't seem to have been based on underlying principles such as "How can we keep the NRHS relevant to members?" "How can we remain effective as the "voice" of railroad heritage and enthusiasm?" Or, "how can we find new and effective ways to enjoy the astonishing variety of railroad heritage out there."

Many of the moves NRHS did make seemed reluctant or defensive. They amounted to half-measures taken too late, or they seemed to address symptoms and not the root causes. That is often the pattern followed by older organizations struggling to deal with a rapidly-changing operating environment. That is not a criticism. It is an observation.

Literally thousands of once-healthy clubs, chapters of national organizations, and substantial membership institutions failed to adapt to the changing times in which they operated, and have since been marginalized or disappeared. Some were classic fraternal/social entities (anyone remember the local lodges of the International Order of Odd Fellows, or the Fraternal Order of Red Men? Both once had much larger roles in American civic life, and barely survive today).

Other once-active organizations just disappeared, including hundreds of railroad clubs and preservation groups. I watched Railroad Passenger Cars, Inc., a vibrant and successful organization conserving and operating a fleet of historic B&O passenger cars for excursion service, essentially commit institutional suicide in the 1990s. It was an outgrowth of an NRHS chapter, but seemed to have no interest in a long term future.

I apologize for being blunt. But an organization in the position NRHS finds itself needs to take serious—and thoughtful—measures merely to survive. Then, perhaps it can engage the process of redefining itself and figuring out (with the support and cooperation of its many audiences and colleague institutions) just what a next-generation NRHS can be to survive in the long run.

No matter how deeply committed to traditional railroad heritage we might be, our organizations need to evolve. They have no choice but to carefully, but continually, reinvent themselves. They won't survive if they don't move forward, whatever that happens to mean at the moment—and it is a shifting target. That isn't an opinion. It is a hard, bitter, fact.

Finally, what actually might happen if the national NRHS organization either fades from existence, or ends existing relationships with individual chapters? For many chapters, not much would be different. But Train World—the big, unorganized, diverse community of people interested in railroading—desperately needs the kind of voice and unifying presence the national NRHS could offer. There would be a vacuum, and we would all soon come to notice it.

Some chapters—perhaps, many—already don't think they benefit much from affiliation with "the national," outside of being able to use the NRHS name and participate in national activities such as the annual convention. For several years, people have been able to be members of the national NRHS without having a chapter affiliation. What it means to be an NRHS member had already begun to change. That set of issues has its own process and logic.

By definition, chapters are independent not-for-profit organizations in charge of their own activities, finances, and futures. Aside from changing their names—and not being obligated to help collect dues for the national NRHS—its hard to see how things would be different for chapter members if they had a somewhat different relationship with a national NRHS, whatever it ends up being.

The Old Dominion Chapter (to cite one example) would continue to hold a major collection of historic railroad equipment, operate the Richmond Railroad Museum, and sponsor occasional excursions. ODC is already a substantial, stand-alone railroad heritage organization and will have no trouble surviving and prospering. Nor would the Washington, D.C. Chapter, or the Harrisburg Chapter.

But losing the national NRHS as a primary heritage organization—either because the NRHS itself could survive, or because it chose to remain focused inwardly, on chapter issues—would be much more consequential. The entire field of railway heritage would be the worse for it.

I apologize if I repeat myself, but this is important: We—all of us interested in railroading, either casually, professionally, or as a serious hobby—need a broadly-based national organization. We need a "safe space" to come together and define railway heritage and enthusiasm in all of its variety. We need a respected organization to be both a portal for people to engage railroading, and an advocate and "voice" for our interests.

NRHS folks assure me that they have been working on a plan that helps the NRHS survive as an organization and more fully evolve into a modern railroad heritage and advocacy organization. I will be interested to see that plan, and hopeful that it does what needs to be done. None of this is a zero-sum game—there is no need to think of this in terms of winners and losers. But it is also clear that there are choices to be made, and that the future of the NRHS is on the line.

In the next post, I'll suggest what I think a "new" NRHS might look like. Or what an effective, useful, forward-looking post-NRHS general railroad heritage organization might aspire to be.

In any case, it is going to be an interesting few months.

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