Chagrin and Apologies

Posted by John Hankey
on Thursday, February 1, 2018

Off and on, for the past 50 years I have been a dues-paying member of the National Railway Historical Society. Do I get a 50 Year pin? Absolutely not. It is the “off and on” thing. I don’t deserve it.

Likewise I have been a member—off and on—of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society for decades. Again, I don’t deserve so much as a nod and a “thank you.”

That is the source of my chagrin, which I have long and often understood as one of the most useful and effective concepts available to us. Additional sources of chagrin are that I didn’t take enough pictures of the men and women I worked with on the railroad, didn’t keep a daily journal, and accumulated too much sheer tonnage of old railroad stuff to drag around.

NRHS and R&LHS are two of the most effective, consequential, and stalwart railway heritage institutions we have. Somehow, on an irregular basis, it escaped me that I needed to maintain memberships. For that I am deeply sorry. My only excuse is being busy and not paying attention. Out on the railroad, that is a seriously risky combination. In Railway Preservation, not so much. But still, it is embarrassing.

Both are not-for-profit heritage organizations dating back to the early days of the modern railway enthusiast/preservation movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Serious railway preservation and the study of railroad history had been around for 40 years or so by the time both organizations began attracting national audiences. Both organizations are looking forward to Centenaries in the next ten or fifteen years. Railfans have been around for a long time.

Each group took a somewhat different path, but shared objectives and tactics. R&LHS Chapters helped found museums and preservation efforts, and crafted excursion programs. NRHS Chapters supported preservation and research agendas and operated hundreds of train trips. But each did both, and are collectively responsible for the backbone of our vibrant and resilient Railway Heritage community today.

Like all of the past, things were complicated. What they shared was a commitment to railroad heritage and access to it’s past and present. The DNA of both organizations is part of every railroad heritage effort we enjoy now. It would be fascinating to map the connections and overlaps.

The NRHS leaned a bit more toward preservation and heritage experiences, and a traditional railfan perspective. The R&LHS remains our more academic history-and-documentation oriented organization.

After a period of stress and reinvention for both, each seems to be doing fine. I discern no competition—just a question as to how each organization goes forward in a challenging environment. Someday, we may need to consider joining efforts. But we are years away from that.

In the meantime, please consider what is at stake. Take full advantage of guilt and chagrin, and understand that the R&LHS and NRHS are the two institutions that most effectively represent the broad interests of railway history, heritage, and the possibility that we can continue to have access to railroading in unique and interesting ways. I re-upped my membership to both, with apologies. I may be absent-minded. But I hope I am not a hypocrite.

There is more at stake than we think. The upcoming Gold Spike Sesquicentennial is a fine opportunity to step up and join, re-join, volunteer in some way, or think about how we can interest the next generation. Us Geezers will sooner or later fade away like the Grand Army of the Republic. Hopefully, the NRHS and R&LHS (and so many other railroad historical societies) will carry on.

I don’t need a 50 Year pin. I just need to pay more attention. These organizations deserve our support.

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