South of the border, the railroading isn’t much different

Posted by John Hankey
on Wednesday, October 10, 2012

This lineup greets visitors to the Mexican National Railroad Museum (Museo Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Mexicanos, or MNFM), with Puebla’s classic terminal station in the background.
I’m sitting in the courtyard of a hotel built from the ruins of a 16th-century convent in the Mexican city of Puebla. The evening’s rainstorm is washing through, and I’m wondering why we gringos have so often ignored Mexican railroading.

I’m not here as a tourist, although now I wish I were. I’m part of a delegation to Mexico’s first “International Colloquium on Railway Cultural Heritage Conservation” (my translation). Nathaniel Guest, from the NRHS/Colebrookdale Railroad in Pennsylvania, and Terry Koller, from the Georgia State Railroad Museum/Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah, round out our informal railroad diplomatic outreach.

The 78-mile-long Coahuila y Zacatecas Railroad ordered this 3-foot-gauge Baldwin 2-8-8 in 1908 and retired it in 1970; the CyZ was a D&RG-type mineral line projected by gringos, built with gringo capital, and initially operated by gringos.
The colloquium — we would call it a conference — is a new addition to a series of regular meetings on railway history and heritage hosted by the Mexican National Railroad Museum (MNFM). The museum’s parent agency is the National Center for the Preservation of Railway Cultural Heritage, part of Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts. Mexico takes its railroad heritage seriously.

The museum is a delight. There are 91 pieces of standard- and narrow-gauge equipment spread out over 30 acres of urban parkland. Most are passenger and freight cars, but there are some eye-openers.

At one point, I turned a corner and came face-to-face with Alco PA No. DH-19 — a locomotive I rode behind on Delaware & Hudson’s Montrealer in 1969. Museum staff start it up a few times a month to charge the batteries and keep the machinery limber. Some of the same men who maintained it in regular service now take care of it in retirement — theirs, and the locomotive’s.

For almost four decades, the C&O Railway used this Jim Crow coach; in 1951, the C&O sold it south, where the National Railroad of Mexico made the “colored” section “second class,” and the “white” section “first class” — an interesting twist on “separate but equal.”
Sonora-Baja California FT No. 2203 stood proudly in a fresh coat of orange paint. Not long before, MNFM folks had finished a lube oil change and general checkup. The next step will be to start the prime mover and get the locomotive into the same sort of gently run, well-preserved status as the PAs.

Former Pere Marquette Office Car No. 2 looked as if it had just arrived from an inspection trip to the Upper Peninsula. Museum conservators (MNFM has three university-trained specialists on staff; its curator, Bruno Wilson Ebergenyi, has a degree in chemistry) were restoring the interior of a former Northern Pacific Lewis-and-Clark-themed Traveler’s Rest buffet-lounge car. Poking around in the air brake instruction car was a real treat.

MNFM takes good care of former Santa Fe/D&H Alco PA-1 Nos. DH-17 and DH-19. They regularly run No. DH-19 on a short stretch of museum trackage.
This was a museum of American railroading in the same ways that the great Canadian railroad museums help document a continental railroad network. It is sometimes easy to forget — or ignore — the fact that we are all Americans, from the farthest northern reaches of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic to land’s end at the tip of Patagonia in Chile’s deep south. And railroading in Chile looks an awful lot like railroading in parts of the Western U.S.

The themes of the conference were commonsense and blindingly obvious: How should we preserve the physical heritage we’ve accumulated over the last century? What are the stories we can tell? What good ideas and innovations are we cooking up? How do we make railroading interesting to new audiences, and ensure that our museums and heritage sites will still be around in another century?

EMD built 25 FP9-A units for the National Railroad of Mexico in 1956, as the railroad was retiring its steam passenger power and upgrading its passenger service. The “B” unit behind is a 1951 F7.
We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. For example, the staff at MNFM developed a digital museum application that just blew Nathaniel, Terry, and me away. I think it will revolutionize how we present railroad heritage. As Bruno Wilson Ebergenyi presented it, the application would let anyone anywhere in the world explore and learn from any railroad heritage resource we choose to make available. It was a powerful and elegant example of why we ought to be talking to one another. Good ideas know no boundaries.

Scholars, museum professionals, and railway specialists came from South America, Europe, Mexico, and thankfully, the U.S. So far as anyone could recall, this was the first time anyone from up here had taken the time to participate in meetings like this in Mexico — at least at this level. Why did it take so long — and what have we been missing?

There are lots of plausible explanations. It was a struggle for Bill Withuhn and Doyle McCormack to repatriate PA No. 18 and another damaged PA carbody from Mexico. Sometimes cultural resource policies work at cross-purposes. And we’ve only been talking freely to our Canadian cousins for a decade or two. We are only now beginning to reach across the pond to British and European railway heritage folks.

Three faces of Alco: The much-rebuilt PA-1 from 1948 (they call it a PA-4) shares former terminal passenger tracks with 2-8-0 No. 1150 (Alco/Brooks, 1921) and DC motor No. 1001 (Alco-GE, 1923). At the far end are 3-foot-gauge EMD road switcher No. 802, and former Northern Pacific FT No. 6010 D.
Most of us pay no attention whatsoever to railway museums and serious railway heritage work in Asia, Africa, and South America — where there are thriving railway enthusiast and heritage communities doing good work under sometimes desperate conditions. Too often, we think their trains “look funny,” or that it somehow isn’t “real” railroading. In the U.S., we can be awfully narrow-minded sometimes.

We three amigos didn’t push open the door to a new set of opportunities with our more southerly colleagues. They took the initiative, and swung the door open to its widest. Then they coaxed us in with Alcos, EMDs, and heavyweights, and then made us feel welcomed and valued as friends and fellow railroaders.

Pullman built these First Class, 3-foot-gauge steel coaches in 1930 for a predecessor railroad. They are about as handsome as a car can be — but you have to wonder how hot they got in the Mexican sun.
We ought to do the same for them. Already, NRHS and MNFM have started a conversation. My hope is that soon we will have a Mexican Chapter of the NRHS, in the same way we have a chapter in Great Britain. I think that major railroad museums like the California State Railroad Museum and the Museum of the American Railroad in Texas ought to offer museum labels in Spanish.

I will point out that until World War I — when we found it necessary to demonize Germany to fluff up American patriotism — my hometown of Baltimore had several German-language newspapers, and the city’s school system offered primary instruction in German for children whose native language was not English. Presenting our railroad heritage in Spanish isn’t politically correct or pandering. It simply recognizes changing times and shifting demographics, and the fact that there are new audiences we can bring into the fold.

The Association of Railway Museums should be delighted to welcome MNFM as a new member. My hope is that many U.S. railway heritage organizations will recognize how much they have in common with their Mexican counterparts. All of our Western railroads had financial and operating interests in Mexican railroading — why not understand those histories as two sides of the same coin?

MNFM has very nice traveling railway heritage exhibits that I think many of us here would like to see. We have exhibits they would enjoy. I see a bright future for railway heritage tourism in both directions. What if we begin to engage the many people in the U.S. of Hispanic heritage who might become card-carrying, dues-paying, participating members of our railway heritage organizations? It wouldn’t be difficult to make them feel like valued participants, and their interests and efforts could energize much of our work.

Terry, Nathaniel, and I agree. We’ve never been so warmly welcomed, or so graciously treated as friends and colleagues, as we have been here. We will leave wanting to come back soon. We very much want to get our Mexican counterparts to the U.S., and show them our work and what we have in common. There are no real borders when it comes to railroad history or heritage. An Alco PA — even with a replacement 251V12 prime mover — sounds precisely the same in a Puebla park as it did idling in Grand Central Station, or Montreal’s Gare Centrale. If you listen closely, it could have been Los Angeles or Chicago.

The challenges we all face, and the rewards we enjoy, are identical. I just hope we are smart enough to keep walking through the door Teresa Márquez Martínez, Bruno Wilson Ebergenyi, and their MNFM colleagues so graciously opened for us.

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