Conrail museum will honor Big Blue

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, July 24, 2020

Museum in a boxcar: The Conrail Historical Society is planning to set up a museum in a former CR 86-foot auto-parts boxcar at Shippensburg, Pa. Conrail Historical Society
Every railroad deserves its own museum, if you ask me. I can’t think of a single North American railroad company that didn’t have some kind of meaningful impact on the world surrounding it, enough to warrant keeping its legacy alive. 

That goes double when you’re talking about Conrail, the Northeastern and Midwestern giant created on April 1, 1976, out of the teetering ruins of six separate railroads. The consolidation of Penn Central, Reading, Erie Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, Central of New Jersey, and Lehigh & Hudson River was one of the central events of late 20th-century railroading.

Although Conrail got off to a shaky start — a rather chary June 1976 editorial by Trains Editor David P. Morgan concluded “ConRail doesn’t have a prayer of being in the black by 1980” — its creation was an essential step in the process that led to landmark deregulation in 1980. Ultimately Conrail wasn’t the only winner; nearly all railroads were.

(Memo to Dave Morgan: OK, Conrail wasn’t in the black by 1980. But they got there just a year later. And just six years after that — March 26, 1987 — the company presided over an initial public offering of $1.65 billion, the largest in history.)

No one had a deeper appreciation of Conrail’s impact than veteran Trains columnist Don Phillips. Writing in the January 1999 Conrail tribute issue, Don said, “Although Conrail lasted a mere 23 years, I think it is already safe to say that the people who planned and ran Conrail saved the railroad industry. At a minimum, they prevented nationalization.”

Don went on to cite only two other events to match the advent of Conrail: the invention of the air brake and the arrival of the diesel. Bold statements there, Don! But they ring true.

All of which goes to underscore the importance of what the Conrail Historical Society (CRHS) announced this week. Organized in 1995 to preserve and promote the legacy of Big Blue, the Society is establishing a Conrail museum in Shippensburg, Pa., a small town with a rich railroad history rooted in the Pennsylvania Railroad, Western Maryland, and the Reading Company. 

Conrail was established when six bankrupt railroads were combined in 1976. A year later, the hand-me-down locomotives in the engine terminal at Collinwood, Ohio, still resembled a rag-tag rainbow. Todd Miller
While the home for the new Conrail museum might seem modest — former Conrail X67-class auto-parts boxcar No. 295633, donated to the Society by CSX — it’s big: 86 feet long, with 10,467 cubic feet of what will be climate-controlled interior space. Penn Central’s Sam Rea Shops in Hollidaysburg, Pa., manufactured the car in April 1970 and for its first several years it wore PC green. It was later painted blue when it fell into CSX’s hands. 

The boxcar is stored for the moment in Chambersburg, 11 miles southeast of Shippensburg, and eventually will be trucked to its new permanent location near the Cumberland Valley Railroad Museum, housed in an adjacent restored Penn Central boxcar at the Shippensburg trailhead of the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail, which has agreed to a 100-year rent-free lease with the CRHS. Conceptual illustrations indicate the car will be repainted in Conrail boxcar red. 

As railroad projects go, the entire boxcar museum comes at a relatively low price, about $134,000. But that is still a significant amount for a railroad-specific historical society. Proof that local folks beyond the railfan cohort see value in this is the fact that the Society won a $100,000 tourist grant from the Cumberland Valley Visitors Bureau. The rest of the funds are coming from CRHS or as in-kind donations by contractors.

The establishment of the museum is deeply satisfying to Rudy Garbely, now in his sixth year on the Society’s board of directors and currently serving as president.

By the time a new SD40-2 led a train west near Duncannon, Pa., in summer 1980, Conrail was headed for profitability, and Northeastern railroading was on the way to salvation. Robert S. McGonigal
“This whole project could not be more perfect for what we want to accomplish as an organization,” Garbely told me. “We get to build a state-of-the-art archive for our extensive collection that also includes space to make it available to the public, and in the process restore and preserve an important piece of Conrail rolling stock. That’s icing on the cake.”

The project comes at an important moment for the Society, which in recent years decommissioned some equipment in its collection, revamped its quarterly magazine, and began to focus more on the preservation of information.

“That was a main interest of our members,” says Garbely. “As we began to work in earnest on the archives, it was always a kind of pipe dream to eventually have a place to display it and make it available to researchers. We’ve looked at options such as buying property or purchasing or leasing building space, but the location or timing or historical significance of available sites never seemed to work within our budget. The way this entire project fell together turned out to be absolutely fantastic.”

Visitors to the museum will have plenty of things to see. Plans call for several display cases, some of them featuring rotating exhibits, along with an emphasis on maps, essential in telling the Conrail story. Flat-screen TVs will present photographs in a slideshow format and a variety of videos, some produced by the Society and others from the Conrail corporate vault. Although there is not a strong emphasis on hardware, the museum will feature a number of signals from the Society’s collection, including a dual-lens signal off the Lackawanna’s Gladstone Branch, wired to display green or red depending on whether the museum is open or closed.

The Society says they anticipate opening the museum in the summer of 2021. That will be a significant day not just for fans of Conrail but for anyone who looks back on what American railroading was like in April 1976, and marvels at how far we’ve come. 

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