Voices From the Past

Posted by John Hankey
on Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What would you say if I told you that there were people alive today who heard firsthand stories of the construction and operation of the Pacific Railroad ?

The mid-19th century seems like the dim, distant past. It really isn’t. Technically it may be six or seven generations, but that is a statistical measure. It is the space of perhaps three lived lives, and much closer to us than we imagine.

I firmly believe that there are older folks among us who listened to their elders describe what it was like to create the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. Their elders had  experienced firsthand the drama and drudgery of the Journey to Promontory. What seems to be the unknowable, distant past is not as far behind us as we think.

My own Mother is Exhibit “A” of the possibility. She is a spry 91 and still very much alive and kicking. She was born in 1927 and attended the B&O Railroad’s Centennial celebration “The Fair of the Iron Horse” as a baby.

In those days (before Social Security), intergenerational families were much more common. She grew up in a household that included her paternal Grandmother and Great-Grandmother.

Her Great-Grandmother had been born in Baltimore in 1856. As a little girl, Grandmother Michaels carried water in buckets to troops camped on Federal Hill, when the Union Army occupied the city to prevent Maryland’s secession. Baltimore then was a hotbed of Southern sympathy.

She vividly remembered seeing columns of Union soldiers in blue marching through the city’s streets. She was a girl of nine when she witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train arrive and depart B&O’s Camden Station.

And she shared those recollections with my Mother and others in the household, who then passed them along to successive generations. Grandmother Michaels could not read or write, so she preserved her experiences through oral history and tradition. That can also be good and reliable history. She was a firsthand witness to memorable events.

Those stories were part of my upbringing. They were handed down, repeated by elders, and as much part of the family in the 1950s and 60s as they had been in the 1930s, near the end of my Great Great-Grandmother’s life.

The Point? I am literally one voice away from the words of a firsthand witness to the American Civil War. My Mother heard stories from someone who was there and had vivid personal memories. She (and others) shared those stories with me.

Here is another thought. My life—and the lives of anyone born before August of 1956—overlaps the life of the oldest surviving Union soldier.

Albert Henry Woolson enlisted in the Union Army, served in the Civil War, and died in Minnesota at the age of 106. Likewise, the lives of anyone born before 1965 or so overlap the lives of people born into slavery.

I am one voice away from the American Civil War. Who out there is likewise one voice away from constructing the Pacific Railroad—or being present at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869?

If my life overlaps the life of the oldest surviving Union soldier (and I don’t consider myself a particularly Old Guy), how many lives overlap those who had some role in building the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads?

 How many senior folks out there heard stories from firsthand witnesses as to track building, rock blasting, train running, or Hell on Wheels? How many family stories and traditional oral histories include legends and tales which directly connect to the construction and opening of the Transcontinental Railroad?

I’ll bet more than we realize.

I strongly suspect that there will be Anglo, Irish, Chinese, Native American, and other family stories that would enrich our understanding of the Pacific Railroad project. So far as I know, no one has bothered to systematically collect them, or even understood them as important.

This is the kind of opportunity that will evaporate in the next few years. It would take some effort, but there are ways (Social Media comes to mind) to see if there are connections—and they don’t have to be one voice distant. Oral tradition and family history can provide reliable, powerful—and accurate—insights into the past.

It might not be too late. I wonder: Could we use the Sesquicentennial of the Golden Spike to explore these possibilities?

Who might be with us today who is one or two voices away from Promontory Summit?


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