A Year Out, What Can We Do?

Posted by John Hankey
on Thursday, May 24, 2018

We are a year out from the “official” Sesquicentennial of the connection at Promontory Summit, and probably about 18 months from the close of the “Sesqui Season.”

By 2020, I don’t think anyone will be thinking about the Pacific Railroad, and we will be looking forward to whatever it is we might look forward to. 2027 will be the Bicentennial of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and I predict there will be at least three dozen people for whom that will be a significant event (and I am one of them).

Sorry to seem cynical, but that is how the world works. We are, by nature, forward looking people. 2019 represents probably the last major railroad Anniversary event we will see. The next major event would be the 2023 150th Anniversary of the Panic of 1873, a six-year economic crisis brought on largely by the financial failure of the second Transcontinental Railroad, the Northern Pacific.

Or we might celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which brought the United States as close as it has ever come to internal revolution and a renewed kind of Civil War.

Enough history and general grumpiness. The few decades following the ceremony at Promontory were some of the most stressful—and remarkable—years the U.S. has endured and enjoyed. But we are pretty much done with major railroad Anniversaries. 2019 is really the last big one we have.

These are just ideas. I don’t know who might step up to help coordinate activities. The usual suspects would be the NRHS, R&LHS, and HeritageRail Alliance (until recently, the Tourist Railway Industry Association and Association of Railway Museums, trade groups representing heritage railroading and railway museums).

What if (and there will be a lot of “what ifs”), the railroad heritage community worked together to make May 10, 2019 a true Anniversary of note?

I have been baffled as to why Amtrak abandoned its National Train Day just a few years before the Sesqui of the Golden Spike. Was it not working for them? Did it cost too much? Even so, why kill it off just before the Main Event? It is hard to escape wondering—again—“What were they thinking”?

There might be four components to a more robust celebration.

First would be coordination and creating an agenda. Train World still does a miserable job of talking to one another and thinking in collaborative ways. But there are probably a dozen people representing a dozen organizations who could set an agenda that was doable, effective, and within everyone’s budgets.

Second would be creating a coherent and compelling message. Union Pacific is doing a fine job on its web site and with excursion planning, but this isn’t just UP’s party, any more than the Pacific Railroad was a local issue.

The railroad connection at Promontory was of immense national significance. It originated as a truly shared ideal and was understood at the time as benefiting all Americans and solidifying the Union. Remember that we had only recently concluded a civil war.

Could we have a small, informal committee of historians, curators, railroaders, and politicians approve ten or twelve talking points? These would be the basis for our shared understanding of why the Pacific Railroad project was, and remains, so important.

Those talking points would be the basis for all sorts of individual and collective initiatives over the next 18 months. They would answer a few basic questions—

            --What was the Transcontinental Railroad really about?

            -- What did it accomplish?

            -- How did it change America?

            -- Why should I care in 2019?

Third might be convincing ourselves that helping to celebrate the Sesqui is a good idea. As a large and dispersed community, Train World inevitably slides toward irrelevance. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it a simple fact of culture and the world we live in.

This Anniversary is a wonderful opportunity for Chapters and historical societies and museums (and individuals) all across the country to remind the outside world that railroad history matters—that it is a core element of our shared American Experience.

And, by the way, that railroad history and heritage are interesting, fun, important, and why don’t you join/ride/vote for/support your local railroad heritage effort? There are practical reasons for Train World to embrace this Anniversary.

Fourth might be collaborating on exhibits and information. Large railroad heritage institutions ought to be preparing their own exhibits and presentations directed to their individual audiences and stakeholders.

But I can imagine a few hundred smaller institutions for whom a two dimensional, lightweight, three or four-panel general presentation on how the Transcontinental Railroad changed America would be useful and effective.

It would be a big electronic file, and might need to be transported on a thumb drive in an envelope or downloaded from the cloud. But there are all sorts of graphics shops and national vendors who could print it out and mount it for a few hundred bucks. It might take up a few square feet in whatever space is available. It could be classy, informative, and reach tens of thousands of visitors all over the place. For this story, we shouldn't expect every modest railroad heritage institution to produce its own celebratory exhibit. One good version would do.

And what if Train World organizations coordinated to have special activities on May 10th? In 1869, much of the United States gathered near telegraph offices to hear the three dots signifying the placement of the Golden Spike.

What if, on May 19, 2019, the National Park Service reenacted the telegraphic signal over the internet, and railroad history institutions all over the country (and world) could build local special events around it? NPS may be planning something like that, but I am not aware of it.

I know this sounds like a gimmick, but what if railroad heritage institutions around the country hosted special "Transcontinental Railroad Weekend" events, perhaps with equipment tours, BBQs, bands, military reenactments, or other kinds of old-fashioned entertainments? Railfans might come out. But how many families with kids might turn out for a family-friendly, train-themed weekend event based on a significant Anniversary?

(I know—May 10, 2019 is on a Friday. But that wouldn’t preclude having a fun and sort-of-accurate reenactments on Saturday and Sunday.)

There are dozens of ways for organizations and communities to build events around the Sesquicentennial. There could be movie screenings (Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific come to mind, but there are dozen fun train movies), lectures, special train rides, tours of railroad sites, bike rides, radio programs, and who knows what else. We have been doing events and celebrations with a railroad theme for 191 years.

There are just those three pesky, critical issues.

This isn’t just a UP Anniversary. It belongs to all of America, in the same way that the idea of a Transcontinental Railroad and its ultimate completion belonged to all of America, That will be hard for some folks to fully grasp.

Someone—some committee, some organization, some Sesqui czar—has to steer the effort. I don’t know if that is HeritageRail Alliance, a collaboration, or a forward-leaning institution. But some entity needs to take a leadership position, and do it quickly—the Thomas Regulator Railroad clock is ticking.        

Perhaps most important, we—Train World—ought to realize that this could be very good for us all. It could support our work, create new friends and members, and help explain why railroad heritage and history remain relevant. I don't mean to be coy--it could, and should, help make a little money for everyone involved. Railroad Heritage is expensive. That is a struggle that will never end.

And maybe, just maybe, helping celebrate the Anniversary could provide a little bit of enjoyment, too.



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