Railroad Museums, Preserving the Past

Railroad museums are interesting places even if you do not hold a particular interest in trains. They teach us about one of America's oldest industries, how it functions, and its continued importance today.   A handful operate with public subsidy but many are non-profit organizations relying on donations and volunteer help.  Because of the equipment's size and complexity collections are incredibly difficult not only to restore but also maintain.  If you may ever be interested please consider assisting a museum near you; their hard work preserves many historic pieces which would otherwise be forever lost.  There is no doubt railroads have changed much since the first trains entered service during the 1820's  The industry peaked from 1880 through World War I and then slowly declined until deregulation in 1980 witnessed a renaissance. Museums are virtually the only place you can get an up close look at the equipment and preserved structures. 

The railroad museum is not a new phenomenon although the number of preservation organizations have grown considerably since the 1970's.  The oldest is the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc. founded in 1921.  In 1934 the first "fan trip," or train excursion was hosted by a railroad.  In his article from the September, 1969 issue of Trains Magazine entitled "Are These People Embalmers Or Enthusiasts?," noted editor David P. Morgan described the term "railfan" quite poignantly.  It carries a range of sub-interests, from photography to modeling, but generally refers to folks who simply enjoy trains.  Various clubs/organizations sprang up throughout the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.  There were 65 such groups in 1934 and 96 by 1959 as noted by the "The Railfan, Inc.," edited by Rosemary Entringer from the June, 1959 issue of Trains.  The next important organization to appear was the National Railway Historical Society which formed in 1935.  But again, the modern movement of museums and tourist railroads sprang up in postwar times as diesels replaced steam and railroads disappeared through merger.  

Some railroads themselves recognized their own history by creating museums to house preserved collections such as the Baltimore & Ohio's facility in Baltimore which opened on July 4, 1953; later, Union Pacific did the same in Council Bluffs, Iowa, opening its museum there on May 10, 2003.  In 1956 the National Railroad Museum opened near Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Two years later, in 1958, it was recognized by Congress as such.  Two other noteworthy national organizations include, of course, the Smithsonian and Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania which began as a non-profit founded by F. Nelson Blount in 1964.  A number of facilities also host their own excursion trains, drawing even more interest and allowing visitors to view this operating equipment up close. Depending upon the length of trackage owned, rides can last from a half-hour over just a few miles to an all-day affair, traveling more than 100 miles within climate-controlled cars. Regardless of your interest level such trips can be quite enjoyable with memories lasting a lifetime. 

Today's museums range from the impressive collection at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union to the relatively small West Virginia Railroad Museum based in Elkins.  If you know where to look you can track down rail history in the most unlikely of places.  For instance, the town of Wheeling, in the Mountain State's northern panhandle, was once a thriving terminal of the venerable Baltimore & Ohio.  The location was also reached by the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad via a short branch winding its way southward from the steel hub of Weirton.  Wheeling, originally part of Virginia, completed the B&O's charter when the railroad reached the eastern bank of the Ohio River in 1852.  While the company's future main lines to St. Louis and Chicago bypassed the town it was still an important location with considerable freight and passenger business with lines south to Parkersburg and Huntington, east to Pittsburgh, west to Columbus and Cincinnati, and north to Cleveland.  The city was also the home offices of a major division (Wheeling Division).

Alas, with manufacturing's decline, the steel industry's collapse, and the B&O's failing financial health Wheeling's importance faded.  By the 1990's the city had, incredibly, lost virtually all of its rail service and the fabled B&O was no more, dissolved into the much larger CSX Transportation.  Today, there are only a few minor attractions related to trains in the area; the Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum houses a large collection of model trains in different gauges from O and G to HO.  In addition, the Oglebay Good Zoo operates an impressive, 1,200 square-foot O-gauge layout as part of the famous resort.  However, keen eyes will detect there is far more to see here; the B&O's beautiful depot in downtown Wheeling still stands, operating restored as part of the West Virginia Northern Community College.  If you have old maps handy you can also track down the railroad's long-abandoned rights-of-way which featured stone-arch bridges and tunnels, which were needed by engineers to carve out a route through the rugged topography.

The point here is that so many rail lines have been abandoned over the years an area may contain something of interest even if it has no listed railroad attractions. Exploring abandoned infrastructure can be a fun hobby.  However, please make sure to never trespass and do so only if it is absolutely safe!  Never explore tunnels which have not been authorized for use as part of a rail-trail or walk out onto abandoned trestles/bridges.  Finally, if you have time consider volunteering or donating to a local museum.  Money is always an issue; their overhead costs can be astronomical which says nothing of maintaining/restoring equipment. For instance steam locomotives are extremely expensive to overhaul (usually costing millions and several years of volunteer effort).  Despite the expense they return to life largely because a group of folks want to make it so.  In turn, these efforts provide history in motion and nothing draws a crowd quite like an operating iron horse.



Finding A Museum Near You

Locating a railroad museum can sometimes be a difficult prospect; they are scattered around the country and not always in the most easy-to-reach locations.  In addition, few are widely advertised or promoted within their local communities.  If you visit this section of the website there are articles, broken down by state, highlighting all known museums and excursions throughout the continental United States as well as Alaska and Hawaii.  Another great resource is Trains Magazine's, "Tourist Trains Guidebook," released annually through Kalmbach Publishing.  The paperback title has been in print for several years which highlights every known museum, excursion, and railroad attraction throughout the country with a brief description and background of each.  If you are a subscriber the magazine puts out something similar each spring in its May issue.  Although it does not provide the same level of detail the piece does offer an up-to-date list which is quite handy.

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