Devoted Volunteers Keep History Of Pennsylvania Rail Company On Track

Dec 12, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 7:47 am

Once the largest U.S. rail company, the Pennsylvania Railroad ceased operations nearly half a century ago. But volunteers are researching and protecting that history at the station in Lewiston, Pa.

Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Lewistown is a tiny town smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania. Back in the 1840s, Lewistown played a vital role in the development of the Pennsylvania Railroad. That was once the largest rail company in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Why, I remember when the railroad got its start back in 1846. Took it quite a while to get to Lewistown - yep, then to Pittsburgh and now with connections all the way out west.

SIEGEL: Today, Lewistown Station is the oldest building built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and still used as a train station. That's thanks to a group of ardent fans keeping that legacy alive. Eleanor Klibanoff, a reporter with Keystone Crossroads, paid them a visit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'll need business class first. Coach class, there will be a second stop.

ELEANOR KLIBANOFF, BYLINE: It's 11:30 a.m. when the daily Amtrak train pulls in about 13 minutes late to Lewistown Station. A few passengers come out of the old fashioned rural train station lovingly restored to its original glory. As Amtrak chugs onward to Harrisburg, Charlie Horan returns to the station building slightly unimpressed.

CHARLIE HORAN: I mean, that's my interest is Pennsylvania Railroad. I don't like trains. I like the Pennsylvania Railroad.

KLIBANOFF: Horan is a member of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society. He walks through the cramped waiting area reserved for passengers and into a cavernous room that takes up the rest of the building. This is his domain.

HORAN: I'm on the archive team. In fact, I'm the archivist, which sounds all that important, but it's not.

KLIBANOFF: Amtrak basically handed the aging, collapsing building over to the Technical and Historical Society in the 1980s. Everyone who works there from the guy mopping the floor to the guy greeting the train is a volunteer. They started as a group of collectors and hobbyists. When the Pennsylvania Railroad went under in 1968, they started gathering everything they could, even raiding the railroads offices, with permission, of course.

The group has amassed one of the largest Pennsylvania Railroad archives. And for fans like Horan, it's heaven on earth.

HORAN: We're like kids in a candy store. I mean, most of us could almost move in here and live.

KLIBANOFF: And, well, they sort of have. Once a month, as many as 14 volunteer archivists come out to Lewistown from around the state for a four-day, nonstop archiving binge. They even sleep at the station in what used to be the railway post-office.

HORAN: They made it up like a bunk house. So there's - we can sleep five people over there.

KLIBANOFF: Horan is divorced and lives alone outside Philadelphia. Coming to Lewistown is like a monthly summer camp for retiree rail fans, a place where his lifelong obsession with the Pennsylvania Railroad has found company like Bob Johnson. Horan calls him Mr. Lewistown. He started the archives at Lewistown Station back in 2000.

BOB JOHNSON: It was a big unorganized mess. And I guess I volunteered to be one of the people who would help out. And later, it turned out that I was the only one (laughter).

KLIBANOFF: Despite the week-long work sessions, the group has only organized about a third of all the materials they have. Johnson says they're in a race against time and the threat isn't just yellowing paper or disintegrating blueprints.

JOHNSON: How long are there going to be people who are still interested in the Pennsylvania Railroad? It disappeared in 1968.

KLIBANOFF: By creating a usable archive, these volunteers hope they can keep the story alive a little longer and continue to find friends and fans who share their obsession. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Klibanoff in Lewistown, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.