Devoted Volunteers Preserve The Pennsylvania Railroad

Dec 16, 2016

The interior of Lewistown Station has been restored to it's former glory, though most of the space is being used as offices for the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.
Credit Lindsay Lazarski / Keystone Crossroads

Lewistown, Pennsylvania is a small town, smack dab in the middle of the state. You might not know it to look at the town today, but in the 1800s, it played a major role in the creation of the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

The Pennsylvania Railroad was once the largest rail company in the country by both traffic and revenue, but even railroad empires need to start somewhere. When the company first started building tracks west from Harrisburg in 1846, Lewistown was one of the first stops.

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 volunteers who are keeping the station, and the story, alive.

When the once-daily train pulls up to Lewistown Station around 11:30 am on a Wednesday, a few passengers come out of the station. The building, which has been lovingly restored to its former glory, looks like the quintessential rural train station with a gabled roof, watchtower and proud sign hanging from the porch. 

The station is the oldest building built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and still used as a train station today.
Credit Lindsay Lazarski / Keystone Crossroads

Charlie Horan comes out to watch the train, but he's not riding today. In fact, he doesn't know the last time he rode an Amtrak train. 

"My interest is the Pennsylvania Railroad," he said. "I don't like trains. I like the Pennsylvania Railroad."

Horan is a member of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society, which operates out of the cavernous back room of the station. 

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

Amtrak basically handed the aging, collapsing building over to the society in the 1980s. Everyone who works there, from the guy mopping the floors to the guy meeting the train, is a volunteer. 

They started as a group of collectors and hobbyists in the 1960s, meeting casually around the Pittsburgh region to discuss their shared interest in the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the company went under in 1968, they started gathering everything they could, even raiding the railroad's Pittsburgh 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. 

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

Charlie Horan is the archivist for the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.
Credit Lindsay Lazarski / Keystone Crossroads

And, they basically have. Once a month, as many as fourteen volunteer archivists come out to Lewistown from around the state for a four-day, non-stop archiving binge. They even sleep at the station, in what used to be the railway post office. Horan says they made it up like a bunkhouse with cots to sleep five volunteers at a time. 

Horan is divorced and lives alone outside Philadelphia. Coming to Lewistown is like a monthly summer camp for retiree railfans, a place where his life-long obsession with the Pennsylvania Railroad has found company. 

Like Bob Johnson, who Horan calls "Mr. Lewistown." He started the archives at Lewistown Station back in 2000. 

"It was a big unorganized mess, and I guess I volunteered to be one of the people who would help out," he said. "And later, it turned out that I was the only one."

Despite finding other volunteers to help during these week-long work sessions, Johnson, Horan and the team have only organized about a third of all the materials they have. Johnson says they are in a race against time, and the threat isn't just yellowing paper or disintegrating blueprints. 

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

But by creating a usable archive, these volunteers hope they can keep that interest alive a little longer, and continue to find friends and fans who share their obsession. 

This story originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered on Dec. 12, 2016.