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1999 Railroad Heritage Conference|
Remembering the rails
By Celena E. Kusch
Listen to enough folk songs and you will know the importance of railroads in American history. An 1828 song written for the B&O Railroad Companys ground-breaking ceremony claimed that there was a road to be made, with the pick and the spade; / Tis to reach to Ohio, for the benefit of trade.|
As the song suggests, the economic effects of the railroads are indisputable. Peter Barton, executive director of the new Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, explained, Railroads were truly responsible for the development of the United States as a nation. In our settlement of the West, in our national development and in the process of industrialization, railroads are an important part of our collective past.
So pervasive was the influence of the railroads, according to James Porterfield, adjunct professor of marketing at Penn State and author of Dining by Rail: The History and Recipes of the Golden Age of American Railroad Cuisine, that it spread to virtually every aspect of American life and shaped the artistic expression of generations. How better to understand that role than to examine the art, music and literature about the railroads?, Porterfield asked.
In June, scholars, artists, history buffs and railroad enthusiasts explored the theme of The Railroad in Art, Music and Literature during the 1999 Railroad Heritage Conference. The annual conference is an outreach program of the Penn State Alumni Association, Penn State Altoona, the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, Alumni Continuing Education and The Mary Jean and Frank P. Smeal College of Business Administration. Porterfield and Barton served as conference co-chairs.
Sixty Penn State alumni and friends from all over the East Coast and as far away as Florida and Washington enjoyed lectures and discussions led by railroad artists and scholars. Other conference activities included tours of the new Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum and the Conrail/Norfolk Southern locomotive and car shops, an exhibit of the photographs of William Rau, conference meals from authentic rail menus of the past and an historic rail ride over Horseshoe Curve through Gallitzin Tunnels to Johnstown.
This years conference also featured a vintage film festival of Hollywood portrayals of the American railroad. According to Porterfield, the festival will become an annual event, attracting the greater Altoona community, as well as conference participants to a downtown Altoona film event.
We have high ambitions for the film festival, Porterfield said. This years films demonstrated the breadth of the use of railroad in film, but the future promises more diversity. Future festivals might focus on film portrayals of railroad robberies, hobos or the life of railroaders, he added.
Participants enjoyed the opportunity the conference provided to combine education and recreation through events like the film festival and rail tours. According to Jeanne Hickam, a participant from Florida, Penn States Railroad Heritage conferences are a great way to expand my knowledge of one of our great industries and to do so in the company of others with similar interests.
Another participant remarked that the activities and presentations bring back memories and bring forward the true heritage of railroads and their meaning to this country.
For Barton, the contributions of participants enriched the conference, as well.
The conference allows us to share information about rail history with the public and at the same time encourages them to share their experiences of the railroads, as well. Through activities like Jim Porterfields authentic rail dinners, the conference stimulates a nice two-way dialogue, Barton said.
Porterfield added, this conference is an important example of a quality outreach program.
It provides Penn State alumni with an opportunity to increase their knowledge of railroad heritage; it increases awareness of the Altoona communitys crucial role in railroad history; and it serves rail fans nationwide. The conference also plays an important part in advancing Penn State Altoonas reputation as a center for railroad programming within the University and beyond, Porterfield said.
It makes great sense to offer this conference in Altoona, because Altoona was the site of the largest railroad shops in North America, Barton added. In 1926, 17,000 people worked for the same Altoona railroad companyPennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation in the United States at the time. Altoona workers produced 6,783 locomotives in 80 years and rebuilt 150 locomotives per month. This conference has an important connection to this communitys heritage.
The Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum believes strongly in assisting Penn State in presenting the Railroad Heritage Conference, Barton continued. Only two such conferences are held annually nationwideone hosted by the California State Railroad Museum on the West Coast and, on the East Coast, the Railroad Heritage Conference offered in Altoona. It is important that we continue to keep people thinking about the importance of the railroads and that we encourage scholarship and interpretation of the impact of railroads in American national development.
The 1999 conference is the second in the Alumni Continuing Education Railroad Heritage Conference series and a continuation of an earlier Penn State Altoona conference series. Future programs may include a partnership with the California Railroad Heritage Museum, a rail tour to Washington, D.C., and a number of short programs offered through Penn State Altoona.