austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

There's lots of stations on my railroad track

The Penn Central Railroad was an agglomeration of the Pennsylvania Rail Road and the New York Central, lashed together in the late 60s in the attempt to keep both lines operating. The merger revealed that the decade of preparatory work for it was spent mostly on figuring out how they'd issue new stock certificates so the investors wouldn't lose equity, with no thinking put into how combining two railroads --- with very different operating cultures and less overlapping track than you might have imagined --- would produce any substantial savings, other than their deciding that there would surely be tens of millions of dollars in savings when they merged. The company staggered on with Bourbon-like arrogance and obliviousness, trusting that the people could be ordered to have the state legislatures provide (needed) support, with the railroad apparently not realizing that they didn't have a monopoly on commuter or long-distance traffic anymore, and the whole project collapsed into the then-largest corporate bankruptcy in history in less than two years. The shards of the mess staggered on until they could be put into Amtrak, Conrail, or other responsible corporations. The name lives on as a footnote in economic histories, as the first great American financial crisis of the 70s, and in railroad histories, as a sorry epilogue for two great names.

So how was I now faced with a wall of Penn Central memorabilia ready for the buying?

The short answer is we at the Altoona Railroad museum. It'd be rather silly to get all the way to Altoona and not take in some railroad history, and Thursday morning we went there instead of directly to our next amusement park. It's built in part out of old Pennsylvania Rail Road buildings, and has the sort of mixture of exhibitions and artifacts and semi-interactive displays. Those are built around reproductions of stuff like newsstands and bars and the like, dated to Kind Of Late 40s, I Guess, often with flat-screen TVs and actors going on 2500-word expository dashes so the Kid can explain just how everyone how knows works for or with the railroad and how they take great care of the town, so I'm guessing this must be set a little before 1946 when the railroad laid off three million people in a day. (I exaggerate, of course, but only a little.)

Kelly's Bar (the recreation of, well, there it is on the label) is, by the way, great, though of course not functioning. But there's that old-fashioned cigarette vending machine outside and figures determinedly throwing out so much railroad jargon that you know the scriptwriters were trying to show all their research at once. It's allegedly taken from oral histories of actual railroad employees of whenever back when, which makes one of the conversations particularly interesting to me and bunny_hugger. The figures were sharing the story of a guy who got smashed between two trains, held together just by the trains being coupled, and sure to die when they were released, so they called his wife and his priest over to have their last words. It's a well-known bit of urban folklore, of course, but it's fun to at least think of it as actually being there in the wild rather than just preserved in books of urban folklore.

There's a fun game of pretending you're the switcher trying to assemble trains as a set of cars move on --- surely somebody's turned this into an app -- and for my money a really fascinating walk through testing lab equipment. The testing lab has some tests that look obvious, like, measuring the intensity of light bulbs, and others that look bizarre, like putting a rubber glove in a water tank and putting some electricity into the tank. (This produces bubbles, which highlight any holes in the gloves, which are not wanted if they're to be used on high-power lines.) The most baffling was a pyramid of oranges in the midst of two walls of light bulbs; bunny_hugger, paying more attention to the signs than I was, said that the light bulb walls were an example of testing; the pile of oranges was an example of the stuff that had to be collected and processed for the railroad's food cars every day. They were just together as the transition between two areas, and not some weird sort of oranges-under-light experiment.

In the testing lab incidentally were a couple elderly folks talking about when they used to work for the railroad, before the railroad laid everybody off. I don't think they were part of the museum, they were just hanging out.

One of the scripted panels incidentally is set up as a Pennsylvania Rail Road executive greeting you as if you were a prospective investor and then explaining how they try to make sure that costs are less than revenues so as to turn a profit. I imagine they were writing that for a younger audience than us.

They had a searchable database for railroad employees, although it's not clear where the data comes from or how it's vetted. I have some relatives who were on the New Jersey Central, which I believe was a Pennsylvania firm (eventually), but they didn't seem to be in the database.

And the museum does talk about the Penn Central, mentioning in various panels how it failed and rapidly because the government so heavily subsidized the airlines and the highways and ships and every other mode of transportation, and penalized and over-regulated railroads to where they couldn't do anything, plus the unions were against them, and if there were any mention of how management, for example --- and I'm not making this up --- ordered their passenger cars to not be maintained, on the theory that this would prove the railroad's need for support to the public, who would then demand the state legislatures subsidize the commuter lines, and then the public double-crossed them by not using the railroad anymore and getting angry when any state legislator suggested supporting them, then I missed it. I grant there were many things destroying railroads after 1915, but, they did a lot of self-immolation.

Anyway, the gift shop is lush with merchandise, of course for the Pennsylvania Rail Road, and for modern lines running through Altoona such as the Norfolk Southern, but also for the New York Central and for Conrail and Amtrak and, yes, Penn Central. And that's how I stood there in the gift shop looking over T-shirts and mugs and pins and all sorts of other merchandise for a short-lived, failed, forgotten railroad and considering: where would I even wear a Penn Central ball cap? 1969?

It was difficult, but I resisted the urge to get into ironic railroad merchandise. I think I made the right decision. Probably.

Museum entrance also got us admission to the Horseshoe Curve, and we'd go there, but first, the other big attraction in Altoonia, after Lakemont Park and railroads, is of course the Boyer candy factory.

It's not so big a facility as Hershey's, of course, but it's unmissable. It's actually directly in line between the railway museum and the Horseshoe, with a factory that takes up a prominent block and a factory store that maybe isn't the wonderland of candy you might imagine but is the right spot for us. They didn't have any free samples or reject candy, unfortunately, but we were able to stock up on a couple of Boyer-inspired recipe cards, and to get bags of candy right from the source. Some Mallo Cups, sure, but also the other candies they offer, peanut butter cups and caramel cups and so on that, honestly, we liked better than Mallo Cups. It's possible this is just the novelty, and it's possible this is because of the freshness --- your average convenience store does not have day-old Mallo Cups --- but we were snacking on our factory-store Boyers till well after the trip.

Then we went on to the Horseshoe Curve, which is a magnificent scenic attraction and which has a small auxiliary museum as well as another gift shop and temptation to pick up more Penn Central stuff. There's a funicular railway to bring people from the parking area and museum level up to the curve area, though, and we took that because it might not be very far in distance but all that distance is very, very uphill, and that's why we cut short looking around the museum and interpretive center. (And at that, I managed to somehow not be sure that the funicular car we were on was the car we should have been on. In my defense, I have no idea what I was thinking.)

The curve itself, well, it's beautiful, with small packs of elderly men scouting the horizon and listening to train controller radio while patient-looking women watch and wait. They gathered, rather like fish getting excited ahead of getting fed, as trains approached; while we watched there were two different trains that that came by. This was per the schedule, which they had at the gift shop. There had also been the possibility of a third, carrying car frames to Michigan, but that was marked as only running when there was demand, so we couldn't fault them for not running it the hour we spent waiting. bunny_hugger counted the cars on the first train, a habit she's been in since childhood (I didn't pick it up; we just didn't tend to be near very long trains when I was a kid, only commuter trains). I fiddled with my camera trying to get the ``panoramic photograph'' mode to work. I've gotten hooked on the attempt to make the panoramic photograph mode work. It succeeds about one time in four. I have no idea what the thing wants.

With the trains passed, and the sun moving on, we got back to our car and went to a little spot just outside Altoona, where we could go to our next amusement park, the fourth we would visit in four consecutive days.

Trivia: The French Republican calendar month of Prairial was translated into Italian as Pratile, into German as Wiesenmonat, and into Dutch as Grasmaand. Source: Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History, EG Richards.

Currently Reading: War With The Newts, Karel Čapek. Translated by Ewald Osers.

Tags: pennsylvania parks trip
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