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 Post subject: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 02, 2017 6:43 pm 
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A recent flurry of inquiries from individuals who want to contact and talk with people who worked in the industry in the 1930s through 1950s leads me to this posting, some of which I stated before in a discussion of the EMD F40PH locomotives.

The “Edge of History” is about fifty years. That is the length of time after an event occurs that you might still have a reasonable chance of finding a first hand witness who still has the memory recall to be able to accurately describe what happened. Somebody who was in their 30s and working in the railroad industry 50 years ago is at least in their 80s now. The “average” life expectancy in the US is now around 80 years, but that is for the entire population. The average life expectancy for males is only 75 years.

What this means to a researcher or author is that for events from the mid-1960s onward, you might get lucky and still find first hand witnesses and be able to discover some new information. For events before that, unless you can find the very rare individual who has total recall while in his 90s, your chances of finding any new information are almost nil except if you are fortunate enough to locate previously undiscovered documents.

As an example: You want to talk to somebody who worked for Winton Engine Company before they became Cleveland Diesel? Sorry, Forget it. Unless there you can find a 101+ year old that started working there when he was twenty. The last reasonable opportunity for those interviews was in the 1970s and 1980s.

You can’t defeat the calendar. But if you want to document history from first-hand witnesses, you had better be paying attention to it.

PC

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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 02, 2017 9:45 pm 

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I joined the Railroad Museum when I was 15 in 1972, I am now 60 and somehow am still a member (but not very active).

But as I get asked questions by other members about various items in the museum collection, I realize I am one of the few members from that time period still around.

And a lot of my answers begin with that was done by so and so, and he is no longer with us.

-Hudson


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Mon Nov 06, 2017 6:03 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 5:55 pm
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Location: Warren, PA
Know what you mean, Preston.

I just put on a program to a local historical society on the logging railroads of the area, and there simply are no survivors, considering that the last of the companies went out of business during WWII. I was fortunate to have interviewed a lot of the 'old timers' when I was younger, helped get material together for a book by Walt Casler, and have been collecting 'stuff' (particularly with the help of Ebay and Google Books) that would have been previously impossible.

The general consensus of the historical society I work with is I'm the last man standing that knows anything about this stuff, and that's a particularly odd feeling when I was always 'that train kid'.

I first really got it when I realized that my ill-fated first locomotive run as a teenager in 1975 on a Penn Central GP38 on a Pennsylvania branch also inevitably makes me the last living person that will ever be able to have claimed to actually run a locomotive on the entire subdivision that is now completely abandoned, end to end. I'm also one of the last three people in our entire county that graduated from a one-room elementary school, and that already has my picture in a local history book.

Yeesh.


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Mon Nov 06, 2017 7:13 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
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Location: Baltimore, MD
One interesting side effect of this syndrome:

In the recent flap over monuments to the Confederate Army and its soldiers and generals, a lot of ink has been spilled of late pointing out how a good number of those monuments were erected in the 1910-1925 time frame, which of course coincided with the release of the racist "revisionist-history" movie The Birth of a Nation and a resurgence of "Jim Crow."

I've attempted many times when the topic has arisen to point out the very syndrome Mr. Cook points out, the fact that a great many 50th-anniversary battlefield and Grand Army of the Republic reunions occurred between 1912 and 1915 (often highlighted as acts of national and brotherly reconciliation), and the fact that monuments require some time for fundraising and production, all as potentially more benign and less antagonistic explanations for the number of such monuments erected during those particular years.

In my experience, it appears the acceptance of this hypothesis is in inverse proportion to the person's investment in blaming racism for all of society's ills or their problems.


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Wed Nov 08, 2017 3:54 am 

Joined: Thu Oct 19, 2006 1:18 am
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Location: San Francisco
Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
...all as potentially more benign and less antagonistic explanations for the number of such monuments erected during those particular years.

In my experience, it appears the acceptance of this hypothesis is in inverse proportion to the person's investment in blaming racism for all of society's ills or their problems.


You consistently include off-topic and unwanted political pontification in your posts. While I am sure your comments are fine with a large number of visitors to this board, they are far from fine with all of them. I'm not going to engage you or anyone else here on the merit of your views. Save it for facebook or twitter.

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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Wed Nov 08, 2017 10:18 am 

Joined: Tue May 03, 2005 8:35 pm
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Randy:
Are you referring to the Bedford Branch ?

Kevin K


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Wed Nov 08, 2017 11:00 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
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Location: Baltimore, MD
Quote:
I'm not going to engage you or anyone else here on the merit of your views.

While, ironically, you just did by responding.

Issues of "revising/revisionist history" do arise in this field. The corporate history of the railroad industry swings wildly between singing the praises of all the railroad industry did for North American economic development to condemning the evil ways of the "robber barons" and their racist/monopolistic/extortionist business practices. Of late, many historians have taken to examining the role of the railroad in African-American culture and economic development--and, at times, these tomes are the only railroad history books I've found in some libraries or branches, and not just in inner cities (this seems to reflect book selection being lazily driven by book review publications, rather than any agenda being pursued).

Transit/trolley museums routinely have to deal with patrons, and even docents/staff, repeating the popular National City Lines "conspiracy theory" that "GM and Firestone killed off trolleys so they could sell buses and tires and gas; if it wasn't for them we'd have a fine trolley network still in this city today!!" The reality in even a NCL city, of course, is far more complex, but 1) doesn't fit in a "sound bite" and 2) doesn't advance the speaker's political/social agenda--much like the situation I described with Confederate statuary above and the selective data points being advanced to fit a theory/agenda.

I've been present when grumpy old railroad enthusiasts in a museum event espoused a variation of that theory--that GM blackmailed railroads into buying their diesels by threatening to shift their traffic to other lines or trucks. When I pressed them for details, they got visibly hostile--"I was there! I saw it!" and "I don't have to prove anything to you! It HAPPENED!!" They obviously had nothing except their conspiracy theory. It's easy to see how this kind of "oral history" would satisfy, say, the average passer-by, but not a serious academic. (And I have a bunch of serious academic books that disagree with their theory right over there on the shelf....)

If we're going to claim to be historians, we owe it to the historical record to preserve as much as the history as we can from as authoritative sources in the manner Cook advocates. Otherwise, we really do run the risk of others with agendas other than preserving history re-casting it (probably distortedly) on our behalf to the public for their own benefit.


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 12:18 am 

Joined: Sat Feb 02, 2013 10:18 pm
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We seem to have strayed quite a bit from the OP's original point -- which was that there is a maximum period of about 50 years after something ended to get info -- the stories -- about that thing from people who were there then and experienced it first-hand or saw it -- before all such first-hand witnesses have forgotten most of what they experienced or have died.

Nevertheless, as I like to say, healthy, normal conversations wander all over the map, so the thread drift here is OK -- at least, it is with me. As always, YMMV.

So, without further ado, I comment on what Alex Mitchell has written.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
SNIP -----------

One interesting side effect of this syndrome:

In my experience, it appears the acceptance of this hypothesis is in inverse proportion to the person's investment in blaming racism for all of society's ills or their problems.


Says a white man who cannot ever have experienced racism first-hand all of his life.

Racism is a gigantic problem in our society, and is at the core of our society's basic worldview. And, no, racism is not the same as prejudice. Racism is the unquestioned assumption that some people are not as inherently worthy and capable as others just because of the color of their skin. In this society, whites are assumed to be inherently worthy and capable, while blacks and others whop have darker skin are assumed to be inherently inferior.

I am white, and I have never, ever had to deal with this -- just because I am white. But blacks have to deal with this all the time, and it hurts them and all of us. (Sexism is also a huge problem in our society, and is the unquestioned assumption that males are inherently more worthy and capable than females -- who are judged primarily by how "attractive we are.)

Returning to the OP's main point, which is very, very important for all of us who care about preserving history to remember, so we can do a better job of preserving history and the stories of those who have experienced things that are now gone:

I read some time ago that NRHS chapters rarely, if ever, invited people wbo worked for railroads or the big locomotive and car builders to come and tell stories about what they experienced daily on their jobs. And now the "Edge of History" has almost passed for the steam era, and it will also soon be gone for the men who worked for EMD and GE, etc., during the transition from steam to diesel, and while the first-generations diesels were being designed and built. And not hearing and preserving the experiences of those men is a huge loss to all of us.

One example from my own experience:
Carl Ball, who was the Chief of Police for the Santa Fe around 35 years ago, did a program at a regular monthly meeting of the Northern California Railroad Club around 35 years ago. He was a great speaker, and that program was one of the best that club has ever had -- and it was all just him sharing his stories and memories, and he did not show even one slide. (FYI, the Central Coast Railroad club, later the Central Coast Chapter of the NRHS, was formed buy NorCal members who lived in the San Jose area who wanted to meet closer to their homes than San Francisco, where NorCal always met.)

Food for thought, indeed. This thread is one of the most important threads that RYPN has ever had. Thank you, PCook, for starting this thread.


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 12:47 am 
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MargaretSPfan wrote:

I read some time ago that NRHS chapters rarely, if ever, invited people wbo worked for railroads or the big locomotive and car builders to come and tell stories about what they experienced daily on their jobs.


MargaretSPfan, that is a very interesting observation. In doing research on Jim Boyd's "The Men Who Styled The Streamliners", I was told by several long-term members of the NRHS that Jim was the only former EMD employee they could remember having presented a program at the national convention. And when it happened, he had been gone from EMD for a long time.

Jim did get frequent program requests from many chapters for their monthly meetings, but once again, he was not working for EMD at that time, he was working for Carstens Publications.

PC

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Last edited by PCook on Thu Nov 09, 2017 12:55 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 12:53 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
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Location: Baltimore, MD
MargaretSPfan wrote:
Says a white man who cannot ever have experienced racism first-hand all of his life.

But who HAS experienced prejudice of a different sort all his life. I'm not going into detail here; those who have met me in person will know what I'm talking about. I'll just let your self-appointed privilege speak for itself.

Now back to the topic at hand:

Part of the problem with "oral history" is that it's considerably more difficult than we care to think. I've read of late a number of "oral history" compilations, and frankly some of them come off as well-meaning but dull and even trite. "Real life" is too often boring; sometimes the good stories aren't real and the real stories aren't good, or at least exciting or compelling. The experiences are real, and are indeed part of history, but only work if placed in the right contexts.

The people who actually know important history are somewhat few and far between, and it would take hours upon hours of interviews to garner useful information from them. An interviewer has to know what to ask, and come up with questions based on what's been said, not always an easy task. And then there's separating the "wheat from the chaff"--I'm sure that, as well-meaning as a compilation of every word the interviewee had to say on the subject may be, that some people have been turned off to the oral history field just by having to slog through so much.

Then there's the preservation. I'm told some of a box of tapes we have here may be oral histories recorded in the 1960s. Nobody's found enough proof of what's on them to bother finding a reel-to-reel tape player to find out. Want at them? Come on by.

We still have, in this city, a former Baldwin Locomotive Works design engineer that was instrumental in the changeover of BLW from steam to diesel, including oversight of the N&W Jawn Henry project. We've interviewed him a couple times on video, but we desperately need experts on the N&W and Baldwin who know better than we do what to ask him. (Any volunteers willing to come here, PM me. His brain is all there, if not his ability to talk fast. And, yeah, hurry up--he's old.)

The "50- year" rule also, by the way, seems to show up in the classic/antique car field as well. It seems most of the enthusiasm in the hobby at this point centers around 1960s' models.


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 1:14 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
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Location: Baltimore, MD
MargaretSPfan wrote:
I read some time ago that NRHS chapters rarely, if ever, invited people wbo worked for railroads or the big locomotive and car builders to come and tell stories about what they experienced daily on their jobs.

Having had some modest experience with this, the problem tends to be twofold:

Railfans, to be painfully stereotypical about it, too often fit the "What kind of whistle did it have?" meme (portraying the bespectacled kid from Polar Express), of being curious about (relatively) inane trivia that even the employees themselves have no clue about. The cliche of slide shows of 3/4 shots of every loco of a certain model a railroad had, in numerical order, exists for a tragic reason.

Railroad employees come at the situation from a completely different perspective, and many, though they may be terrific workers at whatever they do, may be terrible "storytellers" or communicators, with all the charisma of the monotonic teacher from Ferris Buehler's Day Off. I've been stunned to be in the presence of a brilliant photographer who could barely articulate his way through his own slide show of beautiful images.

Finding the right balance between the two, in both subject matter and presentation, is extraordinarily rare, and some of them have become legends of a sort, either written or public speaking--Jim Boyd, Mike Schafer, Doug Riddell, Doyle McCormack, and others.

Some of this, of course, enters into the now-age-old discussion as to whether rail museums, NRHS chapters, etc. are really railroad history preservationists or just social clubs. The answers vary from place to place.


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 2:39 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 11:54 pm
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Whether or not Mr. Mitchell's post was off-topic or tangential, will be a matter of subjective opinion.

But this:

"Says a white man who cannot ever have experienced racism first-hand all of his life."

-MargaretSPfan

Reflects poorly on the writer and betrays a noxious shallowness of thought. Of course I wonder if the pot is calling the kettle white here. Whatever ADM wrote isn't nearly as off topic as this ad hominem.

Racial animus is but one sort of prejudice.

My mother (in her 70's) was chased off the street as a child of six or seven by a vicious old woman who yelled "go back to Hungaria (sic)" Forget for a minute that not only is there no Hungaria to go back to, but that Hungary wasn't her ancestral homeland.

Mom was native born. as was Nana and Pop-Pop and didn't speak with an accent.

Pop-Pop died before I could know him because not being the right ethnic group, coal mining was the occupation available to him, until he and his brother George got jobs on the Central Railroad of New Jersey. George had the misfortune of being on top of a car a few minutes before quitting time-and fell. He was vivisected, tranversely. My grandfather was told "something happened to George"-you better go home and get some sheets.

My grandmother-who would have been 105 two weeks ago, had she not died 15 days before her 100th birthday-knew of people whose dead were brought home in wagon, and presented shortly thereafter with an eviction notice by the coal company who owned the "company house"-like many men in my area had the "white privilege" of a couple thousand feet of earth above their head-propped up by timbers and later, he choked slowly and painfully to death at age 53 courtesy of the anthrasilicosis worsened by Camels.


Same group of morons had one insist being taken to the polling place to vote against a Presidential candidate based on his religion.

Mom's grandfather was a miner and he (also not from Hungaria) was had his lunch stolen by men from another ethnic group. Every try swinging a pick for twelve hours without lunch?

Don't complain about topical relevance and then offer your cheap SJW virtue-signalling. It makes you rash and indoctrinated. Maybe you were born with a silver spoon up your.. but not all of us were.

I don't know who you are, but I know that you make snap judgments about people's knowledge of "social inequities" based on their race-which of course makes you a racist.


Last edited by superheater on Thu Nov 09, 2017 3:01 am, edited 3 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 2:51 am 

Joined: Sun Apr 02, 2017 3:13 am
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Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
The "50- year" rule also, by the way, seems to show up in the classic/antique car field as well. It seems most of the enthusiasm in the hobby at this point centers around 1960s' models.


You also see it in model railways/railroads. Most enthusiasts usually model what they remember seeing in their childhood, but can only afford the time (and the hyper-detailed models!) in retirement.


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 10:13 am 

Joined: Thu Feb 27, 2014 10:08 am
Posts: 238
kew wrote:
Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
The "50- year" rule also, by the way, seems to show up in the classic/antique car field as well. It seems most of the enthusiasm in the hobby at this point centers around 1960s' models.


You also see it in model railways/railroads. Most enthusiasts usually model what they remember seeing in their childhood, but can only afford the time (and the hyper-detailed models!) in retirement.


A few years back it was 70s muscle cars that were hot. So general rules for interests more likely follow kew's observation of the gap between when people want something vs when they can actually afford it. This is all fundamentally different from PCook's 50 +/- year rule on experiential knowledge and how it is lost if not somehow recorded.

As for the rest of the thread:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8ukak8P2vY


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 Post subject: Re: The Edge of History
PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 10:27 am 
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As oral history interviews have been mentioned in the discussion, I would just like to comment that the best ones I have seen/heard are those that involved a "meeting of peers". I realize that is sometimes difficult to set up given that the person being interviewed may be very elderly, but it does not necessarily require that the interview "team" all be of similar age, just having people of similar background who are younger in the team can be very helpful.

One of the best sessions I recall was when three (then) current and former EMD employees interviewed their retired former boss, who had finished his years with the company as a Regional Service Manager. The people asking the questions were two District Engineers and a Regional Sales Representative. The gentleman being interviewed had very limited hearing at the time, but when the request "Tell us about the problems you had with the FL9's" was presented, he lit up and took off on a full hour of fascinating details. Just in time too, only a couple years later, two of the four people had passed away.

PC

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Last edited by PCook on Thu Nov 09, 2017 10:36 am, edited 1 time in total.

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