Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Why Document the Pennsylvania Railroad?

Advertisement circa 1944 illustrating the diversity of areas served by the PRR. Collection of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, Duke University Libraries.

Advertisement circa 1944 illustrating the diversity of areas served by the PRR. Collection of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, Duke University Libraries.

To preface the question why document the Pennsylvania Railroad, I would like to quote several excerpts from Fortune Magazine’s 1936 2-part article on the PRR. “Do not think of the Pennsylvania as a business enterprise. Think of it as a nation. It is a nation bigger than Turkey or Uruguay. Corporately it behaves like a nation; it blankets the lives of a 100,000 citizens like a nation…The Pennsylvania is the most powerful off all the railroad nations in the Northern Hemisphere. If all were of its size there would need be only 10 railroads in the US instead of some 200. The Pennsylvania’s revenues are 11% of all railroad revenues. Its employees are 12% off all railroad employees, receiving 11% of all railroad wages…One of every 10 locomotives in the US are owned by the Pennsylvania, as do 13.7 percent of all freight cars, and 15 percent of all passenger cars. A dime of every dollar invested on all railroads has been spent to build the Pennsylvania…Every one hundred tons of freight that moved a mile by rail in 1933, the PRR carried 10 and it carried one passenger of every five. Half the people of the US live in the territory it drains - which is the central east from St. Louis and Chicago to Long Island and the Chesapeake Bay.”

 At the time this article was written the Nation was recovering from the Great Depression, the PRR was in the midst of system improvements including the final phase of electrification on the Eastern Region arteries and we were just a few years away from the Second World War. The Pennsylvania Railroad was about to rise for its final epic performance moving the largest volume of war-time traffic by rail including freight, supplies, troops and even pow’s. The PRR was a well oiled machine, a culture of traditional railroaders brought up from the ranks. Their financial history was studied to exhaustion as one of the largest corporations of its time, paying financial dividends to its shareholders for over 100 years.

Overbrook Station, a commuter stop on Philadelphia's western edge typifies what initially drew me to document the former PRR. Among a historic station, signals and switch towers operates one of the most recently upgraded Amtrak routes in the Northeast, the Keystone Corridor. This route was originally the mainline west from Philadelphia and played a big part in shaping the surrounding landscape known locally as "The Mainline".

Overbrook Station, a commuter stop on Philadelphia's western edge typifies what initially drew me to document the former PRR. Among a historic station, signals and switch towers operates one of the most recently upgraded Amtrak routes in the Northeast, the Keystone Corridor. This route was originally the mainline west from Philadelphia and played a big part in shaping the surrounding landscape known locally as "The Mainline".

So it seems like there is no contest, why not study a company, a railroad and a culture of this stature? Frankly, my documentation initially had nothing to do with its corporate significance, or how many of miles of track or tons of freight it was responsible for, because all of that was long gone before I had ever heard of the Pennsylvania Railroad. So what was it then, that a kid could have been captivated with so many years ago compelling one later to embark on such an ambitious project to document something that was gone well over 35 years? The simple answer is infrastructure. The ubiquitous GG-1s and tuscan red passenger cars were gone and the fabled giant went down in one of the greatest financial disasters of all time, but the infrastructure, the engineering, the character of visionary railroad men still survived.

The Pennsylvania Railroad made a significant impact on the landscape that few can ignore, for its something millions of commuters, regional and long distance travelers interface with daily, defining rail travel on what is now commonly referred to as the Northeast Corridor.  West of Harrisburg the mainline evolved as one of the most important arteries for freight between the Mid Atlantic and Chicago, funneling container, general merchandise and mineral trains east and west. The former PRR mainline is a linear corridor of history: linking town, country and city together, illustrating the impact the railroad had on the American landscape.  Along this corridor modern successors operate among relics of the past: stations, interlocking towers, junctions and rail yards that all tell the story of how the mighty PRR once functioned. Despite modern operations many of these relics were built with such forethought that they still play an integral role in operating parts of the nation’s only high-speed rail network and one of Norfolk Southern's most important routes, a nod to PRR's engineering ability. By examining the Pennsylvania Railroad past and present we can begin to understand the evolution of the northeastern American landscape, the railroad and industry of a rich and historic region.

This article is the second in a series of posts that explore the Mainline Project, its origins and methodologies in documenting the former Pennsylvania Railroad.