Photographs & History

Photographs and History

In Memoriam

Donald T. Rittler: 1919 - 2016

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news of the passing of Donald T. Rittler, a former Pennsylvania Railroad train director who lived and worked in the Harrisburg area for most of his life.  In 2012 I had the privilege to meet Mr. Rittler during a private tour of the Harris tower museum, arranged by NRHS Harrisburg Chapter members. When Don arrived he brought this already fantastic interactive site alive with first hand experiences of running one of the most important interlocking towers on the PRR Philadelphia Division. Since to that meeting I had several opportunities to talk with Don about his experiences on the railroad including a very special return visit to Harris that I was so lucky to share with my father and son.

During my visit to Harris in 2012 I had some time to chat with Don while photographing him with the 4x5 view camera. I am lucky to have this image of Don at the train director's desk, a familiar place throughout his 42 years of working in interlocking towers for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central and Conrail.

During my visit to Harris in 2012 I had some time to chat with Don while photographing him with the 4x5 view camera. I am lucky to have this image of Don at the train director's desk, a familiar place throughout his 42 years of working in interlocking towers for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central and Conrail.

Don Rittler started his career with the Pennsylvania Railroad on October 11th, 1937 as a messenger for the interlocking towers on the PRR Philadelphia Division. The first person to be hired since the 1927 furlough of employees as a result of the Great Depression, Don worked the introductory job spending his days relaying messages and paperwork from tower to tower as needed, gaining a familiarity to the basic operations and chain of command among the many towers on the system.  On December 1st, 1940 Don posted his first position as a block operator and leverman, working the Philadelphia Division extra list, filling in at different towers over the years.

Detail of Don's home away from home, Harris Tower's interlocking machine and train director's desk, a post Don worked for many of his years during his tenure with the PRR which began in 1937.

Detail of Don's home away from home, Harris Tower's interlocking machine and train director's desk, a post Don worked for many of his years during his tenure with the PRR which began in 1937.

In 1944, like many other PRR employees Rittler was summoned to serve his country in World War II. Holding the title of Master Sergeant in the Army’s 775th Railway Grand Division and the 3rd Military Regiment, Don’s deployment centered in the Pacific Theater during the height of the war. Initially working in the Philippines operating the Manila Railway Don’s unit moved to Japan to secure a railhead for military transport inland in the event of land attacks. As a result of the infamous atomic bombs, their services were not needed for this purpose but they did continue to work keeping the Japanese rail systems functional. Returning to the US a short two years later almost exactly to the day, Rittler resumed his tenure with the PRR, holding tower positions as both leverman and eventually train director for State and Harris towers near the Harrisburg passenger station.  Rittler, who’s father was a master machinist for the Pennsy in Enola was always fascinated with the railroad, as it was always apart of his life, with many friends, neighbors and family also employed by the PRR.

Don and his wife Mary built a house in New Cumberland near Lemoyne and lived a wonderful life with their daughter Donna, sharing the family like atmosphere and camaraderie of the many railroaders Don worked with on a daily basis. He continued to work in the Harrisburg area well into the Penn Central era eventually moving to Conrail after the 1976 consolidation. Amtrak was slowly taking over operations on the Keystone Corridor in the mid 1970’s and Don’s choices of where to work were becoming increasingly limited. Don ultimately worked first shift at Lemo tower in Lemoyne, which he described as a welcome break from the busy towers he was accustomed to like Harris, finishing out a spotless 42 year career in railroading in 1979. After retirement, Don was very gracious with his time and experience in the towers, helping the NRHS Harrisburg Chapter develop the interpretive exhibit for the Harris tower project. He would also on occasion visit with small groups at the museum to provide first hand working knowledge of his craft like I was so fortunate to experience. Don’s presence at Harris will be greatly missed but thanks to his generosity, his legacy and knowledge will live on with the Harrisburg Chapter and the Harris tower museum.

May your presence always be felt at Harris tower, rest in peace Don.

For more information about memorial services for Mr. Rittler, please click here


News and Updates for Winter 2013

Dear Friends, Happy New Year! I trust that you all had a wonderful and restful holiday and have settled into the New Year. Finishing out the last quarter of 2012 proved incredibly productive for the Main Line Project. While continuing work with many wonderful people at Amtrak for a second year I have begun building new relationships, with noted preservationist Bennett Levin and Eric Levin of Conrail Shared Assets opening many new opportunities. In addition, the release of the NRHS Bulletin article on the Main Line Project and the invitation to present lectures for several events ended 2012 with a promising start to the New Year.

Park. 001
Park. 001

In 2013 we will continue the tour of the Pennsylvania Railroad, focusing on the Philadelphia Division’s fabled Low Grade route east from Columbia, Pennsylvania as well as the main line from Royalton to Philadelphia. With new content and added historical imagery you can expect a more rounded look at the history and current operations of this important division of the PRR. I have already started making new images this year continuing documentation of the extensive infrastructure along the Main Line to finish out the Harrisburg – Philadelphia segment and expand upon my work in the Philadelphia Terminal and New York Divisions for future posts.

In addition to research, writing and photography, this year marks an exciting chapter for the project with the opportunity to present my imagery and research in three lectures scheduled for the winter and early spring. See below for details on these upcoming events!

From the Main Line: Exploring the former Pennsylvania Railroad today.

January 28th, 2013 7:30 PM

Though modern imagery inspired by railroad photographer William H Rau, the presentation will explore the unique landscape and vernacular associated with the Standard Railroad of the World.

West Jersey Chapter, National Railway Historical Society

625 Station Avenue, Haddon Heights NJ 08035

Understanding the Pennsylvania Railroad: Contemporary photographs in response to the historic works of William H Rau.

March 7th, 2013

This lecture will look directly at W.H. Rau’s photographs of the Pennsylvania Railroad made in the 1890's exploring their impact on the Main Line Project to understand the importance of dialog between the historic and contemporary photographer. Details to follow.

The Library Company of Philadelphia

1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107

Conversation on Photography Annual Conference

April 12th – 14th, 2013

The Center for Railroad Photography and Art hosts this annual conference. The Center has become America’s foremost organization for interpreting the intersection of railroad art and culture with America’s history and culture.

I will discuss the ongoing photographic project (2007- present) From the Main Line, exploring the transitioning landscape along the Pennsylvania Railroad from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh highlighting the unique vernacular of facilities and infrastructure built by the former Standard Railroad of the World. Details to follow.

Lake Forest College, 555 North Sheridan Road, Lake Forrest, IL 60045

I look forward to sharing another year of history and stories from the great Pennsylvania Railroad. I encourage you all to stay in touch and please feel free to share your stories and experiences with the railroad. I am only one person in the fraternity of countless historians and enthusiasts of our railroad heritage; it is exciting for me to understand a railroad that I never had the good fortune to experience though the oral histories and photographs of others!

As always, thank you for your time and support!


Michael Froio

2013 Center for Railroad Photography and Art Conference Announced!

I am excited to officially announce that I have been invited to present a lecture on the Mainline Project at the 11th annual Conversations about Photography Conference, a wonderful event put on by the Center for Railroad Photography and Art. Having attended for the first time this past April I was blown away by the variety and quality of the entire production, to be a part of the next conference is an honor for me! The lecture will tie into the article published recently about the Mainline Project in the NRHS Bulletin and will feature many new images for the continuing effort of documenting the former Pennsylvania Railroad system. The Center for Railroad Photography & Art has become America's foremost organization for interpreting the intersection of railroad art and culture with America's history and culture. Founded in 1997 and based in Madison, Wisconsin the Center works with photographers, writers, and historians across the country to achieve its goals. Since the beginning, the Center has offered high quality public programs associated with photography and art works in all media. Their annual conference, "Conversations about Photography," and awards program, both established in 2003, set the pace for national discussion about contemporary railroad photography and encouragement of young photographers to become a part of the community. Lake Forest College's archives and special collections department acts as a co-sponsor and hosts the conference. The announcement was released in the newest Railroad Heritage journal, the Center's quarterly publication, following Center founder John Gruber's excellent article about the Pennsylvania Railroad's use of photography throughout the company's 121 year history. The 2013 conference will be held at the beautiful Lake Forest Illinois campus April 12-14th, more details including additional featured guests, registration information and schedules will follow.

Please enjoy the article below or click here to download a PDF version for your enjoyment! For more information on the Center for Railroad Photography and Art please visit their website.

CRPA_Conversations copy

NRHS Bulletin Feature


I am excited about this week’s release of the National Railway Historical Society’s quarterly publication the Bulletin, in which I have a feature article about the Mainline Project. The 26-page essay explores the history, accomplishments and legacy of the Pennsylvania Railroad while examining its successors and state of operations today. Understanding the various attributes of the railroad helps to define the approach of the Mainline Project, celebrating not just the trains themselves but the landscape, physical plant and facilities associated with former Standard Railroad of the World.

The NRHS has been a figure in the preservation community since it was founded in 1935 growing from 40  members to over 13,000 people of all ages from US and abroad, making it the largest rail preservation and historical society in the country. The Bulletin represents 77 years of in-depth non-commercial coverage of Rail Preservation topics through out the rise, fall and rebirth of the American railroads.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this issue of the NRHS Bulletin please contact the National Railway Historical Society, 100 North 20th Street, Suite 400, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1462 or by email at copies are $6 each (including shipping) while supplies last.

As always thank you for your time and support!

Best regards,

Michael Froio