Friday, July 20, 2012

Poetry Friday: Railroad Rhythms (again) -- A Visit to the National Railroad Museum

Knowing N.'s love of trains, a friend recently sent him a postcard that reprinted the last stanza (the complete poem is still under copyright) from Ogden Nash's "Riding on a Railroad Train" (1937):
(must wear train-themed t-shirt to train museum!)
Oh, some like trips in luxury ships,
And some in gasoline wagons,
And others swear by the upper air
And the wings of flying dragons.
Let each make haste to indulge his taste,
Be it beer, champagne, or cider;
My private joy, both man and boy,
Is being a railroad rider.

So we were already familiar with these lines when we saw them on a recent trip to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  This museum doesn't exactly live up to its self-aggrandizing name in quantity or quality of displays, but it has a couple important cosmetically-restored engines: The British A4 Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Union Pacific 4017 Big Boy, and a Raymond Loewy-designed Pennsylvania GG1.  N. also enjoyed seeing a logging shay, an unrestored Aerotrain with its strange bus-body passenger cars, and old DM&IR 2-10-2 from 1919 (#506), and a Burlington Route Zephyr-style observation car.  Other museum highlights include a big exhibit of beautiful railroad china and an exhibit of "drumheads," the vivid signs on the end car that advertized a railroad's signature line, such as the 20th Century Limited.
We also really appreciated what we could view of an exhibit on Pullman porters (its installation was incomplete) mounted in a 1920s Pullman car which highlighted the porters' long efforts to unionize (forming the first all-black labor union in 1937), their role in disseminating news nationwide to African-Americans, and their role in the civil rights movement. (I did, however, hate the incredibly annoying "computer generated porter with interactive capabilities" on screens throughout the car; it seems insensitive to use CGI in an exhibit that is meant to highlight to oft-overlooked human struggles of a group of people.  Why not use an actor?).

Much of the National Railway Museum's unrestored stock sits in a dark outdoor shed and many items lack any kind of identification or sign, which was incredibly frustrating.  We went in a dusty unrestored railway post office car (we've been in clean, restored RPOs in Minnesota and North Carolina) in this shed.  At the end of the car, the door leading to the next car on the track was open, so we tiptoed into a very dark Empire Builder sleeping car and then into a Vista-Dome diner, shining my phone like a flashlight.  Creeping through their dark, mildewy interiors lent drama to our visit; we got a kind of "private joy" from exploring types of cars we've never been able to enter before, and imagining their original 1950s synthetic gleam.

So our visit to the National Railway Museum juxtaposed the heroic presentation of World War II with Eisenhower's command cars, the faded, dusty glamor of 1950s unrestored passenger cars, and the moving story of those who were excluded from the full benefits of a society their labor made possible until they banded together to bring about change.  N. has learned a lot of history from "being a railroad rider."

[Poetry Friday is hosted this week by A Teaching Life.]

1 comment:

Violet N. said...

My goodness, I was with you two in those dark and musty cars. Thanks for bringing us along!