In a world where the railroads seem to do everything they can to hide from the public, examining old passenger timetables is just one way to establish connections to the past... Author's Collection
Connections to the past
By Otto M. Vondrak/photos as noted
Railroads have retreated from the spotlight in the years since passenger trains were transferred to the government agency Amtrak in 1971. Before that time, riding a passenger train was usually how the general public knew railroads, unless you happened to be a freight customer or otherwise connected to the industry. Relieved of the responsibility of operating costly passenger service, the railroad industry seemingly turned its back on the public to concentrate on the more profitable aspects of hauling freight across the country. As Amtrak struggles to maintain the nation's passenger network on a shoestring budget, there are far fewer stops listed in the timetable today. Except for where the railroad may still be the dominant employer in some old "company towns," few today have any reason to know anything about the railroads anymore. Establishing a connection with today's railroads can be difficult.
Fortunately, the railroads have left behind a rich legacy of printed materials over the last 150 years. Among the most ubiquitous is the timetable. Railroads large and small printed these documents by the thousands, at the same time educating and enticing the general public. With railroad mileage peaking in 1917, just about every town in America had a train station. The railroads enjoyed a de facto monopoly on transportation services until after World War I when the automobile was introduced. The Great Depression took out a great many smaller lines, but it wasn't until after World War II that the industry went through its first round of consolidation and elimination. Through it all, the lowly timetable was there to document every change.
All too often we read the history of a particular line and take it for granted. Railroads were built, railroads were operated, and in some cases, entered a period of decline before they were wiped off the map by natural or financial disaster. Aside from a few valuable photographs, most historians are disappointed to find little tangible evidence that these operations ever existed. Even when the most respected scholars disagree on key points of information, some answers can be found by examining the rows and columns of a railroad timetable.
Some timetables were fancy, carrying intricate illustrations and celever marketing slogans on the cover, in full living color. Others were more reserved and plain, only presenting the most basic of information, and nothing more. Some issues contained route maps, drawn from the perspective of the railroad showing their own lines straight and thick while competitors were shown as light and squiggly (and sometimes, not at all). Special services like Pullmans, dining, and parlor cars were listed as further enticements to travel. Stopovers and side excursions to tourist destinations were also encouraged.
Some amusing tidbits can be found amongst the footnotes. For instance, Boston & Maine timetables of the 1960s carried the explicit warning that "No remains will be handled in any train on the B&M RR..." For no particular reason, the New York Central wanted to make sure you understood that "Shenorock is nine tenths of a mile west of Lincolndale," if you were traveling on their Lake Mahopac Branch. When the weather would not cooperate, commuter ferries operated in the San Francisco Bary Area by Southern Pacific ran on a special "Fog Schedule" every 40 minutes until conditions were clear.
On July 10, 1938, photographer R. Ganger captured this morning B&O passenger train, possibly Train 406 backing down along the Genesee River to Genesee Dock, where passengers will board a railroad ferry to continue their journey to Coburg, Ontario. Having a copy of B&O's Form B-R dated April 24, 1938 helped indentify the train in this vintage photograph taken near Rochester, New York.
There is an almost indescribable feeling one gets when paging through an old timetable. The stations are all neatly listed, with the scheduled time of departure following right after. The timetable doesn't argue, it simply presents the facts as it knows them. For instance, during the spring of 1938, Baltimore & Ohio train 52 departed Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at 9:15 a.m. A connection could be made at East Salamanca, New York, with train 152 at 4:29 p.m., which would arrive in Rochester 7:35 that evening. The next morning, you could continue your journey north with train 407 departing Rochester at 8:30 a.m. and arriving at Genesee Dock at 9:05, where you would board a railroad ferry to cross Lake Ontario arriving in Coburg, Ontario, Canada, at 2:05 p.m. The seasonal ferry would be discontinued in 1951, and the last B&O passenger train would pull out of Rochester in 1953. While the trains stopped running 60 years ago, the surviving timetables provides evidence that trains did indeed run there. Someone used this same timetable to plan their own trip so many years ago. Somewhere between the history books and the old black and white photos, timetables like these help us bridge the gap and fill in the details sometimes missing from our collective memory.
I like to pretend I have a methodology when it comes to my own personal collection. I started finding timetables from the area I grew up at local train shows for pennies. Then I became obsessed with "firsts" and "lasts," such as the first or last edition of a particular service or a railroad name. Some timetables I began to collect because I always thought that line or service was "cool" even though it was thousands of miles away. Then come the rare and the oddball and the obscure. Of course, I'm always on the lookout for beautiful examples of early color lithography. Other times I'll feel compelled to pick up some examples just so I have a few "samples" from a line I wouldn't normally research but otherwise find interesting. Finally come the impulse purchases that I can't otherwise explain, but could probably come up with good reasons if you pressed me.
For some, it's difficult to understand collecting items that were meant to be thrown away. Perhaps that is what makes old timetables so special. Long after the people and machines have gone, these simple documents remained. The only thing more remarkable than the information contained inside is the story of how some of these timetables came to survive all these years. It's almost like a note from the past, a constant reminder that tells you, "This was real. This actually happened. What you hold in your hands is all that's left." As today's railroads retreat farther into seclusion, old timetables provide some of our only connections to the past.