For years I've been searching for railroad memorabilia tied to the national parks: Posters, luggage stickers, calendars, even timetables from the Northern Pacific, Great Northern Railway, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific.
Well, a book that arrived the other day explains why I haven't been able to find any: Alfred Runte apparently has cornered the market.
Mr. Runte, of course, is a historian who also happens to be an expert and prolific writer on the subjects of national parks and, I now know, trains. While I've had his wonderful book on the history of the parks -- National Parks, The American Experience -- I didn't realize he authored one on parks and trains until Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks arrived in my mailbox.
For one who loves parks and trains, this was a welcome addition to my library. Through its 150+ pages Mr. Runte not only delves deeply into the trains that once, and in some cases still do, reach the parks, but also shares his vast personal collection of memorabilia. Among the 100 black-and-white and color photos that illustrate this book are:
* The 1915 cover of Titans of Chasms, Grand Canyon of Arizona that the Sante Fe Railway used in the early 1900s to lure tourists, via train, of course, to Grand Canyon National Park.
* A full color postcard of the Yosemite Valley Railroad, which stopped running in the 1940s, on an approach to Yosemite National Park through the Merced Canyon.
* Letter-sized "foldouts" featuring colorful sketches of Yellowstone National Park that the Union Pacific Railroad used beginning in 1923 and continuing until 1960 to gain the interest of travel agents.
* A Union Pacific poster depicting the view of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park from Flattop.
* And, something I would like hanging on my own walls, a 1913 Sante Fe Railway chromolithograph of the Grand Canyon that it commissioned Thomas Moran to paint.
And those are just some of the author's own posters and leaflets that illustrate the book. There are many others from other private collections, park collections, universities and museums.
But as rich as the photos and posters are, the text in this, the 5th edition of the book, is even more so if you're a train buff or national park lover. While the history of trains and parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon is fairly well known, this edition stretches pushes the history further to the east by adding sections on trains and Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Acadia National Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, even Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Helping you navigate all these lines is a two-page map of the country on which the author locates "relevant units of the National Park System" and then connects them with red lines depicting historic rail lines that reached the parks and blue lines to show you the lines still in existence.
For instance, did you know that on Amtrak you can reach Crater Lake National Park via the Southern Pacific tracks, or Everglades National Park via the Atlantic Coast Line? Did you know the Maine Central and Bangor & Aroostook once carried folks to Acadia, or that the Southern Railway once served Great Smoky?
An entire chapter is devoted to what Mr. Runte calls "The Great Railroad Fair," more formally known as the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco. This event gave the railroads ample opportunity to promote the wonders of visiting parks by train in the face of the opening the year before of the Panama Canal, which was viewed as something of a threat to the railroads.
Now a reality, the canal offered serious competition to the railroads ... The challenge was how to engage the public (at the 1915 exposition) without appearing to demean the canal. The solution came in the railroads' focus on the grandeur of the national parks. Why should Americans still believe in railroads? Because the railroads believed in what the Panama Canal could never do, namely, showcasing the American Land.
... No doubt, the Panama Canal had revolutionized world trade, more than halving the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Regardless, North America belonged to the railroads. The products of its mines, mills, and factories would always depend on them. People crisscrossing the continent would always need good trains. "One prime objective," the Union Pacific Railroad admitted, announcing its display in San Francisco, "is to show in comprehensive form to the tourist from other sections exactly what the great American West has to offer."
To help promote its trains to Yellowstone, the UP assembled a 4.5-acre "model of Yellowstone," one that included a working model of Old Faithful.
In shaping his story, Mr. Runte explains why previous editions of the book ignored the east.
... there were no major national parks east of the Mississippi until fifty years after Yellowstone was established. By then the car was a chief competitor with railroads. In the East, the push for national parks came with that difference: railroads had grown cautious about developing parks in the face of the automobile. Obviously, the early railroad monopolies in the West would not be repeated, and even the western lines were having second thoughts about the future of the passenger train.
The author also raises interesting questions that long have dangled about the parks and automobiles: Is there a better way to get people to the parks without the congestion of automobiles?
To this question Mr. Runte offers the example of the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland, that country's Yosemite. Here, he writes, "mountain railroads invite all visitors to leave their cars behind. Might a similar emphasis on public transportation better preserve our national parks and natural areas?"
Between the covers you'll also find separate chapters on the Yellowstone Park Line, the Yosemite Valley Railroad, and trains to the Grand Canyon. Chapter 7, the final chapter, explores "Discovery Today" by train. In it Mr. Runte raises an intriguing issue: Americans' fleeting fascination with long vacations.
We are obsessed with saving time. We are more likely to fly than take a train, finding the continent still in our way. Even when driving we see practically nothing of the real America lying just beyond the interstate. As our children grow bored, automakers seem to think we should keep them quiet by playing a DVD. The latest cars even come with built-in monitors. In the end, no one watches the passing countryside, even if it is only to count the billboards.
To combat that affliction and encourage train travel, he points out national parks and historic sites where you can still enjoy a train ride: Steamtown National Historic Site, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Denali National Park and Preserve, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Harpers Ferry and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Parks, and New River Gorge National River.
If you go on any of these rides, be sure to take Mr. Runte's book along to serve as a guide.