A Life With Trains
A preeminent historian and museum curator looks back at a career devoted to the past of American railroads
In 1958 John H. White, Jr., a fresh graduate of Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, landed a summer job at the Smithsonian Institution. Jack, as all his friends call him, had a passionate interest in old things. As a boy he had thought the most wonderful of all occupations would be the proprietorship of a junkyard. Old things were, of course, the stock-in-trade of “The Nation’s Attic,” but Jack did not expect to stay in Washington for more than a few months. His long-range plans were vague. For several years he had worked part-time in his hometown of Cincinnati as a draftsman, and he expected he could make a living at some drafting board while attending night school. His ultimate dream was a job combining his love of history with his love for mechanical things, but there were very few opportunities for that. During his last year at Miami, he had sent letters of inquiry to several technical museums; only the Smithsonian responded, and the indication was that it had only temporary summertime jobs available.
When Jack White arrived for his interview, he was sent to the office of Howard I. Chapelle, whose own passion was the hull lines of sailing ships. Chapelle was probably the world’s leading “lines man,” but as the Smithsonian’s newly appointed curator of transportation, he was also responsible for carriages, automobiles, and locomotives, all matters in which he was supremely uninterested. When Jack White showed him an article he had published on a short-line railroad in Ohio, Chap was only mildly curious, but he warmed up when shown a map that accompanied White’s article.
“You draw?” he asked. “Pencil, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes,” Jack responded, “but I prefer ink on linen.” That was quite sufficient for Howard Chapelle.
Jack reported to work at 8:45 A.M. on June 11, 1958, assuming he would be asked to do some tracing or perhaps be sent to dust some displays. Instead, he confronted the responsibilities of a seasoned curator, including planning two of the three transportation galleries (Chapelle would of course take care of the Maritime Hall) in the new National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), construction of which was about to begin on the other side of the Mall. It was a daunting task: the collections were skimpy, the literature was both spotty and untrustworthy, and there were only a couple of months to prepare preliminary plans. But Jack’s outlines satisfied Chapelle, and he was offered another temporary appointment to develop them further, and then a permanent appointment to see them through.
In June 1990, thirty-two years later, Jack White, fifty-six, finally wound up his Smithsonian career, after having been curator of transportation and then senior historian at the National Museum of American History. Besides planning those first land-transportation displays, he had been involved in countless other exhibits. He had published more than a hundred articles and eight books. The American Railroad Passenger Car had been nominated for a National Book Award; American Locomotives: An Engineering History, 1830-1880 has assumed the status of a classic. He had traveled all over the world, lectured at Moscow University, and spent a term as a fellow at the Science Museum in London. On the 150th anniversary of its construction, he had steamed up and driven the Smithsonian’s John Bull —the oldest operable locomotive on earth. The Railway & Locomotive Historical Society had selected him as the premier recipient of its Senior Achievement Award, “for a lifetime of significant contribution to the writing, preservation, and interpretation of North America’s railroading history.” Among historians of technology, Jack White was unanimously regarded as the consummate museum professional.
The following interview took place on the eve of his retirement.
How did you first become fascinated by technological devices? Can you identify some turning point, some particular experience during your youth in Cincinnati in the 1930s and 1940s?
It began as a fascination with history more than with technology. 1 think this was largely due to the influence of my grandmother, with whom I spent a lot of time when I was a child. She was a very old-fashioned lady. Everything about her daily life was linked with the past. Her house was like a little museum. This was a person who had an icebox, not a refrigerator, who preferred gaslights to electricity. When Christmastime came, we had candles on the tree. She didn’t have a washing machine. She prepared practically everything we ate from scratch—baked her own bread, churned her own butter, made her own egg noodles.
She was born in Europe?
She was from Bavaria, and everything she did she did the old way. You got on the streetcar and went down to the market and bought everything fresh and hauled it home. Even if you were old and tired, you did it anyway. And she talked constantly about her early life, about visiting Ludwig’s castle, about the wonderful Bavarian sleighs. It was all extremely romantic. This was a happy time for me, and I think it imbued in me a love of the past.
When you went places with her, did you take the streetcar?
There was almost no other way to go. Sometimes, as a big treat, when we went downtown, she would take the long way around, and we’d go down the Mount Adams Incline. There was a streetcar barn near her house, and I liked to go look around it.
So you especially fancied things that ran on rails?
No. I liked anything that was mechanical. I guess all little boys like mechanical things, and with me it didn’t have to be railroads. My dad, who was an accountant, had a small workshop, which I got into at a very early age, at seven or eight, though not with his blessing. When he wasn’t around, I was down there fiddling, and soon I was building models. 1 always wanted more, but my parents couldn’t really afford to buy all the things I wanted, so I started to make them—little buildings and especially steamboats. All of this was before I was ten, and these things probably weren’t very good, but I was proud of them, and they did make me think a lot about industrial and mechanical things.
After beginning high school, I played hooky quite a bit because I wasn’t very happy there. At the bottom of the hill near the high school was the Union Terminal Company, so I would go down to the roundhouse. 1 spent so much time there that I started having lunch in the employees’ cafeteria. And I got to ride around on the switch engines and even fire them sometimes. The mechanics were almost always tearing something down, replacing bearings or rebuilding a firebox. I learned by looking and asking questions. And I liked being there. I felt comfortable.
But I would also go visit places like tanneries and breweries. There were at least ten breweries in Cincinnati, and they all had engine rooms. One of the big dairies downtown had quite an enormous engine room with ammonia compressors and lots of steam pumps. Then there were machine shops. Every time you turned the corner, you ran into another little machine shop, some of them with truly ancient equipment. In those times you weren’t thrown out of shops and factories. People weren’t worried about things like insurance and liability. If you walked in and politely expressed interest, they would show you things or even let you wander around. Once I was offered a job as an oiler, and to my parents’ horror I was ready to quit school to accept it.
Cincinnati was still largely a nineteenth-century city. If you took away the automobiles and a few modern buildings, you would have had a city of about 1890. It was like a living museum.
You mentioned steamboats. Were they still an everyday sight when you were growing up?
Around 1940—I must have been six or seven—my parents first took me to Coney Island, an amusement park ten or fifteen miles up the Ohio. You got to Coney Island aboard a big 1925 side-wheeler named the Island Queen , whose flailing rods and cranks were visible from a room on the main deck. I loved that machinery. I thought Coney Island was boring, but I loved the Island Queen ; we’d no sooner get there than I’d want to head back. My parents didn’t understand my fascination.
By the late 1940s I had friends with automobiles who could drive me down to the waterfront. You could walk right on board stern-wheelers and side-wheelers, all sorts of them, some of them coal-fired. I took many riverboat trips and never set foot on the dance floor. Of course, by the late 1950s they had been replaced by diesels, just as steam locomotives had been replaced.
Did you read Louis Hunter’s Steamboats on the Western Rivers ?
When I went to Miami University, I became a history major and started asking my professors what was available on the history of engineering and technology. Well, according to them there wasn’t anything. They didn’t know about anything, hence it didn’t exist. One or two people were more helpful, steering me to Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization . To them, that was the beginning and the end of the history of technology; what more did anyone need to do? I managed to get a library stack pass and bumbled into a fair number of books, including Hunter, which was absolutely the most astonishing thing I had ever discovered. I was just dumbfounded that there was so much information on this subject, technical as well as economic information, and that it could be presented in such a masterful fashion. That was a great inspiration to me.
What was your first real job?
It was at the Triumph Manufacturing Company, which made bakery machinery—dough mixers. I worked on the assembly line, or so they called it. Actually, it was more of a bench system. You set up a gearbox and assembled it, and when it was finished, you rolled it along. Those gearboxes were about the size of an automobile’s. Downstairs were the big horizontal machines for the commercial bakeries. No matter the size, nothing ever quite fit right in assembly. There was an enormous amount of hand fitting and hammering to realign bearings.
I learned a good deal about machinery and about materials from that experience, and at lunchtime I’d go down and wander around the machine shop or sit out on the loading dock with my friend the saw man, a very funny fellow who claimed to be part American Indian and who spent all day cutting shafts with a big power saw.
I already knew something about scale drawing and drafting from my model work and from a mechanical drawing course I had taken in high school. I was a pretty terrible machinist because I didn’t really know how to run the tools except by guess and by gosh, but I was a pretty good draftsman. I worked summers in the drawing room at Triumph while I was in high school. Later, while in college, I switched over to a company in the west end of Cincinnati, the John H. McGowan Pump Company. McGowan still built steam pumps, some of them pretty big—eighteen-inch bores with a three- or four-foot stroke—which were tested in the shop on compressed air. We still did some of the drawings full size. This was all wonderful, practical experience, and I loved it.
A few years ago Brooke Hindle wrote this about the history of American technology as a scholarly field: There has been a sharp rise in studies involving a good command of technology from the inside as well as a good understanding of social and economic relationships.” I think you would agree, yet you have also expressed concern that historians of technology often lack a hands-on appreciation of technology, so they don’t really understand it as they should.
Well, take materials. People will write on and on about something like bridge building but not understand the properties of the materials that were used, not understand the basic differences between cast iron and wrought iron, or iron and steel. Try to make a piece of cast iron into a tension member, and you will have instant failure. The same holds for bronze and brass and copper —materials that are similar in some ways but very different in others. Any beginning course in the history of technology should treat such matters as fundamental. I remember my course in British history, where the professor started out by insisting that we learn something about British geography: “I want you to know that Devon is in the south of England and York is in the north.”
Many teachers jump right into the literature, into the big issues, into theory. These matters are extremely important, but so are the fundamentals, like materials and fabrication techniques. You need to have some kind of handle on that. Otherwise, technical artifacts are just a bunch of old stuff.
Do you think engineering school provides a good grounding for a historian of technology?
Certainly, an engineering background is going to impart insight that a straight historian probably won’t have, but the crucial hands-on aspect may still be lacking. And engineers who haven’t studied history are notoriously terrible historians. My argument is that practical experience and formal training are both essential to the making of a good technical historian.
Howard Chapelle, the great maritime historian with whom I worked at the Smithsonian until the early 1970s, once told me that he’d learned a great deal from model builders: “They have uncovered a lot of mistakes in drawings that I’ve done.” I’ve found the same to be true in my own model-building experience. I’m working now on a model of a locomotive built in 1841 by the Rogers Locomotive Works. There is only one contemporary plan, a side elevation published in England. This is beautifully executed by an English engraver, but it has a serious mistake.
What is it?
It’s the way the running boards are mounted on columns over the driving wheels. When you look at the engraving, everything appears just fine. But when you start to build the model, you find it won’t work. It just won’t work. You don’t discover this until you try to lay it out on a piece of paper and then make a model of it. Or take my model of a 4-4-0 locomotive built by the Hinkley Locomotive Works in Boston around 1845. It looks quite American. But when I started to work on the plans and the model, it suddenly dawned on me mat it’s not American at all. It’s a Stephenson Planet, an 1830 design, a number of which were imported to New England. Hinkley stretched it out, threw another set of wheels under it, and put a wood-burning stack on it, but in all other respects it’s an absolutely stock Planet. And a wonderful example of a transfer of British design—you don’t do anything experimental, nothing risky; you just take this nice, proven British locomotive and enlarge it a little bit. I don’t think any of this is obvious by just looking at a lithograph. It only became obvious by my tearing the thing apart.
Let’s turn from hands-on matters to writing. You’ve told me that one of the senior Smithsonian curators, Phil Bishop, once admonished you that “publication was not the real business of a museum curator.” Why did you decide to devote so much of your career to writing?
Well, first of all, Bishop was chairman of the “other” department, arts and manufactures. The department I was part of, science and technology, was chaired by Robert Multhauf, and Multhauf was quite adamant that we all should publish. But that really wasn’t the main reason. The main reason was that despite all the big talk about the importance of collecting, we were actually discouraged from collecting. We still are. Collecting causes trouble. You bring dirty old heavy things in here. You have to spend thousands of dollars to store them and fix them up, and there is no place to exhibit them anyway. If you are interested in teacups, the front office is eager for you to collect; anything bigger than that, they don’t want it. I may get banned from this building for saying that, but it’s true.
You had already written a couple of articles before coining to Washington, and so you decided that you could keep occupied by writing?
Yes, although I didn’t really think of writing as my forte, and it had not been my intention at all. Multhauf was very strong on writing and publishing, but I think the chief influence was Chapelle. Chapelle, who had quite a distinguished writing career, reminded me time and again that he had started out as a draftsman in a shipyard. He had done a couple of articles in Yachting or some such magazine. An editor told him he wrote rather nicely and encouraged him to do a book, perhaps on some type of ship that was no longer around, such as the Baltimore clipper. With some trepidation, Chapelle wrote a book. He said that it wasn’t a very good book, but it was immensely popular, and he suddenly became an expert. And a historian. Although he claimed to be neither, his whole career changed. He was no longer Howard I. Chapelle the boat designer; he was Howard I. Chapelle the historian. Publishers were after him, and soon he was making his living writing maritime history. “This is how you become an expert,” he told me.
So Chap encouraged you to do the same with railroad history?
Oh, yes. And then I got into the preparation of scripts for exhibits in the new building, and I found out how poor and chaotic the technical literature was. There was no agreement even on the basic order of events. It was like history before the Domesday Book. There were more errors and half-truths than reliable facts. The best books on railroad history focused on economics; there was hardly anything decent on hardware. I decided that there was a need here, a need to get the facts straight. Who did what? When did they do it?
You regard sorting out facts—so-called antiquarianism—as absolutely essential to good technical history, and on occasion you have responded vigorously when someone has denigrated this kind of activity.
I think the importance of getting the facts straight is self-evident. How can you talk about philosophy of history, about the big picture, when you don’t even have a handle on the basic sequence of events, on names, numbers, and dates? You have to build a foundation before you can build a palace. Of course you need to have some idea of the boundaries. Of course history is subjective. I’ve speculated time and again on the nature of the inventive process, for example. If you can interpret your facts as you’re gathering them, that’s fine; otherwise, get something accurate down on paper for somebody else to interpret.
In your first few years you were trying to write exhibition scripts, and there were some books available, but they tended to be inaccurate or else, as you have said, “more sociology than mechanics.” Has the situation changed much in thirty years? Doesn’t it seem to you that many, if not most, people who are prominent in the history of technology now write about matters that don’t have much to do with nuts and bolts?
A lot of wonderful literature has come out. We are currently a generation ahead of where we were when I started out. The whole field of corporate history has been pretty well filled in, at least as far as railroads go. In a pictorial sense at least, the steam locomotive has been worked to death. But we still have no fine technical history of the American steam locomotive, certainly not in the modern period, and the subject of dieselization has hardly been scratched, although the historian Maury Klein and a few others have played around with it. We still stand in want of a lot of basic factual information, just as we did thirty years ago.
In your career as a museum professional, you’ve seen major shifts in the conventions and ideals for staging exhibits. If you were to redo the Smithsonian’s Railroad Hall today, how different would it look?
I don’t know that it would look much different at all, but the theme and interpretations would probably change quite radically. When I did that hall, I did it very much under Chapelle’s influence. His guiding concept was to show each and every hull type that ever existed, so when it came to railroads, he thought that the exhibit ought to show every locomotive type that ever existed. Now I realize that a far higher priority is to address basic questions: What is a railroad? What were its functions in the past, and what does it do today? What is a locomotive? Railroads began in England, started out here on the East Coast, gradually moved westward, and ultimately became the great common carrier. For a time they were the nation’s premier industry, the only way you could transport anything across the land. Travel almost automatically meant train travel. Millions of people worked for the railroads. Almost everybody had an uncle who was a conductor.
When we started work on that exhibit, technology was considered one of the most positive forces in this nation’s fabric. Things have flip-flopped. Today it’s looked upon almost as a great negative. When we began that exhibit, American industry was first in the world, the American economy was predominant. Now all those things are in question. I’m not as surprised by how much things have changed as by how quickly they have changed.
When this place was founded, it was modeled on the Deutsches Museum in Munich and the Science Museum in London. It was compartmentalized, with individual halls devoted to individual technologies or industries. That’s all changed, too. It’s conceivable that in a major redo of the museum the Railroad Hall would simply disappear. Although the 1401 wouldn’t.
The big locomotive from the Southern Railway. It will never leave?
Not unless they chop it up.
You’ve been carrying on quite a battle with Steamtown, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. What’s that about?
Here is a situation where there was a third-rate collection in a place to which it had no relevance, and its denomination as a national historic site was simply a political trick. The usual discussions, studies, and comparative analyses—the nomination and selection processes stipulated by Congress —were simply circumvented. The idea of establishing a big railroad museum run by the National Park Service would have been fine, provided that some effort had been made to evaluate all the possible sites. None was, yet Congress just keeps dumping more money into it.
You have warned that there is a very real danger of filling up our museums and warehouses with “trivia.” What do you mean by this?
Scranton has a Union Pacific Big Boy, an engine certainly worth preserving, but there are seven of them preserved. The problem is: by the time the preservation movement really got going, most of the good stuff was already gone. About the only place that did any collecting early enough was the National Museum of Transport in St. Louis, which didn’t have an effective preservation program; most of its equipment sat outside for so long that it can’t be restored any more.
Recently you coined a term, facadism , that now seems to have become common currency among railroad preservationists. What do you mean by facadism?
A facade is what you have when a historic object, a locomotive or a piece of rolling stock, is so thoroughly rebuilt that there is really nothing left of the original. It is not a restoration, it’s a replication. When you have a group of volunteers giving up their free time on behalf of restoration, they are mainly motivated by the prospect of eventual operation. That’s understandable, but on a limited budget it is rarely possible to make an old locomotive or car operational without destroying its essential fabric. The preservation of industrial artifacts has largely been left to hobbyists.
The handful of publicly funded technical museums that we have are chronically understaffed and short of cash because industrial artifacts just don’t have much cachet. At one time everyone thought industry would provide support, but it won’t. A big corporation may give lots of money to the ballet or the art museum or the children’s hospital, but all it will give the railroad museum is a used-up diesel locomotive it wants to write off.
What can be done about this?
The maritime museums have a great deal more respectability. They have attracted big donors in the past, so wealthy people consider it all right to support them. They have good table manners—they’re socially acceptable. And they have banded together effectively and know how to beat down the door at places like the National Endowment for the Humanities. Most other kinds of technical museums remain in the Dark Ages; they should study the maritime museums very carefully.
Was the steaming of the John Bull , in 1981, the high point of your Smithsonian career?
It was certainly the riskiest thing I ever did. It was probably even foolhardy; the John Bull is priceless. But it was one of those things that just got started. First we thought we’d simply turn the wheels over. Then we got to wondering if we could actually steam it. We agreed that we wouldn’t do anything that was at all radical, nothing irreversible. Even as conservative as we were, it was risky. But it was a very exciting project, and I think we learned something important. The John Bull was, and is, a very nice little locomotive, very easy to run. You can understand why Robert Stephenson became the most famous locomotive builder. He built a very good product.
I may be retiring from the Smithsonian, but not from the field of history. First I’ll probably write some articles on the history of travel. Eventually I hope to do a book on railroad travel in the nineteenth century.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Oh, I’m a very decided pessimist. How can a historian be anything else? It is all a chronicle, after all, of decline and fall. But I’ve had a good career, and I think I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to work at the Smithsonian. I couldn’t have done what I did anywhere else.
Do you have any heroes?
I have had favorite historical characters. Nineteenth-century characters. Bismarck. I had a big thing for Bismarck. And for William McKinley. And Andrew Carnegie. I read Carnegie’s autobiography while I was in high school and kept wanting to talk to other people about it. Nobody was interested in talking about Carnegie, not even my teachers. I knew I was kind of an odd kid, that was clear.
Zerah Colburn is high on my list, too. Colburn was a mid-nineteenth-century journalist who worked for the American Railroad Journal , started his own weekly, Railroad Advocate , edited The Engineer in London, and then started another weekly, Engineering . He wrote books on locomotive engineering as well. He had a wonderful style.
Would you prefer to have been born in the nineteenth century?
If I had been, then I probably would have loved the eighteenth century. What we need more than any other invention is a time machine. When we get that, we will really have something. And you will want to come back to the present only when you have a dental appointment.