• Concern for the Future of Railroad Historical Groups

  • General discussion related to all railroad clubs, museums, tourist and scenic lines. Generally this covers museums with static displays, museums that operate excursions, scenic lines that have museums, and so on. Check out the Tourist Railway Association (TRAIN) for more information.
General discussion related to all railroad clubs, museums, tourist and scenic lines. Generally this covers museums with static displays, museums that operate excursions, scenic lines that have museums, and so on. Check out the Tourist Railway Association (TRAIN) for more information.

Moderators: rob216, Miketherailfan

  by RAS
I am a member in a number of railroad historical groups, perhaps being in too many and as a result possibly not doing enough to support each. I am getting increasingly concerned by some of the trends I am seeing, which seem to be common in several of these groups, in particular:

1. An aging membership base and not much being done to bring in new members or increase public awareness of the group.

2. Little effort being devoted to promoting the programs that will be shown at the monthly meetings, but lots of publication space being expended on irrelevant trivia and regurgitated newspaper articles that seem primarily aimed at filling space in the flyer. I would much rather have meeting notices that provide a good description of upcoming events than have to root through a pile of papers with stale news stories written by people who know little about the industry or the hobby.

3. When a good presentation by a qualified speaker is available, the audience often is allowed to interfere with the presentation through irrelevant questions and trivia, to a degree that it drags out and degrades the program.

I see these trends as hurting the groups in the long term. I try to explain these concerns to the officers to the best of my ability, and offer to help where possible. Am I alone in this concern, or are there others out there who are seeing similar trends?

  by Steamtown Observer
You are describing the typical NRHS chapter. The NRHS reached a high water mark in the mid-1980's when it seems like every NRHS Chapter and every convention revolved around the (Norfolk) Southern Steam program. Membership started to decline and now is in free fall. Many of the chapters listed on their website in reality don't exist any more, but they don't want to admit this.

I believe that the days of the general interest railroad clubs are numbered. The groups that are vibrant are the single purpose groups, for example the C&O Historical Society. These types of groups usually are preserving some artifacts, stations, equipment, etc. They usually publish less often than an NRHS Chapter, but the material is more historical. Also, many only meet once a year allowing for only top notch presentations. It is really hard to come up with good entertainment month after month. How far can you go to find people? Are you willing to pay for someone who will have to stay in a hotel for your meeting? I dropped out of my local NRHS Chapter in about 1992 or so. There was really no focus to the group, no project everyone supported. The entertainment was bad - how many shaky videos of someone's vacation should you be forced to watch? The group had (and still has) over $20,000 in their treasury yet no preservation project is worthy of a donation - after all the Chapter might need that money someday (for what is never explained).

There are less people interested in railroads, so it is not surprising that the groups with the weakest "product" (entertainment, newsletter, activities) will be the first to go.

  by RAS
Steamtown Observer, You are probably being too polite in describing the situation where groups sit on funds and will not spend them on projects or entertainment. That is exactly the situation with several "general interest" groups where I am a member, they would not spend a cent to try to attract some better qualified speakers or entertainment, nor will they do any projects or make any grants. But on the other hand I also belong to a few "railroad specific" historical societies that would probably never consider reimbursing a good speaker for their travel, no matter how good a presentation that person might have to offer.

What also concerns me is that some of the groups I belong to just will not do the work to properly promote a presentation or an event, even if it is available at absolutely no cost to them. One group did such a terrible job of notifying their members about an interesting program that some of the members who missed being informed of the event then wanted to get the speaker to come back again so they could see the program.

It seems to me that events should be announced in a flyer BEFORE the month of the event to allow people to plan (and in case the mail is late the next month), then AGAIN on the month of the event. And I find it helpful when groups provide a summary of what was presented the month AFTER the event, which helps let other groups know about interesting programs and presentations. Most of these organizations are supposed to have an interest in history, but many do a poor job documenting their own activities!

One group of which I am a member DOES properly support their activities with detailed announcements, and seeks out interesting speakers and helps cover some of their expenses. Their meetings are by far the most interesting of the several organizations whose meetings I try to attend.

  by Otto Vondrak
Change comes from within. See that your newsetter is lacking good content? Offer to write some yourself, or offer to become the Editor. Don't like the quality of programs being offered? Consider volunteering to be the Program Chair. I know of some general interest groups in the New York City area that are very droll and bring- they are throwbacks to an earlier time when it was just neat to find other guys who like to sit around and talk about trains. I am not one of those people. In regards to the NRHS- some Chapters are very active in their efforts towards entertainment and preservation. Some Chapters do not have the resources available to do either. Still other groups suffer from terrible infighting. I am fortunate to belong to two groups that function well and have many accomplishments to their name.

In the end, it's what you make of it. If you're the Slide Show Chapter, then darnit, have the best slide shows you can. If you're the Bus Tour Chapter, then organize the best tours possible. If you're the Late Newsletter and Bad Speakers Chapter, then either find new activities or count me out.


  by mb41
The few issues I see are:

A: To many arm chair rail fans who complain about the museums not doing enough or anything...hello...get off your tosh and help us :)

B: I live in Boston and can not devote my life to the museum I belong to. I travel via downeaster to help the place.

C: The ones who knew how to work on the equipment are or have passed on. No new ones know anything about this dead industry (trolleys)

D: It is hard to convince people to work in the office too, membership, accounting, store, admin, president, curator, this so many empty slots and paid people due to lack of volunteers.

  by mxdata
Going back to the historical groups and entertainment program planning, one mistake groups sometimes make is to load up all the meetings in the "good weather" months with stuff like "members slide night", "members movie night' and presentations by people in the club. Then they try to get people from other areas to travel long distances to do presentations in the snow season. Of course they have very little luck getting good speakers during these times, as nobody wants to do a long round trip drive away from home in the middle of the winter. This kind of shortsighted planning discourages people (particularly industry people who are already quite busy with winter problems) who might have otherwise been persuaded to come out and be a speaker or present a program. If you are in a snow area, the bad winter travel months are the time for programs by members who live close by. They can find out easily if you have to cancel the meeting. Groups should invite the long distance guest speakers at times of the year when they can travel safely.

  by mxdata
By the way, I just got the October issue of the bulletin put out by one of the groups where I am a member. There is 1/4 page of news on the club's activities in fourteen sheets (28 pages), mostly reprinted pablum from newspapers and other organizations newsletters. The product of folks who seem to think that all the rest of us need help to find anything in the newspaper or on the internet. It says inside they need more volunteers to help stuff and mail their newsletters each month. Yes, I can see where there might be a problem getting people to spend their time sending this kind of stuff out.

  by BlackDog
Ever since seeing this thread I have been giving it a lot of thought, perhaps more than neccessary. My thoughts come from my experiances in volunteer organizations both railroad related and others.

1. There is very little youth involved. A majority of the guys involved are between 50 and 70. Doyle McCormick and David Conrad are not going to be around forever. Are there enough guys like Mike Manwiller to carry on?

2. Too often there is just a core group of guys doing the bulk of the work. The only time new faces are seen is when there is smoke coming out the stack, and then everybody wants to be the engineer. No one wants to repack the grease cellars, roll the odd leaking tube, change out the 230 lb. propane bottles on the coaches, clean the toilets, etc.

3. Because of the above condition, the forementioned core group tends to be a bit "cliquish." New faces are regarded with a bit of suspicion until they demonstrate that they are serious about the work and not just standing around babbling about a train they saw 20 years ago. I have also sensed at times a sort of "elitism" by some train crews to the passengers they haul. Isolated incidents to be sure, but those passengers are customers.

4. The organizations are not run as a business. Realistic goals must be set.It would be great to rescue that mike sitting in the park rusting away, restore it and run it. Hell, it would be great to do that for every locomotive that resides in a park. The sad fact of the matter is that steam locomotives don't burn coal or oil, they burn money. Know how to make a small pile of money with a steam locomotive? Start with a large pile. That's one thing I admire about the MILW 261, the engine doesn't turn a wheel if it's costs are not met, they don't just run that engine for the sake of running it. Doowoppie, I know I've mentioned this to you before. How are thing going?

5. There have been times when the number of people chasing and photographing the train excedes the number of paying passengers. My thought is that if you are going to chase a train, make a contribution towards it. If you are at a museum such as Strasburg, Mid-Continent Railway Museum, etc. buy a ticket. You don't have to ride the train, but if you spend the day wandering around taking pictures and then leaving, you are not doing much in the way of preservation.

6. Some of the organizations I have been involved with seemed more interested in getting a newsletter out than in equipment restoration and maintenance. Yes it is important to get the word out to paying membership what's going on, but it s so easy to go overboard. I have seen some news letters that rival publications such as TRAINS and R&R. Lots of time and money went into them, but is that one of the goals set up by the organization?

Just my $0.02 worth from someone who's been around for a while and done a lot of that. I just wish I had more answers.

  by mxdata
At a string of meetings this spring and summer, including NRHS, RRE, NMRA, and "single purpose" railroad specific historical societies, the thing that was really noticable was the number of guys with gray or white hair. At most of these events I was probably one of the youngest people in attendance, and I am getting up near retirement age. Think this hobby is still going to be around for the next generation? There sure aren't very many younger folks at these events, the NMRA had the greatest proportion of younger members of all the ones I listed.

At the single purpose group meetings I attended this year the quality of the presentations was not noticably better than other groups. It did seem like restricting the programs to one particular railroad encouraged the showing of every underexposed slide taken on an overcast day that some presenters had in their collections, (or maybe their railroad never operated when the sun was out). :wink:

The best comedy line of the year was by one guy who showed a large program of scratched, dirty, fungus infected and faded Ektachromes and Anscochromes and commented proudly: "I'll never go to that electronic scanning and cleanup stuff, I'll show them this way until I die". It very apparent that his slides have died already. :-D

  by RailBus63
There are numerous forces at work here that affect the historical societies. Chief among them are online communities like this one, in which fans don't have to wait for a monthly meeting to pick up on the latest news and communicate with others who share their interest, and we can go to numerous sites to see the latest pics instead of waiting for someone's slide show.

I believe today's younger fans are also drawn to organizations that are Internet-savvy - sorry, but if your group doesn't have a relatively up-to-date website with publications for sale, lists of back issues which include a summary of each issue's contents, etc., then I'm likely to spend my railfan dollars somewhere else.

As for single-purpose groups, I think it's realistic to expect that interest in the subject railroad will diminish as time passes. There is an entire generation of fans in the East who have come of age knowing only Conrail, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Guilford, etc. Historical groups for long-dead roads are really going to have to sell younger fans to get more than a handful to participate in preserving equipment and memories for something they've only seen in a museum or in a book. Some groups clearly do a better job of this than others.

My. $.02 worth.


  by mxdata
One thing I have noticed about some historical groups that make otherwise extensive use of websites and the internet is that they do not seem to understand the value of maintaining an archive. When they publish an article or sponsor an event, they do not keep it on their website for very long and consequently all record of the article or event and any listings of the activities or the presentations is gone in the next cycle of the search engines. If you want people to know what you have done and what you are doing, you need to put it on the website and leave it there. It is not like print media where the book remains out there in circulation long after the printing project that produced it. Once an article is dumped off the disk drive it is no longer accessible or useful, and folks can't afford $30 a shot for printer cartridges to print backup copies of all the articles they see on the internet. I have become very wary of doing projects for groups that don't maintain a long term archive. If they are just going to bump your work off the server in a couple months to free up more space on a disk drive, then there is a lot less incentive to put your time and effort into doing large projects for them. They need to smarten up.

  by mxdata
Thanks for the links, Mike. Those are both beautiful websites, I like the attractive layout and the clearly evident menu on the home page so you do not have to go searching for it.

Unfortunately, on the Rochester Chapter NRHS website I do not see any archive of past programs and presenters, and worse than that, I do not see any description of the upcoming programs or who is presenting them, it just describes them as "railroad related entertainment". Did I miss them somehow? Surely by the end of July they know who is going to be giving the program in September?

Would a presenter who has a good program to offer but is faced with a long travel distance want to do a drive of (for example) 10 hours round trip, paying for gasoline, highway tolls, a night of motel, and meals, to show his/her program to this group when they don't post any description of the program on their website and do not maintain any archive of their past events?

The type of archive I am talking about is maintained by the Amherst Railway Society (which is not part of NRHS) and a few other groups that have websites. The archive does several things for the group:

1. It shows that they care enough about railroad history to recognize and credit the people who have brought them presentations, and they value that contribution enough to continue mentioning it on their website for a number of years afterwards.

2. It provides useful information to program chairpersons at other groups on what they have done and who has helped them. Want a road map to setting up a successful railroad speaker program? There are a lot of names and topics in that archive.

3. It generates lots of lots of search engine hits that associate the group with the speakers and their programs. And notice how many of their speakers are well known authors.

Here is the link to the Amherst archive page:


Fortunately there is a calendar page on railroad dot net that can be used to help make people aware of interesting upcoming events, but shouldn't the groups hosting the events make a reasonable effort to promote them too? With gasoline at $3 a gallon, describing your upcoming events as "railroad related entertainment" doesn't provide a very compelling reason to either present a program for a group or to get people to attend their meetings.

  by mxdata
I recently took a look at the Rochester Chapter website again, and I see that they are now announcing some of the programs at their monthly meetings, and posting photos of some of them. Nice work! Hope they will continue to make improvements and establish an archive listing of their past programs and activities like the Amherst Railway Society has done.

If all NRHS chapters that have websites were to clearly identify their upcoming programs and activities on the sites, it would go a long way toward improving public awareness of the organization.

  by umtrr-author
Younger potential members have the additional problem of Multiple Competing Priorites, not the least of which is Raising Kids. I would love to get to the local NRHS chapter, but I have been to exactly two meetings in ten years, and that's living less than two miles from the location of the meeting!

If I can get out from under work and the usual family responsibilities, then I need to choose among: a date with my wife, talking to or writing to friends, working on the UMTRR and/or the companion website, actually working on my home layout, or attending the local coin club meeting which falls on exactly the same night, or attending the NRHS meeting. Or none of the above-- just vegetating for an hour without any more responsibilities. And I only hold one job. What about people who have two, or are in dual income families where the only contact is five minutes in the morning and a little chatter over the housework at night when the kids are (finally) in bed?

The spirit is willing but the clock says "no"... That probably doesn't change for many if not most people until the gray hair appears (if there's any left at all that is). My dad just started going to meetings like this in the last year, a number of years after he retired. He still thinks he's one of the youngest people there, and that is scary.