Editor’s Notebook: Railroad Heritage

Written by David C. Lester, Editor-in-Chief
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Southern Railway 4501 returns to Atlanta on a round trip to Toccoa, Ga. with a Southern Steam Special on Sunday, October 17, 1976.
David C. Lester

RT&S JULY 2023 ISSUE – If you are a regular reader of our sister magazine, Railway Age, you likely read editor Bill Vantuono’s note on page 2 of the June issue that Railway Age and Railway Track & Structures have entered a new partnership with the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) to present the “Outstanding Railroad Historic Preservation Award.”

As Bill writes, “[The award] is designed to recognize a railroad for its efforts in railway preservation, [with] the intent [to] honor and recognize a North American common-carrier railroad for a historically significant preservation project completed or put into operation within the past five years.” 

Bill and I are very excited about our readership participating in the award process because, as Bill points out in his piece, both Railway Age (founded in 1856) and Railway Track & Structures (founded in 1905) are also part of railroad history due to longevity of our publications. Back issues of RA and RT&S are excellent resources for those working on historical research and we encourage everyone to use them. 

I think it’s particularly appropriate that we’re partnering with the NRHS because of its own role in historic preservation. During the 1970s, particularly in the South, NRHS chapters sprang up like wildflowers when Southern Railway ran steam engine excursion trips on its lines, known as Southern Steam Specials. The railroad could not provide a lot of the logistics for these trips, such as advertising, selling tickets, assigning passengers to cars, staffing the commissary car, providing car hosts, and a myriad of other administrative duties associated with the trips. While the railroad focused on running the trains safely, NRHS chapters provided people to manage all the ancillary administrative and logistical details. This was a win-win-win for everyone. Southern was able to promote railroading in its territory, individuals working or riding on the trips had a relatively rare opportunity to ride a train and interface with a Class I railroad, and the NRHS chapters had a nice revenue stream to help promote their other preservation activities. 

It’s fair to say that the NRHS, working with Southern, contributed mightily to growth of rail enthusiasts throughout the country as many came from other parts of the U.S. to ride aboard these trains.  Moreover, who knows how many rail enthusiasts exposed to the railroad this way decided to pursue careers in railroad operations or management? I can name several off the top of my head. 

While there were other steam operations in different parts of the U.S., many operated in conjunction with NRHS chapters, many believe that Southern’s, then Norfolk Southern’s, steam program was a major catalyst for the growth of railroading as a hobby and a profession for many. The longevity of the program, and the work of NRHS chapters, was important, too. Beginning with a few trips in the late 1960s, the program (and NRHS chapters) ballooned and continued under Norfolk Southern until the railroad terminated the program in 1994.