On Railroad History and the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society

By John H. White, Jr., 1985

Every historical society has a history of its own. Ours, during its first half-century, might well be described as a sole proprietorship. Its triumphs and failures were largely due to one man, one Charles Eben Fisher (1889-1972), a native of Taunton, Massachusetts. His father, Herbert Fisher, had worked for the Mason Machine Works and had developed a passionate interest in early locomotives, particularly for those of his employer's manufacture. Although this interest was passed from father to son, no one would call Charles Fisher a chip off the old block. The father has been described to me as open, warm, and generous, qualities not abundantly visible in his heir. Charles was more in the classic Yankee tradition, reserved, taciturn, a mite suspicious of strangers. He kept his own counsel. At the same time, he was a dedicated railroad enthusiast and he ardently believed that there should be more to the hobby than informal gatherings to exchange stories and pictures. He wanted a businesslike organization, an organization with a regular publication. Nothing like that existed.

True, there were quite a few railroad publications, but the latter were essentially devoted to trade and traffic, with almost total emphasis on the present day. Charles Fisher wanted to concentrate on railroad history. In the spring of 1921 he was joined by Arthur Curran, Warren Jacobs, and Roy W. Carlson in establishing the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society. The R&LHS was the first organization in North America to focus on railroad history, and a pioneer in the study of business or technological history of any kind. Its founders envisioned a national membership, with its publication a tangible bond among the members.

The society's first "Bulletin" was a modest pamphlet of 32 pages, with contributions from Curran, Jacobs, and Fisher. As Fisher was the only one of the group with any proven literary talents--he had published a monograph on the Old Colony in l919--he became editor as well as acting president and vice president. His hobby was stamp collecting, and so to produce the Bulletin he contacted a philatelic printer of his acquaintance, John W. Stowell of Federalsburg, Maryland. Stowell's firm remained as printer for even longer than Fisher was editor over a half-century.

By the end of 1921 some 50 railroad enthusiasts had signed on. During its earliest years, the ranks of the society were largely filled by a crew of New England worthies whose names might seem to have come straight from Central Casting: G.F. Starbuck, W.A. Hazelboom, Inglis Stuart, Carlton Parker, Sidney Withington. A few historians and collectors of note such as J. Snowden Bell, Walter A. Lucas, and C.L. Winey also joined. Some of these men were of an age to recall wood-burning locomotives at first-hand. On the West Coast, one of the first members was David L. Joslyn, a draftsman with the Southern Pacific in Sacramento. Joslyn and others like him who lived in the great wilderness that lies to the west of Worcester somehow became favorites of Charles Fisher, and an astonishing number of posts with titles such as "regional vice president" and "special representative" were established. They in turn signed on new members, and in 1934 the first regional chapter was created in New York with our indexer's father, Thomas T. Taber, as its leader. Two California chapters followed soon after.

But membership gains were generally slow at first, as were gains in the size of the Bulletin. Two volumes per year became the norm, though beginning at an early date an occasional special issue was printed. Most were sold on a subscription basis, but a few like No. 61A on the Fulton County Narrow Gauge were apparently offered as a bonug to the general membership. By 1940 the interest in railroad history was growing apace. Railroad Magazine was well established and faced a new rival in Al Kalmbach's Trains. The prominent journalist and socialite, Lucius Beebe, was producing the first of a series of picture books aimed at enthusiasts. Yet the R&LHS, which had pioneered in this hobby, moved cautiously with just over 500 members.

Rival hobby clubs were formed, each with its own publication: The National Railway Historical Society, the Railroad Enthusiasts, the Railroadians. Fisher saw no reason for alarm, and remained content to maintain his own position as R&LHS president, editor, and sole book reviewer. Except for the financial end of things and for exhibits, he ran the society singlehandedly. He was strong-willed, able, and--of considerable consequence--he had time for the job. Having retired at 45, he could devote full energies to the R&LHS. From conversations with old members and from my own experience, I gather that he treated the society as his private domain. Nobody ever became an officer without his favor and members who somehow displeased him were dropped.

I attended a few annual meetings in the latter 1960s and was assured that the routine had not changed much since the 20s. The meeting was always held on the first Sunday of May in a drearv banquet room at the Parker House. Attendance rarely exceeded 20, for meetings were restricted to officers, directors, and life-members. A meal was served at a long table and once the dishes were cleared away Fisher would call the directors' meeting to order. The chairman of the nominating committee never once failed to recommend the existing slate of directors; a vote was taken and the directors were duly reelected for another term. The directors then reelected the incumbent officers. Then Charlie, as he was known to a few of his old cronies, would stand up, put on his hat, walk around the chair, sit down, take off his hat, and assume the duties of president--this done amid muffled titters of appreciative amusement. Next, the annual meeting would commence, with the reading of last year's minutes, the treasurer's report, and so forth. Occasionally there might be some new business, but in all the entire affair was wound up in around a half-hour.

And so the business of the R&LHS went on year after year, very much, I suppose, like a small-town bank whose proprietor oversaw every detail of every account, no matter its size. When not playing major domo every first Sunday in May, Charlie was busy typing copies of rosters (pre-xerox days!), editing the Bulletin, and writing a sizeable portion of the text himself. Anyone who sent in a letter would inevitably receive a reply from Charlie himself, despite the existence of a research committee, a committee chairman, a secretary and a dozen or more officers who might have been expected to handle a portion of the correspondence.

This solitary approach continued until around 1970. But advancing years overtake every man, even men who specialize in the past. When Charlie's grip started to fail, he and his chief lieutenant, Howard Greene, began rather desperately seeking someone to take over the Bulletin. Though assistant editors had come and gone, all were either unwilling to assume the job or had been thought unsuitable. Following the 1970 annual meeting, Charlie asked me directly to take over the publication with the next issue, due out in the fall. This request could not have come at a worse time, for I was trying to handle two full-time jobs at the Smithsonian, as curator of transportation and chairman of the Department of Industries. What I did not need was another set of deadlines to worry about. But Charles looked so frail and tired, while Howard stood by imploring me to accept. I couldn't say no, but I did try to stipulate a temporary appointment, just until someone else could be found. That stipulation resulted in a tenure of ten years.

Managing the journal was a great learning experience which involved, on the one hand, the technical intricacies of typesetting, layout, printing, binding, and scheduling, and on the other the fine arts of diplomacy. We rather quickly switched to offset printing which permitted a better and more flexible picture layout. In time we went to full color on the cover. Book reviews were farmed out so that we might offer truly expert appraisals. Fortunately I gained the support of two very able associates, William D. Edson and Herbert H. Harwood, Jr. Likewise indispensable were Betty Tone as art editor and my ever-faithful secretary, Mary E. Braunagel.

Before taking over the editorship, I had sought the advice of my immediate supervisor at the Smithsonian. He saw no conflict of interest and reasoned that "editing a newsletter" couldn't take much effort. When I explained that it was a journal, he seemed puzzled and said, "Well, I would never have thought so because you told me it was simply named the 'Bulletin'." This exchange reinforced years of misgivings I had felt about the name, which seemed to imply something slight and ephemeral. To my mind, Railroad History said it all. The directors approved the change; a few members complained, but most seemed indifferent. Indeed, my strongest impression from my years as editor was the absence of reader feedback--comment, either negative or positive, was exceedingly rare. Most correspondence pertained to changes of address or claims for issues not received. This leads me to urge readers to take advantage of the "Discussion" and "Guest Editorial" features established by the present editor.

As the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society approaches 65, it is flourishing under the leadership of Fred Stindt. Paradoxically this institutional growth, this heightened interest in history, has accompanied decline in the real world, as the American railroad industry becomes even smaller and more specialized. Or is it a paradox? I am reminded of a comment pertinent to British industrial history which now seems just as apposite for the U.S.: the past, it appears, is our one and only growth industry.

Appendix: The Society in the Bulletin

The society's charter and bylaws are printed in 1/30. A statement of its aims and purposes appears in 95/7-9. Its history up to 1928 is in 16/6-8, and up to 1969 in 121/iv-vii, while there is a 50-year chronology in 125/100. There is a report of the first annual meeting in 3/19-20, and of the meetings for 1945, 66/67-68; 1946, 68/83; 1947, 70/87; 1948, 73/90; 1949, 77/67-68; 1950, 80/97; 1951, 82/85; 1952, 87/107-108; 1953, 88/175; 1954, 90/180; 1968, 119/75; 1974, 132/117-122; 1975, 134/95-111; 1976, 136/145-149; 1977, 138/109-118; 1978, 139/105-113; and 1979, 140/139-141. The beginning and the end of the association with Baker Library at Harvard is detailed in 11/4, 12/4-5, 93/96, and 124/3. Web Editor's note: See also 200/4-35 for an updated history (to 2009) by J. Parker Lamb and chronology of RRH and the Bulletin by Dan Cupper.

On the various chapters, material pertinent to the New York Chapter appears in 32/6, 34/17-18, 39, and 40/6; on the Pacific Coast Chapter, see 44/5, 50/88-90, and 129/114; on the Southem California Chapter, 89/7-8. See also 38/38-39, 49/6, 65/94-96, and especially the chapter histories in 125/54-66.

There is a statement of policy on copying pictures in 53/7, an enumeration of the responsibilities and rights of photo use by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., in 135/95-99, and in 84/75-76 Charles Fisher presents his views on railfan ethics and standards. Miscellaneous topics include the Lowell Exhibition of 1922, 3/27; an exhibit at the Boston Public Library, 4/44; the first chartered railfan trips out of New York (on the DL&W and the Ulster & Delaware), 41/48-50; the acquisition of the Phillip D. Borden collection, 44/23; activities at the New York World's Fair of 1939, 50/91-93 and 51/64; the placing of a tablet at the site of 30th Street Station in New York, 55/45; and the Hayward M. Severance gift, 126/121-122. The society's silver anniversary dinner is described in 70/88-91, the golden in 125/51-53.

Donors to the society are listed in 147/206, 149/150, and 151// 125, while an appeal for endowing the awards program appears in 150/145. Accounts of the Railroad History Awards are in 147/7-11; 149/7-10, and 151/6-9.

The results of a readers' poll conducted by the editor in the early 1970s are tabulated in 133/3-4.

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