If there ever was an elder statesman or intellectual plow-horse in railway heritage preservation it is John P. Hankey. No other individual in the railway history field has left a more indelible mark on the theory, study and interpretation of railroading than him. With degrees earned from the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Delaware and ABD work at the University of Chicago, Hankey, who hails as a fifth-generation Baltimore & Ohio railroader, has always championed himself as a facilitator among institutions who avoids the limelight and prefers to labor behind the scenes. Yet his extraordinary work has brought him to the forefront of railway heritage preservation like nobody else in the field.
Born in Baltimore, Hankey moved with his family to a “shore” just north of Annapolis at an early age. His Father worked for the B&O for a while after the War but died when John was 12. His Grandfather worked for the B&O (mostly at Mt. Clare) his entire life. His Great Grandfather started as an Engine Wiper at Brunswick in 1895 and retired from Engine Service after WW II. Interestingly his father had worked for the B&O at Weverton (in the Potomac Valley) in the mid-19th century.
From auspicious beginnings, he joined the Baltimore Chapter NRHS at age 14, belonged to the local model railroad club, enjoyed excursions, and so on. By 1972, he was elbow-deep in an outfit called Railroad Passenger Cars, Inc–an offshoot of the Baltimore Chapter. It had purchased a fleet of standard coaches, a dining car, and other cars from the B&O following the end of service in May, 1971. The idea was to operate a fleet of suitable excursion cars on the East Coast when the B&O and other railroads were no longer willing or able to provide equipment. It was a pretty bold project, but the B&O was typically supportive. The cars were based at Camden Station. It was an all-volunteer outfit. For a few years, Hankey was RRP’s Secretary and served on their Board.
In one of John’s first acts of preservation, in late 1972, young John was dispatched to pick up some heavy, large ones passenger car batteries that were FOB delivered to the loading dock at Penn Station in New York. Amtrak wouldn’t put them on a Washington-bound baggage car but wanted them off the basement loading doc. As he recalls, “Somebody rented a 16′ box truck. Somebody coordinated with Amtrak. Somebody strongly hinted that because I was a college student and could take the day off to fetch the batteries home, I should drive the truck.”
Hankey continues, “Can you imagine what that day was like? Getting into and out of mid-day Manhattan traffic with a box truck and finding the ramp to the loading dock at Penn Station? I had handled trucks before–but nothing like this. The next day I went [into] downtown [Baltimore] and got my first railroad cap of the style favored by B&O folks. I had not before felt that I had a right to wear that hat. After that trip, I could put it on and feel comfortable. No matter what else I happened to be doing, I date that as the beginning of my career as a railroader,” he recalls.
But he is careful to point out that John was never a “locomotive man” or passenger car man” or any other convenient descriptor–he was interested in everything railroading. “I’ve always been something of a Boomer,” he says. “I feel as though I could at least hold conversations with the experts I sincerely admired and translate/convey their ideas and understandings to other audiences.” He quips, in his own dry humor, “It has been a peculiar career. And maybe not one I would do over again.”
Hankey’s big break into the railway history field came when he was hired as Historian and Archivist, of Chessie System Railroads at the B&O Railroad Museum. “When I was at the B&O Museum the first time (1975-1981), the focus was on celebrating the B&O’s 150th Anniversary. We got a great deal done.” Then he hired out as a Brakeman, hostler, locomotive fireman and engineer on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, for five years. Hankey also served as a Senior Railroad Systems Analyst for the BDM Corporation, in McLean, Virginia, in the late 1980s and was a Research Fellow at National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C. from June until September of 1988.
After a stint in graduate school in the Hagley Program in the History of Industrialization at Delaware, he returned to the B&O Museum as Chief Curator, Director of Interpretation, and General Manager of railroad (1989-1993) where he played a major role in separating the museum from CSX and standing up a new not-for-profit entity on a fairly significant scale. One of Hankey’s first projects was to get a locomotive up and running and start moving things around after years of dormancy.
Perhaps John’s greatest contribution has been consulting to museums, historical societies, preservation projects, exhibition installations and make-overs, and film/television/radio documentary projects over the last two decades (1986-present), specializing in collections and interpretation issues, history, and historic preservation. He has spent a great deal of his career doing institutional repair and advising, institutional assessments and planning exercises including getting tangled up in the Steamtown debacle during the late 1980s. The organizations with which he has assisted reads like a laundry list of preservation: Consultant to the South Shore Line Museum Project, documenting and presenting the history of the Chicago, South Shore & South Bend Railroad in Indiana; and consulting for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, the California State Railroad Museum, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the National Park Service, the Georgia State Railroad Museum and other major players.
Redesigning and reinstalling the Grand Hall at CSRM in 2005 was certainly one of the most challenging projects Hankey ever undertook. “But it was partly a way to nudge railway heritage and presentation in general away from a primarily technology focus to a more humanities-based approach,” he explained. At the same time, Hankey has also been affiliated for many years with the Washington DC Chapter’s operation of a small fleet of heritage passenger cars, including the Dover Harbor, a beautifully conserved 1923 Pullman 6 Double Bedroom/Buffet/Drawing Room/Lounge qualified to operate almost anywhere on Amtrak. Once he even served as a consultant on the popular kids series “Shining Time Station” (the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise) for PBS in the late 1980s, for which he got to meet pop icon Ringo Starr on the set during one memorable occasion.
One of Hankey’s favorite projects was the conservation/restoration of the 1866 B&O shop complex at Martinsburg, WV. He became deeply engaged around 2000, working with a brilliant team of restoration architects. He says, “I treated it like a museum exhibit and ended up spending hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours as a volunteer. How many folks like us get to curate the preservation of a largely intact mid-19th c railroad shop of this architectural quality?”
Another favorite large project was getting the entire Cumbres & Toltec Scenic RR listed on the National Historic Landmarks Survey in 2013. Hankey was the principal author of the nomination and part of the overall planning team. Hankey proposed that the nomination would not primarily be based on C&TS significance as a narrow gauge railroad, but instead be almost entirely be based on the fact that the C&TS was the most complete, comprehensive, best preserved, and significant exemplar of mid-20th century American mainline railroading in the country. “That seems like a subtle difference, but it is not,” he explained. “In one meeting I recall pointing out that a narrow gauge railroad could do everything a standard gauge railroad could do–explode boilers, wreck trains, sever limbs, and so on. That seemed to get their attention. Anyway, I made the case and NPS agreed. There were various policy and precedent issues. And it certainly helped elevate the railroad’s profile and raise money from the two states. I like to think I at least set attempted to set a few precedents and even slightly change the way NPS understood railroad heritage.”
He has authored over one hundred articles on railroad history, preservation, or interpretation for preservation publications, the railroad press, and popular history publications. Moreover he has written various forewords and introductions to a variety of trade, popular, and scholarly railroad history works as well as reviews of books on railroad topics for a variety of journals and trade publications. From 1993-1996, Hankey wrote a series of thought-provoking and impactful articles on various aspects of historic preservation and interpretation as a Contributing Editor for Locomotive and Railway Preservation Magazine.
Hankey has been featured in a few dozen video productions and interviews on PBS, Fox News, Modern Marvels, the History Channel, CNN, and other media outlets. He has played a part in many video productions for Trains Magazine and is currently working with filmmaker Rich Luckin on four projects, including an upcoming production on Budd RDCs. He quips, “Apparently producers formed the opinion that I ‘gave good tape.’”
For three or four years, Hankey did a weekly intermission radio feature for Amtrak on Washington on radio station WGMS. “I was the break in the Metropolitan Opera broadcast,” he recalls. “I would go the radio station and tape four features at a time. Because we apparently shared voice quality and measured delivery, people thought I was Jack White. For a few years, several hundred thousand people in the DC/Metro heard short railroad history features every week. Amtrak liked them.”
Not merely satisfied with just scholarship, Hankey has also lectured and taught courses widely on railroad, industrial and United States history and operations. As adjunct faculty in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he has taught a variety of upper-level courses on railroad history and history of technology. In 1980, the Smithsonian Associates Program asked him to set up a program of local, national, and international study tours. Over 15 or 20 years I did roughly 120 railroad related study tours in the US and Europe. He has also led study tours treating history, engineering, architecture, and technology in society. At the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., in the Summer of 1996, he presented an eight-session course entitled “The Iron Horse into the 21st Century,” examining current and future railroad technologies, operations, and traffic patterns.
With railroading thoroughly in his blood, Hankey in 2022 marks his 50th year of serious involvement with railroad heritage and history. Presently he is semi-retired due to health concerns, but remains busy completing two books as retirement projects: one a longstanding effort to understand the construction and mythical transformation of Peter Cooper’s “Tom Thumb” locomotive, the other using early 20th century postcards of B&O subjects to explore a variety of social, technological, cultural, visual, and railroad topics. He presently resides in Omaha, Nebraska with his wife Sharon Wood, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska.
Clearly for all of his enduring and myriad contributions to railroad history, preservation and the national discourse over three decades, John P. Hankey is richly deserving of the R&LHS Senior Achievement Award.