Making archives come alive

In preparation for writing Dear Woman of My Dreams, I retraced my mother’s 1923 train trip.  She traveled with her grandmother visiting relatives and seeing the sights from Pennsylvania to California and back. I wrote a series of five articles for the Lebanon Daily News telling about my version of that trip.

Here’s the first part:

Riding the rails in the US: A train trip though history

Trains in America have indeed deteriorated as Ben Vient noted in “On the Rails.” It’s still a great way to travel if you’re not in a hurry and you are open to seeing our country as your great grandmother saw it. After reading old diaries and letters, I decided to do just that.

As for trains, I’ve been on the marvelous Shanghai Maglev train speeding to and from the airport – but speed isn’t everything. With diaries in hand, I spent a month on Amtrak, traveling the 7,000 mile route much like my mother Kathryn Nisley and her grandmother Rebecca Stober Hassler did in 1923.

Trains took them everywhere as tourists and visitors – stopping to see Smeltzer relatives in Indiana, Stobers in Missouri, Hasslers and Millers in Colorado and Oklahoma, and Nisleys in California.

I left from Harrisburg under the same old train sheds they did, but I couldn’t get to their first stop in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.   That old Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) service disappeared after the PRR and New York Central merger in 1968. Sometime I will drive to Indiana to find the grandchildren of the Smeltzers they visited in Bluffton.

After visiting there, Kathryn and Rebecca rode in the parlor car of the Manhattan Limited to Chicago, then went to visit Stober relatives in Missouri, traveling on lines such as the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific and the Quincy Lines to reach Kansas City and then Denver.

My path went straight to Denver. Well, not quite. These days, you leave the Pennsylvanian in Pittsburgh and wait at least 4 hours in the barebones waiting room for the notoriously late Capitol Limited from Washington.

Once in still-grand Union Station, I had another wait. In the Metropolitan Lounge for sleeping car passengers only, Amtrak staff dealt with upset and worried travelers, and not just from my late trains. I noticed something then that would prove true throughout my trip: Amtrak employees work hard to make your trip a pleasant experience, they really do.

Eventually I got settled on the California Zephyr. Once I got to Denver, Amtrak put me on a bus to get to my next Amtrak-ticketed stop – Colorado Springs. The passenger train station is still there but not the trains, unless you count the Denver & Rio Grande Engine No. 168 (1883-1938) in the park nearby or the freights that thunder by.

On their stay in Colorado Springs, Kathryn and Rebecca hired a “handsome young guide and a big car” for a tour of the Garden of the Gods, Seven Falls, Manitou, and up the winding path to the Cave of the Winds (quite adventurous of them actually). What was it really like getting up that mountain in a 1923 car and then walking through the dimly lit cave?

Halted by heavy rains and washouts on the Rock Island & Santa Fe, Kathryn and Rebecca eventually headed out on the Denver & Rio Grande through the Royal Gorge on their way to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Going through the Royal Gorge at night, Kathryn paid her 25-cents for the open observation car. In her journal she noted that she saw something mighty and majestic– stars and moonlight lit the narrow gorge, rushing Arkansas river and high mountain walls in a magical way.


For me it was a daylight view on the Royal Gorge Route Historic Railway. The old route to Grand Junction has been abandoned, justifiably I suspect, given the geography and the rough riding trip that Rebecca noted in her journal. At least in those days there were options.

In the next part of this series, we visit a rural town and an urban mecca.


Published by

Lois Kathryn Herr

Women,Power, and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace is back in print and now available as an e-book as well. See for more about it, and look at www.loiskathrynherr to learn about my other books.

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