Playing with Archives

Lately I’ve been talking with people about how every family has stories but the documents that describe them may be scattered and even lost.  Anyone who has diaries and letters can pull them together and stitch a tapestry that others can enjoy viewing.  I’ve started with my mother’s 1923 diary.  Gradually I will introduce the family to the world.

Next will be a story about my grandmother Gertrude Hassler’s two years at Cumberland Valley State Normal School (now Shippensburg University) from 1898 to her graduation in 1900.  For input I have letters she wrote home, letters her family wrote to her, and letters from her friends.  Often the letters sent home were addressed to “Dear Ones Home,” which may become the title of the next DEAR book!

Here’s her graduation picture:

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Oklahoma, Missouri, Niagara, and home

the last segment of my trip story….

For their 1923 train journey, my mother Kathryn and her grandmother Rebecca planned two Oklahoma visits – one to Millers (Hassler relatives) and one to Carl, a young preacher who very much wanted Kathryn to be his wife.

To get to Stillwater where Carl preached, I drove about six hours from Kansas City. There, a church historian pointed out the sights to me, including where Carl’s church would have been, and where he thought the parsonage stood. As I stood near there I had the stunning thought that I (or someone half like me) could have been born there.

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Carl mustered the leaders of his Evangelical United Brethern Church to help host his guests and there was plenty of music. Kathryn carried her violin on the trip and played frequently (even on the train) and this was no exception.

From Stillwater I drove to Beggs, Oklahoma, passing through towns like Cushing, OK, which calls itself the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World.” I found where the Beggs passenger station had been, but it’s just a dirt lot by the tracks now. Much of Beggs has been passed by as well, after farming and oil booms moved through. And there I could only visit relatives only in the cemetery.

I stopped at Holden’s Drive-In, which looked like the only place to eat. On a whim, I asked if the woman at the counter might have known a family named Miller. Amazingly, she and her mother did, and I am now in touch with a distance cousin in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

 

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Holden’s Drive-In – Beggs, Oklahoma

Late in the day I drove from Beggs through a corner of the Ozarks to Sedalia, Missouri, where in 1923 there were lots of Rebecca’s family. I stayed in the historic section of town at the old Bothwell Hotel, not far from the restored Missouri-Kansas-Texas (KATY) train station. The old Missouri line a few blocks in the other direction is the one now used by Amtrak.

 

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KATY terminal in Sedalia

For Rebecca, the Missouri visits brought her together with siblings as well as a half-brother she had never met. There’s more to that story but it will have to wait for my book.

After Sedalia, it was back to Kansas City for me and onto the Chief again heading for Chicago. The Chief was really, really late, because when it pulled into Kansas City it was being pulled by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight engine.

 

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The freight engine that helped AMTRAK!

Engine failure took out Amtrak’s engine in the desert, and BNSF helped provided an engine to get the train all the way to Chicago. Problem is freight engines are slower so the Chief got later with every mile, reaching Chicago a full 8 hours behind schedule. I didn’t mind even when the dining car menu became irrelevant, and they served up their emergency beef stew.

Kathryn and Rebecca went home via Niagara Falls, finally taking what was then a direct train from Niagara Falls home to Harrisburg. Getting from Chicago home took me on a unplanned detour.

When the Capitol Limited was very late getting into Chicago and thus going to be really late leaving. I knew I’d miss my connection in Pittsburgh. I knew also that Amtrak then would put us on buses to take us across PA to Harrisburg. I did NOT want my great train trip to end that way, so I managed to book my sleeper all the way into DC.

I expected the Capitol Limited to get to DC reasonably close to schedule so I could hop on a train to Philly and then the Keystone line home. I miscalculated. I should have known the Capitol Limited was far from on-time performance. We didn’t get in during the early afternoon, or late afternoon, or evening. We arrived 9 hours late, which meant staying near Union Station overnight and coming home the next day – my 29th travel day.

I traveled 6034 miles by train, about 1000 by car, and 263 by bus for a grand total of 7297 miles, visiting 20 cities and 8 states in 24 days. I’m acutely aware of Amtrak’s difficulties but know that employees still have positive attitudes and are good at dealing with adversity. I am also convinced passenger rail should have a future, not just a fascinating past.

 

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Home at Elizabethtown

 

 

Turning Eastward

Following the path of my mother Kathryn and great grandmother Rebecca, I turned, as they did, from Los Angeles headed for the Grand Canyon and then Kansas City, Missouri.

After just one night in Los Angeles, Kathryn and Rebecca boarded the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe – the “Missionary.” When I got back on the rails, it was to start what would ultimately be 2,265 miles on the Southwest Chief.

We were headed to the Grand Canyon, though the tracks have been rerouted since they got to Williams, Arizona, directly. My train delivered me in the middle of the night at a “place” Amtrak calls Williams Junction– all that is there is a sign and a bit of concrete for a platform.

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From this “artificial station” in the middle of the night, I was once again on an Amtrak bus, this time to Williams where you get to sleep for a few hours before the morning tourist train to the Grand Canyon. There at least I thought I actually could ride the train Kathryn and Rebecca did. Not quite. One of the cars was a 1920s vintage (without air conditioning) but the engine was a diesel. The Grand Canyon Railway does have an old steam engine they roll out once in a while.

The landscape between Williams and the Grand Canyon hasn’t changed much, nor has the canyon of course. However I noted the low walls along the cliff edges were not there in the 20s, having been built by the WPA in the 1930s. Back then it was just you and the canyon.

With diary clues about where they had stayed for their $1.25 per person – a little white cottage at the canyon rim, I inquired but found no who knew much about Bright Angel Camp, which existed between the eras of the Bright Angel Hotel and what is now the Bright Angel Lodge.

As I browsed at the Hopi House, I realized that I may have found the source of the Navaho rug I’ve inherited. At the canyon I felt a stronger connection to their trip than in radically changed cities.

To get back to Amtrak’s Chief, I reversed the process with another half-night at Williams and a middle of the night boarding at Williams Junction. Fortunately I could sleep extra hours because we were kept well aware of the multi-hour delay and could stay in bed rather than stand trackside for hours in the middle of nowhere.

Out the window in Las Vega, NM, I saw the Castenada an abandoned Paul Harvey place.   The 1923 Southern Pacific train stopped for travelers to eat at Paul Harvey restaurants in Seligman (AZ), Gallup (NM), Clovis (NM), and Amarillo (TX) .

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On my trip, I could enjoy dining car meals but was surprised to find that there’s nothing regional on the menu – same menu everywhere on Amtrak. And they were always out of half the listed menu items. Not at all like the old days.

Even when working under duress, delay, and dwindling stocks, Amtrak’s dining car and sleeping car attendants maintained their good humor and their spirit of service. These days the conductor and engineer have a firm 12-hour tour of duty but the others work from when the train leaves Los Angeles till it gets to Chicago, not matter how long that takes.

Julio, my sleeping car attendant from Arizona to Kansas City, ranks as the best I experienced, but all were attentive. The ride from Williams Junction to Kansas City ranked as one of the worst, however, in terms of old car creaks and bumps in the night!

At Union Station in Kansas City I came close to knowing Kathryn and Rebecca’s experience. Lovingly restored, the station is a grand venue like it was for travelers 90 years ago.

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The Ladies Waiting Room, where Kathryn wrote that they spent four hours between trains, is now a restaurant called Pierpont’s (amusingly named by the renovators for J Pierpont Morgan, who was not exactly in favor of women’s rights).   During a long lunch there I used my imagination to feel their presence.

Kathryn and Rebecca left Kansas City on the Missouri Pacific train to Sedalia for a week’s visit and then returned to Kansas City to get a train on the Frisco lines to Oklahoma. I, on the other hand, had to rent a car, since there is NO passenger rail service from Kansas City to anywhere in Oklahoma. Driving to Stillwater and Beggs, Oklahoma, provided some surprises.

Finding the family turned out to be more difficult than I expected, but I found some of the places and solved a mystery as well in the next phase of the trip.

 

Cliff House, Jabberwocky Inn, and other Fun Places

Continuing the story of my train trip in 2014 along the path taken by my mother and great grandmother in 1923!

By day 10 of my journey, I reached San Francisco and said goodbye to the California Zephyr. In 1923, my mother and grandmother’s train arrived via ferry. I got to the Embarcadero by bus from the end of the Amtrak line in Emeryville. Yes, another Amtrak bus.

 

I couldn’t stay at the Grand Hotel where Kathryn and Rebecca stayed because while the building still stands, it has become a somewhat seedy apartment house. Instead I stayed two nights at the traveler-friendly Guest Quarters where I could catch up on internet and get my laundry done.

 

In the city, I did some of what they did in 1923 – became a tourist along Fisherman’s Wharf and visited the Cliff House. They arrived at the Cliff House with a tour group and had their picture taken; I arrived by limo and had a great dinner, with dessert provided by the restaurant in honor of the historic nature of my visit!

 

When I left San Francisco headed for Monterey, I waited on the Embarcadero in the early morning for the Amtrak bus to Oakland, where I spent the inevitable waiting time talking with a traveler from Peru. I finally boarded the Coast Starlight to Salinas and then a bus to Monterey. In 1923 they took trains the whole way, though they had to transfer lines.

 

The jitney bus, again booked by Amtrak, actually dropped me off at the Jabberwocky B&B where I stayed – just a few houses away from where Nisley relatives lived in 1923. I walked down the hill a few blocks to the Monterey Cannery where Emma Nisley Glosser worked back then.

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The Cannery is now full of tourist stores instead of sardines, but I walked the same paths they walked and saw where the train would have brought them right to Cannery Row.

 

Reversing the path by bus – sometimes I think Amtrak has more buses than trains – to Salinas, I caught the Coast Starlight south to Los Angeles. California Amtrak trains have different dining car formations and parlor cars but otherwise, it’s still Amtrak.

 

We had great views of the vegetable fields and the ocean, just as they would have had traveling on the Sunset Route of the Southern Pacific. We arrived in Los Angeles with less trouble than their1923 train, which was held up for 5 hours 20 miles north of the city by a freight wreck that trashed “onions galore” around the tracks.

 

Back in 1923, Los Angeles was beginning its glorious movie years. Rebecca made a point in her diary that they could not ever recommend the noisy downtown Hotel Nadeau – it was way too noisy. The Nadeau isn’t there anymore anyway, so I chose a hotel built in 1923 – the Millenium Biltmore. The Biltmore gave me a good sense of the beginning of the glamorous twenties and the rising star of Hollywood thanks to a hotel worker who let me in to see the famous ballroom where Academy Awards were first presented.

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The Biltmore has a lot of history, but all of it since 1923. Kathryn and Rebecca ventured out to Hollywood; via streetcars to find relatives there. I opted for the spa in the hotel to relax before the next long ride on to Arizona and the Grand Canyon.

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Riding the California Zephyr

 

My 7000-mile train journey across America brought me to places where distant cousins settled over 100 years ago when the west was still young. And I visited places where 90 years ago, my mother and great grandmother took 2 ½ months to visit and sightsee. I followed their path, but in 29 days.

On day 5, I left Colorado Springs for Grand Junction, via Denver, Colorado.

First, I waited for hours for the Amtrak-ticketed bus to Denver, then went off through the Rockies on the California Zephyr to Grand Junction, Colorado. There I tried to imagine what that place was like in 1923 when it was nothing but orchards. One of the family there worked as an inspector in the orchard shipping plant back then and another farmed but for extra work took his mules up into the mountains and helped with dam construction.

While visiting the Millers there, Kathryn and Rebecca were taken to the still-active Avalon theatre to see “The Shawl.” Most of the orchards have given way to housing and the downtown streets to art shops and coffee houses. However, you can glimpse the past at the Museum of Western Colorado.

From the Museum roof there is a 360 degree view of the landscape, and in the distance see the bookcliffs much as they were in the 1880s when the first homesteaders arrived.

I found an Eldon Miller and thought I’d found a relative, but though he was interested in genealogy, he didn’t think he was connected to our family; I found a Miller Homestead, too, but that wasn’t in the family either. I left Grand Junction liking the town but not having made a personal connection except to know that the Millers and their visitors saw the same “bookcliffs” I did.

I shared the Grand Junction Amtrak waiting room with a train-focused tourist group from Germany. Some of us took a little walk outside where you could see the classic old train station abandoned behind a chain link fence; quite a sad contrast.

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I’m sure the German tourists enjoyed our vintage railroads but I wonder what they thought of Amtrak, given the efficient railroads of Europe.

Kathryn and Rebecca left on the Denver & Rio Grand for what was apparently a “cindery” all day ride to Salt Lake City, arriving only 15 minutes off schedule. My California Zephyr was already 2 ½ hours late when it got to Grand Junction.

Next stop, Salt Lake City, where I stayed in the same hotel Kathryn and Rebecca had stayed in – the Peery Hotel. The reservationist couldn’t put me in the same room they had stayed in because it was now part of the Macaroni Restaurant; however, she did put me in a room just above it.

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In the morning I followed the same tourist route they did, finding Mormon Square probably much like it was in 1923. Relatives from the Stober family line met me and took me to the site of the Saltair Resort by the Great Salt Lake.

The fabulous Saltair Resort was destroyed by fire (several times) but we found a gift shop that had photos of its former glory. Back in 1923, Kathryn rode the “Giant Racer,” a roller coaster out over the lake. We could only look at the lake in the distance, for over time it has shrunk considerably. The modern show venue now on site has a few architectural touches reflecting the extravagant architecture that once was the “Coney Island of the West.”

When Kathryn and Rebecca left Salt Lake City, they boarded a Southern Pacific train, which arrived in San Francisco’s Embarcadero via ferries. My California Zephyr, on the other hand, dropped us in Emeryville, California, where a bus took us across the bridges into the city and dropped us off by the curb on the Embarcadero near both the current small Amtrak waiting room and the dock where the old ferries arrived.

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And by this time I was learning the tricks for riding Amtrak – if your train is coming in the late evening (as it was in Salt Lake City), don’t head out to the tracks, watch the app, and keep your hotel room for at least a partial night’s sleep. We left 5 hours late that night because the Zephyr clipped a man on the tracks back in Oswego, Illinois. Any incident like that adds hours of investigation and crew change to a trip.

I knew I’d miss the Zephyr. After all it felt like home after 2,438 miles – some bumpy some smooth, but with grand vistas of vast ranches, dramatic Rockies, and Sierras. Next stop, California

 

 

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.

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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.