“Graceful as a bird flying through the air”: Notes on GG-1 4859
January 9, 2007 § 7 Comments
Harrisburg’s railroad station, despite its immodest boast of being a “transportation center,” is both a charmingly noirish place and, as a space, an almost fully preserved museum of the Pennsylvania Railroad during its moribund years of the late 1960s. The Harrisburg Transportation Center is, in a way a station’s station.
If we were to date its presentation, from the perforated roof of the train shed, to the hanging lamps casting their pale sick light, to the brick floors of the passenger platforms, to the restored 237-ton Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 locomotive “4859” hulking purposeless on track 5, it would seem that 1966-67 would seem an appropriate date. I’m not sure another preserved GG-1 locomotive is situated in a better historical/aesthetic context. The train’s lines are modern, the influence of the arch-streamliner Raymond Loewy, but it’s a modernity of superfluity, an idealized Jetsonian world of befinned toasters, and it is a certainly a modernity tempered by the shabby ambiance of the train shed.
Another interesting site for locating a restored GG-1 (and one which would frustrate railroad enthusiasts) would be the Superfund site known as the Paoli car shops, which we alluded to in another environmental-toll-of-railroading post. What a “dialogue” could be had between the well-preserved smooth form of the electric locomotive and the barren, rocky remediated landscape of the Car Shops (the EPA had to remove hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil and has replaced this fill with gray gravel). Probably they wouldn’t talk to one another, mainly because they might not see their common past or because the great distance between the enshrined “stuff” of railroading and a dispassionate assessment of this industry’s social, economic, and environmental impacts. The great irony of placing the GG-1 on that particular Superfund site is that the GG-1′s transformer was cooled with a PCB-laden fluid known as Askarel. PCBs from this great locomotive and others are still leeching into Valley Creek as it wends its way to the Schuylkill. But, alas, the entire area is fenced off and kids like to climb on locomotives. Maybe this is what J.B. Jackson meant when he castigated preservationists, but I doubt even he could spin the kind of buildingless built-space of a Superfund site into some great articulation of American culture.
In a way the GG-1 needs to remain at Harrisburg, as that city enjoys a special relationship to electrified railroading. In a corner of the passenger bridge at the Transportation Center is a museum case containing various artifacts explaining the first trip by a the very same GG-1 4859 from Philadelphia using the PRR’s patented AC overhead catenary system in 1938. Harrisburgers were smitten by the locomotive, its movement “graceful as a bird flying through the air,” one newspaper put it in 1938. In the museum case is a menagerie of railroadiana: the 4859′s building plate from Altoona, various operating manuals, a “Save Harrisburg’s GG-1” pamphlet, a pen used by Governor Casey making the engine “the official electric locomotive of Pennsylvania” and a photograph of the 4859 on its maiden voyage surrounded by an obviously ecstatic crew of dour conductors, engineers, trackmen and executives—all men who undoubtedly signed their names with punctual two initials: “E.H. Gangewere, Supt.” to save the telegrapher those crucial few seconds. Off to the right of the photograph, though, is a curious mustachioed figure wearing a fine silken ascot and smoking a cigarette. I believe this person, cutting a figure almost as rakish as the train itself and incongruous against the gruff railroaders is Loewy himself. I wonder too if he thought the station a dingy relic of the 19th century, an unfit resting place for his curvaceous GG-1.
As much as the electrification to Harrisburg was a great technical coup, the economization that comes with corporate decline has a way of obscuring the great tricks of the trade and interestingly, just last fall Amtrak announced with much fanfare that it had relearned the art of all-electrical railroading on its Keystone route. “Think about it,” Govenor Rendell urged, “Ninety minutes from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, a chance to do your work, read a book, do anything you want to do, but avoid the traffic, avoid the trucks, avoid all the fumes and have a great ride.”
On my “great ride” to Harrisburg I do think about technical skills lost and regained or how counterintuitively American it was to choke out our railroads or let them grow fallow, in turn forcing the government to pick up the check for both restoring 1930s technology and for cleaning up the legacy of that technology. Today as Amtrak 607 passed the Paoli Car Shops Superfund Site I saw looked out and saw nothing but a scrawny black crow ruling the sodden desolation and I thought of another bird, that fictive bird of some exuberant Harrisburg newspaperman.