Nathaniel Guest: All Aboard! The Past, Present, and Future of Railway Preservation in the United States

old photograph of train on railway bridge

Train on old railway bridge. photo / provided

Department of City and Regional Planning Professional Planning Colloquium

Nathaniel C. Guest ('98, M.A. HPP '12) is an attorney and preservation advocate. Guest is the founding director of the Keystone Marker Trust, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to enhancing community gateways through Pennsylvania's iconic roadside markers. In 2008, he founded the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance to facilitate reuse of the former Pennhurst State School, an International Site of Conscience.

A steam locomotive engineer, Guest founded the Colebrookdale Railroad Preservation Trust to restore a Civil War-era rail line in southeastern Pennsylvania. Guest will explore the history and current state of railroad preservation, the role of railroad preservation in economic development, and the future of the railroad preservation industry.

Few of man’s creations have traveled farther in space and time than those bound to the iron rail. The reaches of the 19th-century railroad into every corner of the map and every aspect of economic, social, and political life introduced a conflict between man, technology, and nature still evolving to this day.

The advent of the steam locomotive marked the first time in history when human progress was unrestrained by the capacity of animal power. The promise of "railroad mobility" meant the continent Jefferson thought would take a thousand years to settle was populated in just a few decades. Railroad mobility was social mobility, as the railroads created wealth on an unheard of scale and employed hundreds of thousands of people. But the railroads also enabled policies that devastated indigenous populations and created a large class of working poor. The first mega-corporations in American history, they wielded their power to control the fortunes of communities and political leaders. Railroad greed and corruption, combined with the mistreatment of workers, gave rise to labor unions and the modern regulatory state. The slow decline of the American railroad — which resulted in the then-largest bankruptcies in American history, gave rise to today's historic preservation movement.

Railroads remain crucial connectors within the landscape of our cultural memory. The record of their rise and fall and the landmarks associated with them are national treasures. Their preservation has become an industry unto itself.