Digital project records Nebraska’s train history

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Not everyone would recognize the treasure Garry Wells discovered tucked in a box of stuff he bought at an auction.

But Wells, an amateur history buff from Scotia, immediately knew the significance of the 1881 checkerboard map of Greeley, Howard, Sherman and Valley counties _ otherwise known as the Loup River Valley.

Recently, Wells found others who appreciated the role this 129-year-old map depicting land for sale by the B. & M. Railroad Co. played in Nebraska’s settlement.

Wells was among the approximately 30 people who brought long-saved railroad memorabilia to the first-ever “NET History Harvest for Railroad History.”

A joint project of NET Television and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln History Department, the goal is to digitize Nebraska’s railroad history through the memorabilia and heirlooms of “everyday” people, said Will Thomas, UNL history professor.

People shared their families’ railroad histories, and their railroad artifacts were analyzed, photographed, videotaped and documented.

The History Harvest is part of a digital research project: “Railroads and the Making of Modern America.”

In addition, NET will use the stories and artifacts to produce possible radio and television programs and enhance the digital history curriculum used by Nebraska schools.

“So often our history is the history of the leaders,” Thomas said.

History Harvest is a way of democratizing history _ making it accessible, open and relevant to ordinary folks – simply by telling their stories and looking at the things they have handed down through generations.

“It is the history of the people and of their families and of their experiences,” Thomas said. “We bring a different approach.”

Using that information, UNL history students will study historical trends to see how, in this case, the railroad shifted and shaped Nebraska and its people, said David Feingold, assistant general manager of content at NET.

Wells laughs when people in Scotia complain “nothing ever happens here,” then he talks of how power struggles between competing railroads and communities built and destroyed towns. And how railroads shaped the makeup of communities, simply by advertising their available land to certain ethnic and religious communities in other states.

Fred Wachal came from Columbus to share one of three land grant certificates his grandfather purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad more than a century ago.

He also brought a framed memory box with a black and white photograph of his mother’s cousin, Joseph F. Severyn, and the pristine pocket watch he used during his years as a conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad. Severyn died two days shy of his 27th birthday on Oct. 1, 1918, in France while serving in World War I, Wachal said.

Earl Ford, longtime railroad buff and curator of the Lincoln Area Model Railroad Club Museum, brought only a few pieces of the railroad memorabilia his family collected during their 142 years of service with the railroad – his grandfather’s Hamilton Rowley Special pocket watch; a 1917 photograph of his father and grandfather on a pumper car, and an 1885 Nebraska State Fair program advertising special rates on the Burlington and Missouri River trains to the fair.

Information gathered from the History Harvest should be available online by the end of summer.

But that is just the beginning, Thomas said.

Thanks to a grant, another History Harvest will be held in Nebraska City this fall.

Ultimately, the goal is to take History Harvest across the state, collecting stories and images that make us Nebraska.

“People want to be involved in telling our history,” Feingold said. “Digital technology allows us to do that.”


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star,

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AP-CS-05-27-10 1015EDT