Friday, May 22, 2009
A story from the bar at a railroader's memorial
ALTOONA, Pa. – There is a replica of an old blue-collar tavern named Kelly’s Bar two-flights up at the Altoona Railroader’s Memorial Museum.
It has a pressed-tin ceiling and floor covered in tiny marble tiles. A case of Altoona Beer appropriately sits on the back bar beside a ghostly figure of a bartender about to serve a cocktail frozen in time.
The lights dim when you belly up to the bar and then a man with an Irish accent announces that visitors will learn a lot about how America was built on the backs of the thousands of men who once worked the rails in this city in central Pennsylvania. While drinking was discouraged, most of the men gathered after work at bars like this one, or in the many social clubs that built up around what was once the nation’s largest railroad shop complex.
Two hidden television screens soon light up behind the beer case that show men from different periods of time discussing their lives on the railroad, just as if they were sitting across the bar.
In one scene, Ralph and a pal are discussing an accident at work that landed the conductor, Al, in the hospital. Next thing you know, Al strolls in laughing and joking about his escaping serious injury at Ralph’s negligence.
This is nonsense because, in the real world during the 1940s, Al would have wanted to knock Ralph in the noggin for being so careless, while also dropping a few F-bombs and maybe a racial slur or three.
Call me a prude, but I don’t care much for the idea of using alcoholic beverages to tell stories in a museum frequented by children. Although much time and effort went into this display, all we are left with is an example of fake history.
The museum, though, is rather interesting because it’s set in a former Pennsylvania Railroad master mechanics building dating to 1882. At one time, everything from drinking water to light bulbs used on the railroad were tested in the building just off the 17th Street exit from Interstate 99.
Between 1866 and 1946, more than 68,000 steam, diesel-electric and electric locomotives were manufactured at the site when just about everyone depended on the railroads for goods and travel. The industry here began to decline after a 1931 Christmas-day fire destroyed some of the buildings.
Visitors also can walk inside an old caboose to see how railroaders toiled in cramped, dingy quarters at the end of the train. You can almost hear them complaining about having to use the stainless steel commode tucked inside a small closet.