The Smithsonian's Rail Chief
The history and legacy of railways and the union members who work on them has been Bill Withuhn’s passion for more than 40 years.
Withuhn, an active member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and Curator Emeritus of transportation history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has made sure that union values are integrated into exhibits so that locomotives are valued not just as high points of engineering, but also examples of people working together.
“I love railroading,” Withuhn said on a recent tour at the Smithsonian. “Here at the museum I am able to look after the history of railroads.”
America on the Move
Washington, D.C. is home to one of the largest museum complexes in the world—the Smithsonian. One of the museums in the complex is the National Museum of American History, which acts as a repository of artifacts from American life and history. Pieces such as the top hat was worn by President Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination, to the eponymous chair used by the actor Carroll O’Connor when he portrayed Archie Bunker in the television show “All in the Family,” find their home in this great museum.
One of the largest, most extensive exhibits is “America on the Move” located on the first floor. Covering a time period between 1876 and 2000, all forms of personal, commuter and passenger transportation are uniquely shown along with other museum pieces which give them the appropriate context for their time. Chief among the creators of this exhibit was Withuhn, an active member of BLET Division 263 in Pennsylvania.
“I wanted to make sure this major project of the Smithsonian showed the respect I have for the railroading profession. As railroad engineers know, our lives are not only devoted to making sure that goods and products traverse the country safely and securely, but we are often also carrying precious cargo—you and your family—along with us,” Withuhn said.
“We tried out some new approaches to exhibiting rail equipment in this exhibit,” Withuhn said. “For instance, I placed two life-sized figures, one of an engineer, the other of a fireman, in the cab of the massive Southern Railway engine. Additionally we have a recording of the engineer and the fireman discussing their route while they prepare to start their day. This is a departure from some museums which exhibit empty engine cabs. The professional relationship between the engineer and the fireman, and among all train crew members, is part of the railroading experience that I don’t believe most of the public is aware of, and yet it is crucial to being able to safely handle the engine and its cargo.
“I wanted to show the public that railroading is a team effort,” Withuhn said. “On the rails, you are working as a team where lives depend on how well you do your job. Everyone is dependent upon doing the job safely.”
‘Alpha and Omega’
The Southern Railway engine is just one of the enormous steam engines that anchor the exhibit. When you first enter the exhibit, the timeline begins in the mid-1800s in Santa Cruz, California. It is here that Withuhn and his team placed a steam engine named Jupiter. When railroads first began, many towns vied to have a rail station located in their boundaries because having a station brought commerce. Towns such as Santa Cruz were among the lucky ones.
The sprawling exhibit, by far the biggest in the National Museum of American History, matches the scale of the enormous locomotives. Stage lights are focused on them to give them an added dramatic appearance. Although there are automobiles in the exhibit, they are considerably dwarfed by the rail engines.
Exhibit visitors can sense how the railroads virtually tie the nation together, from the first section featuring the Santa Cruz engine, to the middle of the exhibit anchored by the Southern Railway engine, to the closing portion that has a video of modern railroads serving the port of Los Angeles.
“The locomotives are very much the alpha and omega in our exhibit,” Withuhn said.
Being a union member, Withuhn also wanted to incorporate some references to the great rail unions that began in the 19th century, the oldest of which is the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, or BLE, as it was known from 1863 until 2005 when the union merged with the Teamsters Union.
Union history is shown by many dues payment buttons included in several glass cases and text panels. Withuhn was careful to include materials from many other railroad unions as well such as the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.
“I made sure that this national museum’s exhibit on transportation history reflected not just the evolution of the technology and equipment but also spoke to the critical role that hardworking men and women in the union movement had in the building of the nation’s transportation infrastructure,” Withuhn said. “The sweat of our union brothers and sisters who came before us made America the country it is today. We must always remember that.”