Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Recording History – Recommendations from Personal Experience

Recording History – Recommendations from Personal Experience
Written by by Rudy Garbely, Owner & Editor-in-Chief, The Garbely Publishing Company

Sometimes history is best recorded under the most perilous of circumstances.

On a Thursday morning in early November of 2011, I was passed out on the kitchen counter in my dorm’s common area. I woke up surrounded by empty Coke cans and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels – things were not looking good. I was a senior history major at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, and for the past eleven months I had been working on my thesis. This was minimum 100-page paper on a topic of my choosing, replete with all of the most arduous and grueling practices of professional research. The final paper was due on November 17th, less than two weeks away.

A trio of Lehigh Valley Railroad locomotives burst out of the Musconetcong Tunnel in Bellewood, NJ on February 23, 1974. (Bob Wilt photo)
Being a railroad history buff, I had initially selected the overall history of railroading in the Lehigh Valley region as my topic. As I delved into my research, my topic began to narrow first to the history of a particular railroad (the Lehigh Valley Railroad), and then to a specific time period not previously covered by historians (1965 to 1976). By restricting my focus, I was able to concentrate my research and provide a far more in-depth analysis, rather than speaking in generalizations about a broad topic. Authors should never be afraid to focus their writing on a particular area of interest, as it will ultimately result in a better (and more interesting) historical record.

During the summer of 2011, I was interning with the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, working in their archives two days a week – a fortuitous position for someone writing a lengthy research paper on the history of a Pennsylvania railroad. During my lunch breaks, I would spend time in the archives and poke through the Lehigh Valley Railroad collection, amassing quite the collection of facts and figures.

Each museum, archive, library, and historical society is different in their approach to researchers. Some require professional Smithsonian-quality archival care, while others are far more open with their collections. Some allow or even encourage scanning or photographing of their collections, while others expressly forbid it. Some are very indecisive when it comes to this topic. In my experience, I have found that if I offer to provide and help catalogue the digitized files, the institution is usually quite agreeable in allowing me to scan or photograph their collection. In this way, the institution is able to provide these files to future researchers digitally and minimize continued wear and tear on the original materials.

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is a facility that requires the highest standards of archival care – researchers are typically kept at a table in a separate room, with materials brought to them one at a time by museum staff. White gloves must be used by all researchers to handle archival materials, and no pens are allowed in the research rooms – only pencils. Documents, photos, and other materials are stored in acid-free boxes on rolling shelves in a climate-controlled room, maximizing storage space. Typically, the “one box at a time” rule, designed to protect the collection, makes research very slow, but my position as an archival intern allowed me to look through materials at a faster pace during my lunch breaks.

Lehigh Valley Railroad locomotive #115 switches at the Scholl Lumber Co. in Freemansburg, PA on April 1, 1975. (Bob Wilt photo)
Shortly before the school year started in September, I found an uncatalogued box containing the collection of the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s last president and bankruptcy trustee, Robert Haldeman. This box was a gold mine of information, including Haldeman’s early 1970s speeches to Congress on the condition of the railroad, financial documents from the bankruptcy, and a great deal of other information that was not available elsewhere. However, the box was labeled “Box 3 of 4,” and the other three boxes were nowhere to be found.

Using my intern position to my benefit once more, I was able to discern that these four boxes had been donated in early 1983, less than a month before the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission moved a large amount of materials from the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania to the State Archives in Harrisburg. If these boxes had been recently donated, there was a good chance they had been moved to the State Archives.

I was able to travel to the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg during October of 2011. Lo and behold, the other three boxes were there, buried on the back of a shelf and similarly uncatalogued. I spent the entire day at the State Archives going through these three boxes, but what I found in corporate documents, memos, and reports was a sudden upheaval in the direction of my research. This material had been unseen by the general public since the railroad had ceased to exist in 1976. With about a month to go before my thesis was due, I was forced to scrap the sixty pages of my paper which I had already written and completely start over. By the time I organized all of the newfound material, I was left with just under three weeks to write the entirety of a 100+ page paper. I had to buckle down and write fast!

Everyone writes in their own way. Even though history is a theoretically objective writing genre, the organization of facts and dates into coherent set of stories and sentences is still a highly creative process that distinguishes the most notable historical writings from the drab and mundane. For some people, the atmosphere of the local Starbucks is the best setting to put pen to paper. For others, it’s a dedicated workspace at home. For me, it’s during the peace and quiet of 3:00 AM with a bottle of whiskey nearby. That’s just how I work best, and I’ve accepted that. New or aspiring authors should find their own “zone” and then cater to that, which will drastically increase their productivity.

Getting back to that Thursday morning on the kitchen counter, my roommate Armando had wandered out of his room around 8:00 AM and stumbled into the kitchen, finding me sprawled out and sound asleep amongst the Coke cans and empty bottle of Jack. Historical reference paperwork was strewn about every flat surface nearby, covering chairs, tables, and even the floor. My laptop was open on the counter next to me, with Microsoft Word still open on the screen. Armando came over and woke me up – “Have you been here all night?” I looked up and glanced over at the page number on the screen, and responded, “Dude, I wrote 30 pages last night.”

Seven Lehigh Valley Railroad locomotives drag a long freight train along the banks of the Lehigh River near Jim Thorpe, PA on February 20, 1972. (Bob Wilt photo)
Ironically, this wasn’t the first night I’d fallen asleep on the job, although it definitely marked my personal low-point during the whole project. Just a week earlier, I had fallen asleep on top of the keyboard in my bedroom, and had awoken to 136 pages of the letter “g” scrawled across my screen. But the tradeoff between exhaustion and productivity was worth it. In just under three weeks, I wrote over 160 pages of academic text, with the final edits and additions coming less than an hour before the paper was finally due on November 17th.

In the end, it was all worth it. The three boxes, which had completely changed my research ten months into the project, resulted in a much more accurate and in-depth historical analysis. Those three boxes of materials challenged things I had so wrongfully assumed, and completely changed the course of my paper. That, more than the actual content of my thesis, was what I learned most from this project – an author should never be afraid to have his facts, opinions, or assumptions challenged and even proven wrong. By keeping an open mind, an author can find more information, unearth new historical data, and significantly add to the overall historical record.

I graduated from Moravian College in May of 2012 with honors as a result of this thesis project, which garnered stellar reviews from several high-profile academics. Dr. Richard Saunders, a professor of history at Clemson University and author of two railroad history books of his own, commended me on my “amazing piece of original research.”

Seven months after my graduation, this paper was revamped and turned into the first book published by my own company. Lehigh Valley – The Final Years: 1965-1976 is currently available from The Garbely Publishing Company’s website at I’ve written three more books since then, and released ten more books for other authors. I still research at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania wearing white gloves, I still write alongside a bottle of Jack Daniels, and I still do my best work at 3:00 AM. I’ve found the formula that works for me, and now it is up to YOU to find the method that works for you.

About the Book
This extensive history of the Lehigh Valley Railroad covers the railroad's waning years, from its
spiral into bankruptcy to its inclusion in Conrail. With over a year and a half of academic research in historical collections and original Lehigh Valley Railroad documents, author and railroad history scholar Rudy Garbely presents entirely new information about the last years of the railroad's existence. The text is supplemented with 141 previously unpublished photographs and appendixes that include a full set of Lehigh Valley Railroad financial information and a complete locomotive roster with locomotive dispositions and modern day locations.

About the Author
Rudy Garbely holds a degree in post-World War II American history from Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with a concentration on northeastern railroading history. He currently works for the local Morristown & Erie Railway in Morristown, New Jersey as a Marketing & Logistics Manager, and he is also an accomplished railroad history author and publisher. Rudy is the owner of The Garbely Publishing Company, which focuses on professional railroad history books written by Rudy and other authors.

Rudy's book, Lehigh Valley - The Final Years: 1965-1976, is available from The Garbely Publishing Company at

Do you enjoy the articles and features that The History Girl produces each week? 
If so, consider a donation to keep the movement going!


I am familiar with the Morristown and Erie. I worked for the Morris County Central RR when it ran out of Newfoundland NJ. I knew many of the M&E guys. I too have written 3 books--and some MCC RR and LVRR stories are scattered about. I now live in Upstate NY on the old LVRR mainline at Yale NY. The first stop east of Geneva. My family now owns the station grounds and we may revive some railroad activities. To track me down can be tough---but just google Gregory of Ostein and that should help you make contact. I would like to become a friend on Facebook--but i will leave that up to you.

Outstanding article Rudy! What makes it so great is your honest truth on how you get into your zone, love it! Keep up the great work as all of your books are great! Aldene I believe is the next book in the making and I will certainly purchase one when available...

Post a Comment

Thanks for the comments!