Pennsylvania in Public Memory
Reclaiming the Industrial Past
Pennsylvania in Public Memory
Reclaiming the Industrial Past
“This is a fascinating book that will make a major original contribution to the overlapping fields of public history, deindustrialization, and tourism studies.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
“This is a fascinating book that will make a major original contribution to the overlapping fields of public history, deindustrialization, and tourism studies.”
“Pennsylvania is widely known for being at the center of the nation’s industrial rise, and upon its fall, factories once devoted to the production of goods turned to issuing memories. Carolyn Kitch opens readers’ eyes to the profound, intriguing questions, conflicts, and implications raised by this move to heritage. Her account has insightful narratives of destinations such as Hershey’s theme-park replica of a factory experience, a harrowing descent into a defunct coal mine, and Keystone State Park, which frames an industrial landscape as a recreational site. She provides a needed panorama of the messages and meanings with which communities, and the nation, wrestle in a postindustrial age.”
“As Kitch incorporates many colorful examples and writes eloquently but without pretense, undergraduate as well as graduate students would enjoy this book, which easily could be incorporated into media history, American studies, public history, tourism, and labor history classes.”
“Kitch offers up a fascinating survey of industrial historic sites and interpretation in this volume. Pennsylvania, deeply embedded in the history of industry and energy extraction, provides an excellent case study for her analysis. Given the vast array of sites that she visited, Kitch weaves together a discussion that is logically organized and clearly argued. My only problem with this book is deciding whether to assign it to students in my public history course or to those who take my class on Pennsylvania history. Given her valuable critical insights, it would be worth it to assign Pennsylvania in Public Memory in both.”
Carolyn Kitch is Professor of Journalism in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University.
Introduction: Public Memory and the Legacies of Labor
1 “Almost a Nation”: The History of Industrial Heritage in Pennsylvania
2 “A Journey That Will Inspire”: Regions, Routes, and Rails
3 “Overcomin’ What Nature Put in Your Way”: Rural Heritage and Pioneer Mythology
4 “Where I Came From, How I Got Here”: Ethnic Diversity, Cultural Tourism, and the Memory of Immigration
5 “Deep Veins of Loss”: Sacrifice and Heroism in Coal Country
6 “From Our Family to Yours”: Personal Meanings of Work in Factory Tourism
7 “Steel Made This Town”: An Unfinished Story in Uncertain Times
8 “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”: The Questions of Industrial Heritage
Epilogue: The Future of Pennsylvania’s Past
Public Memory and the Legacies of Labor
Braddock, Pa.—As Americans wonder just how horrible the economy will become, this tiny steel town offers a perverse message of hope: Things cannot possibly get any worse than they are here. . . . In an earlier era, Braddock was a famed wellspring of industrial might. . . . Immigrants came to work in the mill, and through ceaseless agitation won union representation that enabled their children—helped by the [Carnegie] library on the hill—to achieve a better life. . . . [It is] a town whose story has evolved from building America to making Americans to eating Americans for dinner.
—New York Times, February 1, 2009
This portrait appeared on the front page of the nation’s leading newspaper on the day the Pittsburgh Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl championship. The team’s first four victories were achieved in the mid- to late 1970s, as the steel industry was beginning to topple; its other two, ending the 2005 and 2008 seasons, occurred amid the city’s recent revitalization. By their victory in 2009—completing a “six pack”—the team was credited with having preserved the identity of the men in the mills. Over these three decades, “town and team have been forever forged into one,” claimed a reporter for the Patriot-News in the state capital of Harrisburg. “Out of adversity came a resilient and ever-enduring pride. . . . As mills shut down, former steelworkers donned hard hats at Steelers games, rooting on a team that had adopted the town’s tough, no-nonsense work ethic.”1
Downtown Pittsburgh itself is now clean and “bustling,” the article noted. But the collapse of Big Steel in this area three decades ago decimated so much of this region, even towns like Braddock where steelmaking actually continues. As the American recession worsened in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, journalists frequently used Pittsburgh as a symbol of the nation. In 2008, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a series of features on the personal impact of the current recession, some of their interview subjects shared hardship tales that stretched back to the 1980s.2 Later that year, as the presidential election neared, the New York Times chose Aliquippa, a town northeast of Pittsburgh that once was home to steel giant Jones and Laughlin, as a barometer of just how desperate working-class white Democrats were in an economic downtown: “Voting for the black man does not come easy to Nick Piroli. . . . To the sound of bowling balls smacking pins, as the bartender in the Fallout Shelter queues up more Buds, this retired steelworker wrestles with this election and his choice.”3 Out-of-work coal miners rallied around the campaign of Republican John McCain, chanting, “We’ve got coal!” in response to his support for “clean coal” technology.4 Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both claimed family ties to Scranton.
Scranton, too, is a media symbol of American deindustrialization, though it is used more comically. When an American version of the British television comedy The Office debuted in 2005, its producers located the U.S. counterpart of its “dreary branch office of a fictional paper company,” Dunder Mifflin, in Scranton, a city “whose name never seemed to appear in print without the words ‘hardscrabble former coal-mining town,’” wrote one television critic.5 In a skit re-creating the 2008 vice presidential candidates’ debate, Saturday Night Live comedian Jason Sudeikis, playing Biden, lampooned his working-class-roots rhetoric: “I come from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and that’s as hardscrabble a place as you’re going to find. . . . Nobody, and I mean nobody, but me has ever come out of that place. . . . So don’t be telling me that I’m part of the Washington elite, because I come from the absolute worst place on Earth.”6 Biden himself walked the streets of Scranton, recalling his childhood, for national television news cameras, and Clinton spoke at the local high school about her childhood visits to her father’s family in the area. Her appearance there on the campaign trail, wrote a Times reporter, was meant “to link the values of this gritty region—where her grandfather, descended from Welsh coal miners, raised his family—to her character and especially her perseverance. ‘She’s tough,’ Christopher Doherty, Scranton’s mayor, said in an interview. ‘That’s a real Scranton trait. That’s an anthracite trait.’”7
The entire state of Pennsylvania was a favorite with television news reporters as they sought to “take the pulse” of ordinary people during that election year. Traveling aboard vintage Pennsylvania Railroad cars, Good Morning America reporter Robin Roberts remarked, “We saw two Americas from our train windows: the beautiful, ever-changing landscape, and the harsh reality facing the people living in towns along the tracks.”8 Critics have been concerned with the uneven economic consequences of deindustrialization for decades, and the 2008 election brought this issue again to the forefront of the popular-culture stage as well as the conventional political stage. Touring during and after the election year, including ten concerts in Pennsylvania, Bruce Springsteen resurrected songs about working-class disillusionment from his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town and closed his shows with “American Land,” a rollickingly angry song about the dashed hopes and poor treatment of nineteenth-century immigrants who came to “the valley of red-hot steel and fire.”9 On this tour, Springsteen also performed “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a song by nineteenth-century American composer and Pittsburgh native Stephen Collins Foster. As Springsteen implied, hard times have indeed returned to industrial valleys, whose present-day residents feel embittered by broken promises.
Out of these ashes have risen the kinds of heritage sites (and stories) that are the subject of this book, a range of local history and tourism initiatives that are meant to restore local pride and create a new kind of revenue in struggling towns and cities. Frequently the subject of journalism, advertising, and film, these projects are public statements about identity and region. While they are very respectful of former residents, they are more than merely tributes—they are determined attempts to make the past useful in the present and future.
The public and critical reception of such efforts has been mixed. While some people are anxious to acknowledge their parents’ lives and their childhood neighborhoods, others object to what they perceive as the marketing of personal tragedy. Plans to tell “the workers’ story” are hailed by some as long overdue and by others as premature in a time of continuing unemployment and municipal decay. In some industries and regions, the latter feeling poses a special problem for public memory: how is it possible to consign to history (let alone to celebrate) industries that have disappeared so recently that their scars on the land—and in families and communities—are still visible? Conversely, in other regions, large-scale industry is so long gone that it is invisible, and public historians struggle to paint an epic picture that is impossible to imagine in present-day settings.
This book is an attempt to explore these issues through a literal as well as rhetorical survey of Pennsylvania’s industrial and postindustrial landscape in the early twenty-first century. Its goal is to contribute to an ongoing conversation about what should be remembered of a lost way of life, how it should be recalled, in what settings, by whom and for whom, and at what temporal distance. More broadly, this is a study of the lasting meaning of industrial work, from yesterday as well as long ago, in public expressions of local and national identity. It is a scholarly and a personal journey through the vestiges of the past that circulate in the present.
The Surge in Public and Scholarly Interest in “Heritage”
While the problem is ongoing, U.S. deindustrialization began in earnest during the 1970s and 1980s. These economic losses coincided with a growing interest among the general public in genealogy and local history, sparked in part by the American Bicentennial in 1976, and with a rise in uses of nostalgia in American public communication and popular culture. Assessing the “values” expressed in the country’s leading news magazines and television news programs during the 1970s, Herbert J. Gans detected a pervasive preference for “small-town pastoralism,” an idealization of rural, simpler life presumably lost in the modern world.10 Television shows such as The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie invoked folksy, rural nostalgia; magazines called Memories and Reminisce were launched; advertising campaigns hailed the timeless authenticity of mass-manufactured leisure products (Coca-Cola, for instance, was “the real thing”).11
As Susan Davis has noted, the prevalence of nostalgic rhetoric in popular and political culture during the Reagan era coincided with the federal “defunding” of history (as well as arts) projects, a change ensuring that Americans were increasingly likely to learn about history less from museums than from tourism and mass media.12 By 1990, the striking success of Ken Burns’s PBS documentary The Civil War had opened the door to a spate of epic media presentations of history. Later in that decade, films such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan would confirm the appeal of this media treatment of the past. Meanwhile, the landscape of industrial cities had changed in an interesting way. As academics and community organizers were just beginning to debate how to publicly recall workers’ experiences, the buildings in which they once labored were transformed into hotels, brewpubs, antique malls, and office complexes. Young urban professionals bought riverside, loft-style condominiums in former factory buildings. Passenger train stations, absent significant passenger rail travel in the United States, became restaurants and art studios. As industrial work itself departed, industrial architecture became trendy and, paradoxically, more visible.
The later decades of the twentieth century inspired new kinds of interest in the past from politicians as well as the general public. The 1960s and ’70s brought federal legislation fostering not only environmental conservation but also preservation of historic buildings and American folk traditions.13 There was a corresponding groundswell of academic interest in social history, a “bottom-up” approach that focused on ordinary people and spurred funding for studies of local history, labor history, ethnic history, women’s history, and (across all of those categories) oral history. That work raised questions about the relationship between local and national identity, the representational aspects of heritage industries, the changing nature of public history, and the cultural meanings of place. These subjects also became of interest to cultural geographers, urban studies scholars, and communication researchers. Collectively, these scholars have attributed the phenomenon of industrial heritage to factors well beyond deindustrialization itself—including baby boom nostalgia, increased ethnic pride, post-Vietnam disillusionment, and a resurgence of nationalism in the face of globalization. Related research has considered the political implications of tourism in a postcolonial world: about authority in representation, the question of who may “speak for” the experiences of particular cultural groups; about the implications of globalization and recent political change, throughout the world, for national identity and memory; and about the nature, forms, and practices of museums, which have increasingly incorporated media and interactive technology in an effort to entertain and as well as inform.14
Like the heritage industries themselves, academic literature about them took root first in the United Kingdom, where scholarly views of this phenomenon have been dim. Among the most critical has been Robert Hewison, who has called heritage culture “bogus history” and “a commodity which nobody seems able to define, but which everybody is eager to sell” to a public “hypnotized by images of the past.”15 He writes, “Heritage is gradually effacing history, by substituting an image of the past for its reality.”16 Kevin Walsh similarly condemns heritage sites as “a spurious simulacrum,” declaring that “such places are literally on a road to nowhere.”17 John Corner and Sylvia Harvey contend that heritage sites that claim to “either ‘bring the past back to life’ or allow visitors to ‘step back into it’” encourage only “sentimentalism and whimsy.”18 Concerned about “the heritage crusades,” David Lowenthal writes that heritage “replaces past realities with feel-good history.”19
Some American scholars have taken up this cry. Michael Wallace worries that the past has become just “a comestible to be consumed, digested, and excreted”; because of our fascination with heritage, he claims, Americans have disengaged from history, becoming “a historicidal culture.”20 Wallace is concerned with the problem of history getting into the wrong hands, especially those of media producers.21 Wilbur Zelinsky adds antiquing, ethnic festivals, and historical pageants to the commercial culture capitalizing on “the magnetism of a comforting past.”22 Writing about tourism in Gettysburg, Jim Weeks argues that “a key feature of heritage over history is the substitution of image for reality that turns illusions into authenticity.”23
Other analysts are somewhat more optimistic. Proponents of oral history, while cautious about the difference between personal memory and “correct” history, laud some heritage projects for bringing previously untold stories into the historical record, thus contradicting or contextualizing mainstream ideas about the past. The new scholarly deference to ordinary people also has reminded academic historians that vernacular narratives deserve to be taken seriously and that, as Linda Shopes explains, there is a “difference in the information the two groups think is historically important.”24 Other authors challenge the assumption that audiences are duped by commercial heritage presentations. “Just like an audience at a play, visitors are reflexively aware that what they see has been ‘staged,’” write Chris Rojek and John Urry of heritage tourism sites.25 Noting how little research there is on the audiences of public history, Michael Frisch and Dwight Pitcaithley contend that “both audience and presenters bring active interpretive processes to their onsite meeting” at heritage venues and that audiences have “general expectations” about and “a sense of what is appropriate in” presentations of history.26 Jo Blatti, who has studied heritage site visitors, makes this point more strongly, writing, “Many of us are preoccupied by ‘deficiencies’ of public understanding rather than the astonishing and the miraculous imaginative capabilities shared by program producers and audiences.”27
Addressing criticisms that imaginative stories about the past “purvey misinformation,” some writers, building on the well-known contention of Hayden White, argue that the past is inevitably recorded in narrative form.28 In their study of Colonial Williamsburg, Richard Handler and Eric Gable claim, “The dream of authenticity is a present-day myth. We cannot recreate, reconstruct, or recapture the past. We can only tell stories about the past in a present-day language.”29 At the same time, the past invoked by heritage narratives is not fiction but rather has a “connection to the real past,” notes Tok Thompson, who cautions us “not to dismiss this link as ‘inauthentic’ or ‘invented.’ The past may be contestable, and changeable, but it is not vacuous. . . . The past really did happen.”30
When I embarked on this project, I was theoretically somewhere in the middle of the continuum between celebration and criticism of heritage culture. Not surprisingly, because I teach in a communications school and once worked in the magazine industry, I am not a believer of the critical gospel that mediated or otherwise commercial historical projects are inevitably uninformed or ideologically oppressive. Nor, especially after doing this research, do I buy the academic claim that “amateur historians” are ill equipped to handle the past. People of all sorts, with diverse institutional and social positions, make their own sense of the past in ways that help them understand their own lives in the present. It is true, though, that this sense-making process can result in a wishful vision of the past that is markedly different from the material realities of the past. It is also true that certain kinds of people in certain kinds of circumstances are better able to shape and tell the stories that become shared memory.
These are the issues at the heart of memory studies, which over the past thirty years—the same time period as the boom in heritage culture—have emerged across a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. The concept of memory has become a popular lens through which to see how the past is understood retrospectively and how social groups use ideas about history in order to make sense of their identity in the present. These processes occur over time, as memory is reshaped again and again. In his foundational writing on this phenomenon nearly a century ago, Maurice Halbwachs compared this series of transformations to the retouching of a painting, so that “new images overlay the old.”31
Scholars use several terms to describe this kind of memory, which is shared rather than individual and takes public shape. Halbwachs called it collective memory; others call it social memory. In this book, I will use the term public memory to describe what I am studying, for three reasons. First, my primary interest is in how and what the general public learns about the meanings of the industrial past. Second, once they are out of school (and even while they are in school) most people tend to learn about history through a variety of kinds of public communication, including museums, tourism, special events, memorials and signage on the landscape, and mass media, including journalism, advertising, television, and film. Finally, people help shape and interpret the history tales they tell and pass on: memory narratives emerge from a circular kind of communication in which the line between the “producers” and the “audiences” is blurred. The history that results—while sometimes quite different, in form as well as content, from that told in academic history books—is nevertheless legitimate in the very fact that it is, indeed, a public statement. As David Glassberg explains:
Public historical imagery is an essential element of our culture, contributing to how we define our sense of identity and direction. It locates us in time, as we learn about our place in a succession of past and future generations, as well as in space, as we learn the story of our locale. Images of a “common” history provide a focus for group loyalties, as well as plots to structure our individual memories and a larger context within which to interpret our new experiences. Ultimately, historical imagery supplies an orientation toward our future action . . . delineating . . . what we think is timeless and what we think can be changed, what we consider inevitable and what we term accidental, what we dismiss as strange and what we know is mere common sense. Public historical imagery, by giving recognition to various group and individual histories, also suggests categories for our understanding the scale of our social relations and the relative position of groups in our society.32
Here is a near-perfect articulation of the role of public memory in postindustrial (or still deindustrializing) communities. In such places, the question of what to publicly remember is a debate about survival as well as loss, transformation as well as memorial, and future as well as past; it is a process of crafting a useful story about local history and claiming an ongoing role in that story. The present-day orientation of such public memory gives rise to other debates about who should tell the story and how it should be told. It also raises questions about the nature of historical truth.
Public Memory as “Provocation” and Imagination
Among the earliest statements of goals for public history—and definitions of the difference between academic and popular history—were Freeman Tilden’s 1957 “principles of interpretation,” written for the National Park Service. These principles included, among other points: “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile”; “The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation”; and “Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man.” Decades before academics began to talk about memory, let alone to bemoan heritage, Tilden encouraged public historians to make the past “a living reality” that is “peopled” with characters who inspire empathy from the modern public, to engage in a kind of interpretation that would “provoke in the mind of the hearer the questions, ‘What would I have done under similar circumstances? What would have been my fate?’”33
This is what Robert Archibald calls “historical imagination” and what David Glassberg calls a “sense of history,” an “intersection of the intimate and the historical.”34 As Glassberg explains, “The personal and experiential take precedence over the global and the abstract. . . . An orientation to the history of one’s place, to one’s family, to one’s region perhaps constitutes the greatest difference between the history that Americans live and experience and the history practiced by professional historians.” Through public history, he writes, “we invite ancestors whom we never met to enter our lives imaginatively through stories and pictures.”35 It is worth noting that those people “we never met” are nevertheless often known to us, not merely figments of our imagination, and our connection to them often is based on geographic or genealogical realities. Especially in the case of local museums or historical events, the typical “visitor” either is what Bella Dicks describes as “an interested journeyer through a family past” or is inspired by a feeling of “place memory.”36
These imaginative connections are enhanced, not diminished, by the local nature of the site and by interpretation provided by local people, even though they are not likely to be professional historians. When Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen polled eight hundred Americans about what history means to them, respondents said that they were most inspired by—and tended to most believe as true—knowledge of the past gained either through their own personal experiences or recounted to them by eyewitnesses who are family or community members.37 Many of the places I visited in researching this book were staffed largely, or sometimes entirely, by volunteers, who also constitute the great majority of reenactors, or “living history interpreters,” at special events. Several directors of sites with state or even federal funding told me that they nevertheless could not exist without volunteers. Moreover, one said, “The volunteers are our most important visitors.”38
The sensory experience of place contributes to local people’s perception of historical truth. Harold “Kip” Hagan, superintendent of the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton (a railroad museum), remembers what he observed on one tour group: “An old man was choking up and said to his wife, ‘I haven’t smelled those smells in forty years.’ Ours is a live backshop. . . . For some of these older folks to come back and witness that, it’s really moving for them, and to be able to tell their kids, ‘Hey, this is the way it was,’ that really matters.”39
This anecdote offers one answer to the questions raised by Ronald Grele three decades ago in his essay titled “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” His own answer, at the time, was that the goal “should be to help members of the public do their own history,” becoming “a new group of historical workers interpreting the past of heretofore ignored classes of people.”40 A similar sentiment was embraced by the participants in a 1990 conference at the American Folklife Center, which addressed what was then perceived as a need for heritage projects “away from a top-down, prescriptive approach to heritage planning toward an approach more open and responsive to grass-roots cultural concerns.”41
In their privileging of public memory and the lived experiences of local people, writes Amy Levin, local historic sites and museums “may ultimately tell scholars more about contemporary life than all the branches of the Smithsonian put together.”42 Local historians usually are well aware of the differences between their interpretation and that of history textbooks, and they are open about their intent. Many of the people I met in the state’s many small historical sites are local historians who are overtly proud of their town and emotionally connected to the departed industry they either mourn or celebrate (or sometimes both). The work they do, usually unpaid, illustrates historian Carol Kammen’s reminder that “the word ‘amateur’ comes . . . from the Latin amator, meaning ‘to love.’ An amateur historian is one who loves history.”43 While these people often possess a wealth of knowledge about the local past, they do not pretend to be objective, and their definitions of historical truth often depart from those of academics.
The web site of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission explains that there are two kinds of stories about the past: one kind is “the stories of historians,” made up of facts “selected to preserve the important details”; the other kind “draw[s] from our memories. They are preserved not by historians, but by us. The stories that we decide are important enough to pass down through the generations make up our heritage.”44 A local history video sold during the Iron Heritage Festival in Danville, Pennsylvania, where the first “T-rail” railroad tracks were made in the mid-nineteenth century, explains, “History records facts. It preserves dates and events, people and places. . . . However, it is our heritage that explains why we have become the people we are today.”45
Danville native Sis Hause gives bus tours of her town’s iron-making history, even though there are hardly any visible reminders of it. “I do three tours each year, and they all have been sold out, which amazes me,” she says. When I took one of these tours during the festival in the summer of 2007, I was struck by how often other passengers interrupted her with stories of their own. One passenger, she recalls, “remembered a poem that a grandmother recited about one of the bosses at the ‘Big Mill.’ I often hear stories that are personal and not really information for the history books, but give me a feeling for the thoughts of those who lived in a company town. I sometimes think that maybe some do come to have the opportunity to tell the stories that have been handed down through their families.” When the festival began in 1999, she says, most young people knew little of the town’s history, and
the oldest generation . . . who remembered a time when Danville was an iron town were few and far between; we were able to visit with most of them to listen to their stories. The next generation, myself included, remembered remnants of that time. There were still visible signs, such as slag piles, abandoned railroad trestles that led to the mills, foundations of old buildings, and a few of the original mills in my youth. I grew up in an area of town where many of the mineworkers and their families lived after the decline in the industry, so I had the opportunity to listen to them reminiscing about their days in the mines and mills.46
Steamtown’s Kip Hagan makes the same point, recalling a program his museum had about a 1955 flood in the Scranton area: “People kept standing up and telling their memories of the flood. There are a lot of common threads that are out there. It’s like a moth to a light. People want to tell their stories.”47
This urge to “tell stories” is not merely a matter of reminiscence. In places where industrial structures do remain, strong local feelings can produce a complex memory. Writing about their oral history research with former textile mill workers in Manchester, New Hampshire, Tamara Hareven and Randolph Langenbach explain, “They were willing, and at times eager, to recall the bitter times along with the good. Memories of struggle with poverty, daily two-mile walks to the factory, unemployment and strikes, illness and death were all part of that story, and were intimately linked to the buildings.” When sites of industry are still present in otherwise deindustrialized areas, they write, the buildings themselves gain a “symbolic value,” standing “as silent witnesses” to “the way of life and the sense of continuity” that has been lost.48 To those who do not personally remember a region’s history, the buildings are powerful in a different way, write John Jakle and David Wilson. “Nothing strikes a sense of pathos more than the ruined factory. . . . Massive walls and towering stacks . . . speak of technical and organizational sophistication. To see them derelict is to see failed dreams.”49
The Special Circumstances of Industrial Heritage
At the same time that they stand as testimonies to failure and loss, postindustrial landscapes also hold out the hope of heritage, redevelopment projects that may yield social as well as economic transformation. “Dying economies stage their own rebirth as displays of what they once were, sometimes before the body is cold,” writes Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, who contends that heritage projects give industrial towns “a second life as exhibits of themselves.”50 Studying the evolution of former coal-mining regions, Richard Francaviglia identifies this outcome as one alternative (the other being decay and death) for “the last phase of a mining district.” Francaviglia attributes the development of industrial heritage tourism to “a growing appreciation of history” among the general public but also writes, “Mining country provides powerful visual settings in which ‘technostalgia’—the romanticizing of the industrial past—can thrive. . . . Before mining landscapes could be valued . . . a romanticized vision of their place in history and nature had to be developed.”51
In 1996, the New York Times published an article titled “Unemployment: The Theme Park” about a new federally funded project to be created in southwestern Pennsylvania called the “Path of Progress,” a group of tourism sites about industry connected by a driving route. The reporter described “a program that trains displaced steelworkers and coal miners to become guides in the very places where they once labored” in and around Johnstown, as part of “this city’s curious and quietly radical passage from a place that makes things to a place that remembers,” and explained, “Heritage tourism retails the often unhappy narratives of unlucky places, and is clearly a growth industry . . . betting that the factories where cannons were forged can be as compelling as the battlefields where they were fired, that the stories of ordinary working people can be as absorbing as those of the exalted and wealthy.”52
This article raises a number of the issues that separate many academic and cultural critics (including journalists) from local historians and tourism promoters in their assessment of such sites. The article’s title suggests the cynicism with which some critics have regarded the presumably sad fate of former industrial workers reduced to being mere tour guides, agreeing to perform for visitors seeking an authentically gritty, if imagined, experience. Writing about the initial local reaction to the planned redevelopment of the U.S. Steel site in Homestead, William Serrin accused developers, and potential future tourists, of “working-class voyeurism.”53 Another frequent thread in criticism is that heritage projects are driven by the greed of insensitive businessmen seeking to profit from the misfortunes of ordinary people. Yet, as Marilyn Halter notes, “The relationship is a much more dialectical give-and-take between culture and commerce. People interested in showcasing their own culture can draw on corporate funding to make that happen and, in many cases, are able to have definitive input into the process as well.”54
While public history of all kinds is continually shaped by debates among producers and sponsors with conflicting interests, industrial heritage projects seem especially controversial. Michael Frisch offers this explanation:
Imagine five broad armies marching towards what quickly becomes dramatically contested terrain. . . . First, in a moral as well as temporal sense, are the displaced workers, unions, and communities themselves, the ones whose lives and industrial livelihood have involuntarily become heritage and only heritage. . . . Second is a ragtag army of historical caretakers—those whose primary commitment and interest is to history as such . . . scholars, archivists, preservationists both lay and professional, vernacular history buffs, public historians from grassroots to major professional institutions. Third is an economic development community that comes to see, in industrial heritage, a possible resource for confronting deindustrial catastrophe. . . . Fourth are a diverse range of social change activists . . . who hope through industrial heritage projects focused on the stories, experiences, values, and ideals of working people to generate narratives or struggle and resistance. . . . Finally . . . is the state—the public sector from the local agency . . . to the National Park Service.55
In part because they are “dramatically contested terrain,” industrial heritage projects seem to have a certain kind of credibility that has, so far, largely spared them from the general academic contempt for heritage culture. The vested interest of local people in telling their own industrial stories adds to the authenticity (if not always the factual accuracy) of the history they present.56 From her observations of the visitor experience at British coal-mining heritage sites, Bella Dicks concluded that, while the “public stage” on which heritage is reenacted may be paid for by professionals (or governments), it is very often occupied by amateurs, former workers, and others “attempting to represent their own history and identities.”57 The audiences for the stories they tell are also active participants with a vested interest. “Many visitors to industrial sites are making personal pilgrimages into family history,” writes Diane Barthel. “Some have grandparents or great grandparents who worked in factories or collieries. These descendants come to reclaim the past and to pay respect.”58
In her study of the creation of a federal historic site re-creating the lives of textile mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, Cathy Stanton calls its outcome a combination of “vernacular, ‘traditional,’ and commercial uses of history with professional and scholarly ones,” a “cultural performance” controlled as much by the audience as by experts. Its planning process, which began in 1978, challenged “the idea that we can make any clean distinction between history and heritage,” she writes.59 As Robert Weible has noted, the Lowell project was the model for industrial heritage projects in the United States.60 The coalition of partners and perspectives its success required—and the blurring of history and heritage—have characterized American industrial heritage projects through the present day. Academic researchers often are a part, rather than merely critics, of such coalitions. The extensive planning process in Lowell yielded not only a national historic site that is popular with tourists but also several academic conferences and books.61 University-affiliated scholars also have had input into the discussions of how the collapse of steelmaking in Pittsburgh, Johnstown, and Bethlehem should be remembered.
It is hard to accuse promoters of industrial heritage tourism of profiting by preying on the misfortunes of ordinary people. Without question, such enterprises are driven by economics. In most cases, however, that need is quite real and is felt most sharply by local people, the very “natives” whose past is on display and who often are the performers and promoters of that past. Few such projects make a profit on their own; instead, they attract visitors into regions and towns where they spend money in shops, restaurants, and hotels. The historic site is “not going to be an economic developer itself—you’re never going to make it at the gate,” says August Carlino, executive director of the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, which coordinates industrial heritage projects around Pittsburgh. Carlino sees the involvement of former steelworkers in historical interpretation not as sad but as a key factor in whether or not local residents buy into heritage redevelopment, a process of “tapping into the pride of individuals . . . with an ambassador role to spearhead a whole different attitude within the community. If they start talking it about themselves,” Carlino says, then displaced workers may gain a sense of ownership of enterprise that otherwise could be distrusted as government and corporate interference.62
Why Study Pennsylvania?
Public history about steelmaking, the subject of chapter 7, is among the most recent offerings in a growing array of industrial heritage projects and sites across Pennsylvania. Just as the state was the “keystone” of the original thirteen colonies and a keystone of American industry, it also has been a keystone of heritage enterprise for more than a century. Thanks to the dominance and reach of the Pennsylvania Railroad during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the state was a pioneer in mass-market tourism, and from the start it has told a national memory story with a variety of themes, beginning with the American Revolution. Today one of those themes is an invitation to “visit the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.”63
In 1991, writing about plans for this new kind of heritage in western Pennsylvania, an Associated Press reporter predicted, “If industrial history does become a tourist lure, Pennsylvania will be its Florida.”64 Two decades later, the phenomenon has indeed spread across this state, perhaps more than any other. Even so, at present, industrial themes remain a small part of the state’s heritage tourism, which remains driven by the popularity of a handful of destinations whose historic interpretations focus on the War of Independence (Philadelphia), the Civil War (Gettysburg), and the Amish (Lancaster County). Responding to a major survey done in the late 1990s, only 5 percent of “heritage-minded” visitors to Pennsylvania sites said that they were interested in the industrial past; about half of those people mentioned coal-mining history sites and just a handful mentioned steel. The survey also indicated that heritage “tourists” are very often local, or relatively local, people: 39 percent were Pennsylvanians, and another 33 percent came from adjacent states.65 A 2008 survey of eight Pennsylvania heritage areas underscored this finding even more strongly, revealing that 68 percent of visitors were state residents.66 Studies done specifically at industrial history sites similarly have found that between two-thirds and three-quarters of visitors are Pennsylvanians.67
In sum, even though the state is a leader in the phenomenon, “industrial heritage tourism” is still a small business whose customers often encounter it simply because it is in their own backyards or because they are visiting places for other reasons. When I asked a tour guide at an iron furnace site in central Pennsylvania how visitors became interested in learning about such history, she replied, “They trip over it.” It is hard to know what visitors think of industrial heritage presentations or even heritage culture in general; most surveys done so far have focused, instead, on what they spend.68 Except on site-specific surveys (some of which are discussed in the following chapters), market researchers have not asked people what they learn.
Moreover, as I also realized during my travels, industrial history is not told separately but rather is mixed in with presentations of a town’s or region’s broader past. Portraits of particular people, companies, neighborhoods, and events are painted on a vast canvas of the town’s life, one that recalls high school football championships and military service as well as industrial output and accidents. This is a fiercely proud and fiercely local kind of story, more affirmative than commercial. It was by far the most common kind of historic presentation I encountered.
Less common but more visible are sites and projects that do market industrial history, similarly intertwining it with general history, as part of commercially successful tourism. In those presentations, labor is narratively situated within a rosy but hazy picture of a general national past. The following is just one recent example of such language from a state tourism brochure: “As seen on postcards. Railroad towns. Boroughs that sprang up near natural springs. Or small cities that popped up during the oil boom—yes, we started that, too. In Pennsylvania you’ll find the America you’ve always pictured in your mind. Right down to the wrap-around porches. . . . Have you ever awakened in a century-old stone farm house . . . and opened the window to a seemingly endless sea of cornfields? In Pennsylvania, you can. You can even help milk the cows.”69
As saccharine as this passage is, it is not really untrue. You can milk the cows, thanks to the development of “agritourism,” and in some areas, the cornfields do seem endless. The state’s northern tier is dotted with charming Victorian towns, such as Meadville and Emlenton, which are visible evidence of the nation’s first oil boom a century and a half ago. Pennsylvania has dozens of railroad history sites, and it has a strong claim to industrial history in general. Anyone scanning a state map will find abundant clues in towns named Minersville, Coalport, Coaldale, Steelton, Ironton, Mechanicsburg, Slatington, Lumberville, and Oil City. “Pennsylvania’s workers have been at the heart of American labor history for over two centuries,” write Howard Harris and Mark McCollough, who declare, “The story of Pennsylvania’s wage earners is representative of the history of all working people in the United States.”70
This book is based on the same premise. The story I hope to tell here is not merely a regional one. Because of the state’s actual industrial history and its emergence as an early promoter of public history about industry, Pennsylvania is an ideal laboratory in which to study a national and international phenomenon.
How This Book Came to Be
I am a journalism professor whose research has been, mainly, about the roles of media in history (media of the past) and memory (how the past is discussed in media of the present). These interests have led me to a wide range of topics, and some of them led to this book. I collected news coverage of the rescue of the Quecreek miners in 2002 and then the deaths of the Sago miners in 2006 because I was fascinated by the nostalgic tribute journalists paid to coal miners, as if they were figures from the past rather than the present. In between, I spent a month as a “scholar in residence” at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania studying an early twentieth-century tourism advertising campaign for the Lackawanna Railroad featuring a woman in white named Phoebe Snow. It took a while for me to realize that these topics were related.
I began this project still within my own academic territory, thinking that I would study how memory about the industrial past emerges as themes in journalism and in tourism promotion. The boundaries of Pennsylvania would create a literal and historic frame for my study, for reasons discussed above. In addition to reading these media of the present, I searched for past examples, as well, in archives and libraries. I figured it would make sense for me to go to these tourism sites myself and see how history was presented there. My university granted me a research leave of one semester, which I was sure would be plenty of time to see the museums and other interpretive sites having to do with industrial history in just one state.
After I had made several driving trips, I needed to better understand what I had seen at particular sites or on highway signs telling me that I was in the Oil Heritage Region or on the “Path of Progress.” So I began doing interviews, in person, on the phone, and by e-mail, with tourism officials, regional planners, state and local historians, and other people I had happened to meet. They answered my official questions about how they did their historic interpretation and what kinds of visitors they had and how they marketed their sites. Then, in most cases, they just started talking. Having explained what they did, they then told me why, a question I hadn’t asked. The answer most often had to do with their families and their childhoods and their memories of the land around them. These conversations led me to more people, who offered similar memories as well as assignments of additional sites I needed to visit.
The more people I talked to, the more I realized I did not know. Part of what I’ve needed to learn has had to do with industrial (labor, science, technology, business, and social) history itself, with facts of the past; part has had to do with feelings of the present. I have been amazed to discover how many people, in our supposedly rootless, postmodern era, have a strong sense of ownership of public memory about certain industries and certain towns. In addition to long and enthusiastic answers from my interview subjects, I have received a steady stream of unsolicited and often insistent advice. This project became a frequent topic of conversation with all sorts of people. I have talked about it with not only other academics and students but also relatives, neighbors, friends, the mailman, doctors, my pharmacist, car mechanics, and people sitting next to me on trains and airplanes. Nearly every person has begun with the initial reaction of my journalism department colleagues: “Um, you’re doing what?” And then each one proceeded to tell me about a particular place—a train station, an old mill, a memorial, a particular neighborhood, the still-standing factory building where a father or grandfather once worked—that I simply must see. I learned that I had blundered into a subject on which nearly everyone has something to say and to which nearly everyone feels some kind of emotional connection. Often that feeling was quite strong, and I was told not only what to see but also what to think about it.
This level of personal investment, combined with what I experienced at so many industrial heritage sites once I went to them, resulted in a significant shift in the goals of my project. I came to realize that most of what I was studying was not really tourism, even if it was overtly described as such in journalism and promotional materials. The majority of the historic sites that have emerged (or are still emerging) to tell the story of coal mining or oil drilling or steelmaking or railroading are marketed in language addressed to “visitors,” and often they are funded through economic development programs whose expressed mission is to bring in the tourist dollar. But in most of the places I visited, I was the only out-of-towner. Several people expressed astonishment that I had come at all. As one regional tourism official told me, “Not everybody wants tourists—some people just want their story to be told and preserved for their families.” At least so far, most industrial history sites do indeed tell very local stories, albeit ones that stake a claim to national values and progress. What I was studying, it turned out, were public expressions of “inherited” local identity, statements made more for the sake of civic pride than for the commercial consumption of tourists.
I started my travels with a six-month research plan and a list of about twenty historic sites and tours that I was pretty sure represented the phenomenon I thought I was studying. Three years later, I was still making “one last trip.” By the time I finished my overdue manuscript, I had been to 224 sites or events, all of them in Pennsylvania. In addition to visiting 104 museums, I toured 5 coal mines, took 27 “factory tours” (which are not all actually factory tours, but that’s a matter for another chapter), attended 18 heritage festivals with industrial themes, located 28 worker memorials and 16 iron furnace remains, and rode 18 tourist trains or trolleys. I realize that I did not finish the job. I missed several industrially themed heritage festivals and many historical society exhibits that include industrial displays. I failed to talk to all of the people who have something to say about this topic. I apologize to the people and the places I have left out.
What I did do, I hope, was to visit enough sites, talk to enough people, and read or view enough media to gain some sense of patterns in tourism, museum interpretation, memorials, and other forms of public memory of past industry. This book recounts the stories and imagery that I heard and saw repeatedly across the state and across industries. Those overlapping narratives provide the thematic structure for the chapters that follow. Collectively, they tell a bigger American story of pioneers and immigrants whose courage in the face of dangerous but glorious labor built the nation, whose fidelity to cultural tradition left a rich legacy ripe for reclaiming, and whose sacrifice gave us our modern world.
Also of Interest
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