On being a Historian

A while back a lady asked what it was like being the historian for our club (the Mendocino Coast Model Railroad & Historical Society). It was not the sort of question I get every day for sure. The two words I used to answer her were, “Interesting,” and “Time Consuming.”

I am currently wading through Volume IV,  California, of the Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History by a man named Donald R. Robertson. I wish I had read the section, “Afterwords” before the lady had asked me the above question. He said,

If anyone reading these words plans to take on the project of writing a history of something, and sets a time frame for it, disabuse yourself of any time limits that you set. As soon as you start you will find avenues that lead you to other resources, And those resources will lead you to others and on and on it will go.”

Is that the truth. Our website – 450 pages of text, 1,500 photos, 600 plus blogs – started off as a loose leaf binder of “bits” I had collected. I have “stuff” from over 100 books and two large boxes of “bits” to sift through and add to the website and more arrives daily.

Mr. Robertson adds this quote in the last paragraph in his “Afterwords.”

In April, 1905, an author known only as “The Compiler” wrote of his difficulties in writing a history of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. Some excerpts from that work: “No person who reads this little history will, from the reading thereof, be able to form any conception of the difficulties that have been encountered in getting together the data that form the basis thereof. In the nearly 69 years that have intervened since its charter, more than a generation of men have passed away. Documents, that to them were trivial and valueless but that would have been above price now were destroyed, lost or so scattered that much time has been used in digging out a very small part of them from oblivion. Other documents passed out of existence when the (rail)roads died, became bankrupt, sold or consolidated or otherwise vanished. This little history has cost more time and labor than would have required to write a fair history of the last hundred years of the United States.”

Amen.