The photograph I came across in The Henry Ford’s archives in 1985. /THF120353
Back in 1985, I was looking through The Henry Ford’s archives for images that depicted vacation destinations to complete a museum book I was writing called Leisure and Entertainment in America. There, in our collection, I came across the most amazing photograph of a hotel that I had ever seen. It looked like the outdoors had been brought inside. A great lobby dominated the scene, featuring a mammoth fireplace made of massive boulders. Real, full-size logs supported the balconies that rose several stories. In the midst of all this grandeur, comfortable Mission-style rockers, settees, and handwoven rugs were scattered about.
What was this place? I wondered. Did it still exist? Could I go there?
This was my first encounter with the Old Faithful Inn, which is situated alongside Yellowstone National Park’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful. As it turns out, Old Faithful Inn is quite significant in its own right, as it was not only the first rustic hotel of the Western national parks, but it also set the standard for rustic lodgings and manmade structures in other national parks.
What was the story behind this unique place?
Photographs like this one of Yellowstone Lake, from the 1870s, encouraged early tourism in the park. Note the man fishing, lower left. / THF120349
During the first few decades after Yellowstone became a national park in 1872, accommodations inside the park were, admittedly, spotty. The small number of well-to-do tourists who could afford the trip to Yellowstone during this time expected the pleasures of the high-class, comfortable lodgings they were used to on their European vacations or nearer to home along the East Coast. The first lodgings near Old Faithful were generally ramshackle establishments, built quickly and cheaply. When a lunch station/hotel constructed there in 1884—nicknamed “The Shack”—burned down, park administrators were actually relieved. They had considered it an eyesore.
Before the Old Faithful Inn existed, the Fountain Hotel—typical of Yellowstone hotels at the time—provided comfortable lodging 10 miles north of Old Faithful. / THF203310
Tourism increased when the Northern Pacific Railroad established the “Grand Tour” route through the park for four- to five-day horse-and-carriage tours. At key stops like Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone Lake, the railroad had built some of the nicer hotels in the park. But Old Faithful was located 10 miles south of the route, and comfortable lodgings were already available at the privately-run Fountain Hotel near the Paint Pots (bubbling mud pots) thermal feature. Railroad executives were reluctant to take a chance on building a hotel so far off the beaten track.
Old Faithful was such a dramatic attraction, it is surprising that it was not part of the original Grand Tour route. / THF120359
But, in 1894, park administrators passed a special regulation that lodging could be situated ⅛ of a mile from Old Faithful geyser rather than the usual ¼ mile required between lodgings and natural features. This changed everything. Within a few years, Harry W. Child, entrepreneurial president of the Yellowstone Park Association (which oversaw the Northern Pacific Railroad’s transportation and lodgings), began making plans to build a respectable hotel at Old Faithful. He initially engaged Seattle-based architect A.W. Spalding, who designed a hotel much like the other Yellowstone hotels that were reminiscent of European and East Coast hotels. Spalding’s design was never built, as it apparently did not meet the expectations of railroad executives.
The Saranac Inn, a rustic lodging on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. / THF126056
It was then that Child turned to his young friend—self-taught San Diego-based architect Robert Reamer—to design something more in the manner of rustic “great camps” of the Adirondacks. Combining the influence of California bungalows (especially the idea of bringing the roofline low to the ground) with the rustic trappings of the Adirondack lodge, Reamer designed a hotel that was radically different from anything seen before but seemed to perfectly fit Yellowstone’s exotic setting.
As seen in this 1908–1909 postcard of the front porch, locally obtained lodgepole pines were used for the ground floor of the Inn, while rhyolite rock (which can be glimpsed in the background) formed much of the building’s foundation. /THF120292
Reamer’s design was completed and approved in 1902, and actual construction of the building began in June 1903. It took 13 months to complete, over a long winter that was particularly bitter. About 40 skilled artisans were hired for the work, hailing from nearby Montana towns like West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Livingston. They were a hardy crew, facing many hardships while making swift work of the construction. Materials were mostly obtained nearby, including lodgepole pine and rhyolite rock (an unusual type of rock produced by Yellowstone’s volcanic eruptions). A temporary sawmill was built eight miles to the south to produce the many boards of lumber needed for the project. A Livingston, Montana, blacksmith named George Colpitts and his assistants hand-forged the wrought-iron work for Old Faithful Inn, including the massive front door hardware, the fireplace clock and tools, and all the original guest room door numbers and locks. The total cost of construction was $140,000.
Original façade of Old Faithful Inn, 1905, before the east and West Wings and the extended front porch were added. / THF120361
When it opened on June 1, 1904, Old Faithful Inn was a dramatic tour de force. It seemed rooted in the landscape, as if it had risen directly from the earth. On its exterior, the steep gable roof dominated (for both aesthetic reasons and the very practical one of having to withstand 20-foot drifts of snow in winter). Cedar shingles covered the roof and upper siding, with dormer windows that seemed to pop out in odd places (some were real, others just decorative). The building’s interwoven log construction not only gave it a look of permanence and solidity but also transformed it, in essence, into a gigantic log cabin.
Postcard of the great hall lobby, 1904–1905. / THF120294
Inside, the great hall rose 76½ feet—seven stories in all—with square and diamond windowpanes that filtered light in. Upright poles and beams supporting each balcony were made from lodgepole pine tree trunks, with thick branches attached to the trunks at Y-shaped angles. Balconies and stairways were supported by smaller pine branches found around the area, adding interest with their twisted, curved, and gnarled shapes. A trapeze-like wooden platform near the ceiling of the Inn, called the “Crow’s Nest,” originally held a string quartet—who performed before dinner so guests could mingle, and after dinner when the lobby was transformed into a dance hall. (The Crow’s Nest unfortunately closed when it was deemed unstable after a disastrous earthquake in 1959). The fireplace dominated: 15 by 15 feet at its base, with eight hearths, and rising to a tapered pyramidal shape of 41 feet high. Near the top of it was a huge 14-foot windup clock designed by Reamer. Electric fixtures simulating candlelight were placed discreetly around the space.
Postcard of the dining room at Old Faithful Inn, 1904–1905. / THF120296
Behind the great hall was the dining room, with split logs covering an open-pitched roof. Similar to the great hall, it was also dominated by a massive stone fireplace. Guests originally sat at long, family-style tables and could obtain a meal for 75 cents. A dinner bell atop the Inn’s rooftop summoned guests to dinner.
A typical room for lodgers in the Old House, circa 1905. / THF120355
The lobby and upper mezzanines were filled with Mission-style tables, settees, rockers, desks, and Old Hickory tables and chairs. (Old Hickory was a Martinsville, Indiana, company founded in 1892 that specialized in rustic furniture made out of hickory, with woven, hickory-rushed seats and backs.) One hundred forty log-walled rooms for lodging led off the great hall, on two floors, to the east and to the west. Rooms were furnished simply, with brass, iron, or wood beds; natural wood dressers, chairs, nightstands, and desks; and washstands with chamber pots. Some had cushioned window seats. The rooms had steam heat and sinks with running water (communal bathrooms were, and still are, available down the hall.) This original set of rooms, which cost four dollars per night to lodge in when the Inn opened, became known as the Old House.
It is believed that Harry Child’s wife Adelaide (or Addy), who accompanied her husband on the initial trip to hire Reamer, had a hand in the furnishings, decorations, and details. The delicacy of the balconies, stairway railings, window placements, and Mission-style furniture shows her influence. As a result of this collaboration, both men and women felt comfortable and relaxed here. The Inn, in essence, neutralized gender and class distinctions, encouraging impromptu encounters and informality.
The radically different look of Old Faithful Inn prompted the National Pacific Railroad to justify it in its promotional materials. / THF120290
Old Faithful Inn was different from the usual lodging, and Northern Pacific Railroad promoters figured they had better explain this to potential guests. They wrote this statement in the Inn’s defense when it first opened, just in case guests rejected the notion of a rustic hotel: “The Inn is not in the least a freaky affair…. It is a thoroughly modern and artistic structure in every respect—modern in its appointments and artistic in the carrying out of an unconventional and original scheme.”
They needn’t have worried about guests’ reactions. Old Faithful Inn was an immediate hit with the public. One guest, a Mrs. E.H. Johnson, in 1905, recounted: “And then we came to the Inn, the most unique and perfect place; it is the craftsman’s dream realized. My room alone is a paradise of restfulness though in a rough and rustic fashion…. At luncheon we had another treat. The dining room has its own charm.”
Old Faithful Inn after the new porch and veranda were completed in 1927. / THF120323
Old Faithful Inn was so popular, in fact, that in 1913–1914, 100 guest rooms were added to create the East Wing. And, in 1927, with the increasing number of tourists coming by automobile, 150 more rooms were added to create the West Wing. Although the interiors of these later rooms were more modern than those in the Old House, a consistent look was maintained on the exterior for an overall cohesive effect. A covered porch was added to the front of the building in 1927—again to accommodate automobile traffic—with an open veranda above for viewing Old Faithful eruptions. (For more on the impact of automobiles on the national parks, see my blog post, “Automobiles Enter the National Parks.”)
The rustic Lodge, shown on this Bryce Canyon pennant, was constructed in 1925. / THF239283
Old Faithful Inn really started something. The railroad companies, who had made the Western national parks accessible and controlled many of the concessions in the early parks, realized that the rustic style suited these places, and the style spread quickly—first to the upscale hotels, then to other manmade structures in the parks. The National Park Service, formed in 1916, eventually chose the rustic style as its standard architecture across the entire park system. This style, which colloquially became known as “Parkitecture,” reached its culmination with the Depression-era projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Old Faithful Inn was a very atypical hotel of its era. Most resort hotels at the time were intended to serve as civilized oases from the wilderness. Old Faithful Inn, the first rustic-style lodge of the West, was designed to fit in and become part of the wilderness experience. Somehow, Robert Reamer recognized this when he created what was truly a one-of-a-kind national park lodging.
Snapshot of the author at Yellowstone National Park in 1985, standing on the Upper Geyser Basin trail with Old Faithful Inn in the background. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden
Soon after I first viewed the image of the Old Faithful Inn lobby in 1985, my husband and I had the pleasure of visiting Yellowstone National Park, and we stayed at the Old Faithful Inn. Eighty years after that photograph was taken, it was like we had entered it in real life. We stayed in one of those tiny, log-walled, chamber-potted rooms in the Old House. It was noisy but thrilling to be in that room—to become part of that place. We returned to Yellowstone National Park in 2014, almost 30 years later, and have returned year after year since then (except in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic). We have stayed at the Old Faithful Inn every year—in the Old House, the East Wing, and the West Wing. We plan to stay there again when we return to Yellowstone National Park this summer. Somehow, it always feels comfortable, welcoming, and timeless—like we’re coming home.
Snapshot of the author at West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, 2014. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Our latest installation of What We Wore: Traveling by Ocean Liner. / THF190376
The current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features garments worn by the Roddis family of Marshfield, Wisconsin, while traveling by ocean liner.
Postcard of Cunard’s White Star Line RMS Queen Mary, about 1949. / THF256419
During the mid-20th century, more Americans had the means and opportunity to experience a vacation abroad. Whether looking for relaxation or seeking adventure, these travelers enjoyed visiting places very different from home. Travel by ocean liner had become faster, more comfortable, and less expensive—and was part of the adventure.
Passenger list for Cunard White Star Line’s RMS Queen Mary, 1949. / THF701257
Traveling on an ocean liner in elegant first-class surroundings—a kind of five-star floating hotel—meant dressing up nearly every evening. So, into trunks and suitcases went formal dresses and tuxedos, along with daywear for shipboard activities and sightseeing on land. Enjoying the superb service and elegant atmosphere on shipboard—while dressing the part— was half the fun for travelers like the Roddis family of Marshfield, Wisconsin.
By the mid-1960s, most people would choose speedy airplane travel over grand ocean liners, and travel would become increasingly less formal.
Packing for ocean liner travel required careful planning. Nearly every evening, passengers donned formal dresses and tuxedos. Catherine Roddis took the evening dress below along on a 1948 cruise through the Caribbean to Brazil onboard the SS Nieuw Amsterdam.
Catherine Roddis (shown here with her daughter Augusta and husband Hamilton) wore the evening dress below in the Champlain Dining Room of the SS Nieuw Amsterdam, 1948. / Photo courtesy of the Estate of Augusta Denton Roddis
Evening Dress, about 1941, worn by Catherine Roddis. / THF166578
Augusta Roddis wore the dress shown below for daytime activities during a 1949 European trip onboard the RMS Queen Mary—the world’s fastest ocean liner in the late 1940s.
Day Dress, 1945. Worn by Augusta Roddis. / THF166561
Augusta Roddis, with her luncheon partner, in the first-class dining room of the RMS Queen Mary, September 1949. / Photo courtesy of the Estate of Augusta Denton Roddis
Catherine Roddis packed the dress shown below for a trip to Europe onboard RMS Queen Elizabeth. Margery Wilson, author of a 1941 etiquette book, recommended lace for travelers—it held its shape in any climate, required little ironing, and always looked elegant.
Dress, about 1948, worn by Catherine Roddis. / THF166563
Catherine Roddis (shown here with her son-in-law and daughter, Henry and Sara Jones, and husband Hamilton) wore the dress depicted above during a trip to Europe onboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1950. / Photo courtesy of the Estate of Augusta Denton Roddis
While packing for ocean liner travel might be less complicated for male passengers like Hamilton Roddis, it still required suits and ties—and often a tuxedo.
Few visitors to Greenfield Village cross Ackley Covered Bridge realizing the significance of the structure surrounding them. It is one of the oldest surviving covered bridges in the country, and considerable thought went into its overall design. Covered bridges have long been stereotyped as quaint, but the reason behind their construction was never charm or shelter for travelers. The sole function of the “cover” was to protect the bridge’s truss system by keeping its structural timbers dry.
Built in 1832, Ackley Covered Bridge represents an early form of American vernacular architecture and is the oldest “multiple kingpost” truss bridge in the country. This structural design consists of a series of upright wooden posts with braces inclined from the abutments at either end of the bridge and leaning towards the center post, or “kingpost.” It is also a prime example of period workmanship and bridge construction undertaken with pride as a community enterprise.
This map of Washington County, Pennsylvania, shows the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge (bottom left). / THF625813
Ackley Covered Bridge was constructed across Wheeling Creek on the Greene-Washington County line near West Finley, Pennsylvania. The single-span, 80-foot structure was built to accommodate traffic caused by an influx of settlers. Daniel and Joshua Ackley, who had moved with their mother to Greene County in 1814, donated the land on which the bridge was originally constructed, as well as the building materials. More than 100 men from the local community, including contractor Daniel Clouse, were involved in the bridge’s construction. Like most early bridge builders in America, they were little known outside their community. But their techniques were sound, and their work stood the test of time.
Initial community discussions about the bridge included a proposal to use hickory trees, which were abundant in the region, in honor of President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. Instead, they settled on white oak, which was more durable and less likely to warp. The timber came from Ackley property a half mile south of the building site. It was cut at a local sawmill located a mile south of the bridge. Hewing to the shapes and size desired was done by hand on site. Stone for the abutments was secured from a quarry close by.
Ackley Covered Bridge replaced an earlier swinging grapevine bridge, and it may soon have been replaced itself if settlement and construction in the region had continued. Instead, the area remained largely undeveloped for several decades. This, along with three roof replacements (in 1860, 1890, and 1920), helped ensure the bridge’s survival.
Ackley Covered Bridge at its original site before relocation to Greenfield Village, 1937. / THF235241
Plans to replace the more than 100-year-old structure with a new concrete bridge in 1937 spurred appeals from the local community to Henry Ford, asking him to relocate Ackley Covered Bridge to Greenfield Village. Ford sent representatives to inspect, measure, and photograph the bridge before accepting it as a donation from Joshua Ackley’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Evans. She had purchased the well-worn structure from the state of Pennsylvania for $25, a figure based on the value of its timber. Evans had a family connection to one of Ford’s heroes, William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey’s birthplace, already in Greenfield Village, had stood a mere seven miles from the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge—an association that likely factored in Ford’s decision to rescue the structure.
Dismantling of Ackley Covered Bridge began in December 1937. Its timbers were shipped by rail to Dearborn, Michigan, and the bridge was constructed over a specially designed pond in Greenfield Village just in time for its formal dedication in July 1938.
Ackley Covered Bridge after construction in Greenfield Village, 1938. / THF625902
This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford, from a historic structure report written in July 1999 by architectural consultant Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, Ph.D.
Neil Armstrong visited Greenfield Village on August 16, 1979, and graciously posed for several photographs, particularly near the Wright Brothers’ Home and Cycle Shop. /THF128243
Watching the moon landing on TV on July 20, 1969, was a defining moment for most baby boomers. I know it was for me. My brothers and I were glued to the TV set for hours, hanging on to every word uttered by broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, waiting for the exciting moment that the Lunar Module Eagle would land on the moon and its crew members would take their first steps into uncharted territory.
Photograph of the TV broadcast of the moon landing, July 20, 1969, with TV viewers dimly reflected on the screen. / THF114240
Three Apollo 11 crew members—Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins—embarked on this mission on July 16 and returned safely to earth on July 24. In between, each crew member contributed his utmost to the tasks at hand. But one name eternally sticks out—Neil Armstrong, the mission’s commander. As commander, he accepted his role as spokesperson for the crew and the mission. And, as commander, he became the first man to step on the moon, voicing the now-immortal words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” After that time, he relentlessly shunned the limelight and hated being singled out. When Armstrong passed away in 2012, his family released a statement that reinforced these sentiments: “Neil Armstrong was a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.” Yet, like it or not, he was—and will forever be—singled out as the “first man.”
Artist Louis Glanzman captured the spirit of the momentous occasion for the July 25, 1969, cover of Time magazine, despite having no real photographs to reference (none were available yet and, in fact, no photographs of Neil Armstrong were ever taken on the moon). It became one of Time’s most popular covers ever. / THF230050
Neil Armstrong was from Ohio—as I am. I have always been proud of that connection. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when my daughter was young and we would often drive down I-75 to visit family members in Dayton, we would stop at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum (founded in 1972)—located right at the freeway exit for Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta. There we would enjoy viewing personal artifacts of his, reliving the story of the Apollo 11 mission, and reacquainting ourselves with the timeline of all the missions leading up to and following that one.
So, when the opportunity arose to write a blog post about Neil Armstrong, I enthusiastically volunteered. I figured I would enjoy reading up on him again. This time around, however, I particularly looked for insights into what made him that reluctant hero.
Armstrong was born in a farmhouse about six miles from the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930. He didn’t actually live in Wapakoneta until he was 14 years old. Because his father was an auditor for the state of Ohio, his family often moved around—in fact 16 times before they finally settled in Wapakoneta! Other small Ohio towns—like Upper Sandusky and St. Marys—were just as influential in shaping his character. As a boy, he was considered calm, serious, determined, and always on task.
Interior of a Ford Trimotor during a passenger flight, 1929. / THF116296
Being an astronaut was not Neil Armstrong’s great ambition in life. He wanted to fly airplanes, and wistfully envied earlier pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart with their record-setting flights. When he was only six years old, he thoroughly enjoyed the ride he took on a Ford Trimotor (his father was downright terrified). (For more on Trimotors, see this expert set.) A few years later, he began building and flying model airplanes; in fact, he filled his bedroom with them. He read countless books and magazines about airplanes. He also worked various jobs to earn money to take flying lessons. At only 15, he earned his pilot’s license and made his first solo flight soon after.
Neil Armstrong was different from many other airplane pilots and, later, astronauts in that he was not only interested in flying, but also in learning how planes were built and how to make them more efficient, faster, better. So, he decided to study aeronautical engineering, attending Purdue University on a Navy scholarship.
Armstrong’s college years were interrupted by his being sent to fight in the Korean War. He was assigned to Fighter Squadron 51, flying small jets off an aircraft carrier to bomb enemy bridges and railroads and to scout areas where other planes would attack later. After college, Armstrong flew high-speed, high-altitude experimental airplanes at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, California—not because he loved speed (as many other test pilots did), but because he wanted to use planes as tools to gather information and solve problems.
Armstrong loved this work, but in 1962 he switched gears and applied to become an astronaut. Some say this was because of his need to make a dramatic lifestyle change after the tragic death of his two-year-old daughter. But he himself claimed, “I decided that if I wanted to get out of the atmospheric fringes and into deep space work, that was the way to go.”
Either way, before long, Armstrong was chosen to become one of the so-called “New Nine”—that is, the second group of men (women were not allowed to become astronauts until 1978) that NASA picked to fly missions to outer space. (For more on the initial Mercury Seven astronauts, see this blog post.)
Before the “New Nine,” there were the Mercury Seven, the first seven astronauts chosen by NASA to attempt to place a man in space through a program known as Mercury. Here they are posing in their space suits for this circa 1963 trading card. / THF230119
That was seven full years before Armstrong became a household name with the Apollo 11 mission. What did he do during all that time? In fact, a great deal needed to be figured out and perfected if there was to be any hope of meeting President John F. Kennedy’s vision to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Armstrong spent much of his time practicing, training, and undertaking the many tasks that prepared him and others to fly to outer space and attempt a moon landing. During these years, Armstrong also willingly talked to members of the media, not only because they never seemed satisfied with NASA’s updates, but also to help allay negative public opinion about the government’s focus on the space program when so many domestic issues seemed more pressing.
Many people felt that such pressing issues as poverty, Civil Rights, and the war in Vietnam (as reflected by this 1968 protest poster) should take precedence over the space program. / THF110904
Meanwhile, Armstrong patiently waited his turn—like the other astronauts—to participate in a real mission to outer space. He finally got that turn in March 1966, when he was assigned to command NASA’s 14th crewed space mission, Gemini 8—with the goal to “dock” or connect with another satellite already in space. In 1968, he was also named the backup commander for the Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission (but did not go on that mission).
During that time, Armstrong repeatedly practiced with the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV)—the prototype module for landing men on the moon. The LLTV was an ungainly, unstable wingless aircraft, powered by a turbofan engine, which took off and landed vertically. It was highly experimental and extremely dangerous. As Buzz Aldrin later remarked, “…to train on it properly, an astronaut had to fly at altitudes of up to five hundred feet. At that height, a glitch could be fatal.”
Armstrong faced constant risks and dangers in his career as an airplane pilot and then as an astronaut—including flying 78 missions in the Korean War; piloting the world’s fastest, riskiest, most experimental aircraft; and encountering close calls while commanding Gemini 8 and while practicing on the LLTV. But he never panicked. He concentrated on the tasks and remained cool under pressure. His mind was always focused on analyzing and solving the problems, then on moving forward.
And that is exactly why he was chosen to command Apollo 11—the space mission that would finally attempt a landing on the moon. As Chris Kraft, NASA’s director of flight operations at the time, explained, “Neil was Neil. Calm, quiet, and absolute confidence. We all knew that he was the Lindbergh type. He had no ego. He was not of a mind that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the first man on the Moon!’ That was never what Neil had in his head."
Neil Armstrong brought to the Apollo 11 mission all of his training, practice, and knowledge. His ability to keep calm under pressure particularly came in handy when he and Aldrin landed the Apollo’s Lunar Module Eagle onto the moon’s surface with only 20 seconds of fuel remaining.
Which brings us back to the moment when I—along with about 500 million other people—sat on the edge of my seat and watched on TV as the Eagle landed, and, several hours later, as the Eagle’s hatch opened, as Neil Armstrong wriggled out and began to descend the ladder toward the moon’s surface, and as he took his first step on the moon.
Neil Armstrong took this famous photograph of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon. His own reflection can be seen in Aldrin’s helmet. / THF56899
The moon landing was considered a success. Americans were ebullient as they celebrated the Apollo 11 astronauts’ achievements, with only months to spare before the decade ran out. The three Apollo 11 crew members were honored and celebrated for months afterward.
This set of tumblers, commemorating the Apollo 11 space mission, depicts such iconic images as the Lunar Module Eagle and Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. / THF175132
But most of the adulation, it seemed, was directed at Neil Armstrong. He even received the Medal of Freedom, the highest award the U.S. government bestows on a civilian. But he never liked the attention. He felt he did not deserve the fame and always attributed the success of the mission to the entire team of people who had made the dream of reaching the moon possible. Ever modest, he once tried to argue, “I was just chosen to command the flight. Circumstance put me in that particular role.”
This button would have likely been proudly worn by someone attending a public celebration of the Apollo 11 astronauts. / THF189959
In the end, I believe that Neil Armstrong should be remembered for so much more than being the “first man.” For his modesty, his quiet humility, over to advance the course of human progress, he modelled values and behaviors for which we can all strive. He may have been a reluctant hero, but these qualities, to me, are exactly what make Neil Armstrong heroic.
That, and the fact that he was from Ohio (just kidding)!
The author posing with a statue of Neil Armstrong (with model airplane fittingly in hand) on a bench in front of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, November 2021. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Edsel Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Ford Touring the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, October 1923 / THF134659
Every month, staff from our library and archives select some interesting items from our collections to showcase on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account. In our every-first-Friday History Outside the Box offering, our collections experts share photographs, documents, and other artifacts around a given theme. Last summer, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas showcased some celebrity sightings from our archives—actors, actresses, and other luminaries visiting Ford Motor Company’s factories, World’s Fairs, and The Henry Ford’s own campus; showcasing their cars; and more. If you missed the Insta story, you can check out the presentation below.
For many 19th-century railroaders, holidays were workdays like any other. / THF286590
As we gather with family and friends to celebrate the holidays this year, many of us will enjoy a day (or several days) away from the job. But for our essential workers, time off may not be an option. For those who do the daily work that makes modern life possible, a holiday is just another day. In the mid-19th century, the railroader was America’s preeminent essential worker. (Don’t get me wrong—railroaders are still essential workers in the early 21st century, but their industry isn’t as prominent in today’s culture.) Trains had to roll, tracks had to be kept clear, and freight had to move—no matter what the calendar said.
The railroad’s timetable was gospel, holiday or not. / THF203346
Mainline railroading was a 24/7 operation. It was possible to shutter most operations at a roundhouse for a day, and railroads could cancel the local trains that served nearby industries, but longer-distance through freight and passenger trains had to keep moving. Stop a train somewhere and you block that track—and all the other trains that need to use it. Before long, the whole system grinds to a halt. (Today’s passenger airlines experience the same problem when bad weather shuts down a hub airport. Delays cascade throughout the entire network. But airlines can “reset” each night when far fewer flights operate. That’s an advantage railroads have never enjoyed.)
Conductors, engineers, fireman, brakemen, and others often spent their holidays either out on the line or bunking in a railroad dormitory far from home, waiting for their next run. And there might be miserable weather to contend with too. In northern states, December meant cold and snow. Consider the plight of a mid-19th-century brakeman. In the days before George Westinghouse’s air brake, the only way to stop a train was to manually set the individual handbrakes on each car. When the engineer gave the signal, brakemen had to scramble along the roofs of the railcars and spin the iron wheels that applied those brakes. It was a dangerous job in fair weather, but it could be deadly when ice and snow made everything slippery. On a windy night, a brakeman might be blown off into a snowbank below—where he hoped his crewmates noticed his absence before the train went too far.
The firebox kept a locomotive’s cab warm throughout the year—a decided advantage in winter. / THF286564
For the engineer and fireman in the locomotive cab, life was somewhat better. They stayed warm even through the coldest winter days due to the heat from the locomotive’s firebox. (There were surely more than a few enginemen who preferred the cold to sweltering summer days, when cab temperatures were hellish.) But there were still challenges. Snow and ice on the rails required extra skill to keep the locomotive’s wheels from spinning when climbing a long grade. Falling snow obscured the track ahead, making it difficult to see signal lights and lanterns—or an unexpected stopped train.
Polished passenger cars were aesthetically pleasing. They were also highly combustible, should the coal stove (at lower left) tip over in an accident. / THF176785
Riders on passenger trains also stayed out of the weather, but even they had their struggles. Wooden passenger cars were drafty. In the mid-19th century, heat came from a single coal stove in each car. Inevitably, those seated far from the stove shivered, while those seated nearest to it sweated. Given that cars of this period were heavily varnished and trimmed with any number of flammable fabrics and surfaces, coal stoves also posed a serious fire hazard.
Two of America’s worst railroad disasters involved December fires. On December 18, 1867, an eastbound express train derailed while crossing a bridge near Angola, New York. The last car plummeted off the bridge and its stove came apart, scattering hot coals over the wreckage. Forty-nine people are believed to have died in the wreck—most of them burned in the resulting inferno. Newspapers referred to the carnage as the “Angola Horror.”
Nine years later, another bridge-fire accident occurred at Ashtabula, Ohio. On December 29, 1876, a faulty bridge collapsed under the Pacific Express as the train headed west. This time, 11 passenger cars fell into the chasm and an estimated 92 people lost their lives. Some were killed in the crash itself, but others succumbed to the fire ignited by spilled coals and fueled by wooden wreckage. The “Ashtabula Horror” exceeded that of Angola and would remain America’s deadliest railroad accident for more than 40 years.
Clearing snow was the most backbreaking task on the railroad in winter. / THF120726
Trains didn’t go anywhere if the track was blocked, so in snowstorms track crews battled fiercely against falling and drifting snow to keep the way clear. Brute force and backbreaking effort were their best tools. Large plows, pushed by powerful locomotives, threw snow clear of the right-of-way. When the crew encountered a particularly deep or stubborn blockage, there was little choice but to back the plow up for some distance, then open the throttle and hit the drift hard and fast. With luck, the plow pushed through and continued on its way, or at least made a sizeable dent before another try. The worst-case scenario had the plow stuck so deep into a drift that it couldn’t be extracted. When that happened, crew members simply had to shovel it, however long it took. Powerful rotary plows—essentially, snowblowers for railroad track—made the job easier when they arrived in the 1880s, but these expensive machines were generally only used on mountain railroads in the American West.
Artist (and automotive designer) Virgil Exner captured a more romantic vision of winter railroading in this painting from about 1970. / THF36304
Later in the 20th century, as working conditions and passenger safety improved, and as steel coaches and steam heat replaced wooden cars with coal stoves, the railroad found a happier place in our holiday culture. Trains became synonymous with trips back home to visit loved ones, and electric train sets became staples under the Christmas tree—whether as gifts or as decorations. More recently, popular movies like The Polar Express have continued the trend. It may be that there were no holidays on the railroad, but it’s equally true that our holidays wouldn’t be what they are today without it.
Henry Ford's Private Railroad Car "Fair Lane," 1921 / THF186260
Just as many of today’s captains of industry and business leaders consider an executive jet to be a crucial part of their tool kit, so in the period prior to widespread air travel was the railroad business car considered an essential amenity. There are two basic categories of business cars, each with their equivalents in the modern world of business jets: the private car (at its most grandiose taking the form of “a palace on wheels”), owned by a wealthy individual or large corporation, and the chartered car, a well-appointed business car available for hire by companies or individuals as needed.
Business cars were attached at the rear of regularly scheduled passenger trains, according to arrangements made ahead of time with railroad companies. While the reliance on existing timetables and the inevitable complexities associated with being switched from one train to another en route might seem cumbersome and time-consuming to us, the opportunity to conduct business on the go, with food to order and a place to sleep, all in fully-staffed, well-appointed surroundings, made sense from a business standpoint: Work was accomplished, decisions were made, and the individuals concerned arrived in a better state than if they had been prey to the pitfalls of the ordinary traveler.
The interior of the Fair Lane, restored by The Henry Ford to as closely as possible resemble its appearance during Henry Ford’s ownership, is restrained, given Ford’s wealth. / THF186280
This car, Henry Ford’s Fair Lane, was one of the largest passenger railcars built when it was completed by Pullman in 1921. It is a private car, and as such reflects the taste of its owner, one of the wealthiest men on Earth. Paradoxically, Ford’s restrained taste and sense of occasion (think of the scale and finish of his house, given his wealth) resulted in a car that had more in common with the lower-key chartered cars—vehicles that incorporated the sumptuousness of the boardroom rather than the chairman’s own particular taste.
Even more paradoxically, traffic records reveal that the most extensive use to which Fair Lane was put was luxury transportation for Clara Ford and her close friends on shopping trips to New York City.
Explore many more images of the exterior and interior of the Fair Lane, including new 360-degree views of its compartments, in our Digital Collections.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Off at the back of the museum’s Made in America: Power exhibit is a rangy apparatus—a water pump made mostly of wood, mounted on a granite plinth. Its business end, a clanking group of wrought- and cast-iron components, represents a beginning point for the technology seen in full flower in the Allegheny locomotive in the Railroads exhibit. Institutionally, we are fortunate in having both the world’s oldest surviving steam engine and one of the most advanced examples of reciprocating steam technology as applied to railroads.
The Newcomen Engine, circa 1750—the world’s oldest surviving steam engine. / THF110472
The importance of the Allegheny locomotive—both institutionally and historically—is hard to overstate. It is both straightforward and paradoxical: an overwhelming machine that has great human appeal; close at hand and yet impossible to fully take in; a blunt instrument of industrial efficiency enshrined on a teakwood floor in an approachable museum setting. In short, it is both plainly stated and chameleon-like—a perfect museum artifact.
Historically, it represents a technology played to the limit of tight physical constraints imposed by a railroad’s right-of-way (sharpness of curves, size of adjacent structures, axle loading of track and bridges). The Allegheny represents a masterfully trim packaging of all the components necessary to make an efficient steam locomotive—a technology pushed to a particular limit with spectacular results.
The refinements embodied by the Allegheny were the result of the Lima Locomotive Company’s chief mechanical engineer, William Woodard, and his relentless pursuit of “superpower.” His success was borne out by designs that demonstrated a 25 to 30 percent increase in efficiency—success that resulted in a steam design revolution that spread to all American locomotive manufacturers.
Detroit Toledo & Ironton (DT&I) Railroad Caboose, 1925 / THF80594
Most people imagine the engineer ensconced high in the cab of the powerful locomotive to be the person in charge of the train. But while the engineer might be the most visible of railroad employees, whether at the controls of a lowly freight train or a glamorous express, it was the conductor that the engineer answered to.
The conductor made sure that the train was complete and protected. If in charge of a freight train, the conductor tracked all the material on that train and ensured that each car was securely fastened. If in charge of a passenger train, the conductor made sure that passengers had tickets and that they were in the proper cars. In both instances, the conductors and their staff (brakemen on freight trains; assistant conductors on passenger trains) ensured that the brake systems were functioning correctly and the cars and all hookups were properly coupled. It was the engineer’s job to ensure that the movement of the train was trouble-free, but it was the conductor’s job to ensure the safety and integrity of the train.
On a freight train, the caboose provided conductors with a base to undertake all their duties. It is ironic that both the lowly caboose and the well-appointed private car should find themselves at the end of the train, because, despite the dissimilarity in their appointments, their function was rather similar: They were both homes away from home and mobile offices. The caboose provided the conductor with a place to do the books, to cook, and, on long stopovers in rail yards, to allow some catch-up on sleep. Along with a stove, bunks, and a desk, the caboose was outfitted with a combination of bay windows and cupola to allow the conductor and brakemen to observe both their own train and others on the line. A huge proportion of the work undertaken on railroads was based on constant and well-informed vigilance—looking for evidence of damage or overheating, making sure that loads hadn’t shifted, and ensuring equipment hadn’t loosened. Something as simple as an untethered chain or unlocked door could escalate into a life-threatening situation. The caboose was also equipped with a large complement of tools to effect in-service repairs.
Interior of a Railroad Caboose, Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad, February 1926 / THF286542
The “little red caboose” still looms large in the public’s imagination, but the caboose was not always red. It all depended on the policy of the owning railroad. Today, the caboose—and the freight conductor—are largely things of the past, superseded by computer monitoring and bookkeeping.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Whether they instantly recognize it as a snowplow or simply admire it for its immense curvaceous sculptural presence, visitors of all ages connect readily with The Henry Ford’s Canadian Pacific Snowplow, on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Brute force seems to play a large role in many areas of railroading—in sheer pulling power, in machine aesthetics (or lack thereof), or in a variety of equipment assembly operations—but it is the battle with snow that offers the purest example of the use of unmediated force in the world of railroading. Pushed by as many as eight locomotives, hitting drifts at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour, and supported by “pull-out” locomotives, commissary cars, and bunk cars for maybe hundreds of shovel-duty men, snowplows were crucial to railroads whose routes extended into the high passes of the Rocky Mountains or Sierra Nevadas.
Crew seats in the cupola of the Canadian Pacific Snowplow / THF158327
The operation of these heavy but rakish-looking machines was actually quite complex: Crews stationed in the cupola deployed pneumatically powered wings and rail-clearing forward edges according to changing conditions and the proximity of grade crossing timbers or signals; judgment was called for when attacking major drifts. Derailments, loss of life, and damage to equipment could result if crews diverged from tried-and-true strategy.
The snowplow provides evidence of our continuing battle with natural forces and offers a glimpse into one of the most arduous tasks associated with railroading. “Bucking” snow was—and remains—dangerous work, taking place in areas where this struggle could swiftly turn from straightforward railroad difficulties (very few tasks associated with railroading are pleasant) to a life-and-death struggle.
Find out even more about our Canadian Pacific Snowplow here.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”