Retiree’s volunteer efforts put her on right track at History & Landmarks
Judith Harvey lives in a historic house in Fineview, so she is a history buff by association. When she retired and was looking for a channel for her unbounded energy, it seemed natural for her to volunteer in 2001 for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
The association proved fortuitous for both. The former librarian, who retired from the Baldwin-Whitehall School District after 35 years of teaching and doing library work in public schools, was in the foundation offices when she saw boxes full of railroad memorabilia collected by the late Frank B. Fairbanks, of South Park.
Undaunted by the prospect, the peppy, petite and fair-haired Harvey volunteered to catalog it all. Foundation officials agreed.
Some of the tasks, such as putting thousands of railroad tickets in separate plastic sleeves, would take her years. But Harvey patiently did that and even computerized the collection.
“She’s a remarkable woman,” says Albert Tannler, the foundation’s historical collections director.
“Because of her meticulous volunteer work, we were able to open it to the public,” says Louise Sturgess, PH&LF executive director.
“Her ability to organize a massive amount of information and present it to the public in a pleasing way is amazing,” Sturgess says.
The Frank B. Fairbanks Rail Transportation Archive opened last month at the History & Landmarks offices in Station Square. And Harvey has a new title: railroad librarian. She works at the archive one day a week.
Though she wasn’t a railroad buff to begin with, having gone through every tiny detail of Fairbanks’ collection has enabled Harvey to glean much about railroads and the people that love them.
“A rail buff can tell you how many repeat miles he’s traveled, but the real number is how many new miles you’ve traveled,” Harvey says. “If a rail line is reconfigured — oh, the joy of adding a tenth of a mile.”
As Fairbanks traveled, the chief executive officer of Stowe-based Horix Manufacturing Corp. not only noted his rail miles, he collected timetables and rail orders for engineers, handfuls of swizzle sticks railroads gave out to patrons to stir martinis and playing cards available in club cars, among many other items.
His collection lay in boxes in his South Park home until he met Jack Miller, History & Landmarks director of planned giving. Fairbanks subsequently donated part of his collection to the foundation, along with a $10,000 endowment to maintain it.
“We wouldn’t have taken it if it didn’t come with an endowment,” Tannler says.
After Fairbanks died in 2005 at age 74, his widow donated the rest of his extensive collection to History & Landmarks.
“The strengths and weaknesses of a private collection are evident in this,” says Harvey. “When you’re dealing with a private collection, you’re taking what they collected” for their own immediate goals.
Harvey says rail buffs will be thrilled with the collection, which includes official railroad timetables ranging from the 1800s until 1976; train orders engineers used for each trip; reference books on railroads; slides Fairbanks took and all those tickets.
A sign in the archive notes that Fairbanks was “clearly recognized as the third-ranking American with the most route miles traveled,” and was most likely the third-ranking such person in the world. He traveled 156,993.81 new miles and 7,841.47 duplicate miles.
The maps Fairbanks collected are Harvey’s favorite items. She has placed them in Mylar covers so researchers can readily handle them. “I’m not a hands-off librarian,” she says.
“Nothing was dirty or torn. He was very respectful of what he had,” Harvey says.
Tribune-Review Publisher Richard M. Scaife was impressed enough with the collection on a recent visit to ask Harvey whether she wanted several metal railroad signs he owned for the archive.
“You never ask a librarian if she wants anything,” Harvey says with a smile, pointing to the signs, which are now in the collection. Each red metal sign marked a different rail line for engineers.
The archive is in a sunny room with tall windows facing the Monongahela River. New and antique furniture is arranged for reading, research and perusal of railroad objects.
Hours for the collection are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Wednesdays by appointment, so that Harvey is sure to be on hand to guide visitors through the collection. Members may use the archive for free; nonmembers pay a fee of $10 for three consecutive visits.
“It has a lot of information that will be very important,” Tannler says. “People who know railroads feel that we have an asset.”
Sturgess says the transportation collection has further established the foundation’s archives, including its James D. Van Trump Library of regional architectural history, as a “top-notch collection” of historical resources.
“I am very happy at Landmarks, and hope to be able to serve those interested in railroad materials for a long time to come,” Harvey says. “I count it a privilege to do this for pay. I count the days till I come in the next time.”
People who wish to use the Frank B. Fairbanks Jr. Railroad Collection may call the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation on Wednesdays to make an appointment with Judith Harvey at 412-471-5808, ext. 542, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.