Rounding the corner onto Walnut Street in Harrisburg, I could see the Harris Tower out of the corner of my eye. It’s one of those places I’d seen before in passing and recognized, but never really gave a second glance.
The tour began as soon as I walked up to the building. John Smith welcomed me and assured me he had turned the AC on over the weekend so it would be cool enough on this day that was already pushing 90 degrees.
As Harrisburg Chapter president of the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS), Smith knows his stuff, and he wasted no time taking me inside to show off the 90-year-old building.
“Railroads built this country,” Smith said. “Towers like these at one time dotted the landscape.”
Harris Tower once functioned as a command center of sorts for railways in Harrisburg, controlling how track connections moved, allowing trains to pass through safely. During the height of rail travel, more than 120 trains passed through the Harrisburg station each day, Smith explained.
In 1991, the tower shut down, but, a few years later, the Harrisburg Chapter of the NRHS began restoration of the building, with hopes to showcase the heyday of Harris Tower circa the 1940s.
“There were literally foot-long strips of paint hanging from the ceiling when we started,” said Dan Rapak, a long-time member of the NRHS.
The main attraction at the small museum is a large interlocking machine, which takes up most of the upstairs space. Rapak was instrumental in getting the machine functioning again as it did years ago—this time as a simulation.
When Rapak and his buddy Jeff Vinton began work on the machine, they had no previous experience. Both were engineers working at a television station in New Jersey at the time, but never touched a piece of equipment like this. All they had was a love of trains and the determination to get the machine up and running.
Smith remembered seeing parts—panels and levers—lying all over the floor. “Guys from the chapter thought, ‘Do these guys know what they’re doing?’” he said.
The interlocking machine has come a long way from a mess of scattered parts on a grease-stained floor. Visitors to the museum can now interact with the machine by guiding simulated trains through a course on the same schedule they would’ve run in years past.
Now it was my turn. With more than 470 indicator lights on the board, Rapak graciously pointed out the ones I needed to pay attention to as I turned the levers, switching imaginary tracks and guiding my train on its way.
To get the Harris Tower back to a functioning state, where visitors could be part of the railway action, it’s taken Smith and Rapak thousands of hours. Not to mention all the time other volunteers have given.
“Anything you see in here that’s brass, I’ve polished it,” Smith said.
A quick scan of the room, and I could see that was no small feat as there were brass knobs, hinges and detail everywhere.
I wondered—why would these guys put in so many hours to this tiny brick building that was just a small part of railroad history? But then Rapak told me the story of Don Rittler, a former train director in Harris Tower who has since passed away.
He painted a picture of Rittler, who was 82 at the time and going in for a double-knee replacement in a couple of weeks. Rapak remembers him hobbling up the staircase to the upstairs room as he started up the interlocking machine. Rittler directed trains just as he had done during his years working at the tower.
“I remember he hung his head and said, ‘I keep looking back [out the window] for the trains,’” Rapak said. “If you can fool someone that’s worked there for 40 years, we’ve got it pretty spot on.”
Seeing visitors, young and old, interact with the tower is exactly why Smith and Rapak are so invested.
“It’s not only about preserving it, but experiencing it,” Rapak said.
The Harris Tower Railway Museum is located at 637 Walnut St., Harrisburg. It is open Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., through the end of October. Admission is free. For more information, see visit http://www.harristower.org/or http://www.harrisburgnrhs.org/.