Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

For many years, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) Company’s Air Brake Instruction Car No. 492445 was relegated to the storage yard at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Lancaster County, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). Since its acquisition by the museum in 1977, the car had become a place to store items such as foundry patterns, core boxes, and miscellaneous railroad architectural fragments. However, it was a hidden jewel in the museum’s extensive rolling stock collection — it is the only surviving Air Brake Instruction Car that belonged to the line touted as the “Standard Railroad of the World.” Headquartered in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest publicly traded corporation in the world and at its height employed 250,000 people.

The car served as a mobile classroom to instruct railroad personnel on how to operate and maintain the latest braking equipment installed on PRR locomotives and railroad cars. Records revealed that the car was in fairly good condition when it arrived at the museum, but the passage of time had taken its toll. Over the years, the museum staff performed minor restoration work and painted the car several times with the help of volunteers from the Friends of the Railroad Museum.

After returning from the American Civil War in 1865, American engineer and inventor George Westinghouse (1846–1914) studied engineering at Union College in Schenectady, New York. The safety record of the nation’s railroads during that time was appalling, and Westinghouse became interested in making trains safer and more efficient. In 1869, he founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in Pittsburgh. After witnessing a collision of two trains, he began working on a way to eliminate potentially perilous problems with stopping locomotives. The early train brakes were simple: to halt a train, an engineer sounded a specific pattern with the engine whistle. The brakemen would tighten the brake wheel located on top of each car which, in turn, applied braking force to a brake shoe that would rub against the train wheel. Enough friction was created to cause the train to slow and eventually come to a stop. The brakemen’s job was extremely dangerous because they had to walk on top of moving trains, day and night, and in all kinds of weather.

Patented on March 5, 1872, the Westinghouse Air Brake revolutionized the railroad industry, making stopping reliable, which allowed trains to travel at higher speeds. In its simplest form, the brake used compressed air to push on a piston inside a cylinder; the piston, connected to brake shoes, rubbed the wheels and stopped the train. The air generated by a compressor mounted on the locomotive and stored in the main reservoir was sent from car to car through a series of hoses and pipes running beneath them. After recognizing the significance of Westinghouse’s invention, Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893, which made it mandatory on all trains. By 1905, eighty-nine thousand locomotives and more than two million freight, passenger, mail, baggage, and express railroad cars were equipped with the Westinghouse Quick-Action Automatic Brakes.

To teach crews to safely operate the new systems, the Pennsy used mobile classrooms, or Air Brake Instruction Cars. A typical class consisted of approximately fifteen students with an engineman receiving two hours of training and trainmen receiving one and a half hours. Car inspectors and air brake machinists each received one and a half to two hours of training. Each employee had to successfully pass a written examination to be certified as an air brake operator. Testing and re-certification was required every two years.

According to historian Richard E. Hall Jr., the museum’s Air Brake Instruction Car No. 492445 was originally built in March 1910 as Number 6517, a class M-70 standard seventy-foot long railway post office car. Equipped with steam heat and an axel-driven generator for electric lights, it was assigned to service on New York-Chicago trains. In late 1927, the PRR selected Railway Mail Car No. 6517 for conversion to an instruction car. It was refitted and equipped at the PRR shop in Pitcairn, Allegheny County. On June 15, 1928, the former post office car re-entered service as PRR Air Brake Instruction Car No. 492445. Over the years, as improvements to air brake technology were made, the car was regularly updated. According to museum records, the car remained in service in the Pennsy’s central region until the 1960s, when it was leased to the Red Clay Valley Railroad Equipment and Leasing Company (RCVRRE&L) of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1975, the Red Valley encountered financial difficulties and company officials offered the car to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. On October 17, 1975, George M. Hart (1919–2008), who served as the museum’s first director, from 1969 to 1983, pledged the museum would purchase the car for $3,750. The car was delivered to the museum by rail on September 26, 1977.

Two decades later, by the summer of 1998, the car was beginning to show signs of advanced deterioration. In addition to peeling paint, its steel siding, roof, and doors were rusting through. It was obvious that something had to be done to save the important artifact. David W. Dunn, the museum’s site director at the time, began to seek funding sources. The museum obtained a Save America’s Treasures grant of $200,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding of more than $300,000 came from PHMC, along with donations of time and money from various sources, including the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. With sufficient funding secured, the car was moved to the museum’s restoration shop in September 2002, and several limited-term skilled welders, metal fabricators, and a carpenter were employed to supplement the fulltime paid staff and restoration volunteers.

Restoring vintage rolling stock is an arduous, painstaking task, but restoring such a historically important railroad car to its original function can be formidable. Even the management of a project of this magnitude is a tremendous challenge. Restorers are literally charged with bringing history back to life. Many realize they have few opportunities to tackle a project of this scope during their careers. They also know future generations will judge the accuracy of their work.

The restoration process turned out to be a living history project. In order to re-create and replace the extensively damaged portions of the car, the restoration crew had to learn the construction techniques, as well as how to use the tools, employed in 1910 by the Pennsy shop crew that originally built the car. Research and documentation by the team members — museum curator Bradley Smith, archivist Kurt Bell, and machinist and air brake specialist Steve Meola — were exhaustive. They were joined by former PRR air brake instructor Charlie Fessler who, after leaving the company, worked for the Westinghouse Air Brake Company and proved to be invaluable in unlocking many of the secrets of the car’s training systems.

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania typically stages a restoration project in three distinct phases: architectural investigation, deconstruction, and restoration. Before taking the car apart, it was important to closely study its construction. Photographs and scaled drawings were made, and original blueprints were obtained from the Pennsylvania State Archives. Beginning with the architectural investigation phase — also known as the discovery phase — staff members needed to determine how PRR Airbrake Instruction Car No. 492445 was originally built and outfitted as a mobile classroom. They also had to understand how the different types of air brake systems, installed as teaching aids in the car, operated and linked to other systems. If the crew had to work with only one air brake system, the project might not have been so complex. Instead, there were three different systems. Each system controlled several of the same air brake cylinders that applied the brake shoes against the wheels. Operation of these systems was achieved through a network of piping dedicated to each separate brake system as well as a network of shared piping systems.

This project was a pipefitter’s nightmare — 80 percent of the piping and air brake components needed to be individually marked, tagged, and removed to repair the car’s support structure. Furthermore, these pieces had to be cleaned, painted, repaired (or rebuilt), and reinstalled. Once the crew members understood the teaching systems, they studied the physical railroad car itself. The original paint colors were determined during the investigation phase. A specialist conducted historic paint analysis and examined all painted surfaces to document the chromochronologies (or layers) of paint by using a spectra-photometer. A written report detailed stratigraphic analysis of all paint samples and provided a match to a color system developed by Albert H. Munsell in the early twentieth century. Using the Munsell color sample, a paint supplier mixed the correct shade of paint so the color of the completed car matched its original appearance. The historic paint analysis also revealed that original gold leaf lettering remained, obscured by many coats of paint.

In addition to paint analysis, the museum engaged an environmental testing company to test for hazardous materials such as asbestos. Testing found material containing asbestos in the vinyl floor tile and tile adhesive covering the original hard rock maple floor. Insulation containing asbestos was found in the ceiling and sidewalls. An asbestos abatement contractor removed all asbestos-containing materials before deconstruction began. The museum staff reviewed the data compiled during the discovery phase and decided to restore the car to its circa 1943 appearance, the last year the PRR painted the trucks (wheel frames and battey box) olive green. The car is painted in the PRR’s signature Tuscan Red.

Restorers use the term deconstruction instead of demolition because the team surgically disassembled the car to preserve as much of the original material as possible. During this stage, nothing is ever discarded.

During deconstruction, previously unseen damage was discovered. The crew determined that 45 percent of the car’s exterior siding, one-half of the roof, and the entire floor (consisting of a vinyl floor tile over a hard rock maple floor, which was fastened to a metal sub-floor) needed to be removed before restoration could begin. After the badly rusted steel exterior siding was removed, restorers discovered that many of the vertical side support posts had completely rusted and broken off at the floor line and needed to be repaired or replaced.

After the completion of the deconstruction phase, the crew began restoration. Vertical wall posts were repaired and new exterior steel siding was installed using hot rivets similar to originals. Because the goal was to save as much original material as possible, the doors of the car were taken apart. Rusted steel was cut away and new steel welded in place. Since restorers adhere strictly to the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for Historic Preservation, all new material needed to match the original in both fit and finish and be undetected when painted. The lower roof on both sides required that new steel panels be fabricated and welded in place. Years of outdoor exposure took its toll on the upper roof where the edges of both sides had rusted completely through. Ten inches along both outer edges were replaced with new steel and blended into what was left of the original, making repairs virtually unnoticeable. When the flooring was removed during the deconstruction phase, nothing could be saved. A new corrugated steel floor pan was custom made because of height requirements. Once the floor pan was installed, a local contractor installed a new hard rock maple floor.

The rebuild of the car was completed in the fall of 2004, after which the interior was painted and installation of the many air brake components and intricate training systems began. By January 2005 the exterior of the car had been prepared for painting. When painting was complete the car was lettered in 24-karat gold leaf to match the original lettering found during the historic paint analysis. Since one of the goals of this restoration project involved making the teaching system operational, an air compressor was installed beneath the car to supply air for the various brake systems which could be used to demonstrate to visitors how air brakes stop a moving train.

The crew of highly skilled restoration personnel that worked on this project was given an unusual opportunity to take this unique piece of history, uncover its many secrets, and return it to its mid-twentieth-century appearance. The restored Pennsylvania Railroad Air Brake Instruction Car No. 492445 was placed on exhibit in the museum’s 100,000-square foot rolling stock hall where, on October 1, 2005, a ceremony recognized the individuals and companies who rescued it. Today, visitors can inspect the restored rolling classroom that helped keep travelers safe.

To plan a visit to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, one of the popular destinations along PHMC’s Pennsylvania Trails of History™, go to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania website.


Allan C. Martin is curator of history for the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Strasburg, Lancaster County, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). His association with PHMC began in 1997 as a volunteer with the Friends of the Railroad Museum. In 1998, the Friends employed the author as a restoration specialist. He received his B.A. in American history from Millersville University of Pennsylvania in 2002, shortly after which he was promoted to his current position.