What a move

Industry should be proud of newest Smithsonian exhibit

Article February 17, 2004
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The exhibit, celebrating our nation’s transportation growth, sets the tone like a famous composer, with each note carefully placed and ready to climax.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History doesn’t sell the pop that comes wrapped in aluminum foil.

Heck, it doesn’t even have one on display, which is quite surprising since the building pays homage to the progressive history of American pop culture. It may have been one of mom’s worst science experiments—mine was always warm come lunchtime—but the silver cylinder was certainly the symbol of field trips in the 1970s.

I would have to trek through this latest educational attraction—“America on the Move”—without the caffeine fill-up. No worries, there was plenty of energy to feed off of, and it started with an eager father-and-son team right behind me. Actually I think they both gleamed with the excitement of a six-year-old.

The exhibit, celebrating our nation’s transportation growth, sets the tone like a famous composer, with each note carefully placed and ready to climax. Naturally it all started with a milemarker donated by the Maryland State Roads Commission. From where I was standing there was 113 miles to cover before Wheeling and 19 leading to Petersburgh. Lucky for me the first couple hundred feet celebrated the era of the train—I couldn’t imagine using my own foot power to get to Wheeling, or for that matter Petersburgh.

A walk through a rail car pushed me into Washington, D.C., circa 1900, when Capital Traction Co. streetcars turned outlying areas into new city neighborhoods. The sights and sounds rekindled my appreciation for the first “fast” mode of movement, and as I explored the tile floor of a railroad station in Salisbury, N.C., I caught up with the other half of my field trip group. The father attempted to read some of the history, but the son was too busy with the interactive portion of the exhibit. There were just too many railroad crates to open and close.

Distractions were now hitting from all angles, and if it weren’t for a Winton automobile stuck in mud I, too, would have been pulling handles with the rest of the young minds. But Sewall Crocker, a mechanic, fueled my attention span. It looked like his replica was fighting exhaustion during an attempt to pull physician and businessman H. Nelson Jackson’s car out of sloppy terrain. The muscle and grit didn’t go to waste, as the two became the first to travel from California to New York via car.

Locked into the automobile era, I picked up the pace past a Lincoln Highway Marker and down a ramp before I landed on perhaps the most significant piece of the entire exhibit—a concrete slab of the original Rte. 66 in Oklahoma. The Chicago-to-Los Angeles drag was a salvation to many families during the Great Depression. Here I learned about the diligence of the Delgadillo clan, whose children formed an orchestra and traveled Rte. 66 all over Arizona for money.

Of course, education should always come first, and it was as if someone had purposely dropped a school bus just at the right time. The ever-improving transportation system helped plant the roots of progressive education. This stop showed the 36-passenger Dodge school bus that worked a 15-mile route from Jackson Township to Martinsburg, Ind. Martinsburg School replaced several one-room systems in the region.

So far the exhibit was installing shelves of historical tidbits in my mind. At least it was until my shoes scuffed a wooden platform of a Chicago “El” stop. I had spent fragments of my childhood riding the elevated rail, so I really didn’t need to sit in the Ravenswood B line car. Still, the fabricated effect, minus a wind chill, felt real.

Unfortunately my tour was running out of space. Closing the experience was a look at the interstate era and modern-day transportation, which filled my ears with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ tune Californication and coated my eyes with various video clips of different shapes and sizes.

With my system now wired on this great transportation industry, I slipped a bill into a donation box for the preservation of “America on the Move.” It’s certain to stimulate millions of young minds—and it may just lead to that perfectly chilled can of soda.

About the author: 
Bill Wilson<br> Editor<br> [email protected]
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