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Women of the Northwest Railway Museum—Jennifer Osborn, Jessie Cunningham, Cristy Lake—help new generations share living history

June 21, 2013 · 3:07 PM
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Women of the Northwest Railway Museum: Cristy Lake, Jennifer Osborn and Jessie Cunningham help people of all ages explore rail’s past and future. / Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

Leading the way around the Northwest Railway Museum's vast shed, Cristy Lake stops by the tool car.

Complete with forge, this car used to be a rolling workshop. It did that job from 1910 until the mid-1990s. But this train car has led a double life.

When it was originally built, circa 1890, it was a boxcar.

Then there’s Coach 218, a 1912 car being restored nearby. When it was done hauling people on seats, the passenger coach became a bunk car.

“One thing I’ve learned from rail is how much recycling was happening,” says Lake, a volunteer coordinator and trained historian at the museum.

“There’s the green movement now,” she adds. But railroads were always green.

That’s one of the surprising connections that Lake and her fellow female leaders at the train museum have made.

Lake joins educator Jessie Cunningham and new marketing director Jennifer Osborn, helping the 56-year-old museum reach and teach new generations about the railways. In the process, they’re learning new lessons for themselves.

The historian

Lake didn’t start as a train buff.

“I am passionate about history,” Lake says. “Trains tell that story.”

The importance of railroads, as Lake relates, is that they changed everything—how people traveled, got their goods, where cities formed and why people live where they live today.

“Here in the Valley, it was a two-week trip into Seattle. They got it down to four days by the time the railroads came,” Lake said. “Then the railroad changed it from four days to four hours. That completely revolutionized things.”

Lake’s also learned about the economics of rail, and what that means for the railroad industry’s future.

“We’re starting to relearn some of these lessons,” and restore rail lines, such as the new Eastside rail corridor.

Lake is a fourth-generation Valley resident who’s paid her dues at Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum—where she still works part time—and at Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum before coming to the Railway Museum.

Lake studied historical archaeology at the University of York in England, earning her master’s degree. The Valley Historical Museum let her get her foot in the door, and her work with artifacts carries over down the tracks in Snoqualmie.

As volunteer coordinator, she schedules all the helpers who run, repair and restore the trains, as well as the museum docents. She’s also in charge of membership, and is also the acting curator, processing books and artifacts as they come in.

Trains are big— “a passenger car or freight car is like a building on wheels,” Lake says. “A lot of our objects are hundreds of years old.”

But, unlike, say, an old appliance, toy or book, a train car may have led double or quadruple-lives.

“Railroads didn’t just keep things the same. They change over time.”

The historic Messenger of Peace chapel car became a diner, then a beach cabana. Even refrigerator cars served multiple purposes.

Some of these lives turn back on themselves. Old Coach 218 is now getting a fresh start. The museum is engaged on a comprehensive restoration that will turn it back into a passenger car.

The connector

Before she came to the depot, Osborn spent 14 months as business manager of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce. Prior to that, she earned her master’s degree in guidance counseling.

“I keep finding myself at different desks, helping people,” she says. “A guidance counselor is a hub. They connect everything together. That’s what I like to do—I know how to connect people to what they need.

As marketing director for the Northwest Railway Museum, she’s connecting with a new audience, growing ridership and increasing people’s knowledge of Railroad Days, Day Out With Thomas and visitor programs.

With seats for 200 on every train, she is always trying to keep the riders coming, and there’s plenty of potential.

“The railroad museum can only grow,” says Osborn.

Until she finds that dream high school guidance counselor job, she is staying local to keep by her family—Osborn just watched her oldest daughter, Jordy, graduate from Mount Si; younger daughter Allie is a Mount Si sophomore this fall.

The educator

Just inside the entrance to the museum’s two-year-old Train Shed Exhibit Building, Cunningham points out the exhibit coming into being around her.

Double-sided info panels and acrylic artifact cases will help visitors get a sense of the stories behind the huge rolling stock resting here.

As the museum’s staff educator, Cunningham has spent eight years helping children and adults learn from their visits. The museum was her first real gig after earning her master’s degree in secondary teaching at the University of Washington. She applied here, not knowing much about Snoqualmie. Since then, she’s put down roots and watched the museum grow and change around her.

“I was hired the day we broke ground at the CRC:” The Conservation and Restoration Center was the first building at the museum’s new Meadowbrook campus.

“It was a good time to get involved. There was a lot of change. We were really moving forward.”

Today, she leads the training program for a second year of museum docents, who will lead public tours in the new train shed.

“We’ve tinkered with it to make it better,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham loves how her work changes by season and enlivens her routine. She’s never trapped at a desk.

“There are days when you spend all day outside, moving trains around,” she says. “I have a routine, but it’s not the same thing, day in and day out. It’s why I enjoy this kind of work.”

The lessons

Before coming here, “I had no idea there were so many people who loved trains,” said Cunningham. “It spans all generations, from the tiniest kid to grandma and grandpa.”

She’s fascinated when she talks to people, especially the older generation, who have a direct connection to the golden age.

“Railroads were a major employer—that’s not so much the case now, but a few generations ago, it was absolutely the case. People had these personal connections to this huge system.”

There aren’t many places in the world where you can find so much rail history encapsulated in one place, like the museum.

In the railroad field, most buffs and volunteers are men. In the museum world, women are strongly represented, says Cunningham.

“What’s great about us working here is that there’s some balance to it, which I think is really important,” she adds.

Last year, the museum hosted RailCamp, which invites teens from across the U.S. to learn about rail’s past, present and future. Nine boys and three girls took part.

Lake recalls how her niece and nephew loved trains from a young age. She encourages parents to let both boys and girls explore that love, regardless of gender.

Girls as well as boys “deserve the right to explore their passions.”

For Lake, the best kept secret of this place is the shed tour, which happens every Saturday afternoon, and is aimed at all ages.

“We have docents who are great with kids,” Cunningham says. “This information is for everyone.”

• You can learn more about the Northwest Railway Museum at www.trainmuseum.org. The museum’s next major program is Day Out With Thomas, July, 12 to 14 and 19 to 21.

 

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