By Rick Straub, Blue Ridge Scenic Railway
Trip guides are not unique at all; they started when the railroads began to stretch out into remote areas and they needed to provide visitor services and increase their revenue. Works such as Harpers New-York and Erie Rail Road Guide, of 1855 or Crofutt’s Trans-Continental Tourist Guide, of 1872 provided a view from the rails over the countryside, man-made bridges, and viaducts that had never been imagined before. Full of advertisements that helped cover the cost of production, they were usually sponsored by the railroad. Many years later, those guides open a window into what life was like back then. Long distance or day trips, those places were illustrated by wonderful art work along with a full description of each.
Train excursions as well as museums have become very popular across the country in recent years. They see a steady flow of visitors that are curious about local history or additional details about the event they have been a part of. Museums continue to take on artifacts in an effort to preserve history. Revitalized rail lines and their equipment also have stories to tell. Locally produced material is proving to be a product with exceptional return rates for organizations. With illustrations replaced today by digital images, trip guides can serve as self-guided tours that can help supplement the organizations revenue and document their history as a souvenir. Vacationers are looking for items they can take home to share memories.
This presents an opportunity for other railways and museums. A way of answering frequently asked questions, a commodity that staff members can promote, a memento visitors can share, provide advertising to the organization and income for gift shops. Even though modern technology allows for digital representation, affordable soft cover books still have their place.
Back in 2007 I published “Along the Way”, a trip guide for the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway (BRSR) in the North Georgia Mountains where I was a volunteer. The strategy was to create a training document for other volunteers that contained history of the line, rail cars and classic railroad items with plenty of pictures. This paperback book became very popular as it was introduced to the public, sales averaged 3,000 a year.
I began as early as 2005 creating a newsletter on a website. As the material grew it became apparent some could be fitted into a printed format. Lots of the original material was already researched and available. I divided the book into four sections; Introduction and History, Along The Way, The Consist, and Vintage Railroad.
Introduction and History
The guide begins by explaining the history of trip guides and why this railroad existed. My visitors want to know what brought settlers or business to the area and what has changed since then.
“The Marietta and North Georgia (M&NG) reached the grassy area known today as Blue Ridge in 1886 and headed to Murphy, NC. a mile north of town by way of Mineral Bluff. The line reached Mineral Bluff also in 1886.”
In addition, I introduce railroading terms (some humorous) to keep folks interested. I include an autograph page to make the guide interactive. I once signed a book that was filled with signatures, even some staff that were not on the train that day. It turned out the young girl was a regular, brought her book on every trip and collected as many autographs as possible. The image of the conductor extending a watch in his hand is called anytime. This is to create the theme “Any time is a great time for a train ride!”
Along The Way
My next and most import section is the same as the book title and starts from our departure point. Tools like a pocket watch and mile makers help to determine when the site will be passed. I have included picturesque sites and communities served. Here we see Murphy Junction is about 10 minutes out at approximately mile marker 394. For every spot we have determined significant we use a two page spread, one side with the text and the other for images.
For those pages where very little is known I add something like local vegetation and plant life to fill the other page.
Train enthusiasts love the equipment. The consist section describes each car, its history with images and sometimes modifications. Whether on the current consist or in the shop this is a perfect place to showcase restoration activities.
Here we see Car 114, it’s an open air car converted from a baggage car. We have given our cars there own name (The Brittany) as a dedication and recognized the original line as its heritage.
In this section I describe car components, types of switches, how air brakes work and general information like how time zones were influenced by the railroad. I then close out the book with pictures from our staff and some of the fun we have had including group photo’s, advertise special events and giving credit to contributors.
Following self-publishing instructions (available on the web) I was able to produce the book myself in 5 ½ x 8 ½ paperback form. We gave staff members a copy and made it available for purchase in the gift shop. The initial 3,000 print run gave us a return rate of about 60% and sold out quickly. The book has been selling consistanly every year since.
The success of the guide was directly related to the support of our railroading team, material available in other formats, and the abundance of railroad enthuseists. Financial analysis of development costs vary depending on the amount of work performed by staff, volunteers, and paid professionals. Many organizations already have staff producing updates on websites while self-publishing enables a cost savings. With book-on-demand printers small quantities can be produced to test the waters and not require large investments. I believe other organizations could have the same success if they produced their own trip guides.
Anyone wanting additional information about our trip guide or self-publishing can email firstname.lastname@example.org