David is the Museum’s associate curator of paleontology. In addition to running the Museum’s dig program in Seymour, TX and curating exhibits, he’s also unofficial head of The Department of Mysteries, a shadow wing of HMNS that deals with strange goo, unusual fossils, mysterious substances or any other unknown object you'd like to know what to do with.
“Trains Over Texas” being constructed at TW TrainWorx headquarters
Create holiday memories by travelling across Texas by model railroad in this scratch built “O” scale model. The multiple trains crisscrossing the state will visit important and unique places in our state’s geology and physiography. Destinations include oil country salt domes, prairies and wetlands of the Texas coast and state and national monuments such as Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, The Balcones Escarpment and Big Bend National Park.
Along the routes to these geologic wonders the trains will also pass through Galveston, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio with other surprises along the route.
Another train set built by TW TrainWorx, the builders of our set.
This exhibit (about the size of a tennis court) is the largest indoor “O” scale model railroad in Texas. Its been nine months in the making and it pulls into HMNS on November 18th. Don’t miss what is sure to become a Houston holiday tradition!
One of the things I have been working on lately is an exhibit, Trains over Texas, which will open in the near future. The exhibit is a masterpiece of art and engineering recreated in miniature. There is a certain adventuring elegance to travelling by train, the scenic journey is as important as the destination. The same is true with this scale model railroad. The miniaturized journey passes through most of the natural wonders Texas has to offer, all recreated in miniature.
One of the fringe benefits of being a curator is the opportunity to learn new things, these projects invariably will take you unexpected places, always mentally, sometimes physically. I have been assigned to work on the Trains over Texas project. The train research triggered a long forgotten, possibly repressed, memory of family vacationing. The excursions consisted of long treks along a “vacation triangle” that involved the highways connecting Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia. Being wedged in the back of an International Harvester Scout, entertainment options were limited, it was after all the ‘60’s, even outside of the car with room to maneuver, chores, or a longish stick and an ant bed might be as good as it got.
Singing was one of the ways we would pass the time on these trips. My father taught a course, American history through folk songs, so the sing along selections had nothing to do with whatever I liked that was popular. As a child I was sure these songs actually weren’t popular anywhere. Working on this model train exhibit reminded me of one of those road trip songs, The Wreck of Old 97. The version of this song recorded by Vernon Dalhart, made a mark in music history. Dalhart was a Texan and was arguably the first country music super star. Childhood suspicions aside, the song actually was popular, in Dalharts’ 1924 recording was the first million selling record in the United States. Not surprisingly it also became the subject of the first major music copyright lawsuit. The song had a profound effect on the genre of country music as well. It is fortuitous timing as the anniversary of this American rail disaster is September 27, 1903, 113 years ago today. The lyrics are historically accurate and tell a sad story that gripped the nation, not unlike more familiar, more recent events. The effect on the national psyche being akin to the Challenger disaster.
As the song has been covered by many artists over the decades the lyrics have varied slightly. What I did not understand then, was the odd uncool songs of my youth are living history . The words get memorized and repeated but the original story, the historical data, hides in plain sight just below the surface, waiting to be discovered by the curious. There is history written, and there is history sung, history sung is intimate and personal. My father knew it then, I know it now. The lyrics I was taught go:
He picked up his orders in Monroe Virginia
Saying Steve you’re way behind time
This is not 38 but old 97
You must put’er into Spencer on time
He turned ‘round and said to his blackened, greasy fireman,
Shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
You just watch old 97 roll.
It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
Going on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrakes
You should have seen what a jump he made
He was rolling down the tracks doing 90 miles an hour
When his whistle broke into a scream
And they found him in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
Scalded to death by the steam
A telegram came from Washington Station and this is what it said
That the brave engineer driving Old 97, is lying up in Danville dead
So come all you ladies, you must take warning
From this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband
He may leave you and never return
The trains’ engineer, Joseph Broady, nicknamed “Steve” by his friends and crew, was at the controls of the 4-6-0 class locomotive at the time of the disaster. He was part of a replacement crew of 18 that boarded the train in Monroe Virginia. At the moment the new crew took over they were one hour behind schedule. Old 97 was a Fast Mail Train. The train had a punctual reputation, but also a contract with the postal service that stipulated the railroad would be fined for each minute the mail delivery was late. The railroad ordered Engineer Broady to make up the time. After the accident the railroad would deny they instructed the engineer essentially to “speed”. After the investigations, recriminations and legal haggling, the accident was blamed on the engineer. Placed back in historical context, the lyric, He picked up his orders in Monroe Virginia points out that the Railroad was at least partially to blame.
It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchberg to Danville. The rail line from Lynchburg to Danville was indeed treacherous, being a mixture of tight curves and rolling terrain. Signs were posted along the tracks to warn trains of upcoming dangers. The run featured a three mile stretch of line along a downhill grade approaching the Stillhouse Trestle.
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrake. Many historians believe Engineer Broady was speeding and using the brake aggressively to slow the train near hazards, whittling away at the time deficit. As the train approached the down hill grade and trestle, the air brake was either depleted or inoperative. Engineer Broady reversed the engine but it was not enough. The train derailed and plunged into the Stillhouse Branch ravine, erupting into an explosion of steam and fire.
You should have seen what a jump he made. Train derailments were a common rail accident at that time. Sometimes minor, sometimes major, these mishaps would result in varying degrees of damage to rolling stock and humans. The wreck of Old 97 was different, thousands of onlookers would visit the site of the accident, to personally witness the aftermath and salvage efforts. Of the 18 on board, 11 died, many survivors credited leaping from the train before it plummeted into the ravine for their survival.
Ladies, please take warning. The poignant end of the song, refers to the fact that many of the victims of the disaster were married men with families. Engineer Broady was engaged to be married. None of those people 113 years ago suspected that the words spoken to their loved ones as they left for their jobs, would be their last. That admonition is as true today as it was then.
Trains and railroads are one of the primary themes in country, folk and blues music. I am hoping to create the opportunity to explore the music connected with railroads as part of the experience.
The last three evenings have been spent doing a dinosaur cleaning. Three times a year staff and volunteers give up a few of their evenings to dust the mounts in the Hall of Paleontology. We clean the mounts using a variety of tools ranging from low tech dust clothes and soft brushes to pretty fancy vacuums and air guns. We give everything a thorough inspection.
It’s not all that different from dusting your home. Excepting that a fair amount of the work takes place high above the cement floor maneuvering a multi ton hydraulic lift in and around delicate bones. In some places the clearance between exhibits is just a few inches. Paleo volunteers regularly help with the task.
Our digging volunteer crew is adept at this and I completely trust them,the quarry skills involved in chipping rock away from bones and being able to account for your hands and feet naturally translate to dusting the mounts when they are out of the rock as well.
Another benefit is to see the exhibits and specimens from an entirely alien perspective.
I would like to thank the approximately 175 citizen scientists that came out Saturday at HMNS Sugar Land. They helped us process approximately 1,000 pounds of soil and rock from the specimens we’ve collected from our Permian-aged (182-187 million years ago) site near Seymour,Texas.
I was impressed with your cooperativeness, curiosity, and, most importantly, the care you all exhibited in processing these samples. Also, this experience absolutely would not have been possible without the facilitation of our experienced museum and field crew volunteers.
In excavating fossils, many times we will work to retain the matrix that is removed from around the specimen. This matrix is soaked in water and allowed to disaggregate. Then the mud is placed and screens and gently rinsed, leaving behind hard pieces — including fossils.
After rinsing, the specimens are dried and then searched. This process will typically reduce the bulk sample size by 80 percent. People processing the sample typically are left very wet and muddy, as you can see here: