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Railway Museum inaugurates railway yard | News, sports, jobs

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Guests walk around prior to the ribbon cutting of the Luther G. Smith Yard at the Railroaders Memorial Museum on Thursday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

A project that took nearly two years to complete was celebrated Thursday afternoon when the Railroaders Memorial Museum dedicated its newly renovated rail yard to Altoona native Luther G. Smith.

Smith, a locomotive engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, is credited with creating a fund that provides job income protection to railroad workers across the country.

The museum’s rail yard is now equipped to provide enhanced experiences with more events and greater community appeal for education and entertainment, said Executive Director Joseph DeFrancesco.

The space is equipped with a stage, concrete and artificial grass, new outdoor lighting, a flagpole and fencing. It cost about $1.3 million, according to Morey Lawruk, the general contractor for the renovation.

The bill was funded by the North American Railway Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1996 by the Brotherhood’s Relief and Compensation Fund organization that Smith founded in 1912.

Joe DeFrancesco, executive director of the Railroaders Memorial Museum, addresses guests during the dedication of the Luther G. Smith Memorial Yard on Thursday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

According to Brian Penfield, vice president of NARF, Smith founded the fraternity to provide protection for railroad workers in the United States and Canada who were “kept out of service” because they had been suspended or fired.

Smith didn’t object to the railroad disciplining employees when necessary, but he didn’t see the logic in innocent family members suffering if the head of the household made a mistake in carrying out his duties, Penfield said.

He said the brotherhood’s leadership was strict and held the men to a high standard of behavior and performance on and off the railroad if they wanted to receive benefits. Smith believed avoiding alcohol was essential to the safe operation of the railroad, Penfield said.

“After all, Brother Smith was on to something,” he said, adding that railroad discipline has been a fact of life since the beginning of the industry.

Jesse Taylor, chairman of the NARF board of directors, said the completion of the rail yard project is “a game changer” for the museum.

Guests chat in front of the Luther G. Smith statue after the ribbon cutting at the Railroaders Memorial Museum on Thursday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

According to Taylor, between 1996 and 2001, the Brotherhood’s Relief and Compensation Fund set aside excess investment income and built an endowment fund of $16.1 million, increasing investment income by nearly $25 million.

He said they use their unrestricted income to fund projects they want to invest in, such as the renovation of the museum’s rail yard, which is “by far the largest project we’ve ever done.”

“This is a project we wanted to get involved in,” he said, adding that Smith was from Altoona and is buried in Fairview Cemetery. “We want to bring Luther home to the city of Altoona.”

In a sense, they were able to bring Smith to Altoona after moving a statue of the foundation’s founder from the Mechanicsburg headquarters to the back of the museum’s yard.

Blair Alliance for Business and Economic Growth CEO Steve McKnight said he hopes the newly renovated rail yard will connect visitors to one of the province’s largest historic attractions for downtown businesses.

“This is a critical asset,” he said of the yard. “Having an activity center of this size associated with something of such historical significance will drive traffic to this location and that will in turn drive traffic to the city and all the businesses along Main Street.”

According to DeFrancesco, the yard will be used for many events in the future.

“We worked with the foundation and we managed to design something that would match the character of the museum itself, in an outdoor format,” he said, adding that the museum has always had a working-class theme by telling stories of the perspective of railway workers.

Candy Holliday, the museum’s director of marketing and events, said the yard is perfect for hosting the museum’s sound and concert series, which will return at various times throughout the summer, starting June 21.

“We are working with many community organizations and businesses who are also hosting their own events this year,” Holliday said, adding that the museum’s rail yard can be rented out for personal events and parties.

Mirror Staff Writer Matt Churella is at 814-946-7520.

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