When the present blocks you from the past: one of the challenges of writing about the past

I never thought I’d write about history. I’ve always liked to write, sure, and I tried my hand at writing novels years ago. But when my grandmother died a few years ago and we found a little autograph album in her records, I unexpectedly found my reason to write.

The autograph/friendship album was filled with poems and signatures, all with dates in the 1880s-1890s. I spent the next six years (off and on) researching the album signers, the times they lived in, and the places where they lived. I wrote a book about it, which I published on Amazon last year.

It was in 2019, while I was writing that book that I had my first two experiences with the here-and-now blocking my access to the past.

The first one was at a place called Glen Onoko Falls, not far from Jim Thorpe. One of the album signers, my great X3 Aunt Jennie, wrote “Glen Onoko” with her name on her album page. Jennie died tragically young (in her 30s) and left behind a 9-year-old daughter who’d already lost her father.

When I saw the phrase “Glen Onoko”, I had no idea what it was referring to. When I Googled it, I saw that there used to be a grand hotel there which burned down in the early 20th century. By this time, I was used to the idea that things from the timeframe of the album signers might very well no longer be around. But I was happy to see that websites showed hiking trails leading to the falls. Great! I’d hike to Glen Onoko and take a photo or two for my book, and in honor of Aunt Jennie.

But then, in April 2019, I saw an online newspaper article titled: “State will close beautiful but dangerous Glen Onoko Falls trail May 1”. The article states that the Pennsylvania Game Commission was going to close the trail as of May 1st because of the frequent falls and injuries that occurred there.  They don’t have the resources to keep rescuing people, and it would cost more than they have to make the trail safe. The trail was closed, but every once in a while they still have to rescue someone who’s ignored the signs and hiked the trail anyway. And although I was incredibly disappointed, I won’t become one of those people. Glen Onoko Falls is there, yet frustratingly off-limits.

The second example is the Lehigh Gorge Railway in Jim Thorpe. The town of Jim Thorpe, which used to be called Mauch Chunk, is an old coal town on the Lehigh River. The trains used to carry coal and people. The Lehigh Gorge Railway now gives narrated rides along the river. The turnaround spot for the excursion is at a place called Penn Haven Junction, a remote site that has no roads leading to it. One of the album signers was the station agent there for 42 years, and wrote Penn Haven Junction on his album page. The station is long gone, but I’d been curious about Penn Haven and was happy that a scenic train ride could take me there.

But in October 2019 I saw another article: “Popular scenic train leaving Jim Thorpe for good over $100,000 tax bill”\. This article states that the town government classified the train rides as amusement, and taxed them as such.  The owner of the train denied the description of “amusement” and for years had refused to pay the taxes. In 2019 the owner announced that he’d stop running the trains in Jim Thorpe, starting in November.

Closed Mauch Chunk Train Station in Jim Thorpe in February 2020

The train did stop running. But then the two sides settled things and the trains resumed for Winterfest in February 2020. However, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting the U.S. at about the same time and the trains were stopped immediately after Winterfest. In August 2020, the train excursions were resumed, with pandemic precautions in place. Now, in January 2021, it appears they’re still running. The following is on their website: “…By riding on this train trip you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree not to hold Reading & Northern Railroad or any of its affiliates, employees, agents, contractors or owners liable for any injury or illness…”  . Given that I live nearly 300 miles away and the pandemic is still raging, it’s uncertain when I’ll be able to take a ride.

The most recent example of the present blocking the past is occurring right now. I’m currently writing a book based on the letters written by a soldier during the Civil War to his wife (my great X4 Aunt Hester). I’m planning on taking a driving tour through all the places that John Willliamson mentions in his letters. One of those places is the Soldier’s Rest in Washington, D.C.

Soldier’s Rest was located between Union Station and the Capitol, in an area now called Lower Senate Park. Given the incidents that happened at the Capitol building last week and the fencing and security in place now through the Inauguration (which is 5 days away), getting anywhere near the area right now is impossible. Hopefully they’ll be able to cut back on the security in the area after next week. I hope the fencing doesn’t become a permanent fixture.

I’ve always been aware that people and events from the past have undeniable effects on the present. It’s amazing how current events have their impact on the past, as well.

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