illuminate history

Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)

Coming Full Circle

Woodcut mediaIt’s exactly one year since I engaged in the email correspondence with Olivia Thomas of Woodcut Media that resulted in my express trip back to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania to be interviewed for their documentary series entitled Combat Trains. The series aired in the UK, Australia, several European countries, Russia and India in December and January. I finally received the promised DVD of the US Civil War and WWII Burma segments in March.

I’m not very technically adept and, for some reason, the DVD wouldn’t play in the VCR hooked up to the TV or the disc player in my husband’s laptop. I now have one of those light-weight laptops with no disc player. Last week, however, Gary got a new laptop and we got to watch the DVD.

There’s fabulous footage of moving trains and wonderful images of many Library of Congress archival photos that are very familiar to me. It was great fun to see a couple of familiar faces.


Christian WolmarChristian Wolmar is a British writer on all topics railroad. I encountered him when I was trying to get an essay or two published in the NY Times series Disunionwhich had featured segments from his book Engines of War. I sent him a copy of my book, which he remarked was “lovely.”

He did a presentation at the Railroad Museum of PA a couple of weeks before I did in 2012. Then, when I was there to present at the Museum, he was out here in Portland, giving talks at Powells. So we’ve never actually met.

I lGary & Jimmyike to think that  Jonathan Mayo, director of the documentary, and Olivia Thomas recruited Jimmy Blankenship, US Military Railroad historian at City Point and Petersburg National Battlfield, as a result of my recommendation. He appears in several clips. I’m especially pleased that he delivers the final few minutes of the Civil War segment, explaining how the War ended there at Petersburg. I first spoke to him by phone in December 2002, on our first field trip to Washington, DC and City Point, VA. A couple of years later, he spent an entire afternoon with Gary and me, explaining in fascinating detail the sprawling railroad operations at the foot of the bluff, upon which Grant’s Army was encamped. I’ve written about Jimmy before: he was the uncredited expert who advised Stephen Spielberg’s crew on costumes, weapons, etc. for Spielberg’s terrific 2012 film Lincolnyoung JHB close-up

It was also fun to see the familiar photo of John Henry Bailey, which, of course, I provided, as the lead-in to the first segment in which I speak briefly about him. Of course, they identify me as his great-grand-daughter, not a skilled amateur historian. But what are you going to do?

great-grand-daughter of JHB

Thank goodness I spoke clearly and did not interject “um” or “y’know.” I can’t insert the video here but this link should work for the first bit where I talk about locomotive engineers.


that man HauptA little later, I spoke about the brilliant but temperamental railroad construction and operations engineer Herman Haupt. In that bit, linked here I actually got my dimensions mixed up and said that the famous “beanpoles and cornstalks” bridge was higher than it was long. I wonder who else will notice.

I hope that someday the series will air on History Channel in the US. It’s very well done and I really would like to see all eight episodes.



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