History, storytelling part of ‘awesome vibe’ in downtown Shippensburg

July 18, 2023
People gather outdoors for Ship First Friday at Shippensburg Station.
At Ship First Fridays, community members come for food trucks, drinks, live music, locally-made arts and crafts and time spent outside together at Shippensburg Station.

By Karen Price

A neglected boxcar rusting in the woods, a grassy lot and hundreds of bankers boxes filled with old documents may seem like pieces to three very different puzzles, but today they are key elements of the story of revitalization in downtown Shippensburg.

Shippensburg Station sits at the trailhead of the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail and is home to two railroad museums, a parking lot and a comfort station. Every first Friday night from April through October the site becomes a thriving gathering spot for the community, who come together to eat, drink, visit, listen to live music, browse locally made crafts and check out the sculptures along the trail created by a Shippensburg University professor and students. 

“Hundreds of people come just to hang out and the vibe is awesome,” said Jim Stanton, a self-described railroad fan whose work helped bring both museums into existence. “It’s so neat because the people who are there, they’re not just an artisan community, they’re not just a history buff community, they’re not there just because their favorite barbecue truck is there. You’re seeing all these different kinds of people, of different backgrounds, different ages, different socioeconomic classes. I love that.”

PA Humanities is celebrating its 50th anniversary over the next year, and board members across the state are hosting gatherings to help prepare for the festivities. Board member Allen Dieterich-Ward, who is director of The Graduate School and a professor of history at the university, was instrumental in the creation of Shippensburg Station and recently hosted PA Humanities and other guests at the newly-opened Conrail Museum boxcar. 

PA Humanities staff and board members get to know supporters and other guests at a gathering hosted by board member Allen Dieterich-Ward at the newly-opened Conrail Museum boxcar at Shippensburg Station. Honey Still for Tea, based in Shippensburg, catered the event.

The project that transformed the section of downtown began five years ago when an aluminum castings plant in town was closing. An old green boxcar that once belonged to the Penn Central Railroad had been used for storage by the plant operators, and Stanton knew it would be scrapped if they didn’t make a move to save it. His neighbor served on the board of the rail trail, which was once the Penn Central line, and Stanton suggested they make a home for this piece of local history. That neighbor put him in touch with Dieterich-Ward, and with help from a timely grant from the Cumberland Valley CVB they began work to acquire, relocate and restore the old car and turn it into the Cumberland Valley Railroad Museum. 

Based on that success, the next project was acquiring and relocating an 86-foot Conrail boxcar that was being retired from service and could house the Conrail Historical Society’s vast but scattered collection of archival material and make it available to both researchers and the public. That museum opened earlier this year. 

“Shippensburg is not like Altoona, it’s not an iconic railroad town, but because railroads were so omnipresent in Pennsylvania, so many people have stories to tell about them,” Dieterich-Ward said. 

A peak inside the Conrail Museum boxcar.

Some of Stanton’s favorite moments are when residents learn a part of their own history. They’ll post photos from Ship First Fridays on social media, he said, only to have a family member comment that a grandparent or great grandparent once worked for the railroad. 

“Then they come back to us and have to tell us about it,” Stanton said. “They’re so excited to tell us this was a part of their family history and they didn’t even realize it.”

Allen Dieterich-Ward

The stories are not just oral, Dieterich-Ward added, but often written into the landscape itself. The original rail line through town was the Cumberland Valley Railroad, built in the 1830s, and the university was located where it was because of the proximity to the railroad. The town center also shifted a mile from its original location closer to the railroad in its heyday. When the railroad started to decline, so did downtown. 

Shippensburg Station, with its Ship First Fridays events, has now taken that history and created a new space for community. It was his work with PA Humanities, Dieterich-Ward said, that gave him the language to talk about the work as a humanities project and use storytelling as a way to create transformative community change. 

“What we have done with Shippensburg Station is we have allowed our community to shift from telling a story of decline to telling a story of growth and transformation,” Dieterich-Ward said. “Now this is not the story of the railroads going away and the town going away with it but rather the rejuvenation of the town in part through remembrance and telling those stories that matter to people, and giving them a place of honor in our community. Here is what our community is all about. Let’s move forward together. That’s the power of storytelling. That’s the power of PA Humanities.” 

The Conrail Museum sits along the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail, and a sculpture comprised of bicycles can be seen in the foreground.

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