Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Roadside Memorial Like No Other

Unless you were purposely driving to the “Geigertown Central Railroad” in Geigertown, Pennsylvania, you would never see this roadside memorial to a lost son. And if you WERE driving there on purpose, you would probably know that the “Geigertown Central Railroad” is not an actual, official railroad line. It is a memorial to the man who amassed a large collection of trains.

People mourn, grieve, remember, and memorialize the dead in countless ways. I can respect that. Roadside memorials are quite common, in urban as well as rural areas. The big difference between the two is the sheer scope of land one can dedicate to rural memorials. Such is the Geigertown Central Railroad in southeast Pennsylvania – 150 acres, to be exact.

According to the Pottstown (Pennsylvania) Mercury, “D. J. Shirey was an active train enthusiast and collector and was killed in 1993 at the age of 26 when a crane overturned on him as he was trying to right a derailed train in Hamburg, Pennsylvania. The Geigertown Central Railroad Museum Inc. is a nonprofit corporation which the Shirey family has set up in D.J.’s memory. Essentially, they keep his collection in place.

Unlike most train enthusiasts who collect HO gauge model trains, Shirley collected the real thing. If you see the acres of railroad track and antique locomotives, cabooses, and other rail cars rusting on this 150 acre-rural property, you would gather that Shirey’s hobby was somewhat more expansive (not to mention expensive) than most.
Shirley  was a member of a family who owned (and still owns) a trucking company (Shireys Trucking) in Geigertown, PA (about ten miles south of Reading). The “memorial” sprawls over acres of farmland along the side of 1403 Geigertown Road, directly across from the trucking operation.

Inside a caboose
"From a young age, his dream was to create his own railroad, which he named the 'Geigertown Central Railroad,' complete with engines, freight cars and tracks that would circle his farmhouse in the rolling hills of Geigertown,” according to the Oct. 6, 1993, article in the Mercury. D.J. Shirey married his wife Frances aboard a steam locomotive in 1991, and had moved from Geigertown to Hamburg with his wife and baby daughter about a year before his death.

While the average railroad enthusiast might build an HO gauge model railroad setup in his basement, Shirey bought and collected real trains! He had tracks laid on the family property on which to set the many steam locomotives, cabooses, and other types of rail cars amassed in his collection. If I were to guess the number of pieces on the property I would say about thirty. He even has old rusting cranes, bulldozers, and steam boilers. Piles of railroad ties, track, and spikes dot the landscape. There are railroad signs, sheds, and lights. Everything has been sitting there in the field rusting since D.J.’s death in 1993.

“With the help of his grandfather, Dave “Bob” Shirey, D.J. amassed quite a collection of rail cars, old trains, and rusting engines. Meanwhile, D.J. learned everything he could about railroading. For two years he drove the diesel engine in Pottstown that pushed the old Ironstone Ramble steam train. He was chief operating engineer for the Blue Mountain and Reading Railroad, where he had done “almost every job,” including driving and inspecting diesel and steam engines and shoveling coal into the locomotive’s fire box. Just a few months before his death, he became a locomotive steam boiler inspector.”

Back in 2005, some of the collection was auctioned off by his father, David Shirey. About thirty pieces remain, as a memorial to his son. How (and why) D.J. amassed this collection at such an early age is downright intriguing. Amidst the row of cabooses can be seen rusting steam shovels, bulldozers, and other old industrial equipment. Manual pumper cars and steam boilers sit idly alongside massive locomotives and other railroad cars. It is quite a scene. The photo below is in fact what you see from Geigertown Road.

Steam locomotives alongside Geigertown Road, Geigertown, Pennsylvania

If you donate some money, the family may let you roam about the property to view the cars up close, and even go inside them. (Photo at left shows inside of one train car looking out its door at the caboose.) The donation is for the upkeep of the collection, which it appears, probably amounts to cutting the grass in summer. When I was there this past winter exploring and making photographs with a friend who lives in the area, he nonchalantly suggested we come back again in the fall. I asked, why wait until fall? He said, “You wouldn’t want to be in these weeds when the rattlesnakes are around.” I figured I’d defer to his good judgement and not return until next fall.

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