A trove of transportation documents comes with a strange provision

Historians will soon get access to a bounty of documents about Philadelphia’s mass transit story dating back to the early 19th century.

The almost 200 feet of documents ― covering 624 volumes and 38 large charts and maps ― detail the history of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co. and Philadelphia Transportation Co., SEPTA’s predecessors.

The collection is in the final stages of processing by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in order to make it available to researchers.

But before the historians dig in, they’ll have to brush up on their poetry.

A provision in the 2003 letter transferring control of the collection to the society from the Philadelphia Museum of History ― where it languished unprocessed for years ― requires that any prospective researchers “be told of the heroic efforts of Jeffrey Ray to save the collection from destruction and how he has been a ‘living saint’ for the last 13 years.”

The “recitation of this glorious saga” must be set to verse and last at least 20 minutes.

The provision was insisted by Harold E. Cox, the former history professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.,  who saved the documents from destruction and mined them for a series of 60 books he’s written on transportation history.

Ray, a senior curator at the Museum of Philadelphia History ― formerly the Atwater Kent Museum ― said he felt “honored and amused” when he recently learned of the requirement from a Historical Society archivist. He wasn’t told of it when the transfer document was written.

Ray thinks he knows what “heroic efforts” Cox was referring to.

Cox was retiring from Wilkes about 20 years ago and had asked the Atwater Kent Museum to take the collection because the school’s library didn’t want to keep it. Ray and another curator drove up to Wilkes-Barre with a rented van and managed to transfer the entire collection ― all 160 boxes of it ― to Philadelphia in a single day.

The documents remained at the museum largely unexamined until their transfer to the Historical Society.

Ray said that the museum didn’t have the resources to adequately catalogue the collection.

“We thought we were going to be able to do something with it, but we just never could,” he explained.

This would become a common refrain. The documents sat in obscurity for years in the archives of the Historical Society ― which took them because it wanted to bolster its 20th century holdings and had archival staff specially trained at cataloguing collections like this one.

But the collection proved “pretty daunting,” according to Matthew Lyons, director of archives and collections management. It’s one of the society’s largest, and it proved to be too expensive to catalogue until a recent grant from a local consortium of archives provided funding.

That cataloguing process is almost complete ― and a search function detailing the collection should be on the society’s website within a month, allowing researchers to easily browse through the holdings, which range from leather-bound 19th century accident reporters from a now-defunct streetcar operator to pictures of the Willow Grove amusement park, which was owned by the PTC.

Without the functionality aid, Lyons explained, it’s very difficult for researchers to use the collection. Only two or three have tried in the years since the society acquired it.

And as part of the process, the collection is being moved into acid-free boxes and folders to help prevent decay of the documents ― though some of the collection is infested with mold and will remain closed to the public until more money is found for abatement of that problem.

As for the epic poem requirement, Lyons said that “we took it in the spirit of fun,” adding that most donor restrictions have to do with temporarily restricting access to archives for a number of years.
Contact the
 “We have not attempted to enforce it literally,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped the archivists in charge of the preservation from penning at least the beginnings of an epic poem about the “midnight ride of Jeffrey Ray” ― just to be on the safe side.

As for Cox, when contacted by PlanPhilly he said that he had forgotten all about the poem ― though “it’s definitely something I would write.”

“That was a long time ago, on a planet far, far away,” he said.

Contact the reporter at acampisi@planphilly.com

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal