The Secretary of the Interior’s Preservation Standards

“The Secretary of the Interior is responsible for establishing standards for all programs under Departmental authority, and for advising Federal agencies on the preservation of historic properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. “ 

The standards were designed to apply to structures, however, we have found them to be useful guidelines for preserving and restoring railcars and locomotives. 

We currently have two restoration projects ongoing at Railtown; the Sierra #3, which could be classified as somewhere between a restoration and a rehabilitation, and the Caboose #7, which would be more accurately described as a rehabilitation. 

There are unique challenges to any preservation project, whether it is a building, vehicle, or other artifact.  Addressing those unique aspects with specific and creative solutions which preserve the integrity of the resource, is what makes this field and interesting and challenging one! 

Arguably, the structures at Railtown (the historic shops of the Sierra Railroad) are the greatest historic resource at the site, and of course, the Secretary of the Interior’s standards are applied in their preservation.  The site is not currently listed on the National Historic Register, however, it is clearly eligible (listing it hasn’t been pursued because our limited resources have been directed to more urgent issues, and because it is already protected as a State Historic Park).  Therefore, every proposed change, minor or major, is carefully reviewed by qualified staff, following  CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requirements.  This process can be tedious and time consuming, but is an important step to ensure that well-intentioned, paid and volunteer staff do not make changes over time that can impact the integrity of the site.  It is also an important step to document changes, over time, for future park managers and historians. 

For example, we will soon begin an electrical upgrade to the historic roundhouse.  These important improvements will (hopefully) reduce the fire hazards to the building.  Park staff propose to utilize existing conduit wherever possible, retain extinct hardware, and keep modern replacements out of the “historic viewshed” by placing them in hidden areas, or camoflaging them.  The upgrade is unavoidable because we wish to continue using the building, but we seek to find elegant solutions to mitigate changes, and document, document, document!

In many ways, the restoration challenges for the Sierra #3 are more complex.  Because we wish to operate the locomotive, we have taken a very different approach than if our intent had been to put it on display.  Much consideration was given to “restoring” the original boiler.  Contraints included cost, employee safety, and feasibility, as well as artifact preservation concerns.  In the end, it was decided that it would cost the same, be safer for employees, and better preserve the original artifact if we built and operated a new, welded boiler.  Critics would argue that it is no longer the same locomotive.  Others would argue that operation of the locomotive over the years, including repairs after wrecks, replacement of worn parts, wheels, tires, tubes and valves, new paint jobs for film shoots, and all of the minor tweaking over time, has caused cumulative changes that have been just as significant.  The curators will argue that the “original” parts could be re-assembled for display at any time.   All of the arguments have their merit. 

Isn’t this fun? 

To learn more about historic preservation standards, and the recomendations of the Secretary of the Interior, please visit the NPS site

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