Shippensburg station: A laboratory for heritage-based community development
Since 2017, I have been a participant-observer in an innovative project to use industrial heritage as a springboard for community development. As an academic historian, I had spent nearly two decades studying the ways in which civic leaders and preservationists in Pittsburgh mobilized the language and physical remains of industrial society in order to help shape a post-industrial future. I was looking for an opportunity to test the replicability of the development lessons outlined in the conclusion of my 2016 book, Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America, especially in a smaller, more rural community without the obvious access to the human and financial capital of a major city. This opportunity presented itself in the form of an expansion of a local rail-trail in my community, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, that had originally been the route of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, once of the nation’s earliest. This paper will focus on what has happened since as I worked with a team of railroad and rail-trail enthusiasts, academic and public historians, and community leaders to create a mixed-use heritage and performance space that we dubbed “Shippensburg Station” (an homage to Pittsburgh’s Station Square). Based around the western trailhead of the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail, the Cumberland Valley Railroad Museum (housed in a 1956 Penn Central Boxcar), and the Steam Plant Sculpture Path, the space has also grown to include Shippensburg University’s new engineering laboratory built in a former coal-fired steam plant. By the time of the TICCIH conference in August 2022, the Conrail Historical Society should have its new Archives and Museum ready to open on the site as well. The specific goal of this paper will be to assess, in qualitative terms, the ways in which both the university and the local community have pivoted back toward each other using this shared space to rediscover and reaffirm relationships that had become frayed in previous decades (especially since the abandonment of the railroad line in the 1980s). The conference presentation will underscore the ways in which the same techniques used in larger cities and post-industrial sites can be used to foster effective heritage-based development in smaller communities, while also highlighting the limitations to this approach with an emphasis on lessons learned (and still being learned).