Railroads accelerated change, unleashing social, economic and technological forces that transformed the landscape, just as they encouraged people and communities to transform themselves through the search for opportunity and freedom.


The Trunks through Time exhibit is a traveling learning tool that explores the experiences of several minority groups of railroad travelers from 1880 - 1960. Building on themes of challenge and transformation, each trunk illuminates the life story and achievements of the trunk's owner. 


These educational trunk displays come equipped with lesson plans and teacher resource materials and will be available for teachers to download as a PDF, here on our website, and used in their classrooms. Follow the link under each category to view the resources and other information about each decade.


A Teacher Resource for Grades K-12

This trunk represents a 31-year old Chinese laborer who immigrated to California in search of opportunity, accepting work on the Central Pacific to build the transcontinental railroad. He set explosive charges that cleared the way through the high Sierras and was chosen to be part of the crew that drove the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah. Central Pacific management issued a crisp, blue jacket for the occasion. A talented calligrapher and artist, he saved enough money from his meager railroad wages to open a small business form which to sell his work. 

This trunk represents a 20-year old woman from Indiana who accepted work as a Harvey Girl to help her family retain ownership of their 40-acre farm. Stationed in Arizona, the letters home tell of her growing interest in the work of local Indian artisans. Her discerning eye earns her a role in selecting the Native American jewelry that Harvey establishments introduce for sale to tourists in 1899. Her work as a Harvey Girl will end with her marriage to a local rancher, but the experience she has gained will give her the confidence to open a small shop of her own.

This trunk represents a 14-year old Mexican boy who immigrated to the United States when his father accepted a job on the Santa Fe Railroad. He and his family live in the Boxcar Camps in Galesburg, Illinois, and he helps supplement their income by making deliveries for a local grocery store.  While making his rounds, the boy frequently visits with a neighborhood poet and writer named Carl Sandburg who awakens in him a lifelong interest in writing. 

This trunk represents a 22-year old woman who leaves her life among New York’s creative, intellectual society or travel by train to the Democratic and Republican national conventions in Chicago, Illinois, in 1932. On her journey, she is exposed for the first time to the crippling impact of the Great Depression gripping the country. With her journal and camera, she chronicles the deprivation and suffering she sees. She is fascinated by the political giants of the time and knows that the person elected to the presidency will have the difficult task of leading the country out of this economic disaster. As she travels, she develops a lifelong passion for political activism in the area of social justice. 

This trunk represents a 58-year old Pullman Porter from Chicago. The salary he earns supports his extended family, including a grandson who the Porter misses dearly during his long runs away from home. He has learned a great deal about the stock market from the wealthy businessmen whose conversations he overhears as he attends their cabins. The investments he makes based on this knowledge will eventually put his grandson through college.

Military Veteran

This trunk represents a 25-year old man of Puerto Rican heritage who, after serving in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, is hired by the newly formed passenger rail service, Amtrak. Because of his bilingual skills and the discipline he learned in the army, he excels in his career as a conductor on the Silver Service between New York and Miami. His faith and his family continue to sustain him through the challenges of the turbulent 1970s and beyond. Like many military veterans, he transitions to a successful career in the railroad industry. In retirement, a high point is seeing Amtrak’s Engine 42, a commemorative locomotive honoring the service of Vietnam veterans. 

This project was funded by a grant from the Galesburg Community Foundation and brought to life through the ideas of Sheryl Hinman, curriculum input from Knox College History and Education department members,

and the National Railroad Hall of Fame. 


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