Collector’s items: Retired electrician’s railroad lanterns on display at Portage Station Museum


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Apr 10, 2023

Collector’s items: Retired electrician’s railroad lanterns on display at Portage Station Museum

Jun 5, 2023 Jack Williams donated railroad lamps and lanterns to the Portage

Jun 5, 2023

Jack Williams donated railroad lamps and lanterns to the Portage Station Museum, where they are on display through Dec. 31.Mirror photo by Alicia Chiang

PORTAGE — Retired coal mine and railroad electrician Jack Williams admits he has a lot of stuff.

"I collect everything: railroad stuff, Native American artifacts, mining stuff. … I probably got too much stuff," he said while looking over a collection of railroad lanterns on display at the Portage Station Museum.

Williams’ collection began with his dad, who was a railroad trackman for 44 years. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which later became Penn Central and then Conrail.

His dad was responsible for maintaining the railroad between Cresson and Johnstown using trackman lanterns, in the days before electric lights, Williams said.

"Back in the ’60s, my dad had one (trackman lantern) hanging up in the garage. He used to walk from Cresson to Johnstown at nighttime checking tracks, and his lantern was up there for years," Williams said.

Jack Williams holds a railroad lamp that was used to switch signals, on display at the Portage Station Museum.Mirror photo by Alicia Chiang

When his father died 27 years ago, Williams got that light.

‘Everything was steel’

Williams regularly visits community yard sales and flea markets and looks for things that catch his eye. He said if the price isn't too bad, he checks to make sure the lantern is not rusty or broken, then he checks to see if the wick still works. If it all looks good and the price is right, he makes the purchase.

"I like old stuff … because people who did it, they worked. They knew how to do things with their hands. Back then, everything was steel … it's real," Williams said.

Kevin Bronson, a local antique dealer who grew up in New England, identified William's lanterns as mostly manufactured by the R.E. Dietz company.

Jack Williams holds one of the many mining lamps that are part of his collection now on display at the Portage Station Museum.Mirror photo by Alicia Chiang

Railroad enthusiasts enjoy the items, he said.

"I see guys at the antique shows that I know. …That's all they do is railroad lanterns and railroad items," he said.

Irene Huschak, president of the Portage Historical Society, said the lanterns Williams brought for the display were all unique.

"I didn't know that there were so many different kinds of lanterns until he brought them in," she said, "They have a different cover, a different bell, a different cage."

Collecting brings joy

Jack Williams holds a document from the Juniata Locomotive Shop dating to 1962, which is on display at the Portage Station Museum through Dec. 31. Mirror photo by Alicia Chiang

Williams, who grew up as one of the nine children, said he cut grass at the local cemetery and for neighbors, too, as well as spaded gardens. But what has brought him joy since long ago was collecting.

He recalled going along the back roads and picking up milk bottles that his neighbors threw away.

When he graduated high school, he really wanted to go to college. However, he started working in the coal mines because he needed money. One day, when he tried to walk up to the beltline, he had a severe headache and was suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. He said he laid on the floor and couldn't move.

He was taken to the hospital and ended up in Pittsburgh, where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Fortunately, Williams said the coal company agreed to pay for all the treatments, including three months of hospital stays and five years of radiation treatment. He returned to his job after coming out of the hospital.

While Williams always enjoyed collecting, he found being in the coal mine and looking over excavation sites thrilling, as he would notice pieces of fossils here and there. Williams picked them up and brought them home because he said nobody working in the coal mine cared about fossils. If he didn't pick them up, they would have been thrown away.

After leaving the coal mines, Williams worked for Norfolk Southern for 23 years as an electrician and at Bethlehem Steel as a welder for three years.

His collection of items includes many old railroad maps, artifacts and blueprints from the Juniata Locomotive Shop, once the largest railroad industrial complex in the world.

"They put them out, and they started to mold away. It started to rain outside, so I grabbed some and took them," Williams said. "I don't like to see stuff thrown away."

Some of his railroad artifacts and maps date back to 1933 and beyond.

Helping the museum

The recent display of Williams’ lanterns isn't the first time the Portage Historical Society displayed some of his collection. Last year, he volunteered to display the Native American artifacts he discovered on his farm.

In the years that Williams plowed in the spring, he would find arrowheads and other artifacts. To get his daughters interested, he would put the items he found back on the ground and let the kids find them.

"At first, it was hard to train your eyes on what to look for. Once you get onto it, (it's easier)," he said.

"I had some Native American Indians come in, some experts, and say even though (Native American) Indians were nomads, they may have stayed at his location every year because there were so many artifacts in that location," Huschak said.

Looking to downsize

Right now, Williams is looking to downsize.

While he would give third-grade classrooms fossils of ferns, petrified tree bark and more and made sure to give each student a piece of fossil, he still has many left. He donated some of them to the Portage Station Museum.

"I have more junk than I need," Williams said. "Collecting is like a disease."

Two months ago, he asked his wife and his two daughters if they wanted any of his collection. They didn't, so Williams also contacted Portage Area and Forest Hill high schools to see if they were willing to display some of the Native American artifacts. Unfortunately, they turned down the offer, he said.

Huschak said the museum plans to store the items donated by Williams and will take them out occasionally for display.

Anyone interested in William's collection is invited to visit the Portage Station Museum, 400 Lee St., Portage.

The museum is located in a restored 1926 Pennsylvania railroad station with a viewing platform to the Mainline, an HO model train display and items of local interest.

If you go

What: Jack Williams’ collection of railroad and mining lanterns and other artifacts

Where: Portage Station Museum, 400 Lee St., Portage.

Call 814-736-9223

for more information.

When: Through Dec. 31

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