Letters: 4 better names for 30th Street

Posted: August 08, 2014

I HAVE to assume that all is well in America, since the members of the U.S. Senate approved legislation renaming Pennsylvania Station, 30th Street, Philadelphia, after a former member of the House, the late Bill Gray. From their actions, I would further assume we don't have a problem on our southern border, and that there are no issues in Ukraine, or in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria or Central America that would command their attention. And, of course, our nation is now economically robust and we are, once again, experiencing full employment.

Therefore, both houses of Congress can well afford to vote on a "naming rights" bill and send it to our president for his signature, while pretending that there is no need to address issues that might have a real impact on all of us.

I knew Bill Gray. I respect the memory of Bill Gray. However, Bill Gray had absolutely no connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad or the neighborhood in which the station stands. In a recent Inquirer survey, 87 percent of the respondents objected to the attempt by Congress to rename our city's iconic railroad station. Why is Congress so tone-deaf?

If there is such an overwhelming need for Congress to distract itself from the real business of governance in order to attach a name to this magnificent edifice, then I would suggest that they should have considered several other Philadelphians who were national leaders and who had a direct connected to the Pennsy and who had a far more significant impact on the history of this great nation than the current nominee. I will mention just four for your consideration.

1. J. Edgar Thomson - the Pennsy's first chief engineer and third president. He is the only railroad executive honored by both Fortune magazine and Dunn's Review, in 1976, as one of the greatest corporate executives and visionaries in their review of the American business landscape. He left his entire fortune to a foundation, still located in this city, that provides for children whose parents were killed working on railroads.

2. Thomas Scott - the Pennsy's fourth president and, by an act of Congress, appointed assistant secretary of war during the Civil War. Scott was in charge of all transportation lines, and is credited with the masterful movement of troops and supplies into the West that outflanked the Confederates and brought victory to the Union. He was the author of the "Scott Plan," which formed the basis for the Compromise of 1877 that brought an end to Reconstruction.

3. Herman Haupt - he succeeded Thomson as chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad. During the Civil War, he was in charge of military railroads in the area of the Army of the Potomac. His skills as an engineer caused Abraham Lincoln to comment, "That man Haupt has built a bridge 400 feet long and 100 feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour, and upon my word gentlemen, there is nothing more to it than cornstalks and beanpoles."

4. Gen. William Wallace Atterbury - the Pennsylvania Railroad president who conceived and built 30th Street Station. Atterbury's greatest contribution to this nation was his service to the U.S. and its allies during World War I, when he earned the rank of general, being in charge of all Allied railroads of the Western Front in France. He was honored by Britain, France and Belgium with their highest civilian honors for a noncitizen. He was a genuine Philadelphian of universal renown with a direct and intimate connection to this building.

If Congress had this apparent compelling need to honor a great Philadelphian not associated with the Pennsylvania Railroad, then why not have considered the late the Rev. Leon Sullivan, who was, in my opinion, our greatest civic leader of the past 50 years. He lifted thousands out of poverty by giving them a trade through his Opportunities Industrialization Centers, built Progress Plaza on North Broad Street, was the first member of his race to serve on the board of GM, and, most significantly, authored the Sullivan Principles, which drove a stake through the heart of South Africa's apartheid. Oh, yes, I forgot: He was not a member of Congress!

Maybe our fellow citizens would have a higher regard for Congress if the serious issues that concern all Americans were addressed rather than memorializing another member of Congress on a building with which he or she had no connection.

It's time to stop the "name game." The nation's business is waiting. "We the People" need solutions to pressing problems, not more monuments to politicians!

Bennett Levin served as president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society, as well as the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners; is a member of the National Railway Historical Society, the Railroad and Locomotive Historical Society, the Lexington Group in Transportation History; and a member of the Advisory Board of the Railroad Museum of the State of Pennsylvania.

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