Ryan Gerhardt has taken on multiple management roles on the Chesapeake & Delaware, LLC, and the Black River & Western Railroad in New Jersey. He serves as the Steam Committee Chairman who oversees the maintenance and operation of the latter tourist railroad’s Great Western 2-8-0 No. 60. Still in his 20s, Gerhardt – like many others in rail preservation – is part of an ongoing trend of younger individuals heading up leadership roles.
How did you get involved in rail preservation?
Ryan Gerhardt: I started volunteering at the Black River & Western in 2014 with the maintenance of the steam locomotive and learning everything that they had to tell you. I was then qualified as a conductor and brakeman in 2017, later as a fireman before recently being qualified as an engineer. I continued working up the ranks and learning different responsibilities such as maintenance of way and event planning. I joined the board of directors in 2021, and at that time, was put in the position of Steam Committee Chairman. Like I said, I learned everything you get taught there. It’s a lot of the on-the-job training and working up through the ranks which you keep building on.
As a young preservationist at age 24, what have you found to be the most challenging aspects in the industry?
Ryan Gerhardt: Having those resources and connections with other organizations. You start out at this age where you are kind of in the dark and must weave your way through to talk to different people and get to the end goal you’re looking for. To give you an example, No. 60 is in its 15-year rebuild and we must get new flues. The mill we previously sourced from now requires a minimum order, which means that if we ordered flues through them, we would get three times the amount needed.
There comes the challenge of getting those resources and connections outside the outside world to work with different organizations and partnerships for the material and expertise. We’re now working with another organization to partner with their flue order so we can get them for both of our locomotives. One thing I’ve learned from that challenge is having those connections and resources is huge in this industry.
What’s been the most rewarding for you so far?
Ryan Gerhardt: You put a lot of work into the steam locomotive and to see it fired up, running and breathing again is a big, big reward. A couple of years ago, we had COVID hit, and No. 60 was down for his 5-year inspection. When it was safe to come back, we worked super hard and put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it. The night we fired up the locomotive for its return to service, seeing it come back to life was incredible. But I know in a couple of years when it returns from its big rebuild, that’s going to be the icing on the cake for me.
How do you see rail preservation as it is today and what do you hope it’ll become for the future?
Ryan Gerhardt: There are different organizations partnering with each other. That’s huge because we’re essentially all in this together to network, talk, get feedback, and work with each other to survive. I think we’re also seeing a lot of young people getting involved which is awesome. None of this is going to survive without the younger generation getting involved and learning from the older generation in skills and knowledge. So, I think we’re in a good spot with that, organizations are thriving because of it, and I hope it keeps going.
What advice would you give to any young person looking to get involved in the industry?
Ryan Gerhardt: I would say get involved. I remember the first day I started, and I was terrified. But there’s really nothing to be nervous about as a lot of these organizations are super inviting and understand that there needs to be the next generation. Get involved, join your local railroad museum, have your ears open, learn from what others have to say, and work up those ranks to get to where you want to be.