Nathaniel C. Guest, Esq., Executive Director and Founder, Colebrookdale Railroad Preservation Trust
Nathaniel C. Guest is an attorney and preservation advocate. He is the founding director of the Keystone Marker Trust, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to enhancing community gateways through Pennsylvania’s iconic roadside markers. In 2008, he founded the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance to facilitate reuse of the former Pennhurst State School, an International Site of Conscience. He is the chairman of Preservation Pennsylvania, the statewide advocate for historic preservation, and a past director of Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area. He has a B.A., Cornell University; M.A., J.D., Temple University; Historic Preservation Planning, Cornell University 2012.
A steam locomotive engineer, Mr. Guest founded the Colebrookdale Railroad Preservation Trust to restore a Civil War-era rail line in southeastern Pennsylvania as a preservation-based, grassroots community and economic development project. The Trust was named a Preserve America Steward in 2015 in recognition of its work to empower citizens through education, job creation, and skills teaching. He served as the Preservation Programs director and National Heritage Grants chairman for the National Railway Historical Society, the nation’s largest railway preservation organization. He has served as an intern with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s legal department; director of the Cornell Tradition, a multimillion dollar fellowship recognizing volunteer service; a Tompkins County, New York, Human Rights Commissioner; and an elected representative on the Cornell Employee Assembly.
A visiting lecturer at Cornell University, Mr. Guest teaches topics pertinent to preservation, including law, economics, advocacy, fundraising, and ethics.
What led you to your field?
I grew up in the late 1970s and ‘80s in southeastern Pennsylvania. I spent my childhood exploring historic Pennsylvania with my grandfather. My introduction to preservation took place in the context of an extraordinarily rich natural and historic heritage about the time of the Bicentennial, a kind of golden moment for preservation in the state where the Declaration was signed and the Liberty Bell rang. It didn’t take particularly profound powers of perception to understand my state was on the downhill side of a certain kind of greatness. The signs of a fallen empire were all around…massive, beautiful 19th, early 20th century industrial complexes and the downtowns and neighborhoods that supported them were crumbling or being subsumed by massive urban renewal projects. The agrarian landscapes and smaller towns of Pennsylvania were being plowed under by housing developments and malls. It is in the context of this kind of change that I dedicated myself to protecting the Pennsylvania I loved.
How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
My work with the Colebrookdale Railroad Preservation Trust creates jobs, teaches life skills, and brings millions of dollars into Pennsylvania each year through the restoration and operation of a historic railroad. We connect the oldest ironmaking sites in the New World, sites which established Pennsylvania as the keystone in the arch of American progress. Like all good preservation projects, we connect citizens with each other—in our case, literally and figuratively—and the past with the future. Our trains are coming back to life in a state whose history is intimately tied to all things railroad; their restoration is an investment in building pride and strengthening identity.
Why do you think historic preservation matters?
A person without a past has no identity. A place with no past has no soul. I personally don’t want to live or work in a place with no soul, but that’s a personal choice. What is universally true, though, is that there is no ecologically sound building, no socially-just redevelopment project, and no economically-sustainable development scheme without preservation. For that reason, I believe we have a moral, ethical, and ever-present responsibility to make preservation a priority in our planning and building.
What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation law
Fundraising and grantwriting
Real estate development process
Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
It’s an old project, but as a child (I was six at the time) I remember watching Lee Iacocca on TV advocating for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. Next to the Star Wars poster on my wall was a beautiful poster with Lady Liberty at night with the campaign slogan on it “Keep the Torch Lit.” I remember my dad talking about how the whole country was raising money to restore the Statue. My grandfather told me how, generations earlier, school children across the country had raised money to construct the Statue’s base. That inspired me to take a little model of the Statue to school for show and tell; the class took up a collection and sent it to Mr. Iacocca. (I’m sure our $15 or so was critical to the success!). I remember watching David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear in 1983 and wondering if that meant we didn’t have to raise any more money! Seeing everyone come together just as they had a 100 years before—and witnessing the pride everyone felt when it was rededicated in 1986—it was very cool to see!
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
We are advancing quite a few capital projects at the Colebrookdale Railroad, including building stations, restoring beautiful “Palace Car” train cars, fixing track, bridges, etc. We are actively seeking a steam locomotive to bring back to life. With Preservation Pennsylvania, I am working on strengthening our support of the State Historic Preservation Office and building an advocacy network of preservationists, developers, elected officials, and practitioners. We are working to see if we can save the National Landmark East Broad Top Railroad. Teaching at Cornell keeps me engaged with the next generation of preservationists.
How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?
The National Register’s recognition of historic properties elevates their stature in our community, helping to combat the phenomenon of discounting what’s in your own back yard. The federal tax credit programs make many good projects great projects. The NHPA, NEPA, and DOT 4(f) protect many properties. All of these programs serve as good examples for states to follow in their own preservation and planning schemes.
Do you have advice for novice preservationists?
Like Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up!”
The ACHP’s mission is “preserving America’s heritage;” can you give us an example of how your community is preserving its heritage?
The communities where I live have gathered together to save the historic railroad that connects them. Inspired by this effort, adjacent property owners have begun to rehabilitate their historic homes and shops. It is very exciting!
What about railroad preservation makes it unique in the preservation field?
I’ve always been awed by “that weird combination of fixity and change” that is life understood in the passing of a train. At once you have all the little snapshots of life seen through the train car windows, a story from origin to destination, past to the future, unfolding one snapshot, one vignette after another. At the same time you have this incredible moment of pure present: the fleeting flash and thunder of a passing train. Together, they offer a “moment of immobility stamped with eternity in which, passing life at great speed, both the observer and the observed seem frozen in time,” as Thomas Wolfe said. For me this moment where past and future collide with the present is kind of an interpretive dance for our work in preservation—just with really heavy, very noisy dancers! Whether we are preserving trains or towns, our work is single, magical moment in time that connects the past to a future.
Read more Q&A stories about the preservationists in your neighborhood!