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Railroad Expert Leaves A Legacy
Jim Ehernberger has worked his whole life on what he is passionate about, and now he wants to pass it on to others.
Jim loves the railroad. He saw his first train at age four and has never looked back. As a kid, he hung out at the depot and started collecting train schedules. He got his first job at age 16 for the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne and stayed on for thirty-four years.
"I loved what I did," Jim says.
He is a world-renowned photographer of trains, and he has amassed one of the largest collections of Union Pacific and transportation-related material-a collection that he wants to share with others. And so, since 1995 Jim has been working with Rick Ewig, Associate Director of the American Heritage Center (AHC), to organize and donate his collection.
"I thought at the time that, such a large collection, unless it sees some funding, they would not want it or it wouldn't remain active," says Jim. "That's why I wanted to fund it: to keep it active." This endowment supports not only this collection but also other future transportation-related collections.
"Unlike some archives," says AHC Director Mark Greene, "we never require monetary donations in order to accept and preserve an important collection. But our entire program relies heavily on private funding, so the generosity of individuals such as Jim makes a huge difference to our overall operations. We are tremendously grateful for his foresight not only philanthropically but just as importantly by donating his amazing collection for the use of generations to come."
"Having money available is important," Jim says. "If you want a collection preserved and made available through cataloging and other means, it is important that money is considered."
To fund the collection, Jim set up a retained life estate. Under this agreement, Jim's house is donated to the University of Wyoming, yet he is able to live in it for the remainder of his life, and he realizes a sizable income tax deduction. In addition, because the State Matching Program was still in effect at the time of the gift, Jim was able to double his donation with state dollars. Jim would also like to invite others to support this worthy area of collection.
At the end of the life estate term, the title of the house will be transferred to UW, which is then able to sell it and use those funds to support the area Jim cares about-his wonderful railroad papers and photographs at the AHC. An added bonus: because he was able to take advantage of state matching, the AHC is able to use the expendable on the state-match portion of the funds now.
Setting up the retained life estate was very easy and flexible, Jim says: "You do need to plan. The first time you think about it, it will feel odd. It's a funny feeling to plan for the hereafter. But once I did it, I felt relaxed. If you make plans, you can relax. I felt good about that-goal accomplished."
You can tell that Jim spent part of his working life as a clerk-and you can tell that he was really good at what he did. All you have to do is take one look at his basement. He is in the process of organizing the tens of thousands of photographs and negatives he has taken and collected.
Neatly labeled filing cabinets line the walls and are filled with carefully aligned file folders. Negatives in professional-grade sleeves are labeled and associated with prints, which are also in protective envelopes. Some cabinets are organized alphabetically and some by subject, depending on the best way to access them.
Jim's collection is truly remarkable. At present, the AHC holds 631 boxes, or 424.9 cubic feet, but it does not yet contain all of Jim's invaluable collection, including the photographs he's working on.
"It would be such a shame to destroy it all," Jim says. "It would be more than a shame," echoes AHC Associate Director Rick Ewig, "it would be an historical tragedy. Jim's collection is unparalleled."
Now, Jim is making all this amazing material available for everyone, and that ends up being what he is passionate about-passing it on to others. He loves to do the research and know the history and then be able to tell people the exciting story of their relatives, such as the 1949 blizzard or perhaps running a train from Cheyenne to Denver.
Top: Jim Ehernberger
Bottom: Union Pacific Extra 3992 West near Archer, Wyoming, August 17, 1957 (courtesy J. L. Ehernberger)