Steampunks Shanghai the Strasburg Railroad
“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.”
– Jules Verne
On an uncommonly warm November weekend, visitors to the Strasburg Rail Road were greeted by gentlemen with mechanical arms, ladies in full Victorian dress, children in bowler hats, and goggles–so many goggles. To the surprise and delight of the unsuspecting, Strasburg was hosting its first ever Steampunk unLimited event, and what better place for it than a railroad with genuine steam trains? Members of the steam-powered subculture turned out in droves to be part of the event, presumably arriving in monocycles, airships, and other fantastical vehicles. Thanks to Steampunk’s unique blend of Victorian fashion and industrial technology, the historic landmark came to resemble a page out of alternative history.
With the gypsy-rock refrains of This Way to the Egress as a soundtrack, more than a thousand tourists and locals made their way through the crowded station, marveling at the strange wonders and curiosities on display. P.T. Barnum would have been proud. One lady-punk wore an octopus on her arm where you would expect to see a purse–in fact, it might have been one. An octopurse. Elsewhere, retro-future soldiers marched with anachronistic rifles slung over their shoulders. An air of casual eccentricity surrounded it all.
The vendor tents were like a secret wizard marketplace, filled with steampunk clothes, mechanical jewelry, and fanciful accessories. Pistols fitted with spark plugs were showcased alongside a steam-pulp anthology; “Those shoot electricity!” declared Brian Thomas, artist and author. “In theory,” his partner, Ray Witte, was quick to add. The two described their steamy story collection as “Victorian people being horrible in delightfully Victorian ways.”
Local author Mark P. Donnelly, scribe of such eye-opening history books as “Eat thy Neighbor: A History of Cannibalism”, was on hand for a series of lectures that he delivered in a stationary train car. Delving into the ridiculous depths of Victorian invention, he brought to light patents for (probably lethal) parachute hats and a sewing machine powered by voice (loud, continuous shouting, to be exact). A crowd favorite was the “High Five Machine.” You know…for people who needed to practice giving high fives.
Also in attendance was Harrisburg’s resident steampunk authority, Thomas Willeford of Brute Force Studios. Willeford is a veteran of the culture, with 15+ years of crafting under his belt. His mechanical creations (or “infernal devices”) are widely acclaimed and have appeared on television, including an episode of ABC’s Castle. Willeford put his steam-powered arm to work signing copies of his Adventurers’ crafting guide, a DIY handbook for several of his favorite steampunk projects. “Anyone can do this,” he said, flexing the piston in his arm.
Willeford praised Strasburg Rail Road for hosting the event and, more importantly, for getting it right. “Most first-time Steampunk events try to appeal to Steampunks,” he said. “Instead, like this, they should appeal to future Steampunks.”
If you’re a future Steampunk, I highly encourage you to climb in your steam-powered time machine and visit the first Steampunk unLimited event. If you’re stuck in the present like me, you’ll just have to wait until next year!