Industrial Revolution: Inside Central PA's Steampunk Culture

Photographer: c/o Strasburg Railroad

Gizmos, Doohickies & the Art of the Future Past

Steampunk unLimited comes to the Strasburg Railroad


Diane Miller of Leola is happily delusional. When she talks about her family, her full-time job, her dog and her house, it all sounds pretty typical. But then she gets to the part where she insists that she’s “Female Steampunk Batman.”

She goes on with a good bit of passion. “I’ve been on the message boards and the forums, and I am not Batwoman,” she says. “I’m Female Steampunk Batman.” There’s a distinction here, but I’m still lost.

To be clear, Miller isn’t actually delusional – she’s just fully committed to the character she’s created for costume play (or “cosplay,” as it’s called in some circles). We’re sitting in the Landis Woods neighborhood in Neffsville, a suburb just north of Lancaster City, before a community art show, and Miller’s my first stop on a quest to unpack a cultural phenomenon known as steampunk. Seeing as she’s already added Batman to the mix, this may take a while.

As the web often serves as the primary gathering space for such cult-like enthusiasts, I spent a lot of time online researching the background of steampunk, which has taken root in Central PA and other artsy hubs across the country. What I found is that in 1987, three writers in California decided to assign the name steampunk to their brand of science fiction. They were taking characters out of books by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and really messing with them. Think time travel. Or a 1950s style Captain Nemo and the Disney version of the Nautilus submarine. Add in King Arthur, dystopian future worlds and the lost city of Atlantis and you get a book called Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter.

Today, steampunk has grown from a mash-up literary genre to a quasi-futuristic Victorian aesthetic that encompasses fashion, artwork, film, music and even societal conventions (when in character, steampunks are known for adopting formal 19th century speech and manners). The more mainstream examples of the genre are found in the movie industry, with films like Martin Sorcese’s 2012 multi-Oscar winner, Hugo; 2003’s Victorian-themed thriller, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (starring Sean Connery); and 1999’s sci-fi western, Wild Wild West (starring Will Smith).

This aesthetic thrives on the Internet, but its enthusiasts – like many of those involved in the budding steampunk culture here in Central PA – are truly performers at heart. And this month, local steampunks have plenty of opportunity to adopt Victorian accents and swap fantastical stories: Steampunk unLimited, a two-day event dedicated to all things steampunk, takes place at the Strasburg Railroad on November 16 and 17.

In addition to my trusty steampunk guide Diane Miller, there are other area enthusiasts committed to cosplay characters that keep the steampunk spirit alive locally – like James Gallagher of York County. Gallagher, who sometimes goes by Professor J. Farnsworth Darque, curated the Steampunk Gettysburg festival in March. The inaugural event, which attracted nearly 1,000 people to the Wyndam Hotel ballroom inspired Gallagher to begin laying plans for 2014 and 2015.

040_SteampunkTennisonEvents like Steampunk Gettysburg, SteamCon Seattle, the World Steampunk Convention in Piskataway, NJ and, now, the debut of Steampunk unLimited are attracting more and more people. Victorian-clad participants gather in a Comic Con-style environment where they display handmade wares like brass goggles and custom leather corsets, occasionally swapping fantastic stories about their latest interstellar journeys to capture lost cities or navigate the London sewers.

In an interview on the group blog Boing Boing, Jeter, the writer who coined the term, hints that steampunks may be after something more than just costume play. “That would be the admiration by steampunk devotees for the handcrafted, artisanal aspect of everyday objects from previous industrial periods, versus the cheap plastic crap that lines the store shelves nowadays,” he says. “There’s a humanness, for lack of a better word, to old stuff – and old ways – that the modern world lacks.”

Jeter may be a bit of a sci-fi nerd who writes sequels to Blade Runner these days, but he’s getting at something that we here in Central PA do pretty well: handmade crafts. I found my Female Steampunk Batman because she makes jewelry. Jewelry that steampunks buy.

Miller recalls a day at Comic Con 2012 in Philadelphia: “I was dressed as Idris from Dr. Who all day. I was really tired, but these people invited me to a party that night. I decided to go and as soon as I arrived, I said, ‘These are my people! These people need my jewelry!’”

The strong sense of community among steampunks, combined with their appreciation for well-made things, had an instant appeal for Miller. For some artists, you can’t give a better gift than a genuine appreciation of their craft – and steampunks are really good at that.

For a better idea of the things steampunks make here in Pennsylvania, look at some of the vendors lined up for Steampunk unLimited in Strasburg. Michelle Greenwood of Greenwood Creations, for example, writes with fire. Yes, fire. Transforming all types of wood with the precision rendered in a pyrography pen, she burns designs to beautify spoons, birdhouses, trivets and more.

Then there’s Phee McHeit of Lititz, seamstress and primary force behind Hustle and Bustle Creations. Whether you’re looking for a corset for TeslaCon or bustle pillows to hang from your waist for style, Phee and her “one-man” sewing operation are happy to oblige. Miller, a talented seamstress herself, says gawking at McHeit’s beautiful work is an important part of her steampunk experience. “I think a lot of us think we can try to make dresses like hers, but it’s about appreciating her as an artist.”

One local gent really setting the bar in steampunk gizmos is entrepreneur Thomas Willeford. Between his workshop on South 18th Street in Harrisburg and his online store (, there are all sorts of options. He creates everything from solid brass goggles for $99, to the “Dr. Grimmelore Superior Replacement Arm” for $2,500 (as seen on the TV show Castle). When a guy creates and sells an “Ornithopter Winged Backpack” for $1,500 to make a living, you know he’s not messing around.

Crafty souls like these all have killer websites, playful blogs and a genuine desire to spread the love and entrepreneurial spirit behind steampunk. Miller even calls herself “the pied piper of steampunk,” referencing the way she manages to recruit new disciples everywhere she goes – which may very well be the case this month at the Strasburg Railroad event.

Steve Barrall, with his mustache and pocketwatch, is the stationmaster at the Strasburg Railroad. He can talk for days about the mechanics involved with the 12-wheel, 107-year-old behemoth that will transport steampunks around Lancaster County during Steampunk unLimited. “It may be a different crowd than what we’re used to, but there’s a real historical appreciation that steampunks have,” he says.

The Strasburg Railroad’s mission of presenting history with a bit of imagination could also be that of the steampunk community; it’s a perfect union. With shop tours led by actual steam engine mechanics, an evening absinthe tasting and lectures from accomplished guests like historian, Professor of Armes and published author Mark Donnelly of Harrisburg, steampunks may find their new world headquarters in the cornfields of Lancaster County.

When Jeter made up the word steampunk back in the ’80s, he was joking. And Miller can’t say “Female Steampunk Batman” without laughing just a little. I think the joke is more on the outsiders, though. If steampunk means we read a little more, speak with manners and buy beautiful handmade products from our neighbors, then bring on the airship captains and ornithopters. We can suspend our disbelief for a couple of hours, right?


Steampunk unLimited, a two-day event dedicated to all things steampunk, takes place at the Strasburg Railroad on November 16 and 17.


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