Railroad books you can curl up with

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, December 12, 2016

I suppose the first impulse in picking up a railroad book is to look at the pictures. For most of us, I’m guessing, the fundamental appeal of railroading is visual, and so I frequently find myself passing the time with yet another glance through a Richard Steinheimer book or a favorite title from Morning Sun. What can be more fun than that?

But some books transcend the visual. Too often, railroad writing is merely loaded with facts and figures, research and analysis. Yet there are some writers out there who really know how to grab a reader and take them on a journey, keeping them expectant as they move from chapter to chapter. Over the years I’ve compiled some favorites — nonfiction, of course — where it’s all about the writing. Here are eight I recommend for a cold winter’s night:

Twilight of the Great Trains, by Fred W. Frailey. The author’s famed writing chops are in full display in this penetrating and often irreverent account of the descent into hell of the passenger train in the 1960s. In here are stories of cold corporate calculation (Southern Pacific’s loss of faith) and valiant corporate denial (Southern’s loyalty to the Crescent), plus everything in between. Frailey’s love of the varnish comes shining through, but even more compelling is what he has to say about the railroads as they came to grips with reality. (Indiana University Press, 2010)

Crossroads of Commerce, by Dan Cupper. The Pennsylvania Railroad has been the subject of a million books, it seems, but I don’t think anything captures the spirit of the PRR like Cupper’s account of the company’s famous calendars and the man behind most of them, artist Grif Teller. This is a beautiful art book, to be sure, with lavish presentations of Teller’s beloved paintings. But it’s Cupper’s text that says nearly all we need to know about a proud, sprawling, even arrogant company in its prime. (Great Eastern Publishing, 1992)

Locomotive 4501, by David P. Morgan. Some fans of The Editor will wince over this choice. “You’re not going with The Mohawk That Refused to Abdicate?!” But I think this concise tribute to his favorite 2-8-2 is Morgan’s most fully realized creation. The Mohawk book was, after all, a collection of magazine articles. Locomotive 4501 is a can’t-put-it-down love letter to steam itself. (Kalmbach, 1968)

20th Century, the Greatest Train in the World, by Lucius Beebe. Even at his most outrageous, Beebe’s Edwardian writing style is a hoot, and he rarely passed up a chance to chew up gigantic subjects. But here Beebe stays focused, bringing alive the era when everyone who was anyone rode the Century. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of everything in this book — Beebe was notorious for being fast and loose with the facts — but I love to immerse myself in his tale of streamlined Hudsons, four-star dining-car entrees, and haircuts at 80 mph. (Howell-North, 1970)

Boomer, by Linda Niemann. I didn’t know what to make of this book when it first came out, but one night I picked it up, sank into a living-room chair, and became transfixed. Niemann’s riveting memoir traces her years in train service booming up and down the Southern Pacific. Hers is a story full of humor, danger, frustration, and astonishing candor. Now a Georgia-based writer and professor of some renown, Niemann’s reflections on her time at SP is ample proof that a railroad career is not for the faint of heart. (Indiana University Press, 2011)

The Men Who Loved Trains, by Rush Loving, Jr. With years of top-flight business journalism at Fortune magazine under his belt, the author created an instant classic when he wrote this sweeping narrative about the cohort that presided over the railroad revolution of the second half of the 20th century. The cast is huge: Bill Brosnan, the Claytor brothers, Al Perlman, John Snow, Jim McClellan, James Hagen, Stuart Saunders, Jervis Langdon, and many more. Loving makes flesh and blood of all of them. (Indiana University Press, 2008)

The Little Jewel, by Wallace W. Abbey. You don’t have to be a Soo Line fan to love this charming, chatty memoir about Abbey’s years in charge of public relations at the railroad. Wielding perhaps more influence than the average PR executive, Abbey played a big role in Soo’s transformation from sleepy granger to contemporary freight carrier. Along the way he created a go-go image campaign even Don Draper would envy. (Piñon Productions, 1984)

Super Chief, Train of the Stars, by Stan Repp. A marvelous illustrator by profession, Repp shows he’s also a heck of a writer in this rip-roaring narrative of the first years of the Super Chief. His is an exuberant tale of movie stars who’d never be caught riding another train, beaming AT&SF execs who loved to brag, and flinty-eyed engineers keeping their diesels pegged at 90. There are plenty of illustrations in this compact book, but it’s Repp’s storytelling that really sets this apart from other passenger-train books. (Golden West Books, 1980) 

Lord knows there are many more terrific railroad reads. I’m sure you have some favorites, which I hope you’ll share here. Remember my criterion here: it’s all about the writing.

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