Ron Ziel: An appreciation

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, December 27, 2016

For legions of baby boomers, the steam locomotive was a tantalizing but ultimately frustrating presence. If you were born in the early 1950s like me, you grew up feeling like you knew the steam locomotive, but it’s more likely you didn’t. By the time a lot of us were 8 or 9, steam was gone. I think back to my parents and their uncanny ability to move to two different places before I was 6, each about a year after the last steam locomotive rolled through town.

That didn’t keep me from feeling like I missed a friend. The ghosts of steam were all around my hometown, from the train station down the street, coated black with soot, to the abandoned roundhouse a mile from my house. I might have sworn there was a whiff of coal smoke still in the air, if only I’d known what it really smelled like.

Which made the 1963 arrival of Ron Ziel’s book, The Twilight of Steam Locomotives, so exciting. This rambling tribute, jam-packed with unapologetically bittersweet text and the author’s vivid photographs, was just the thing to stoke my yearnings. The author’s passion — he should have spelled his last name “zeal” — came roaring off every page. Bored with endless S. Kip Farrington books at my local library, I probably checked out Twilight a dozen times in 1963 and ’64.

Ziel, who died December 15 at age 77, went on to write and illustrate a number of other good books, notably Steam in the Sixties, Twilight of World Steam, and Steel Rails to the Sunrise, about the Long Island Rail Road. He also had a lifelong involvement in railroad preservation. But for me, he made his greatest mark with that first Twilight book. 

It’s probably true that Ziel’s vision of steam’s demise was overly ambitious. He loaded his book with glimpses of the some of the last steam short lines, such as Reader, Mississippian, Graham County, and the Army’s Fort Eustis operation, juxtaposed against action photos of mainline stars like the Reading’s T-1 4-8-4s, Union Pacific’s 4-8-4 8444, and Dick Jensen’s ex-GTW Pacific 5629. He took the reader to Mexico, where 4-8-4s were hanging on, and to New York, where you still could find Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal 0-6-0Ts working the docks.

He had catholic tastes. Industrial saddle-tankers, gaudy tourist engines, park engines surrounded by chain link— all had a place in his book. And so many of Ziel’s photos are memorable. His pacing view of an onrushing East Broad Top 2-8-2, for instance, photographed from the rear of a gas-electric, is staggering.

My favorite part of the book was Ziel’s account of the 1962 “Journey to Yesterday” trip from Chicago to Colorado by the Illini Railroad Club, featuring a cab ride aboard Burlington’s giant 4-8-4 5632. Ziel’s description had me spellbound: “The noise is ear-piercing, with exhaust, blowers, whistle, and running gear competing for supremacy. Compound this with a hundred creaking, squealing, crashing metal surfaces, and you cannot help but feel the madness of a 238-ton boiler hurtling unchecked toward seemingly inevitable destruction.” Jean Shepherd couldn’t have written it better, nor, dare I say, David P. Morgan.

Speaking of Morgan, years later I discovered the editor’s review of Twilight in the December 1963 issue of Trains. In his blog last week, today’s Trains Editor Jim Wrinn referred to it as a “bad review,” and he’s right. Morgan dissed Ziel for the disorganized, scrapbook nature of “Twilight,” and especially for the inclusion of a lot of admittedly grotesque photos of locomotives being cut up, including a painful, chunk-by-chunk dismembering of a CB&Q 2-10-4. Morgan does admit that, “given discipline and time, [Ziel] could be great.”

I believe that, given that moment in history, Ziel was already great, despite Morgan’s uncharitable assessment. Maybe Twilight lacked a certain polish and depth, but its impact is undeniable. I’m merely one of thousands of people, many of them very young at the time, who were transfixed by the book, sort of like what happened a year or so later when a lot of us picked up an LP called Meet the Beatles.

I support the conventional wisdom that David P. Morgan’s steam safaris with photographer Philip R. Hastings in the 1950s is the essential documentation of the end of steam. But I don’t believe the record is complete without Ron Ziel’s The Twilight of Steam Locomotives. Ziel had a knack for capturing “the moment,” and 50 years later I still feel his pain.

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