Abbey saved some of his best for the Santa Fe

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The engineer of an eastbound freight exchanges words with fellow railroaders as two passengers wait for a train at the combination interlocking tower/depot at Ottawa Junction, Kans., in July 1960. Wallace W. Abbey photo
Of all the truly great railroad photographers of the 1950s and ’60s, none was more versatile, in my mind, than Wallace W. Abbey.

“Multi-faceted” doesn’t begin to describe the man. At one time or another Wally was a newspaper reporter, railroad HQ file clerk, magazine editor, diesel mechanic’s helper, interlocking tower operator, railroad public relations executive, and probably one or two I’m missing.

For those who need an introduction, Wally, who died in 2014 at age 86, was an editor at Trains from 1950 to 1954 during a critical time in the magazine’s history. His posts in railroad p.r. included celebrated stints at the Soo Line in the 1960s and the Milwaukee Road in the 1970s. That Soo experience yielded a terrific memoir, The Little Jewel, published in 1984. You won’t find a railroad book that yields more pure reading pleasure.

On top of all those other things, Wally was a skilled and insightful photographer. If not quite an auteur in the vein of Jim Shaughnessy or Richard Steinheimer, he was a crack photojournalist with an instinct for finding the perfect moment, aided by a compositional flair that could be highly artistic.

I’ve been thinking about Wally a lot lately as I’ve been working on a new book about his photography, collaborating with Scott Lothes, president and executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, which now owns the 35,000-image Abbey archive. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Center’s board of directors.)

A woman and child cross the four Santa Fe/GM&O tracks just south of Joliet (Ill.) Union Station as a Santa Fe PA-PB diesel set departs with the 'Kansas Cityan' in 1949. Wallace W. Abbey photo
The Center’s founder, John Gruber, originally engineered the Abbey family’s donation of his collection. Scott chose the photos for the book, processed them, and wrote the captions; I provided the text. The book is called Wallace W. Abbey: A Life in Railroad Photography, and is due from Indiana University Press in early 2018.

There are all kinds of reasons to be excited about this first Wally Abbey hardcover showcase, and that’s doubly true for fans of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. As a journalist and historian, Wally was a fiercely independent thinker, and was wary of being tied to one particular railroad or another. He didn’t go around wearing Warbonnet T-shirts. But I think it’s fair to say that, if pressed, he would have said Santa Fe was his favorite railroad.

Wally was born and raised in Chicago, but he was very close to his maternal grandparents in the small town of Cherryvale, a small town in southeast Kansas on Santa Fe’s Tulsa Subdivision. He counted among his most cherished memories those 607-mile family trips to Cherryvale to “see the folks.” And watch Santa Fe trains.

Today the old Tulsa Sub is operated by the Watco-owned South Kansas & Oklahoma, but back in the 1930s and ’40s it was an important secondary main line, hosting a couple of fairly fancy passenger trains, the Oil Flyer and the Tulsan, plus a fair amount of freight traffic. Wally also fell in love with the daily M.154 gas-electric doodlebug to Coffeyville and Winfield, via Santa Fe’s branch to Wichita.

If the action at the Santa Fe station would let up for awhile, young Wally could also stroll north a few blocks to the St. Louis-San Francisco depot, where the Santa Fe crossed the Frisco’s Wichita–Joplin line.

Hudson 3460, Santa Fe's only streamlined steam locomotive, crosses the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal east of McCook, Ill., en route to Dearborn Station with the 'Chief' in april 1946. Wallace W. Abbey photo
That boyhood love affair only got stronger in the years to come. Wally shot a lot of Santa Fe trains around Chicago in his teens and early 20s; the station at Joliet was a favorite haunt. When it came time for college, Wally chose the University of Kansas and its William Allen White School of Journalism. Certainly he was influenced by the fact that Santa Fe’s Chicago–California main line skirted the KU campus.

Abbey was a diligent student and held top posts on the KU newspaper, but he also stole away whenever he could to photograph trains, usually hitchhiking 25 miles to the east to see the action on Olathe Hill, a notable grade between Holliday and Olathe, Kans., where, as Abbey later wrote, “Santa Fe found a reasonably graceful way to climb out of the Kaw River lowlands.” Wally would have a field day photographing FT diesels, 4-8-4s on passenger trains, and freights led by doubleheaded Mikados.

The Santa Fe connection remained in place when Wally graduated from KU in August 1949 and took his first journalism job at the daily Chanute Tribune in Chanute, Kans., just 29 miles north of Cherryvale and in those days a Santa Fe division point. I can imagine Wally found plenty of time to witness the action from the relative comfort of Chanute’s Harvey House restaurant.  

Wally’s next move was fateful. After barely a year in Chanute, he took a job on the staff of Trains, working for Editor Willard V. Anderson and working alongside another eager young journalist, David P. Morgan. In the few years he was there, Wally became a go-to guy for reports from the field, filing scores of vivid magazine features about railroads from coast to coast, always illustrated with his own terrific photographs.

It’s fitting that Wally’s last big project for Trains was a landmark, an 18-page, 10,000-word January 1954 cover story about the Santa Fe called “Super Railroad.” By then Morgan was editor of the magazine, and saw Abbey’s report as the kickoff for a series of comprehensive “system stories” on major railroads. He also gave Wally the support he needed: time to ride approximately 6,400 miles of the Santa Fe system, much of it in the cabs of steam and diesel locomotives, a lot of it also at office buildings, hump yards, and diesel shops.

FTA No. 101 and two FTB units hit the Rock Island diamonds at Joliet Union Station as they lead a freight west in August 1949. Wallace W. Abbey photo
When it came to the author’s own enthusiasm for the AT&SF, Wally didn’t hold back: “. . . Santa Fe is making a liar out of whoever it was who said the railroad industry is not modern. Indeed, John Santa Fe runs probably the most progressive railroad in the country.”

Wally Abbey’s association with the Santa Fe appears to have been fairly fleeting after the late 1950s, following relocation to Minneapolis and his subsequent years in railroad management. But in his retirement years, he worked hard on an as-yet unpublished manuscript about the revolutionary FT diesel with the working title of Class By Itself. In his manuscript, that first and biggest champion of the FT — the Santa Fe — is front and center.

For Scott and me, learning more about Wally and making fresh discoveries of his photographic work has been a joy. In anticipation of next year’s book about the man, we’re sharing some of those Santa Fe images here. 

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