Richard J. Cook made powerful photographs

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In a classic Richard J. Cook photo, NYC Niagara 6001 speeds through Berea, Ohio, with the 'Iroquois' for Chicago.
A few days ago I was spending some time in the Classic Trains library, leafing through some folders in the photo archives, when an old familiar name, stamped on the back in customary red italic, jumped out at me: Richard J. Cook.

Dick Cook! He’s one of my all-time favorites, in my opinion a major figure in the world of postwar railroad photography. Although perhaps not as famous as Phil Hastings or Jim Shaughnessy or Dick Steinheimer or some others in the pantheon, Cook was a craftsman whose best work stacks up with any of them.

My personal connection with Dick began in 1965, when, as a 14-year-old, I first encountered his wonderful Rails Across the Midlands (Golden West, 1964) at my local library. The book was a revelation for me, a bounty of images taken in familiar territory, including my home state of Michigan.

The book was bittersweet. Many of Dick’s photos had been taken barely 10 years earlier, and yet the steam world he so elegantly portrayed was completely gone. I was definitely too late to the party.

So it was great to see his name again this week on the back of a perfectly produced 8 x 10 print. Suddenly I was diving into various railroad files, looking for more of Dick’s work. There were plenty to be found, under New York Central, Nickel Plate, Pennsylvania, Virginian, Chesapeake & Ohio, Grand Trunk Western, Wabash — Dick really covered the waterfront in the upper Midwest and in Appalachian coal country.

An NYC Beeliner RDC makes a stop at Quick, W.Va., in a photo Cook made to go with a story he wrote for January 1954 Trains called 'Beeliner to Hitop.'
I pulled a few to share with you here. One is classic Richard J. Cook, showing NYC train 59, the New York-Chicago Iroquois, blasting through the quintessential Cleveland-area location of Berea behind a Niagara 4-8-4 in 1950. Dick must have taken hundreds of pictures at Berea, and he was a master of the straight-ahead steam action shot.

But like the best of his contemporaries, Dick wasn’t simply wedded to the three-quarters “wedgie” train picture. He was mindful of a larger context for the railroad scene, where trains interacted with people. I especially like the accompanying photo taken at Quick, W.Va., on NYC’s obscure Charleston–Hitop branch, where a postal clerk aboard the daily RDC Beeliner is getting a good workout. Dick calls the place “where the gas buggies meet.”

One good coal-country photo deserves another, so soon I was plumbing the Pittsburg & Shawmut and Virginian files, which yielded a couple more gems shown here.

For 'The Shawmut Line' (February 1955 Trains), Cook make this photo of a Pittsburg & Shawmut local at Colwell, Pa.
Dick was nothing if not prolific, and his interests in railroading went beyond photography. In addition to Midlands, he authored other books for Golden West, including Super Power Locomotives (1966) and The Beauty of Railroad Bridges (1987). In 1992, the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society recognized Dick’s achievements with the Fred A. and Jane R. Stindt Photography Award.

It must be noted that Dick was a professional railroader, not simply a railfan. A native of the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, he’d spent time earlier in life as an NYC operator at Berea (BE) tower. Later, after a career in commercial photography, he became the director of publications for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, retiring in 1985 after 16 years at the union’s headquarters in Cleveland. 

I was blessed to finally meet Dick Cook in the late 1980s, when I began attending meetings of the Lexington Group in Transportation. Dick was an enthusiastic Lexingtonian, eager to learn more about railroading despite everything he’d already experienced. And to this unabashed Richard J. Cook fan, he was generous with his time.

In our long conversations, I couldn’t help but note the pride with which he discussed his association with the BofLE. Dick had a deep admiration for engineers and their profession, something that was palpable in some of his photographs.

In another Dick Cook classic, Virginian Railway 2-8-8-2 742 rolls 36 coal hoppers west on the Guyandot River Branch near Itman, W.Va., in June 1949.
Dick died on December 4, 1994, at age 71, in Aurora, Ohio. His considerable archive found a permanent home at the Allen County Museum & Historical Society in Lima, Ohio, a place where Dick spent many happy hours doing research.

It’s difficult to estimate how large the Cook archive is, but Charles Bates, curator of transportation at the museum, says it spreads over 12 file cabinets that contain not only thousands of Dick’s negatives, but also a considerable amount of his personal papers.

Of particular note is Dick’s exhaustively detailed ledger, containing notes on train numbers, locations, times, even photo angles. “It’s a beautiful ledger,” says Bates, “a rare case in which a photographer has made everything so simple for research.”

In recent years, a number of great railroad photographers have been accorded the full-dress treatment of books in the lavish coffee-table style. Near as I can tell, that hasn’t happened yet with the photography of Richard J. Cook. Someone out there should remedy that. Dick’s ledger can show the way. 

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