Top honors for Joe McMillan and Steve Patterson

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, January 03, 2018

GP7 2863 leads a string of Santa Fe boxcars across the Colorado River of Texas near San Saba, Texas, on June 9, 1972. The 40-foot cars are bound for sand loading at Brady. Steve Patterson photo
This is awards season across the cultural spectrum, and that includes railroading. Time for the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s annual Railroad History Awards, just announced on the R&LHS website

I took special notice last week of the winners of this year’s Fred A. and Jane R. Stindt Photography Award. Yes, that’s winners, plural. The honor goes equally to Joe McMillan and Steve Patterson.

These two shouldn’t need much introduction to anyone who loves the Santa Fe Railway, or has read a railroad book or magazine in the past 40 years, for that matter. Their names adorn countless publications and they’ve both made appearances on the railroad slide-show circuit. Each has presented at the annual “Conversations” symposium of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, and they’re scheduled to receive their awards in April at this year’s conference.

This isn’t the first time the R&LHS awards committee has given the award to two photographers in the same year — among the 36 previous honorees are several double winners — but it’s probably the first time that two recipients have been so identified with each other. McMillan and Patterson have been close friends ever since they met on the Santa Fe in the mid-1960s and they’ve spent countless hours together trackside. They even live next door to each other, in Arvada, Colo., hard by the former Rio Grande’s Moffat main line.

The engineer at the controls of a GE U28CG on Santa Fe's 'Tulsan' picks up orders at Ottawa Junction, Kans., on Aug. 22, 1968. Joe McMillan photo
McMillan joined the Santa Fe in 1964 after graduating from Texas Tech, first working as a draftsman for the Eastern Lines chief engineer in Topeka. His career later led him to the safety end of the business. He retired as the assistant director of safety and rules in 1995, just ahead of the merger with Burlington Northern.

Patterson went to East Tennessee State and showed up at the Santa Fe in the same Topeka office not long after McMillan. His first job was classic railroad entry level: stenographer to the general manager. He later got into management, working his way up through inspector, agent, and assistant trainmaster positions around the system before moving to engine service in 1979. For years he put in grueling hours running countless coal trains over the Joint Line out of Denver before he moved over to the gig he says he liked best, coordinating grade-grossing safety. Steve retired in 2007.

I can’t remember when I first met either of these guys, but both became friends and colleagues over the years. I probably encountered Joe first, in the mid-1970s, when he was working for the Santa Fe in the Chicago area. Joe was actively involved in the North Western Illinois Chapter of the NRHS, based in Rockford. The NWI chapter was high energy in those days, and several of us at Kalmbach — including Dave Ingles, Mike Schafer, and George Drury — often made the trek down to Rockford.

Out in the Mojave Desert, an eastbound Santa Fe freight winds down the hill into lonely Ludlow, Calif., on Dec. 8, 1974. Steve Patterson photo
Joe was a friendly presence at all those meetings, generous with his knowledge in a way I hadn’t often encountered from other professional railroaders. That enthusiasm fed his authorship of a long list of books under his own McMillan Publications banner. One of them, Route of the Warbonnets, is a classic now in its seventh printing.

My favorite of Joe’s is High Green to Marceline, which boasts one of the all-time great railroad book titles. It’s a photographic tribute to the Santa Fe between Chicago and Kansas City, the first in a series of all-color books Joe produced, and it’s loaded with action photos, most by Joe himself, of the east end of the AT&SF in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.  

Steve Patterson has been equally prolific, but in a somewhat different way. In addition to becoming an ace photographer, Steve has had quite a career as a magazine feature writer, with several memorable bylines. One of his best is “The Iris G et al,” an engrossing account of Canadian Pacific tug-barge operations in British Columbia, in the March 1977 issue of Trains.

In doing a bit of research for this little tribute to Joe and Steve, I dove into Classic Trains’ Santa Fe files and came up with the four photos presented here. My intent was to show the impressive range of these guys, and how their work so beautifully captures the AT&SF at a certain point in time.

An F45 heads up a ten-unit light-engine consist at a nighttime crew change at Seligman, Ariz., on Apr. 3, 1972. Joe McMillan photo
Steve certainly does that with this panoramic shot of a triweekly freight crossing over the Colorado River of Texas on a hot day in June 1972. It’s not a publicity train, but it could be, what with its stately march across the trestle, its long skein of “Ship and Travel Santa Fe” box cars, and the GP7 proudly bearing the company name in distinctive Cooper Bold.

I also couldn’t resist running Joe’s riveting photo of the engineer of train 212, the Tulsan, grabbing orders at Ottawa Junction, Kans., on August 22, 1968. There’s so much to see here: the hogger in his dapper straw hat, the agent standing by a baggage cart, the classic Santa Fe cantilever signal beyond the overpass. Joe didn’t miss a thing, although he’ll tell you there are plenty of shots he still wishes he got.

“One of the axioms I have strived to live by is to concentrate on present-day railroading,” he told me. “The industry can change drastically over time and it is easy to fall into the ‘it’ll always be here’ syndrome. Unfortunately, in my early days, I succumbed to this condition and missed many opportunities. Once I became aware of what was happening, I saw the importance of recording routine, everyday railroading, even if it appears boring at times.”

Both of these guys are characteristically modest about their achievements. As Steve told me, “The R&LHS award is something totally unexpected and out of the blue for me, a genuine surprise. I hope the days come when so many other deserving photographers out there are appropriately recognized.” 

Those days will certainly come, Steve, but meanwhile, you and Joe should take a bow. You’ve joined some exclusive company, a list that includes names like Hastings, Link, Lamb, and Steinheimer. You’re among peers. 

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