Bill Withuhn writes the essential steam book

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 28, 2019

American Steam Locomotives, 1880–1960, just released by Indiana University Press, is railroad historian Bill Withuhn's masterpiece. Kevin P. Keefe
Of all the railroad books that have been plopped on my desk over the past couple of years — and there have been a lot of them — none has come close to exciting me as much as the one that arrived last week from Indiana University Press. I pretty much attacked the box it was in, tearing at the cardboard until I got a glimpse of Nickel Plate Berkshires.

There it was, William L. Withuhn’s masterpiece: American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960, published by IUP in cooperation with the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society. 

Maybe the title sounds a bit dry, but only if you lack a deep attachment to its subject. If you love steam locomotives and the culture they created, you simply have to have this book. I think it’s everything we hoped it would be, especially for those of us who knew Bill Withuhn and understood how much of his life he put into it. 

Full disclosure: I wrote the Foreword for the book, pro bono, but otherwise had very little to do with its production. Gail Withuhn’s invitation to contribute to her late husband’s book was a rare honor, and the work was a joy. 

Anyone who’s done research on what is mostly 20th century steam knows how difficult it’s been to find a deep, comprehensive, reliable reference. The literature is scattered and inconsistent. My go-to sources have included two oldies — Alfred W. Bruce’s The Steam Locomotive in America, from 1952, and David P. Morgan’s Steam’s Finest Hour, from 1959 — as well as J. Parker Lamb’s Perfecting the American Steam Locomotive, from 2003. George Drury's Guide to North American Steam Locomotives, first published in 1993 and most recently updated in 2015, has been an invaluable resource as well. 

Withuhn, the Smithsonian Institution's transportation curator from 1983 until his retirement in 2010, poses with the museum's biggest rail exhibit: Southern Railway Ps-4 No. 1401. Smithsonian Institution
All of these are fine books. Bruce covers the details, yet necessarily misses all the perspective we’ve gained in 60 years. Morgan’s book is fun to read, but it’s mostly a showcase for photography. I like Lamb’s book, but it’s a highly condensed review.

Now, with Withuhn, we have pretty much all we need: the details, the analysis, the scholarship, along with a wealth of supportive photography. But we also get something much more, and that’s Bill engaging prose. More than any reference book I’ve ever encountered, this one has wit and style. You can curl up with it and read it for pleasure.

So much of that richness comes out of Bill’s own experience as a steam locomotive engineer as well as a steam historian. Consider this opening from his chapter on engine crew safety, rich with the sort of detail that can only come from spending a lot of time in the right-hand seat:

“To a modern sensibility, and to a modern regulatory eye, the working conditions inside a steam locomotive cab would appear absolutely appalling: ambient temperatures up to 130 degrees F, constant vibration, noise levels frequently exceeding 90 decibels, sometimes noxious gases laden with particulates and sulfur, tripping and head-bumping hazards everywhere, and utterly no sign of contemporary safety concerns, ergonomics, or crashworthiness.” 

Withuhn's vivid description of the conditions in a locomotive cab would be familiar to this engineer of a Norfolk & Western Y6. W.A. Akin Jr.
That’s about as vivid a description of a steam crew’s workplace as I’ve seen, written by a man who’s been there, done that.

Bill can also be poetic. Late in the book, he summarizes the lasting appeal of steam, one that extends to a general population not inclined to care about mechanical things. “Even to the most deprived of citizens, even for those whose actual mobility was limited, the locomotive symbolized escape, new horizons, new possibilities. The locomotive whistle was a haunting call to the evergreen valley over a distant hill.”

Don’t worry, Bill covers all the tech things steam fans love to talk about, from feedwater heating to counterbalancing to tractive effort to disc drivers to limited cutoff and everything in between. He delves into what was the biggest and most powerful — Big Boy vs. C&O’s Allegheny, for instance — and he devotes considerable attention to Samuel Vauclain, Leonor F. Loree, Francis Cole, William E. Woodard, and other men who made the machines. Throughout, he stays engaging, readable.  

Perhaps the best case for this book comes from its editor, Peter A. Hansen, who led a dedicated team in bringing Bill’s scattered manuscript to life. That team included designer Kevin Holland, and railroad archivist Kurt Bell. 

Pete recalls what it was like, diving into Bill’s unfinished project in the months after the author’s death in June 2017. It was daunting, but also thrilling. 

“I can’t recall any one moment when it dawned on me that the book needed to see print,” says Pete. “It was more a growing realization, chapter after chapter, that Bill had explained a lot of concepts better than I had ever seen before. As such, I thought consciously, it would be useful to scholars and railfans for generations to come. And I also knew that this was probably the last hour for a book like this: Reader interest in the subject is bound to diminish in the coming years, and there won’t be anyone as well qualified to write about it in any case.”

Frankly, I don’t think we’ll need another all-encompassing steam book for a long time. It’s difficult to think of what might be left to cover, especially with Bill’s perspective. He was very nearly unique in his ability to make understandable the most difficult engineering and technical subjects. That he did it with such obvious love — including for his readers — makes this book a treasure. 

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