Al Staufer: a belated appreciation

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, June 06, 2019

Author/publisher Al Staufer, who died in 2013 at age 88, celebrated the steam era in nearly a dozen books that were a unique blend of the technical and emotional.
My railroad library always gets a pretty good workout, especially when it comes to steam locomotives. If a steam assignment comes my way — and my editor, Rob McGonigal, has me working on a doozy right now — then suddenly my little office floor is littered with books.

Right now, scattered around my desk, are a bunch of familiar steam titles. I never start anything without having handy Kalmbach’s North American steam guide, originally compiled by George H. Drury. David P. Morgan’s Steam’s Finest Houris always good for a rich overview. Ditto J. Parker Lamb’s Perfecting the American Steam Locomotive. My latest fave is Bill Withuhn’s American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960, published recently by Indiana University Press.

There’s another author who’s been getting a good workout lately. I’ve been reading him for more than 40 years, looking for details as well as inspiration. His are probably the most worn-out books on my shelf. I’m talking about the late, great Alvin F. Staufer.

Al Staufer likely needs little introduction to most steam fans, such was his prodigious output back in the 1960s and ’70s. He was the king of the so-called “power books,” heavy hardcover reviews of the rosters of a number of key railroads, generally in the East and Midwest, jammed with facts, profusely illustrated, and filled with his exuberant little touches.

It’s hard to imagine what a Pennsy fan would do without Staufer’s three versions of Pennsy Power, or a New York Central fan without his Hudson tribute Thoroughbreds, not to mention two other NYC volumes. The list goes on: B&O PowerErie Power,New Haven Power. His obituary says he published 11 such books in all.

Many had his byline, notably the books on PRR and NYC, which seemed to be his favorite railroads. He wrote about both roads and their locomotives with such unbridled passion that it puts the lie to the idea you can’t love both. There was no Green Team or Red Team in his world. 

Staufer's books form an impressive monument to the locomotives of several classic-era railroads.
But Al was a publisher first, an author second, and along the way he recruited a number of stellar contributors to cover railroads not necessarily in his wheelhouse. 

My favorite is C&O Power, a first-rate analysis of Chesapeake & Ohio steam written by Philip Shuster, Eugene Huddleston, and Staufer. I’ve had my copy since 1972, when I got it during my years at Michigan State working on Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225. It’s in pretty bad shape, but I still love it — not only the very authoritative coverage of PM power, but also the larger story of C&O’s T-1 2-10-4s, K-4 Kanawhas, and, of course, the mighty H-8 Allegheny.

Those three names on the C&O book say something else about Staufer — that he was a good collaborator. Surely he loved doing his PRR and NYC stuff on his own, but it’s obvious he also liked signing up the best talent when the need arose. One such colleage was Jack Swanberg, author of New Haven Power, which Staufer published in 1988. Swanberg appreciated Staufer’s tireless support, as well as his light editing touch.

“Al Staufer and I became good friends during the eight years I was writing my book,” recalls Swanberg. “He was good to work with, and he handled all printing and production plus doing an excellent job with the book’s layout. He knew little about the New Haven, so he did not change a word of my text, although he did add to a few photo captions.”

Oh, those captions! When I was younger, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. Some seemed dashed off, maybe a bit unprofessional. Like this one: “J1 leaving station, we’re not sure exactly where.” Or unnecessarily opinionated: “Elkhart, Ind., 1944. This is the way it was in the big war. American railroads hauled about 95% of everything, a truly herculean effort. So how does Big Brother and the cities of the Nation show their appreciation — by building a network of superhighways . . . that’s how!” He was fond of throwing in patriotic flourishes here and there. 

Over the years, I’ve changed my opinion about those captions. For one thing, it was Al Staufer’s company, and he could publish a book any damn way he wanted to. I’ve grown to admire him for that. Maybe more importantly, his books have personality. There’s no mistaking a Staufer book. No matter how old he was, he never lost his childlike wonder for steam, and it shows up on every page. And if he wore his patriotism on his sleeve, even in book captions, he’d earned that right as a Navy veteran of World War II.

There was no Red Team or Green Team in Staufer's world. He brought equal enthusiasm to his books on PRR and NYC power.
Staufer’s books also inspired photographers. One of them, my good friend and colleague John B. Corns, the longtime Chessie System and CSX chief photographer, credits his fellow Ohioan as a prime early influence.  

“As a young, nearly penniless teenager, I loved riding a bus (round trip, 25 cents) to our downtown bookstore and looking through Al’s wonderful books,” says Corns. “Each volume contained sharp, clear, professionally made photographs of my favorite steamers. Those high-quality railroad company photos helped form my early photographic ideas about what made a ‘good’ train photo, and guide my future vocation. Years later it was great talking steam with Al, and thanking him for his influence on me 45 years earlier.”  

There is so much more someone could write about Al Staufer: his love of O-gauge toy trains; his talent as an artist, apparent in many of his book covers. How many of you at one point or another owned a black-and-white Staufer art print? The first railroad art I ever bought — in high school — was his masterful portrait of a PRR K4s. 

I didn’t meet Al until late in his life; he died in 2013 in his beloved hometown of Medina, Ohio, at age 88. But I did catch up with him a few years earlier at the sprawling York Train Meet in York, Pa. I’m not a big toy train guy, but I was there representing Kalmbach and at one point I found myself wandering the show floor, looking for something to catch my attention.

Out of nowhere came a huge “Hello!” from a guy in a booth selling various used O-gauge equipment. It was Al Staufer! I was floored, partly because I didn’t expect to see him there, partly because he apparently knew who I was once he saw my nametag. Believe me, I was flattered.

Al and I got going on steam and ended up chatting for quite a while. He was charming, curious about what I thought, and quite funny. We got to the point where we were teasing each other a bit about this favorite locomotive or that. I could see how his effervescence translated to his books. The whole encounter was disarming. 

Meeting Al Staufer was the highlight of the York train show, by far, and I smile about it every time I reach for one of his books — something that’s bound to happen again soon. 

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