Five photos that stay with me

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, November 14, 2019

One of the occupational hazards of writing about railroads is that you see so many railroad photographs they risk becoming routine. How many images have I worked with over the last 45 years? Thousands? Certainly. Tens of thousands? More likely. The barrage on Facebook and other social media makes it a veritable blur.

But I fight the instinct to become jaded. One thing that helps is to revisit old friends. This week, I tracked down five old favorites, photographs that had an impact on me at various points in my life. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have: 

• Tonopah & Goldfield mixed train, near Goldfield Junction, Nev., 1945. By Charles M. Clegg.

The first railroad book my parents bought me was a doozy: Lucius Beebe and Charles M. Clegg’s Hear the Train Blow, a sprawling, somewhat disorganized history of the American railroad. Published in 1952 by E. P. Dutton of New York, the bulk of the book concentrated on the 19th century and was filled with old glass-plate photos, engravings from newspapers, vintage posters, and other ephemera. I encountered the book when I was about 8 years old, a tender age to be grappling with Beebe’s flamboyant prose, but I loved it anyway. I also loved the occasional appearance of Beebe’s and Clegg’s own photos, including this one by the latter, showing a Tonopah & Goldfield mixed train somewhere on the road’s 100-mile-long line in southwestern Nevada. The railroad only existed from 1904 to 1947, but here a pair of its slide-valve 2-8-0s puts on a good show hauling tank cars of aviation fuel to an Army airfield near Goldfield. 

• Southern Pacific F3 at Roseville shop, February 26, 1965, by Richard Steinheimer.

I consider this the first photograph that ever grabbed me in Trains. I was 14 when my very first issue of the magazine — August 1965 — arrived and seemed to fall open to pages 26-27. There I encountered this image along with the headline “A Generation Passes” and a short, affecting essay by the photographer, Richard Steinheimer, writing in a format I’d later learn was called a “frontispiece.” It depicts battered Southern Pacific F3 6153, in for an overhaul yet headed for inevitable retirement. Stein’s photo was compelling enough — you can see the miles on the nose of the 16-year-old F3 and almost detect the smell of oil and metal shavings hanging in the air. But what I’ll also never forget is Stein’s way with words. “Tonight 6153 shares the fate of the Moguls and the AC’s she doomed,” he wrote. “Tomorrow belongs to the new generation, already crowding the other tracks of the enginehouse.” 

• Belt Railway of Chicago, cow/calf set at Clearing Yard, 1966, by John Gruber.

John Gruber was the master of spontaneity, never more so than on an evening when he framed a BRC crewman with a TR2 cow/calf switcher pausing in the gathering darkness atop the hump at Clearing Yard. The photo was one of dozens Gruber shot as part of an assignment to cover the Belt for a two-part story authored by Jerry A. Pinkepank in the September and October 1966 issues of Trains. Gruber’s vivid, perceptive pictures brought the iconic terminal railroad to life. His editor, David P. Morgan, once again demonstrated his mastery of understatement by running this stark image on the cover, sans any cover blurbs. “This is Chicago railroading,” it seemed to say, and required no further explanation. Gruber showed us all that needed to be said.   

• Nickel Plate Road, Bellevue, Ohio, at dawn, 1949, by Richard J. Cook.

It was a great day in 1968 when my local library put Dick Cook’s Rails Across the Midlands up on the shelf. I must have checked it out a dozen times. Published by Golden West, Cook’s book was a panoramic review of the twilight of mainline steam in the Midwest, showing a fantastic party I’d barely missed. Talk about bittersweet. I was hooked from the opening title page, featuring this depiction of the Nickel Plate’s yard at Bellevue, Ohio, as a steam locomotive, perhaps one of the road's famed 2-8-4 Berkshires, picks its way through the switchpoints at dawn. Cook is perhaps most remembered for his flawless, fully lit action photos of NYC Hudsons, NKP Berks, and C&O 2-10-4s in full flight, but for this moody photograph he made the most of the opportunity at hand, creating an image emblematic of the title of his book.   

• Canadian National 4-6-0 and Editor David P. Morgan, Riviere du Loup, Que., November 1953, by Philip R. Hastings.

I’d like to say that I encountered this memorable photograph of DPM in real time, but when it was published in the May 1954 issue of Trains I was only 3 years old. I was left to discover it nearly 20 years later when, as a college student, a friend turned up with a box of old back issues, including several with installments of Morgan’s and Hastings’ inaugural “In Search of Steam” series. I’d never seen these articles before. This image ran on the opening spread under the famous headline “Eureka!” It was definitely a Eureka! moment for me. At the time, I was struggling to decide on a major — urban planning versus journalism — and was leaning toward the latter. Seeing this photo of the Editor in the field, taking notes and having the time of his life, sealed the deal. “I want to do that someday,” I thought to myself. Thanks, DPM.   

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