Photographer Ed Wojtas seized the moment

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, January 23, 2020

An unidentified traveler catches up on his reading inside the vast waiting room of Kansas City Union Station. The classic Wojtas portrait was included in Trains magazine’s 100 Greatest Railroad Photos special edition of 2008.
It’s not a train picture, but it’s a photograph that speaks eloquent volumes about what it means to travel by train. 

A man sits on a ponderous wooden bench inside the cavernous waiting room of Kansas City Union Station. He looks like a traveling salesman who’s been on the road too long, although his dark suit, short-brim Trilby hat, and pocket square convey a whiff of elegance. He’s bent over a magazine, backlit in a shaft of afternoon light as smoke from his cigarette floats lazily upward.

This vivid little slice of life made enough of an impression on the Trains staff back in 2008 that it was included on page 79 of the magazine’s special edition called 100 Greatest Railroad Photos. The artist — and I use that word purposefully — was Ed Wojtas.

The name Ed Wojtas (pronounced WO-jus) doesn’t come up much in the pages of railroad publications these days, but, in fact, he was a force on the scene back in the 1960s and ’70s. A career railroad public relations man, he was also a terrific photographer, one whose name perhaps doesn’t make the Hastings-Shaughnessy-Steinheimer pantheon but whose work is nonetheless highly noteworthy.

I never met Ed in person, but I can testify that he was a great working colleague, thanks to numerous interactions I had with him in the early 1980s, when I was editing Passenger Train Journal and he was doing media relations at Amtrak. You could always count on Ed to provide the information you needed, and often with a bit of crochety flair. I recall his letters to me ended with the signoff, “Amtraky by Cracky, Ed.”

Wojtas captured the classic profile of an EMD F7 while pacing a Burlington train on subsidiary Fort Worth & Denver north of Fort Worth on January 19, 1961. This photograph also was featured in 100 Greatest Railroad Photos.
One of Ed’s colleagues, Amtrak veteran Cliff Black, now retired, remembers Ed’s work ethic. “Ed took his work seriously,” Cliff recalls, “and was constantly under deadline pressure to get the monthly Amtrak News put to bed with stories and photography, much of which Ed wrote and took himself."

As for Wojtas’s photography, some of the images here give you an idea of his skill and resourcefulness. Like the great John Gruber — to whom I think he might be compared —  Wojtas had a knack for reacting to the moment, creating images that somehow look artful although they were often made in a hurry. He came by that skill honestly, having begun his career as a photographer for the now defunct Champaign-Urbana Courier; Ed was a graduate there of the University of Illinois. He went on to win an Illinois Press Photographers Association statewide photography award for three straight years.     

I’m sure he would have gone on to a fine career in the news business, but Ed was a Chicago native who grew up a hardcore railfan and soon the railroad industry beckoned. He joined Rock Island in 1960 as a p.r. assistant, rising through the ranks until he went over to Amtrak after the liquidation of the Rock. 

A pair of GP7s on Rock Island train 46 drop off a cut of tank cars of anhydrous ammonia at a siding in Marseilles, Ill., 77 miles west of Chicago, on March 5, 1964.
Throughout this period, Ed kept up his rail photography, occasionally submitting photos to Trains Editor David P. Morgan either as part of his job or sometimes because it was his hobby. His biggest splash in Trains came in the April 1965 issue, when Morgan devoted six pages to Ed’s insightful images of everyday life at Kansas City Union Station, which yielded the masterpiece I mentioned at the top.

Ed’s devotion to photography was sustained while he was at Amtrak, as Cliff Black remembers.

“I rarely saw him without his trusty Nikon dangling from its neck strap,” says Cliff. “Surprisingly by today’s standards, the Corporate Communications office (then called Public Affairs) had a full photographic darkroom in which Ed developed and printed his black-and-white images, archiving most of them and printing some in Amtrak News.

“He also shot color transparencies of trains and stations. Some of his photos were used in press release packets that were mailed to lists of travel and news reporters that covered Amtrak and transportation. Ed was Amtrak’s official photographer, but the company occasionally purchased images from others.”  

At La Salle Street Station in Chicago in 1960, a crew member climbs aboard a Rock Island FP7 before the 10:30 a.m. departure of the Peoria Rocket. In the background at left is a PA on the point of Nickel Plate train 8, the New Yorker, departing at 11:20 a.m.
Cliff reports that Ed retired from Amtrak in the mid-1980s and moved to Florida, but he continued to write freelance travel stories for industry publications. Wojtas died in Sun City Center on October 30, 2000, at a far-too-young 72.

Unfortunately, reports Cliff, many of Ed's Amtrak photos failed to survive filing purges over the years following his retirement. “As for any archive of Amtrak News copies from Ed's era, I believe some were microfiched, but I fear they may be gone, too,” says Cliff.

Ed’s vivid body of work deserves way better than that. His excellent prints pop up occasionally in the Classic Trains files if you’re pawing through the Burlington, Rock Island, and Illinois Central folders. But I’m unaware of any sizeable collection of his work, let alone a publication that features him prominently. Perhaps this brief tribute can suffice for the moment.

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