When a Hiawatha man championed the 400

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, April 30, 2020

The 400 Story, published in 1982 after a long period of uncertainty, chronicled the flagships of the Chicago & North Western, which vanished into Union Pacific 25 years ago.
Last week marked a bittersweet occasion: the 25th anniversary of the day Union Pacific absorbed the late, great Chicago & North Western. My social media channels fed me several tributes by former C&NW employees and fans. Many of them echoed what writer Michael Blaszak wrote in his news analysis from the June 1995 issue of Trains: “What can be said of the 147-year run of the North Western is that the company finished up as a success. Not every one of its old Granger neighbors could make the same claim.”

Amen, Mike. The C&NW went out in style, proudly flying its original green and yellow on all those AC4400CWs purchased just the year before. The end came fast.

The anniversary prompted me to reach up to my shelf and grab a remarkable book I hadn’t opened in years. It was Jim Scribbins’ The 400 Story, his 232-page tribute to the passenger trains that back in the 1940s and ’50s brought fame to the North Western, at least in the Upper Midwest. It’s one of those books that deserves the accolade “definitive.” Jim skipped nary a detail in his account of a fleet that grew to include not only the flagship Twin Cities 400 but also other 400s named Kate ShelleyFlambeauCapitol, and Peninsula

The book’s gestation was nearly as interesting as the trains themselves, a long strange trip that led from the leading publisher in the field to a period of limbo and finally to an upstart company whose loose network of collaborators presaged today’s gig economy. 

Longtime Milwaukee Road employee Jim Scribbins authored The 400 Story, giving the book the same thorough attention as his earlier passenger-fleet biography, The Hiawatha Story.
Scribbins was a Milwaukee Road man through and through. He was employed by the CMStP&P for 37 years, all of which informed his first book, The Hiawatha Story, a minor bestseller when Kalmbach first published it in 1970. That book went through several printings over the years, both at Kalmbach and with its current publisher, the University of Minnesota Press.

But Jim, who died November 27, 2014, at age 86, loved a lot of other Midwestern railroads, too, probably C&NW chief among them. His vast photo archives reflect a lifetime of shooting not only the Milwaukee but also North Western, Soo Line, the Burlington, and many others.

That explains why Jim was inspired to write about the 400s. He originally intended the manuscript for Kalmbach, which saw it as a bookend to The Hiawatha Story, another chapter in the storied rivalry for the lucrative Chicago–Twin Cities market, a competition that also included the Burlington Route and its Zephyrs. Kalmbach put Jim’s C&NW book on its to-do list and Trains Editor David P. Morgan wrote a lovely foreword. 

Unfortunately, the manuscript sat on the shelf until 1976, when Kalmbach decided to get out of the hardcover railroad book business and concentrate on softcover model-railroad and plastic-modeling how-to books. Suddenly The 400 Story was an orphan.

But only briefly. Disappointed but undaunted, Jim weighed his options and a year or two later approached Kevin McKinney, founder and publisher of Passenger Train Journal and its fledgling company PTJ Publishing. At the time I was PTJ’s managing editor, later to become editor. 

The southbound Peninsula 400 approaches C&NW's station on Milwaukee's lakefront in an October 1954 photo, one of many by Jim Scribbins that appeared in The 400 Story.
Scribbins’ offer was a big break for PTJ, which had already issued a couple of small softcover passenger-train books. The magazine had recently gone to monthly publication and things were looking up. But going whole hog on The 400 Story — a follow-up to a masterpiece, no less — was a bigger deal by an order of magnitude.

Enter the hero of our little story, my friend Mike Schafer, editor of todays’ PTJ. Mike was a former Kalmbach Books staffer who left the company in 1979 and came over to work for McKinney. Mike and The 400 Story went way back. “One of my first jobs at Kalmbach back in 1972 was to go to C&NW headquarters in Chicago with Jim to sift through the company’s photo files, which we did for an entire day,” Mike recalls. “Alas, the 400 book never crossed my desk the rest of the years I was there.”  

Happily, McKinney’s later arrangement with Scribbins made up for what Mike had missed. “Having grown up with the C&NW and having ridden a few of its 400s (and also loving anything to do with passenger trains), there was no question in my mind that I wanted to handle this project.”

Mike ended up designing the perfect complement to The Hiawatha Story: same horizontal format, embossed cloth cover, splashy chapter opening spreads, generous maps, similar page count. Mike added a color section, led off by a Russ Porter painting of the Twin Cities 400s meeting under the Milwaukee trainshed at night, intended originally for the cover but diverted inside on account of its dark moodiness. 

In another photo from the 400 book, crowds inspect the train's new E3 diesels at the North Western's Chicago passenger terminal in 1939. C&NW
There was also another notable design touch, a neon-style 400 Story logo, conceptualized by Schafer and fine-tuned by yet another Kalmbacher, Art Director Larry Luser, moonlighting for what could be called the competition. I don’t think anyone at 1027 N. Seventh Street noticed.

Others were brought on board. Writer Karl Zimmermann was hired to do what’s called the top edit, and ace copy editor Donnette Dolzall, another Kalmbach alum, policed the style and grammar. Schafer enlisted photographer John B. Corns to make some new prints from Scribbins’ negatives. I helped out here and there, in a peripheral role, mostly writing the dust jacket copy. 

Looking back, Schafer says what he loved most about the project was working with its author. “What really makes this book special is Jim Scribbins’ photography,” says Mike. “He dutifully covered C&NW passenger operations to a great extent, and although he is so closely associated with the Milwaukee Road, his C&NW photography is amazing and carries the bulk of the book. That, plus the fact that he was a joy to work with.”

I remember Jim the same way. He was one of the most dogged researchers I ever encountered, and his knowledge of passenger trains seemed boundless, the result of all those years in the Milwaukee Road ticket office, and lots of train-riding in his free time. Most of all, he was eager to share what he knew with anyone. 

It’s satisfying to know that, like the Hiawatha book, The 400 Story warranted several printings, first with PTJ and later at the University of Minnesota Press, which, I’m happy to report, still has a softcover version of the book in its catalog. It bears a new cover design, but inside it’s still the same classic published way back in 1982. Jim Scribbins, the ultimate Milwaukee Road man, did right by the North Western. 

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