H. Reid could shoot as well as he could write

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, June 5, 2020

In a marvelous example of H. Reid's camerawork, Chesapeake & Ohio 614 crosses a low trestle on its way into Newport News in 1950. H. Reid
A few weeks ago, before the pandemic interrupted regular visits to the Kalmbach library, I was pawing through some photo files to help illustrate a program I’m scheduled to give this fall in Washington, D.C. Photo research in the library is always fun — in those deep files, you never know what’s going to pop up next.

I was in the Chesapeake & Ohio drawer, in a folder marked “Steam Passenger – Virginia,” when my thumb suddenly turned up a real head turner, a spectacular portrait of big steam at high tide, and a familiar engine to boot: C&O Greenbrier 4-8-4 No. 614, roaring into Hampton Roads on April 9, 1950 — Easter Sunday — with what is likely the Sportsman.

Many of you will remember the 614 for her glory days fronting the Chessie Safety Express of the early 1980s, not to mention the engine’s celebrated turn as a coal-hauling engine during the ACE 3000 trials of January and February 1985 in West Virginia. I’ve always thought of the 614 as an elite machine. (I hope we see it again someday, if owner American Freedom Train Foundation is successful in mounting what they’re calling “AFT 2.0.” The 4-8-4 is currently on loan to the C&O Historical Society and displayed in Clifton Forge, Va.)

I had seen plenty of photos of the 614 in regular service, but not this one, and nothing quite this exciting. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I turned over the print to see the familiar credit line of “H. Reid.”

One of Reid's best-remembered photos depicts a pastoral scene along North Carolina's Graham County Railroad. H. Reid
Longtime readers of Classic Trains and Trains surely will recognize Reid, famous for his numerous bylines over many years, and for his noted reluctance to say what the “H.” stood for (Wikipedia says “Harold”). Reid was foremost a writer, with years of experience as a newspaperman, notably at Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot and Newport News’ Times-Herald.

He also wrote one of the enduring classics of the railroad genre, The Virginian Railway, which Kalmbach published in 1961. Part business history, part folksy stroll through Appalachia, part technical treatise (he had a thing for VGN’s MB-class 2-8-2s and had a number plate from No. 426 in his collection), the book makes you wish every railroad had an H. Reid to write about it. 

But there was more to the man. Like some of his contemporaries — Wally Abbey and Ed Wojtas come to mind — he was as facile with the camera as he was the typewriter. Reid shot mostly in Tidewater and coal country, and when he told a story he could make a powerful one-two punch.

As if to christen Reid, David P. Morgan included him in a landmark Photo Section in November 1955 Trains, marking the magazine’s 15th anniversary. There, Morgan showcased Reid and 11 other influential lensman, among them J. Parker Lamb, Henry R. Griffiths, and Robert Hale. Reid was represented by his elegant front-end portrait of a bald-faced MB 2-8-2, its high headlight and various other details splashed by low sunlight. 

In the profile, Reid made clear his preference for shooting steam. “I fought to incorporate the artistic with the mechanical, showing trains in action at scenic places,” he wrote. “Esthetically, steam filled the job quite well.”

''This was the Virginian — the good old MB.'' Reid's affection for a class of workhorse 2-8-2s is evident in the opening words of his caption for this photo of No. 446. The image was accorded a full two pages in his landmark book about the railroad. H. Reid
Reid’s preferences were obvious in a memorable photograph that appeared in the April 1965 issue, accompanying his short essay called “Milking Time.” In it, venerable Graham County Railroad Shay No. 1925 waddles through a field in the Great Smokies as a man and a woman gather to milk a lone cow under the watchful eye of the farmer’s dog. It’s a quiet, lovely scene, quite the opposite of 614 storming into Newport News.

“Life along Graham County’s meandering right of way is predicated on hard work, carefully paced, devoid of hurry and sham,” wrote Reid. The sentence perfectly matches the image. Decades later, the Trains staff thought enough of the photo to include it in a one-off publication called 100 Greatest Railroad Photos, published in 2008.

Then there are Reid’s own photos of the Virginian, used liberally in his book, including this view of a local coming off the Southern Branch at Tidewater Tower, on the edge of Norfolk, led by MB 2-8-2 No. 446. True to Reid’s attention to the railroaders he knew, he notes that “Engineer Bill Steger works a clear stack.”  

Best known for his steam-era black-and-white work, Reid made this arresting color image of the American Freedom Train at Crew, Va., in 1976. H. Reid
And just to show Reid never lost his love for steam, we have this action shot of Southern Pacific 4449 during its service on the American Freedom Train, photographed westbound on the Norfolk & Western at Crewe, Va., in October 1976. 

Reid died in 1992 at the all-too-young age of 67. He left quite a legacy, including all those magazine bylines plus three books: his Virginian masterpiece for Kalmbach; Extra South, what he called an “unhurried look at Dixie steam railroading” (Carstens, 1986); and Rails Through Dixie, with John Krause (Golden West, 1965). 

As for Reid’s photographic archive, its fate seems to be something of a mystery. By all accounts, he intended it go to Elon University in North Carolina, and sure enough, the Belk Library at Elon has a listing for an H. Reid collection. But I’ve also heard the images never got there and were scattered to the winds after the photographer’s death. That would be a shame, because H. Reid was the real deal. His work deserves permanent and accessible preservation. 

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