A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
1

Great Northern 2584 and those flying pumps

Posted 7 hours ago by Kevin Keefe
The Amtrak depot at Havre, Mont., isn’t known for its charms — the building it shares with BNSF is a long, rudimentary brick box. But Empire Builder passengers taking a fresh-air break should spend a few minutes at the west end of the station, where they’ll find something more interesting — a thoroughbred horse with the face of a bulldog. The thoroughbred is Great Northern 4-8-4 No. 2584, built in 1930, a beautiful example of front-line steam power that still had one foo...
7

What Jerry Joe gave us

Posted 6 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Jerry Joe Jacobson was like some kind of magical railroad elf, sprinkling fairy dust on all kinds of railroad people, especially those of the steam persuasion. That includes me. Jerry Joe, the one-time Ohio shortline magnate and sponsor of the incredible Age of Steam Roundhouse in Sugarcreek, died last week at age 74 after a long illness. Although his passing was not a surprise, it still stung a lot of people, and tributes have been pouring in all over social media. Steam locomotive owners and...
10

Steinheimer, Peggy Lee, and one photograph’s backstory

Posted 13 days ago by Kevin Keefe
The photograph by Richard Steinheimer is typically masterful. A stout, resolute woman, the Midland Continental Railroad’s agent at Millarton, N.Dak., stands firmly on the station platform. Her gaze is fixed on some point across a frozen, barren horizon. She projects a defiant air — a tough old railroader who can take anything the Dakota prairie can dish out. It’s an iconic image, to be sure, the kind of photograph Stein made all the time. It appeared in print at least twice, o...
6

Harvey echoes the Great Flood of 1927

Posted 20 days ago by Kevin Keefe
The impact of flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey in southeast Texas and western Louisiana will be felt for months and years. The toll in human lives and injuries, the damage to homes and infrastructure, the threat to the environment — all seem beyond assessment. Simply put, Harvey was a devastating calamity. Less appalling perhaps, but no less painful to its dependents, is the damage to railroading in the region. BNSF suspended all service in and out of Houston. Union Pacific closed 500 ...
10

Reviving the legend of the South Park

Posted 27 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Thanks to the magical world of the narrow gauge, Colorado might be the capital of railroading’s romantic lost causes. One of the most beloved was the Denver, South Park & Pacific, a railroad as quaint as its corporate name was overly ambitious. Organized in 1872 and championed by then Colorado territorial Gov. John Evans (Colorado became a state in 1876), the DSP&P reached southwesterly from Denver, climbing the Platte River canyon to the high plain known as South Park at Como, wh...
4

I’m pulling for Chesapeake & Ohio 1309

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the strange plot twists in the story of steam’s final years, one of my favorites is the Chesapeake & Ohio’s decision in 1948 to buy 2-6-6-2s from Baldwin to shore up its operations in West Virginia coal country. Think about that for a moment. That year, most American railroads were buying vast quantities of new diesels from Electro-Motive, Alco, and other manufacturers. Steam was clearly on the way out, no matter how well a New York Central poppet-valve Niagara or Norfolk...
6

Jim Shaughnessy: still the master

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Although I got to know him well only fairly recently, my admiration for master photographer Jim Shaughnessy goes back 52 years, to the very first issue of my very first subscription to Trains magazine. That would be November 1965, the memorable 25th anniversary edition of the magazine, in which Editor David P. Morgan reviewed a quarter-century of railroading in a series of short essays, each accompanied by the work of some of the finest photographers of the era. One picture in particular caugh...
6

For a moment, GCT again means “intercity”

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
One of the most interesting bits of news to come out of the Northeast this summer is the temporary reassignment of some New York–Albany/Rensselaer Empire Service trains to Grand Central Terminal while Amtrak performs critical track work at Penn Station  Suddenly, if briefly, you can board a passenger train from the hallowed, subterranean platforms of GCT and actually stay on the same train beyond Poughkeepsie. Somewhere the ghosts of William White and Lucius Beebe are smiling. The m...
4

Erie’s memorable machines

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
I’d visited a number of big railroad facilities by the time I first set eyes on General Electric’s sprawling factory complex in Erie, Pa., in the late 1990s, but I was still awestruck by the view driving along E. Lake Road in the city’s Lawrence Park neighborhood. There, spread over hundreds of acres, were more than 20 separate buildings, some of them gigantic, all linked in various ways for the singular purpose of building locomotives. It’s what I imagined Baldwin in Ed...
11

Twelve wheels are better than eight

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Anyone who’s had the chance to ride at the back of an open-platform observation car knows there’s nothing like it. I don’t get to enjoy it very often, but when I do I relish that sensation of well-being as I watch the track unspool behind me. It’s hard to describe, yet the experience is hypnotic. That goes double when the clattering sounds you hear beneath your feet are the muffled, rhythmic triplets of a 12-wheel heavyweight car. I felt that familiar rush last weekend ...
6

Beertown made railroad passenger cars, too

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Last week I had the chance to witness something that doesn’t happen much in Milwaukee anymore: a railroad industry press conference. Sixty years ago, that wouldn’t have been big news. In mid-century, the brewing capital was home to one of the largest railroad complexes in the U.S., the Milwaukee Road’s West Milwaukee shops. The city also was the backdrop for one of the fiercest passenger-train rivalries in history, that of the Milwaukee’s Hiawathas and the Chic...
2

Bill Withuhn: An appreciation

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
In November 2009, author Pete Hansen wrote a profile of Smithsonian transportation curator William L. Withuhn for Trains magazine. It was a sprawling story about a sprawling career, suitably titled “The Indispensable Man.” Quite a claim to make about someone, but in the case of Bill Withuhn, it fit. There were so many things to call him: historian, museum professional, locomotive engineer, dealmaker, bureaucrat, journalist. He was a supreme multi-tasker long before it became an ever...
13

Unfinished business on my list of sacred places

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to stand in famous places. Some of that came from my parents, who loved to do “heritage tourism” long before the term was invented. Within the tight limits of a family budget of the early 1960s, the six of us got to see Independence Hall, Gettysburg, Fort Niagara, and a few more notable spots in the East. I began to dream about railroad places around 1961, when I was 10. One day my mother returned from the library with a little book s...
6

Abbey saved some of his best for the Santa Fe

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the truly great railroad photographers of the 1950s and ’60s, none was more versatile, in my mind, than Wallace W. Abbey. “Multi-faceted” doesn’t begin to describe the man. At one time or another Wally was a newspaper reporter, railroad HQ file clerk, magazine editor, diesel mechanic’s helper, interlocking tower operator, railroad public relations executive, and probably one or two I’m missing. For those who need an introduction, Wally, who died in 20...
6

Fred Frailey rediscovers his roots

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
My good friend Fred Frailey probably won’t be offended if I say he’s my second-favorite railroad writer. That’s because his No. 1 is the same as mine: David P. Morgan, of course, the longtime editor of Trains. As Fred has often said (and I’m proud to repeat), “I graduated from the David P. Morgan School of Journalism.” But I’m being honest when I say Fred is a close second. The man is that good. As a railroad writer, he’s a stylist in the manner o...
11

Big Sky Blue and the cool school of design

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
With the release last week of a new 50th-anniversary boxed set of The Beatles’ monumental Sgt. Pepper album, it seems everyone is talking about the summer of 1967. Me too. I had just turned 16 that June, so the “Summer of Love,” as it came to be known, was memorable, mostly for girls and music. I remember we played the grooves off Sgt. Pepper, not to mention the debut albums of Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. When I wasn’t stocking grocery shelves at Tony’s Market, I t...
8

NYC 2933’s fresh look is more than just a paint job

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the Class I railroads that got rid of nearly every steam locomotive in the 1950s, perhaps none attracted as much vitriol as the New York Central. The Central fielded not only an expansive roster (more than 3,600 engines at the end of World War II), it also boasted what many would consider the most famous of all locomotives, the J-class 4-6-4 Hudson. That every last one of these thoroughbred machines was reduced to scrap has, for some, meant a special place in preservation hell for NYC an...
11

10 very special steam fantrips

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s been a good spring for mainline steam, what with early performances already by Norfolk & Western 611, Union Pacific 844, and Milwaukee Road 261. There’s much more to come this summer. The staff over at Trains is marking the season with Big Steam is Back, a new special-edition magazine and companion video. All this excitement has got me in a nostalgic mood, thinking about a lot of trips I took over the last 40 years when “big steam was back” the first or second o...
13

PRR 4935, the first true heritage unit

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Everybody started pinching themselves several years ago when “heritage units,” resplendent in long-retired paint schemes, began arriving from the shops of Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak. Nothing draws photographers to trackside like word that the NS “Wabash” unit or the UP “Katy” diesel is in town. It’s been an amazing gesture by all three railroads. UP fielded six Commemorative Locomotives, of them all SD70ACe units, painted in liveries ho...
2

St. Paul Union Depot: a big-city station done right

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s an understatement to say that big American cities have a mixed record when it comes to finding new uses for their grand train stations. If anything good happens, the emphasis usually is on mere preservation and not transportation. Some of our best historic terminals have found new life as commercial or cultural institutions. Three of the best examples are Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, all of which have found new missions as commercial properties and museums, even as they...
7

Reboot for a classic ‘California Zephyr’ book

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
You know a train is great when it gets the spotlight in a single-subject, hardcover book. Not many name trains from the classic era have such status. New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited earned it, of course, twice. Santa Fe’s Super Chief comes to mind. There are a few others. Then there’s the California Zephyr, that svelte, stainless-steel domeliner that made a glittering splash in the postwar streamliner era. The CZ got its first full-dress book in 1975 with Karl Zim...
2

When a new locomotive comes to town

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Last week I found myself driving down Milwaukee’s lakefront to participate in a rite that goes back at least 80 years: the introduction of a new passenger locomotive at the downtown depot. The city was oblivious, however. There were no news reporters at the station, no politicians, no high-ranking railroad officials. Just me, my friend Craig Willett (a retired Amtrak engineer), a few current Amtrak employees, and a sparkling new example of the latest in motive power, gleaming in the soft ...
12

'Tornado' and the magic of high-speed steam

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Last week the steam preservation world was abuzz with the news that Britain’s ultimate steam star — A1-class 4-6-2 Tornado — had reached 100 mph on April 12 in a special trial run between Doncaster and Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line. The news was sensational on both sides of the Atlantic, where hitting the “century mark” is seen as an almost magical feat for a steam locomotive. That fascination goes back to the late 19th century, and judging from the reactio...
4

Getting wistful about Atlanta & West Point 290

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s shaping up to be a good year for mainline steam locomotives. This month, Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844 is back in action. Just this past weekend, Norfolk Southern drew crowds again with Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611. Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 and Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 both have trips scheduled for summer. Perhaps best of all, Western Maryland Scenic plans to unveil fully restored Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 No. 1309 later in the summer. Are we back to the go-go 1990s? I...
4

Fifty years of the NTSB

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
In a season when everyone, it seems, has a problem with some aspect of the U.S. government, it might seem foolhardy to hold up a federal agency as an object of near-unanimous respect, even admiration. But I’m going to do that anyway, because this week marks the 50th anniversary of the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB opened for business on April 1, 1967, after years of preparation by legions of politicians, bureaucrats, and transportation professionals, all with a goal of cr...
10

With the Boomer, talk turns to Pullmans

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I’m enjoying my perennial (and wandering) conversation with Ed “The Boomer” King, retired railroader and man of letters, now enjoying the good life in Largo, Fla. Most of the time when I bring Ed into this space, we gravitate to our favorite subject: steam locomotives. But that’s a favorite only by degree. There are so many other worthy topics! Take sleeping cars, for instance, or more specifically, specific cars on specific trains in the heyday of the Pullman Company. I...
9

Searching for the King’s Dinner

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the great trains I never rode, I think I’d put Illinois Central’s streamlined Panama Limited at the top. What? Not the Century? The Super Chief? What kind of heresy is this? Please hear me out. Of course I would have loved to ride those other two trains. They probably were the best by conventional definition. Lord knows there are enough books, photographs, posters, Broadway musicals, and movie appearances about the Century and the Super to make the argument. But the Panama ...
7

Consider the Irish-American railroader

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Until recently, I never made much of my ethnic background, which is three-quarters Irish. I grew up in a small Midwestern industrial town where ethnicity didn’t seem to matter much, at least outwardly. In the Keefe house, being Irish was an afterthought, a footnote. Perhaps that was because, at some point lost in our history, the Keefes stopped being Catholic, which they almost certainly were in Ireland. Instead, I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, hardly a Gaelic institution. Things c...
3

Boston keeps the faith with PCC cars

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I’ve always loved PCC streetcars. The way they look, the way they sound — to me they’re the very essence of big-city street transit. Though their basic design dates to 1936, I don’t think they look old-fashioned at all. They’re timeless, like an F unit. That’s why I was heartened by the news last week that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has decided to spend some money to keep its small fleet of PCCs rolling on the historic Mattapan High Spee...
8

CP remembers Nicholas Morant

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
In May 1989, I traveled to Revelstoke, B.C., to cover the dedication of Canadian Pacific’s massive renovation of its main line through Rogers Pass, 262 miles west of Calgary in the rugged heart of the Rockies. The event was what you’d expect from CP, several days of bagpipes and speeches, press trips through 9.1-mile Mount Macdonald Tunnel, and other forms of pomp and circumstance. Magnificent as all that was, the best part for me was the solitary drive back to Calgary along the Tra...

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