A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
1

Rio Grande Southern No. 20 ready for its star turn

Posted 2 days ago by Kevin Keefe
As if the legend of the fabulous Colorado narrow gauge needs further burnishing, we’ll have a new icon to admire come August 1, when the Colorado Railroad Museum dedicates the latest addition to its roster of operating equipment.  On that Saturday, the museum is scheduled to dedicate former Rio Grande Southern (RGS) 4-6-0 No. 20, the object of a 14-year restoration. As you can see here, the compact Ten-Wheeler is a jewel, likely more gorgeous today than it was when the plan...
3

Union Railroad’s king of steam switchers

Posted 9 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Nowhere is the pace of change over the past 20 years more evident than what has happened to U.S. Steel’s various railroads. Once upon a time, the names Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range; Elgin, Joliet & Eastern; and Bessemer & Lake Erie were as emblematic of America’s biggest steelmaker as the belching mills of Gary and Pittsburgh. Now U.S. Steel appears poised to end its long and celebrated role as a railroad operator. The Trains News Wire recently reported that US...
2

Hall of Fame honors Woodard, Gurley

Posted 16 days ago by Kevin Keefe
The National Railroad Hall of Fame continues to distinguish itself by calling attention to some of the giants of railroading. Last week, the Hall, based in Galesburg, Ill., added two more names to its gallery of inductees: William E. Woodard, famed designer at Lima Locomotive Works; and Fred Gurley, legendary president during Santa Fe’s glory years of the 1940s and ’50s. Organized in 1992, the Hall has done a lot to bring the names of prominent railroaders to a wider audie...
10

In the wake of June 21, 1970

Posted 23 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Monday, June 22, 1970, was a busy news day, judging by the front page of the New York Times. Any of a half-dozen stories could have led the paper: revelations the U.S. was bombing insurgent trails in Cambodia; 220 killed as the “Indochina War” intensified; Attorney General John Mitchell heralding drug raids in 10 cities; protest groups descending on an American Medical Association meeting in Chicago. But all of that was pushed aside for the top spot, the upper-right corner of t...
6

Looking back on DPM’s “finest railroad”

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
The United States reached its peak railroad mileage around 1920, when there were approximately 252,000 route miles across the country. You might say it’s been downhill ever since, although railroad economists would tell you that’s a good thing. But it’s also a good thing to see a substantial new railroad built, like what’s planned for remote northeastern Utah. There, a consortium of public and private interests — notably the railroad holding company Rio Grande Paci...
6

H. Reid could shoot as well as he could write

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
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,...
5

Amfleet enters its own classic era

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
You know the world is shifting below your feet when, one after the other, the routine or the mundane hangs around long enough to become what we all call “classic.”  Case in point: Amtrak’s Amfleet. Recently it was announced that Rail Excursion Management Co., which manages a fleet of private cars for the excursion and heritage railroad biz, has acquired two Amfleet coaches and an Amcafé. The company is said to be the first private operator to acquire examples of th...
5

Nobody could write like Pete Hansen

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Successful magazine editors are in an endless search for talent, especially if most of their content comes from freelance writers. That’s basically the editorial model for Classic Trains and Trains magazines: readers write the stories and the staff edits them. You never know when a manila envelope from the next Fred Frailey is going to land on your desk, or in your email inbox, and when you do, you jump on it.   That these two magazines have done well with this mo...
5

Reading 2124 was a scene stealer

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
I’m easily drawn to the intersection of railroads and movies, especially now with so much time at home. No NBA, no baseball, worn down by pandemic news — I’m ripe for seeing trains on the big screen. If it’s a film I haven’t seen before, even better. That’s why page 9 in the May 1960 issue of Trains magazine caught my eye. Headlined “20th Century-Fox Stars 4-8-4,” the brief photo story shows the platforms of a big-city station and the ar...
3

Rx for the homebound: a new Fred Frailey book

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Sometime in January of 1988, Trains magazine’s production editor, Nancy Bartol, handed me the lineup — we called it the dope sheet — for the May 1988 issue. Listed there for pages 26–45 was something quite exciting: “River Wars,” the first installment of a two-part story by Fred W. Frailey. I had admired Frailey the writer ever since I first encountered his auspicious August 1979 debut in Trains. Reading his Kansas City Southern saga, I thought...
10

When a Hiawatha man championed the 400

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
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 c...
0

The Motive Power Survey had a great run

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
This week I was digging back into my old bound volumes of Trains and headed for the April 1950 issue, 70 years ago. In there I found an early example of what would become a staple of the magazine, the annual Motive Power Survey. I’m sure many of you remember the series.  In this case the story was “The Locomotive in 1949.” It was a doozy, a 4,500-word example of great journalism straddling the end of the steam locomotive and the blossoming of the diesel. My edit...
1

Joe Lesser had his own L.A. story

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
“Los Angeles remains the most photographed and least remembered city in the world.” You don’t have to look very far to find great quotes about Los Angeles — everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Andy Warhol have had plenty to say about the city — but I like the one above, from Norman M. Klein, a California urban historian and writer whose 1997 book, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, landed on a lot of “best of L.A.” li...
5

Random notes on the Rock Island

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Last week’s anniversary of the end of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific — March 31, 1980 — had me reaching for Rock memories. I couldn’t find many. I’d grown up in Michigan, on the entirely wrong side of Chicago, and to me the Rock Island was the stuff of myth, informed by the song sung by Lead Belly and the Weavers, by pictures of the Rocket and the Golden State in Trains magazine, and by glimpses of commuters hustling past the wi...
5

As 1918 shows, railroads have been through this before

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
All the worrisome news on the coronavirus front seems unprecedented, and railroads aren’t getting a pass. Railroaders are still out there on the job, delivering freight and hauling passengers, but they are performing in an increasingly difficult environment.   That’s most visible on the passenger and transit side, where empty trains and draconian schedule reductions have rendered busy main lines eerily quiet. Here in Milwaukee, we’re down to two daily trains between here ...
9

The 'Badger' still feels like the C&O

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Some idle time online earlier this week (aren’t a lot of us doing that these days?) led me to a historical tidbit that caught my attention, thanks to the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society. Last Saturday, March 21, was the 67th anniversary of the day the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway put the carferry Badger into cross-Lake Michigan service. The boat began its career with a departure from Manitowoc, Wis., carrying 32 boxcars loaded with paper from Fox Valley mills.  Si...
7

Mike Yuhas is a great teammate

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
One of the great things about working in Kalmbach’s old headquarters in downtown Milwaukee was the tendency for visitors to show up, unannounced, at any time. Most companies would discourage that, but not Al Kalmbach’s. When a Trains reader showed up at 1027 N. Seventh Street, someone on the staff would be expected to drop everything and — with a smile on their face — show the visitor around. Thus it was on a hot, humid weekday in August 1987 when the phone ran...
4

Hanging out with the "Best Friend of Charleston"

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Over the years I’ve tried to visit as many famous sites in American railroading as possible, not merely just to say I’ve been there, but to see if maybe witnessing them somehow deepens my appreciation of the entire sweep of the industry’s history. Sounds a bit pretentious, perhaps, but that’s been my motivation. I’ve gotten a quiet thrill out of walking the tracks at Promontory when no one was there. I’ve stood where Casey Jones met his fate in lonely Vaughan...
5

The day Burlington Northern showed the way

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
March 2, 1970, was a foggy morning at the former Burlington yard in Cicero, just west of Chicago. Pete Briggs, a former public relations manager with the Q and suddenly doing the same work for brand-new Burlington Northern, stood in the yard with Hedrich-Blessing photographer Bob Harr to get shots of BN’s first Seattle-bound train featuring all BN power, a sextet of brand new GP38s in Cascade green. “Alas,” says Pete, “that morning was totally foggy and the diesels disap...
4

NS can’t take the glory out of Roanoke

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Some cities and machines belong together. Imagine Renton without 707s, or Dearborn without Mustangs, or Groton without submarines. Unthinkable. Maybe that puts Norfolk Southern’s announcement of last week in perspective. The company has decided to shift what remains of its locomotive maintenance and repair in Roanoke, Va., to its Juniata Shop in Altoona, Pa. The company is giving 85 mechanical staff an opportunity to transfer to Altoona, but 19 clerical people will lose their jobs. To NS...
1

Where the Central of Georgia lives on

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
The South is home to several notable railroad museums, including two — the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga — that are among the nation’s best. But there are others worth visiting, including one of my newest favorites, the Georgia State Railroad Museum in Savannah. Although it’s home to a modest collection of locomotives and cars, GSRM can boast of something very special: a campus of buildin...
6

Saving East Broad Top is a really big deal

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Over the past few years I thought I’d seen about as many miracles as one lifetime permits. How else would you describe the return of Union Pacific Big Boy 4014? Or the creation, out of whole cloth, of Jerry Joe Jacobson’s Age of Steam Roundhouse? Or the breathtaking resurrection of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station? We never dared dream of such things. Now comes another, maybe the best of all. As reported today on the Trains News Wire, the East Broad Top Railroad, Pennsy...
0

GM’s domed “Astra Liner” pointed the way

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
“If you go by a school and the kids don’t whistle, then it’s back to the drawing board.” With that, the great General Motors stylist Harley Earl pretty much summed up his design philosophy, one that manifested itself in two generations of Chevys, Pontiacs, Buicks, and Cadillacs adorned with chrome, fins, and bulging taillights. Writing of Earl for Motor Trend, K. Scott Teeters described him as a “visionary with corporate clout and the resources to get anything...
4

Echoes of the Seaboard on Amtrak’s 'Silver Star'

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I went looking for traces of the Seaboard Air Line this week. So why was I standing under the skylight in the waiting room of an Atlantic Coast Line station? Back in the streamliner era, when the two railroads were sworn rivals, you wouldn’t find SAL’s Silver Star on the turf of ACL’s Champion. Unthinkable. They fought each other like crazy for the lucrative New York–Miami trade, with dueling trainsets of gleaming stainless steel.  But now we’r...
6

Photographer Ed Wojtas seized the moment

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
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 cigar...
8

The Challenger at high tide

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A couple of weeks ago, Union Pacific steam boss Ed Dickens clarified what many of us had expected to hear for quite some time, that 4-6-6-4 Challenger No. 3985 won’t be back in service anytime soon, or perhaps ever.  The reasons are pretty obvious: UP’s heritage operations team already has its hands full running and maintaining 4-8-8-4 Big Boy No. 4014 and 4-8-4 No. 844, and bringing back 3985 would require another expensive overhaul. Such are the consequences of running the wh...
7

What if Bing and Danny really took the train?

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
There are several things I can’t do without this season. One of them is the movie White Christmas. I like it despite its mawkishness, its sentimentality, its total improbability. I fall into this film every year the way you fall into gingerbread cookies and eggnog. It’s predictable and comfortable, as Christmas should be. I’m especially fond of the train scene near the beginning, in which old Army buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) head north ...
3

The New Haven in its salad days

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
There are plenty of railroads from the classic era I wish I’d known, but near the top of my list would be the New York, New Haven & Hartford. What a wonderful contradiction, a small Class I outfit in terms of route miles (1,547 in 1967) but major league when it came to its high-speed main line, its electrification, its 4-6-4s and electrics, its society page clientele, and its terminals in Manhattan and Boston. The New Haven packed an impressive punch. My regrets over not witnessing th...
7

D.C. museum’s RPO is an old friend

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Sometimes you encounter old friends in the strangest of places. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago during a brief visit to Washington, D.C. Our trip included a stop at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum at 2 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., across the street from Union Station. Housed in the old main post office, a neo-classical monument constructed in 1914, the museum has an engaging lineup of exhibits, including an old Star Route horse-drawn wagon, some cool mail delivery trucks...
4

Ma & Pa roundhouse is a tarnished gem

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A family trip to Baltimore last weekend afforded me a chance to take a brief detour and check up on the most prominent relic of one of the East’s most famous fairy tale railroads, the Maryland & Pennsylvania. I never saw the “Ma & Pa,” as everyone referred to it, but years ago I stumbled upon its sturdy old roundhouse, which still exists on the northeast side of town, tucked into a hillside on Falls Road just north of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. I vowed to go back....

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