A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
4

The appeal of steam knows no demographic

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I used to worry that my generation would be the last one to care all that much about steam locomotives. Steam disappeared right smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boomers, and it seemed hard to imagine its appeal would last more than two or three more decades. Even railroad friends in my general age range hadn’t seen that much steam, truth be told, unless they grew up around the Grand Trunk Western or the Norfolk & Western or Illinois Central or some of those other railroads where st...
3

Top honors for Joe McMillan and Steve Patterson

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
This is awards season across the cultural spectrum, and that includes railroading. Time for the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s annual Railroad History Awards, just announced on the R&LHS website.  I took special notice last week of the winners of this year’s Fred A. and Jane R. Stindt Photography Award. Yes, that’s winners, plural. The honor goes equally to Joe McMillan and Steve Patterson. These two shouldn’t need much introduction to anyone who...
11

Remembering Katie McMullen, an early '50s "Trains" staffer

Posted 8 months ago by Kevin Keefe
My wife Alison is an inveterate obituary reader, so I have to give her credit for checking the fine print this weekend in the Sunday Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and spotting the December 15 death of Catherine E. “Katie” McMullen at age 90. That name probably won’t mean much to you, but if you were a Trains magazine reader in the early 1950s, or, like me, you have a bit of an obsession with the history of Trains and Kalmbach Publishing Co., then McMullen’s passing is worth...
7

Big transition at the home of N&W’s Big Three

Posted 8 months ago by Kevin Keefe
This wouldn’t ordinarily be the place to report on the comings and goings of railroad museum personnel, but the transition announced last week by the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke is momentous. The city is, after all, the place David P. Morgan called “the Alamo for Steam.” After a hard fought and successful 11-year run, the museum’s executive director Bev Fitzpatrick is retiring on January 1. Succeeding him will be Lisa Sphar, a marketing and community dev...
10

Catching up with Don Hofsommer

Posted 8 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A brief assignment last week in St. Cloud, Minn., afforded me the chance to catch up with an old friend and one of our most accomplished authors. Don Hofsommer is familiar to a couple of generations of Classic Trains and Trains readers. He’s been a frequent contributor to both magazines over the years, and he’s written (by my count) at least 17 books on railroading. Some of them are indispensable, especially when it comes to railroads of the granger Midwest. Don is retired now afte...
13

Fifty years later, the Century refuses to die

Posted 8 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I don’t know what I was doing on the afternoon of December 3, 1967, but I know where I should have been: on the platform of Union Station in South Bend, Ind., awaiting the passage of the last westbound edition of New York Central’s legendary 20th Century Limited. That’s right, it’s been 50 years since NYC pulled the plug on what was generally considered the “world’s most famous train.” The final runs of trains 25 and 26 were unceremonious, as depicted i...
5

Home for Thanksgiving from Farm Lane station

Posted 9 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Thanksgiving week is for riding passenger trains — time for Amtrak’s annual trial by fire. The holiday conjures images of swollen consists on the Northeast Corridor, standing-room-only coaches, station concourses overrun with humanity. My favorite Thanksgiving memory takes me to a place more prosaic: a windswept wooden platform at an isolated grade crossing, unremarkable except for the fact that the place was swarming with hundreds of college students. I was in that crowd, huddled ...
4

Riding the cab of Clinchfield 800

Posted 9 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Amid all the sound and fury over what CSX is doing these days under E. Hunter Harrison, it was nice this week to see the railroad make some positive news, and for the most positive of reasons. On Monday, the railroad unveiled Clinchfield F7 No. 800, fully restored to its original 1948 appearance by shop forces in Huntington, W.Va. The beautiful, fully operational F unit, gleaming in its original gray-and-yellow livery, will be on the head end of CSX’s annual Santa Train on November 18 whe...
6

Fifty years of the Palmdale cutoff

Posted 9 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A random search the other day through back issues of Trains magazine brought me up short. There, on page 8 of the October 1967 issue, was a photo of Southern Pacific SD40 No. 8478, about to punch through a banner at Palmdale, Calif., heralding the opening of the brand new Colton-Palmdale Cutoff, a shortcut around Los Angeles via Cajon Pass. Fifty years! It’s a bit hard to believe. I can remember when news coverage of the opening was proof that at least some railroads could embrace the fut...
9

Richard J. Cook made powerful photographs

Posted 10 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A few days ago I was spending some time in the Classic Trains library, leafing through some folders in the photo archives, when an old familiar name, stamped on the back in customary red italic, jumped out at me: Richard J. Cook. Dick Cook! He’s one of my all-time favorites, in my opinion a major figure in the world of postwar railroad photography. Although perhaps not as famous as Phil Hastings or Jim Shaughnessy or Dick Steinheimer or some others in the pantheon, Cook was a craftsman wh...
11

Izaak Walton Inn lives up to its reputation

Posted 10 months ago by Kevin Keefe
What makes a great railfan hotel? It seems to me the criteria should be pretty simple. After checking off things like creature comforts, cleanliness, and good food — the basics about which there should be little debate — you’re basically left with one question: are there lots of trains, and are they easily seen, felt, and heard? I can think of a lot of places that basically qualify. One of my favorites is La Posada, the beautiful Fred Harvey remake in Winslow, Ariz., hard by t...
5

Bringing light back to Chicago Union Station

Posted 10 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Chicago likes to brag about its architectural heritage, and for good reason. The city nurtured some of the greats, among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and, in the postwar era, the powerful international firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (think “Sears Tower”). Chicago’s great buildings — from the Monadnock Building to the Auditorium Theater to Tribune Tower to Wright’s Oak Park homes — are staples of its popular architectural to...
9

Great Northern 2584 and those flying pumps

Posted 10 months 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 11 months 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...
13

Steinheimer, Peggy Lee, and one photograph’s backstory

Posted 11 months 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 11 months 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 ...
14

Reviving the legend of the South Park

Posted 11 months 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 year 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 year 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 year 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 year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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...

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