My favorite train books ... when I was a kid

Posted by Bob Keller
on Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Wonder Book of Trains (1957 Edition) was a good intro for this train kid circa 1966. I think it still stands reasonably well as one of those 'this point in time' overviews of the state of the industry.

Like most of us in the hobby, I have pretty much been a life-long train goober. While an uncle gave me a train set for my first Christmas, I had the usual assortment of real toy trains (Auburn rubber locomotives, little die-cast push metal steamers), and I even used my brass Casey Jones steam engine bank (with a happy face cast into the firebox) to pull imaginary trains.

When I started reading, my first elementary school had no library. But the second school I attended did. It was a bit shy on railroad titles. Most of what they had were maybe a step or two above the Little Engine That Could reading level. Most were lots of large, dramatic pictures but tended to be short on facts. The lone exception was that American Heritage railroad history that largely focused on what I now call the “boring era” of American railroading (pre-1930).

Now when I arrived in Junior High I thought our library had everything a railroad enthusiast wanted. There were two books that I read and then had my mother order for me for my home bookshelf. One was a hard-facts reference, The Wonder Book of Trains by Norman Carlisle (Holt, 1946 and 1957). This was the “New Revised Edition” ‘57.

The other was fiction, from what would now be called the Young Adult category. It is The Long Trains Roll by Stephen W. Meaders with outstanding illustrations by Edward Shenton (Harcourt, 1944). One book provided facts and a panoramic view of the industry, and the other encapsulated the excitement or railroading. Both left a lasting impression.

The Wonder Book of Trains

This book covered the creation and expansion of railroads in America and the lore as well. In went into reasonable depth on technology: The evolution of couplers, airbrakes, couplers, locomotive assembly, passenger train operations, drilling tunnels and even snow removal.

It also accented the science involved and that there was a constant effort to improve railway operation and efficiency. It also made serious mention of model railroading, both two and three-rail.

The photos are virtually all railroad publicity shots that look great, and the text was certainly very readable for “a kid.” Over the years I’ve gone back to it a few times for some technical information and never came away with the notion it was dumbed down.

Upon reflection, even in 2019 this volume isn’t a bad entry point for an adult who knows little about trains and railroading, but wants to learn about how we got to today (okay, say 1960).

I did a check of Amazon and didn’t turn up any copies of this volume, but eBay had quite of few of the original volume, but none listed for the 1957 edition.

The Long Trains Roll

The nuts and bolts of roadbed, locomotive, train crews, and luxury trains are one thing. These are the basic elements of the industry. But what about excitement?

Railroad fiction has a long history. Indeed its home may have been the venerable Railroad Magazine (originated as Railroad Stories magazine). The longtime editor of Railroad, Freeman Hubbard, kept the tradition alive into at least my time as a reader. Unfortunately, I wasn’t familiar with pulp fiction (I now think it is more readable than I did) and I just couldn’t get into many of the short stories they published.

The Long Trains Roll caught me from the moment I pulled the book off the shelf. Even I recognized the realistic profile of a Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive on the cover. Flipping through it the illustrations were a mix of stylistic, mood-setting images, and other, more authentic rail images. Needless to say I checked it out and had it read by the next Monday.

It is the tale of a lad, Randy MacDougall, the youngest member of a railroading family that lives in Calico Gap – on a four track line through the Appalachian Mountains. But come on, we all knew it was the Pennsy!

Pop was an engineer, his older sister a secretary in the car shops, two older brothers are Army railroaders overseas. Though still in school, he considers himself a future railroader. But it is the summer break and he has a tough summer job working on a track gang.

It turns out that one of the track gang is a dirty Nazi spy in cahoots with other spies planning to sabotage the railroad and bottle up war shipments to Atlantic ports.

The story is well paced and the background texture of railroad (and track gang) operations seemed pretty authentic to me. I re-read it a few years ago and I found it to be a page-turner.

You can find copies of this on both Amazon and eBay in the $20 range.

The only other railroad fiction that has held my attention has been Andrew Martin’s series of Jim Stringer detective stories, starting with The Necropolis Railway (set in 1903) and ending with Night Train to Jamalpur (set in 1923), but the topics are more adult and not quite as free flowing as this novel.

 Both books helped set the stage for a long life of reading about railroads and enjoying most of what I’ve digested!

 

 

This was a solid adventure story about a 'kid' working a summer job on a track gang who helps save the war effort by foiling a Nazi spy ring!

The illustrations help set the mood for this wartime spy and railroad story. Fear not, but used copies of the out-of-print title can still be found on Amazon and eBay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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