More vintage train books ... that may still excite kids

Posted by Bob Keller
on Monday, September 16, 2019

There are many great tales of heroics and humanly in railroading. This book captures many of them without excess melodrama.

I had previously written about a few favorite railroad books from my boyhood. I was rummaging in the basement and found a few more from my pre-junior high days as an enthusiast. If you missed any of these you can find most of them at train shows, specialty railroad book sellers (often in the bargain bin), and of course eBay and Amazon. 

Clear the Tracks: True Stories of Railroading by Julius Wolfe (1952, J.B. Lippincott): Clear the track: True stories written for youngsters (not first graders, but grade six and beyond will probably enjoy them). Written with style without being overly dramatic or gory

This volume covers the creation American railroading as well as mergers, strikes, Pullman changing travel,and ruthless robber barons. Targeted in a kid-friendly way.

Railroads in the Days of Steam by Albert L. McCready (1960, American Heritage Publishing). The first brief overall history I read of railroading that discussed its creation, development, and everything from clearing Buffalo from the plains to bank robbers and union strikes. Very colorfully illustrated with period ads and illustrations, but there are a number of photos in it as well. The book doesn't attempt to cover contemporary railroading (even when it was published in 1960) and the focus is the steam age. The one "Old Timey" railroad history that I have regularly turned to for information about the "boring" phase of American railroading. Hey, we all know "real" railroading didn't kick in until the 1920s, right?

When Lucius Beebe wanted to photograph specific trains at a certain spot, he could hook up his private car to a train, and leave the driving to someone else.

High Iron: A Book of Trains by Lucius Beebe (1938, Bonanza Book edition 1960s). Lucius Beebe was unique by any standards. Writer, gourmet, private car owner, and strangest of all considering his place in New York and California society, a train enthusiast. He was in for forefront of rail hobby photography and was superb at catching fast freights and passenger train blasting past with billowing streams of smoke and steam. He was ahead of his time. The only criticisms I have of this book are first: That most of the images are 3/4 wedge shots. And second: The Bonanza books edition was run on really cheap paper. But priced at under $6, it was made to fly off shelves – not be a tabletop art book.

Illustrated almost entirely by vintage newspaper and book art, this volume has an element of 'you are there' when you read it.

No way you're gonna come up with an image like this on your iPhone!

Hear the Train Blow: A Pictorial Epic of America in the Railroad Age by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg (1952, E.P. Dutton). This book is a dramatic presentation of railroading told almost entirely through line art illustrations that you might have seen in the newspapers and magazines of the day. It can be a bit over the top at times, but it captures the drama of when trains were still a pretty new fangled thing. I'll take it off he shelf every few years and read a few chapters. It can be fun (and in sections about railroad safety) and it illustrates how far railways have evolved.

This covers the end of regular steam locomotion in North America. When I got this book as a kid, I never would have guessed that 50 years later you would have Big Boys, Challengers, Northerns, and Berkshires a plenty in operation

Sadly, the book contains more of this than success stories.

Twilight of the Steam Locomotives by Ron Ziel (1963, Grosset & Dunlap). This is a sad one. Ron Ziel set out to capture the final days of steam power in North America. It wasn't a pretty sight. For every locomotive placed in a pristine, vandal-free display there were probably hundreds rusting away awaiting the scrapper. Steam locomotives are one of the few machines that you can almost see a spirit in. To see how suddenly (and even carelessly) they're disposed of can be unpleasant. But you can also appreciate the years of reliable service these machines completed. These are the machines that made World War Two victory possible. A few years later Ziel followed this up with Twilight of World Steam.

If you want to dip into railroad history without spending a fortune ($60 for a new railroad book ... seriously?), you could do worse than these titles. – Bob

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