The man they called D.P.M.

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, July 27, 2010

If you began reading Trains magazine the past 20 years, you may wonder at the frequent mentions on its pages and online, almost always in reverential manner, of David P. Morgan, when in fact nothing he wrote for that magazine has appeared on its pages since 1993. He joined the staff of Trains in 1948, after military service, and was its editor from 1953 until his retirement in May of 1987. Morgan died in 1990.
 
D.P.M., as he called himself in his many little notes and essays in each issue, knew railroad history like almost no one else. But his real skills, in my opinion, were three. First, he was the most dogged of reporters; that is, gatherer of facts, and without facts, journalism is useless. Next, he possessed exceptional analytical abilities, helped along, I think, by his introversion and unease around unfamiliar people that caused him to turn inward with his thoughts. He could take an ocean of facts and mold it into a smooth river of analysis. Finally, D.P.M. was blessed with a rare gift of expression. He could make you laugh or cry, if it were emotion he desired, or force you to think, if it were the other side of your brain he sought to inhabit. Put all of this together: the fact gatherer, the introverted analyst, the writer. The result is extraordinary writing poured into the pages of Trains over the course of nearly four decades.
 
Do I have you interested? The place to go is Confessions of a Train-Watcher, an anthology of his writing published in 1997 by Kalmbach Books and available for less than $15 (when I looked recently) through online sellers of used books such as AbeBooks.com and Alibris.com. Confessions is the second of my occasional recommendations of desert-island railroad books.
 
My friend and Morgan’s former colleague George Drury edited this collection, which is ideal for surfing when you have a few minutes and want to be entertained by D.P.M.’s writing. The single best feature story Morgan ever wrote, “World’s Busiest Mountain Railroad,” about the Pennsylvania Railroad between Altoona, Pa., and Pittsburgh, is not here, undoubtedly because it was too long. But there is plenty to like, beginning with Kevin P. Keefe’s sparkling introduction of the man in the foreword and continuing through sections about train-watching, reporting on the railroad industry, travel, and miscellaneous essays and reminiscences.
 
Some excerpts from Confessions of a Train-Watcher:
 
“Where the West Began” (1959): "According to those whose word you accept on the subject, the American West begins at the Mississippi River, or the banks of the Missouri, or even at the foot of the Rockies. Which may be true in geography or history. But Western railroading begins at the bumper posts in Dearborn Station, Chicago, where the drumhead signatures of Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe limiteds glow in the perpetual dusk. And the West unrolls across the Illinois Division. You see as much in the desert-yellow agencies, the big bridges, most of all in the trains . . . .
 
Confessions of a Train-Watcher (1957): “Even if railroading ended tonight at 11:59, you and I would have been the fortunate ones — those who experienced the great drama, who were close by during one of those rare seasons when man’s genius produced something at once useful and beautiful.”
 
If You Knew Katy (1960): “Wonder if I might put in a word here for Matthew Scott Sloan who ran the Missouri-Kansas-Texas for a long spell (1934-1945) which will remain forever memorable ... for sensitive souls ... for me. Now Mr. Sloan was a railroad neophyte; an electric utilities exec with a home address in Brooklyn, N.Y.; a strong-willed, bulldog-tempered man; the man who barehandedly hauled Katy out of the depression and through the war. But he wasn’t content to fiddle with finances; he wanted to run the trains, too. He went roaming on his railroad in a Chrysler on flanged wheels to see if the ballast had a fine, straight edge, to see the Denison Shop turning out boxcars in bright yellow per his memo, to see the Texas Special thunder past on the advertised as he had insisted that it should. I never met the man. But I did see his Katy. Glory, but it was a fine experience: the green passenger equipment with gilt lettering and red-and-white embossed Katy heralds hung between the baggage car doors; the rock-ballasted iron with not a stone out of place from one semaphore to the next; the dining car meals so rare that a Dallas businessman used to ride out to Greenville just to have a Katy dinner.... Seems now in retrospect that Katy survived so de luxe for so brief a season. But how fine to remember when a railroad could look an institution as well as be one.”
 
A Conversation With A. E. Perlman (1974): “In my experience, the typical railroad president is less than candid with young journalists. I think he suspects their knowledge; he lapses into AAR-handout answers and he looks relieved when his p.r. aide summons him back aboard the company jet.
            
“Alfred Edward Perlman is not your typical railroad president. He is a man of strong likes and dislikes; and when he dislikes something, somebody hears about it. Thus it was that I first met the man in 1956. I was riding an Xplorer press trip to Erie, Pa., there to inspect a CTC machine which he had installed to reduce New York Central’s main line from four tracks to two. I was minding my own business, thumbing through the press kit, taking in a 2-8-4 we were overtaking on the parallel Nickel Plate Road, when suddenly Perlman was easing into the seat beside me, shaking hands, and in that deceptively mild voice of his, taking me to task for a critical editorial Trains had published about his passenger policy. I was taken aback. Railroad presidents don’t seek me out, yet here he was citing chapter and verse and statistic to prove he was right and my editorial was wrong.... I liked him, as I do anyone whose passion is a better way to run a railroad.”
 
It leaves you wanting to read the rest of these stories, doesn’t it? A few more to leave you with.
 
This Is It (1960): “This, for my money, is the most arresting single scenic site in all of American railroading: Hanging Bridge in the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River on the Denver & Rio Grande Western. The boiling waters crash through a canyon just 30 feet wide at the base and more than a thousand feet deep. Each day at 10:17 a.m. and 1:36 p.m., trains 2 and 1, the Royal Gorge, pause 10 minutes so that the passengers can absorb it all. ‘Nowhere else does man come closer to realization of the Infinite,’ says the guidebook. For a few moments one is suspended apart from the trappings of civilization, insulated against the works of man. Here is the culmination of uncounted centuries of the knifelike action of river on rock. Here the distractions of asphalt and neon and print are nonexistent.
            
“Down here there is simply God ... and the Rio Grande”
 
The All-American Railroad (1985): “So the nominee is Northern Pacific. It possessed the name, the heritage, the route, the trains, the scenery, the locomotives, the emblem to underwrite a consensus. A middleman, geographically and physically: older but weaker than Great Northern on the north, stronger than Milwaukee Road on the south. Rich in heritage, following the trail of Lewis and Clark, created by an Act of Congress bearing the signature of A. Lincoln. Traditional as a semaphore blade and T-rail. Long enough at 6,700 route-miles to spread across six big states but not so far as to be incomprehensible. And tough: year-round in the summits it fought, every winter in the weather it faced.”
 
There’s a Spot in My Heart (1976): “Thus are the wonderments of memories — old ones deserving of print, new ones abuilding. Fresh depths of soul never sounded or known. For instance, down in Louisville, out on River Road, some sensitive souls are striving mightily to breathe life into a metal hulk numbered 152 and classified K-2A, Rogers serial 6256. There is reason to believe, I am informed, that one morning a fire will burn on her grates and the needle on her steam-pressure gauge will lift toward 200. Conceivably, the veteran Pacific could walk out of Union Station, whistle an acknowledgment to the waving South Louisville shopmen, bang across the Salt River bridge at Shepherdsville at 45 or 50 mph, and lean into the curve at Bardstown Junction. If so, she will impress upon a new generation the images of L&N [Louisville & Nashville] that her long-scrapped sisters imparted to me. That would — let us hope will — be a worthwhile endeavor. So sing on, John Gary; the verse is right . . . there is a spot in my heart which no other railroad may own.”

I barely knew David. We spoke on the phone, and he bravely commissioned in 1978 my first story for Trains, buying a pig in a poke and no doubt wondering whether I really could produce a publishable story about Kansas City Southern. Later he phoned me. "It's far too long," he said quietly. My heart sank. "We'll have to serialize it." "What's that mean?" "Run it in two issues." I was the happiest guy on earth. A couple of years later he had dinner with Don Phillips and I at a restaurant near the old National Airport in Virginia. None of the fabled introvert that night; he was jolly and urbane. Maybe it was the VO talking. At any rate, from the age of 12 I worshiped David Morgan. I learned to write better by reading him, over and over. Find this book, and you will forever appreciate the man they called D.P.M. -- Fred W. Frailey

 

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