Details and Detailing

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, February 2, 2020

In my mid-October 2019 blog, “Red, White and Green”, I featured the photography of my friend Mel Lawrence.  While Mel is probably better-known for his extensive and evocative airliner photography from the 1950s and 60s, he also was a railfan, and photographed trains, equipment, structures and other railroad scenes, as well.

Sadly, in October 2019 Mel passed away, a few days subsequent to his 82nd birthday.  Since he was active in the slide trading/selling communities, I believe that quite a bit of his earliest rail photography is now scattered, and hopefully, preserved in the collections of others.  Much of his material from the 1970s on has survived intact, however, including extensive coverage of rail-oriented museums and tourist roads, as well as Class One railroad operations.

A few of his earliest shots were with the later material at the time of his death, including this marvelous photo of the Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha at Seattle in September 1958, a month short of his twenty-first birthday.  Some of his other material of this vintage suffers from the dual banes of low film speed (ASA/ISO) for the color films of the time, as well as lenses that weren’t nearly as sharp as today’s optics.  This photo, however, benefits from the fact that the train is standing still, meaning that a relatively low shutter speed was probably used, successfully.

The location is Seattle’s Union Station, which the MILW shared with the Union Pacific.  Since the Milwaukee’s passenger trains entered downtown Seattle from the south, the onward journey to Tacoma, their final westbound destination, involved the motive power changing ends at Seattle, and then towing the consist in the opposite direction towards Tacoma.

Departing Tacoma for the east, the process was reversed: the locomotive was on the north end of the train between Tacoma and Seattle, and then placed on the east end of the train at Union Station in preparation to a geographically-oriented southward departure from Seattle for Chicago and intermediate points.  As a result, each train traversed the section between Black River Junction and Union station twice, on the Seattle-Tacoma portion of the train’s route. 

I’d assert that of all the Midwest-West Coast corridors during the post-World War II streamliner era, Chicago-Pacific Northwest was the most colorful.  Think the Great Northern’s green and orange; the Northern Pacific’s pair of paint schemes utilizing two-tone greens, including the striking version by designer Raymond Lowey; the Armour Yellow of the UP “City of Portland”.  Interestingly, until the NP’s use of Budd Slumbercoaches, unpainted stainless steel was not seen regularly on these trains.

The Olympian Hiawatha’s postwar consists were initially maroon and orange.  However, subsequent to the 1955 rerouting of the UP’s “Cities” trains from the Chicago and Northwestern to the Milwaukee Road between Omaha and Chicago, the MILW adopted the UP’s yellow and gray colors on its own passenger equipment, as seen here.

It’s obvious that both the crew member pictured and other employees associated with the appearance care of the Olympian had a good deal of pride in the train.  Channeling a pop song (the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”) almost a decade in the future, it certainly appears that he likes “to keep his engine clean”.  It also (and for that matter, the rest of the train’s consist), certainly merits being described as a “clean machine”.

I’m very glad Mel took this shot, and that I’m able to share it widely now.  Wouldn’t it have been fun to have ridden in one of the side-facing seats near the rear of the “Skytop” observation lounge, getting at least a partial view of the road ahead, as the train headed for Tacoma, that beautiful fall morning?

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