Twilight for 'Twilight of Steam' author Ron Ziel

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, December 19, 2016

I never met noted steam photographer Ron Ziel, who passed away Dec. 15 at age 77, but I know him well. That’s because some 50 years ago, he spoke to me from the bookshelf of Brody’s Hobby Shop in downtown Asheville, N.C. I was but a lad, a child in love with steam locomotives, and here was a man who had gone out and photographed the last steam power and put it into a book called “Twilight of Steam Locomotives.” It is still one of my favorites, and I still have the tattered paperback copy that I handled so many times at the hobby shop that I felt guilty about it and saved up allowance money to buy it.

Ziel put his heart and soul into the book. It wasn’t his only work, but to me, it was the one that so well emotionally captured the melancholy of the era: The romance of the lost cause. But it also explored the brutal realities – even going so far as to depict the scrapping of a large locomotive. Many didn’t like it – Trains gave it a bad review and Lucius Beebe described it as unreadable – but I appreciated its honesty, truth, and urgency. Ziel also did something unfathomable to many photographers: He aimed his camera in more directions than a three-quarters action view and went out on days that were foggy, rainy, down right murky.

In the 1970s, I corresponded with Ziel about his photography and even bought a few prints of my favorite short line, the Graham County. Ziel had documented the railroad on one of the many days in the early 1960s when its Shay-powered train derailed. His photos truly captured the essence of the railroad in its last days: Too poor to dieselize or buy new rail or ties but full of heart and character. His portrait of engineer Ed Collins looking back from the cab for a hand signal as conductor Cowan Bateman rerailed a car on a cloudy day is a study in concentration.

With Ziel’s loss, the steam railroad photography world has lost one of its giants. His genius was recognizing that he was living in a fleeting moment as steam gave way to diesels, and doing something about it with a camera in hand. Today, at twilight, I think I shall pour a beverage, and lift the glass in a toast to Ron Ziel, who has now passed with his beloved steam locomotives into the night.


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