DPM’s best book, 50 years later

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, June 11, 2018

David P. Morgan's landmark book Locomotive 4501, a heartfelt account of the Southern Railway 2-8-2's history and early excursion career, was published 50 years ago this year. Although its cover its yellowed and worn with age, the book itself retains its enduring appeal.
The ad on page 2 of the February 1969 issue of Trainsmagazine had an intriguing headline: “The Biography of a 2-8-2.”

It was Kalmbach’s way of announcing a new book, a perhaps an unprecedented book, a book about a single locomotive. “We can’t recall a previous book devoted to one engine; but then, there’s never been one engine quite like the 4501,” said the copy.

Thus did the world learn of the arrival of David P. Morgan’s Locomotive 4501, a slim but substantial volume about the revival of Southern Railway 2-8-2 No. 4501, built by Baldwin in 1911, purchased from the Kentucky & Tennessee short line by preservationist Paul Merriman, and revived in Chattanooga in 1966. The ad promised 127 pages of history, great photography, and, of course, DPM’s peerless prose. You could have your own copy by cutting out a coupon at the bottom of the ad and sending in the princely sum of $7.95.

Fifty years later, the book endures, in part because 4501 endures, running a regular schedule at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and reminding us of its role as one of the pioneering machines of the mainline steam excursion business.

The book also endures because it was Morgan’s finest. He had others, of course. In the early 1950s he wrote a wonderful book for children called True Adventures of Railroaders; I encountered it at my local library in 1960, at age 9. In 1963 came Diesels West!, an analysis of the Burlington’s shift away from steam. In 1959’s Steam’s Finest Hour, DPM paid lavish tribute to the ultimate machines of the Super Power era. In perhaps his most popular book, The Mohawk That Refused to Abdicate and Other Talesof 1975, he revisited his 1950s steam safaris with photographer Philip R. Hastings.

Locomotive 4501 is a showcase for the work of John Gruber, whose arresting photographs in the pages of Trains magazine were creating a stir in the 1960s. This image from the book's title page shows the Mikado at the Southern's Chattanooga station.
Of all of them, I think Locomotive 4501is the best. On previous occasions I’ve referred to it as Morgan’s “most fully realized” book. By that I mean it wasn’t an anthology of previous work, or a series of short passages in support of photographs, or (as in the case of the CB&Q book) produced at the behest of a corporate sponsor.

In Locomotive 4501, Morgan started from scratch, writing a complete narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wasn’t all that much text —about 20,000 words — but it told a compelling story. It was the kind of book you couldn’t put down the first time you encountered it, and would also call to you again and again in the years to come. How many railroad writers — or any kind of writer — can do that?

Morgan and the 4501 were made for each other. The editor was a southerner who spent his childhood in Monticello, Ga., and his teenage years in suburban Louisville. He probably knew the Southern Railway as well as he did his favorite railroad, the L&N. All of that background came to the fore in Locomotive 4501, especially in his reporting on 4501’s 1,450-mile trek from Chattanooga to Richmond, Va., for the 1966 convention of the National Railway Historical Society.  

It wasn’t all DPM. Morgan had two key collaborators on the book. One was George Gloff, his close friend and longtime colleague. As Trains’ art director, Gloff served as a sort of graphic extension of the editor himself, so closely did they work together. Gloff’s generous use of white space, his tasteful typography, and his signature ability to crop a black-and-white photograph gave the book a contemporary feel it retains to this day. 

Then there was photographer John Gruber, whose contributions to the book were nearly as essential as Morgan’s. John was coming into his own then as one of Trains’ most prolific photographers, and his bold work, especially with a telephoto lens, really appealed to Morgan’s sensibilities. There were other photographers represented in the book — familiar names such as Victor Hand, J. J. Young, and Don Phillips — but mostly this was a Gruber showcase. 

A star figure in Morgan's book is Walter Dove, the 4501's regular engineer in the mid-1960s. Gruber's portrait of Dove at the 2-8-2's throttle suggests the bond between man and machine typical of steam locomotives and their handlers. 
Gruber accompanied Morgan on those debut excursions out of Chattanooga and was over, under, and around the 4501 from every conceivable angle. His vivid photographs captured the headiness of those first few trips, whether he was aiming his telephoto for a remarkable movielike action sequence on an S curve or getting up close and personal with the 4501’s crew. 

My favorite images in the entire book are on pages 96-97, a series of four photographs in which SR President D. W. Brosnan, VP (and future President) W. Graham Claytor Jr., and engineer Walter Dove have a brief conversation alongside the engine during a break in the action. Gruber shows the men smiling almost imperceptibly, as if they’re sharing the secret that, thanks to the 4501, the business they’re in can be a hell of a lot of fun. Gruber’s quick reflexes fix a fleeting moment.

In the end, though, the greatest joys of the book come straight from DPM’s typewriter. I’d argue that Morgan was operating at his peak here, synthesizing as only he could a mixture of gorgeous prose, deep reporting, and salient facts and figures, all cast against a backdrop of enlightening historical context. 

That’s what makes Locomotive 4501so great. It does so much all at once. More than anything else, it explains the enduring appeal of steam. If anyone you know were to ask, “what’s all this fuss about steam engines?” just hand them this book. Consider this smashing opening passage:

“The formula for the steam locomotive dawned upon man before Santa Ana took the Alamo, yet so correct and simple was the prescription that it has endured without — indeed, even resisted — change ever since. Its central component is a horizontal firetube boiler with a firebox under one end and a smokestack stop the other. This steam generator is mounted on a frame bracketed up front by a pair of cylinders coupled by main and side rods to flanged wheels which track on wheels below.

“Fire and water do the rest.”

Although Locomotive 4501has been out of print for probably 40 years, copies are easy to track down online, albeit usually at three times or more that old $7.95 price. It’s worth it. The book and the story it tells feel as immediate as the day it arrived from the printer in 1968. If you love steam, and you don’t have a copy in your library, you know what to do.

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