‘Canadian Steam!’ revisited

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, October 1, 2020

Despite the evocative Ted Rose watercolor on its cover, Canadian Steam! is a showcase of great black-and-white photography.
If all had gone according to plan this year, just about now we’d be packing up the car for a road trip to Canada to visit old friends. Railroading would be on the menu, as well as good restaurants and the golden countryside of Ontario in autumn.

Alas, the current Covid-19 restrictions got in the way. Canada will have to wait until next year — if we’re lucky. Meanwhile, what to do about the Canadian mood I’m in? For me, the country and the season go together.

It’s hardly a substitute for being there, but the other evening I found myself getting at least a bit of a fix by reaching for a favorite book, David P. Morgan’s Canadian Steam!, a pictorial review of Dominion railroading published by Kalmbach in 1961, the year after steam vanished on Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. It’s a slim book, only 141 pages, but inspired photo editing and Art Director David A. Strassman’s generous use of white space give the book a timeless quality. It still holds up, six decades later.

Among the photos that missed inclusion in Canadian Steam! is Robert Hale's view of a CP mixed train. 
The book is also a showcase for some of Morgan’s writing. It’s full of the ringing, potent phrases for which he is known. “Only the steam locomotive could have conquered Canada,” he states flatly. “The steam locomotive, by forestalling secession and implementing sovereignty, was a political instrument as well as a civilizing agent.”

More to the point, perhaps, he muses on the inimitable versatility of Canadian motive power, grounded in the fact that the country was dominated by two sprawling, transcontinental systems: “The transcons required and bought universal locomotives that could haul sleepers or wheat with equal ease, burn oil in Alberta or coal in Nova Scotia, and exchange parts with sisters working the breadth of a continent away.”

Phil Hastings chose a low angle for his view of CP 4-4-0 No. 136's engineer. 
Yet, as the book commences to show, for all that uniformity Canadian steam power could be wildly varied. Any company that could field both 4-4-0s and 2-10-4s at the same point in history — that would be Canadian Pacific 29, 136, and 144 and their 36 big-brother Selkirks — was worth paying attention to.

And pay attention many photographers did, including, as the book shows, several excellent Canadian shooters, as well as some of the biggest names on the American scene. Driven by the earlier disappearance of mainline steam in most of the U.S., by the mid-1950s the Americans were flocking north of the border to record CN bullet-nose 4-8-2s, streamlined CP Royal Hudsons, and the branchline power of both carriers. 

Call it a gimmick, but for the blog this week I thought it would be fun to present some of the images that didn’t quite make the book, but could have. I focused on five photographers: Robert Hale, Philip R. Hastings, John A. Rehor, Jim Shaughnessy, and Don Wood. The goal was to find 8 x 10 prints that Morgan and Strassman might have agonized over before laying them aside.

CN Ten-Wheeler 1541 passes Hagersville's leaning interlocking tower in a John Rehor photo.
The CP file was loaded with Californian Robert Hale’s typically muscular shots of big power in full flight, but I was taken more with this frigid, bucolic scene as CP’s Stewart Valley mixed train races across the frozen Saskatchewan prairie toward Swift Current in December 1956. The Pacific up front is having no trouble with its seven freight cars and single combine.

Leave it to the good doctor — that would be Phil Hastings — to get up close and personal, in this case riding in the cab of CP No. 136 during his first foray to the Maritimes with Morgan in 1954. I love Phil’s note on the back of the print: “Engine 136’s backhead presents a conservative selection of essential levers and valves not intended to intimidate the engineman.” Rest assured, Phil, the hogger appears to be fully in charge.

Jim Shaughnessy caught a CN 4-8-4 heading for the sunset with a Chicago-bound freight.
John Rehor is best known for his authorship of books on his beloved Nickel Plate Road, but John managed to get some excellent coverage of steam’s twilight across Lake Erie from his home state of Ohio. He could also cram loads of detail into a photograph, as witness this September 1957 scene as a CN 4-6-0 on mixed train 233 crosses the Michigan Central at Hagersville, Ont., about 45 miles southeast of Hamilton. From John’s note on the print: “Yes, the tower does lean.”

If any photographer dominates Canadian Steam! it’s the perceptive and prolific Jim Shaughnessy, who made countless trips to the Dominion from his home in Troy, N.Y. He is represented here by a stirring going-away shot of CN 4-8-4 No. 6202, accelerating tonnage out of Cantic Junction, Que., and into a Canadian sunset in January 1957. The train is 491, a hot New England–Chicago freight via Sarnia, Ont., and the Grand Trunk Western. 

Don Wood found a CN Mogul on the turntable at Owen Sound, Ont.
Finally, we have an image by one of the deans of Eastern photographers, the intrepid Don Wood, who captured the sturdy lines of CN E-10a 2-6-0 No. 86 riding the short turntable at the Georgian Bay port of Owen Sound, Ont., 118 miles northwest of Toronto. Don made the shot on July 23, 1957. Now even this branch line is gone, having been torn up in 1995.

If this sampling of almost-made-it photographs whets your appetite, then the good news is that there are collector copies of Canadian Steam! out there at various online sources, and for bargain prices. It’s a worthy addition to any railroad library, for, as D.P.M. accurately observes, “There was never a setting for steam that surpassed Canada.”

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