Ted Rose’s excellent Mexican adventures

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, November 5, 2020

Ted Rose climbed atop a 2-6-6-2 to get this photo of NdeM Mikado 2117 on the turntable at the Tlalnepantla de Baz roundhouse. Ted Rose, Center for Railroad Art & Photography collection
Six weeks ago, I wrote here about how some prominent American railroad photographers scampered up to Canada to shoot steam as it was disappearing in the U.S. A lot of great photographs were made there, rendered all the more poignant because time was running out in the Dominion as well.

I neglected to mention that the same dynamic caused some influential shooters to head south, to Mexico, where some fantastic steam railroading was there for the taking, if you were in the position to travel that far and didn’t mind the language barrier. Several notable names did some of their best work there, among them Jim Scribbins, Victor Hand, and Ron Ziel.

Ziel went on to write about Mexico in his popular 1963 book The Twilight of Steam Locomotives.

“To those who would see steam do final battle with the diesel; who would take one last walk through a roundhouse and absorb the exotic odors and exciting sounds which have faded with old memories, the time is short,” Ziel wrote. “The journey is indeed rewarding . . . and the steam engine is beautiful to behold in her dying glory.”

NdeM 2-8-2 2117 heads a passenger train though a lovely valley near Acambaro, Guanajuato, in 1960. Ted Rose, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
I thought of what Ziel said a few days ago while attending a virtual seminar about the late Ted Rose, whom I consider the most influential and likely the most highly regarded railroad artist of the late 20th century. Since taking up railroad painting full-time in the early 1980s, he kept up a sustained, astonishing output that ended prematurely with his death in 2002.

The online presentation last week was staged by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (CRPA) and focused in part on Ted’s stunning photography in Mexico. The images of steam on Nacionales de México (NdeM) were so beautiful I had to share some of them here. 

That Ted Rose was good with a camera is not news. His photography came to light 14 years ago when it was featured in an exhibition of his watercolors and black-and-white prints, most of which are images he made in 1960 and ’61 on summer trips to areas northwest of Mexico City. There, he found an endless supply of standard- and narrow-gauge subjects to shoot. It didn’t hurt that so many of the machines he encountered were American products of Baldwin and Alco, among them 2-8-2s, 4-6-2s, and even 4-8-4s. As a living museum of steam, it must have looked achingly familiar to Ted, who had cut his photographic teeth on Illinois Central when he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1950s. 

Ted’s photos were a revelation to an audience more attuned to his work with a paintbrush. That they were so good shouldn’t have been a surprise, though, as explained by the late Curtis L. Carter, director of Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art, which co-sponsored that 2006 exhibit with the CRPA.

Rose captured all the magic of steam at night in this silhouette of an unidentified NdeM engine in 1961. Ted Rose, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
“The artist’s gifted eye for composition is evident throughout his photographic work, whether in selecting a wide panoramic view of a train passing through a landscape, or when focusing on the complex parts of a locomotive at rest,” Carter wrote in the exhibit catalog. “His photographs of NdeM trains blend seamlessly the beauty of the industrial machine and the natural landscape.” 

Evidence of that can be seen here. I chose these photos at random, responding purely on emotion as I made notes during CRPA Executive Director Scott Lothes’ presentation. It turns out two of the four feature 2-8-2 No. 2117, one depicting it at the NdeM roundhouse at Tlalnepantla de Baz (still visible in current satellite imagery, by the way) and another an action view in a lovely valley near Acambaro, Guanajuato state, both taken in 1960. 

The other two photos were made in 1961. The location of the striking silhouette night shot was unidentified by Ted but was possibly the enginehouse in Irapuato, also in Guanajuato. A gregarious sort, Ted was good at winning over the railroaders he met, as evidenced by the two workers contemplating an elegant 4-6-2 at Acambaro in September 1961.

Rose's rapport with railroaders helped him get images like this one of two men and a 4-6-2 at Acambaro, Guanajuato, in 1961. Ted Rose, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
From almost the moment I began working at Trains in 1987, I became aware of Ted Rose, and had the privilege of working with him on a number of projects over the years. I knew him as a peerless watercolorist, of course, but also as a stimulating conversationalist on topics ranging from politics to food to Delta Blues. He was opinionated, irascible, and always good company.

But I had no idea that, for a brief time, he was also a master photographer. We can be grateful that Ted’s widow, Polly Rose, bequeathed his negatives to the CRPA and that these treasures are now available to a new audience. To see more of these images, go to

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