Discovering Cecil Hommerding’s photography

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, January 15, 2021

In 1950 at Walbridge, Ohio, a member of the engine crew poses with C&O 3019, one of the railroad’s 40 2-10-4s built by Lima in 1930. Cecil Hommerding
After looking at and editing tens of thousands of railroad photographs over 45 years, I’m tempted to say I’ve seen it all. But I haven’t. Not by a mile. There are always more surprises out there waiting to be encountered.

Case in point: an email I received a couple of weeks ago from my friend Doug Leffler, a veteran railfan photographer from Jackson, Mich. Attached to Doug’s note were a number of black-and-white photographs I’d never seen before, by a man I’d never heard of. It was steam-era stuff, nicely composed and super sharp.

I had to find out more. It turns out Doug has a story familiar to anyone who’s gotten to know a photographer from a previous generation and felt their work deserved to be seen. It’s been a common occurrence in recent years as the generation that shot the steam-to-diesel transition has passed on. In Doug’s case, I found the circumstances especially touching.

In an early 1950s view from the coaling tower, a 2-8-2 occupies the foreground while several engines linger in the Jackson roundhouse. Cecil Hommerding
Doug’s friend was Cecil Hommerding, who also lived in Jackson and worked for a local electrical supply company. His hobbies were railroads and local history, both of which benefited from his camera. Doug got to know Cecil back when Doug was in high school in the mid-1960s and working part-time at a local camera shop. Doug takes it from there:

“I worked after school and on Saturdays,” recalls Doug, “and Cecil would bring in his film to be processed. One day he had some railroad photos amongst the photos that he was picking up. We then talked railroading and quickly became friends.”

These weren’t just run-of-the-mill train photos. Executed with more than a little expertise, especially compositionally, they covered a lot of ground in southeastern Michigan and into northwest Ohio, depicting the last years of steam and the dawn of the diesel on Grand Trunk Western, Chesapeake & Ohio, New York Central, and other roads.

A westbound New York Central freight behind F7 diesels passes a clearance car at Jackson in the early 1950s. Cecil Hommerding
Like so many photographers of that era, Hommerding tended to be drawn to engine terminals. Maybe he liked the target-rich environment, or maybe he was wary of trying to get high-speed action shots with the film of the era, although the portrait of him here appears to show a perfectly capable 2-1/4 twin-lens reflex, the brand of which is unclear to me.

At any rate, around 1950 there were plenty of great division points where you could count on seeing something. In Hommerding’s own hometown were the Michigan Central shops and roundhouse, a big fixed plant appropriate to a New York Central property. Just 51 miles away to the northeast was Grand Trunk Western’s celebrated Durand terminal, which saw steam into 1960. A slightly longer drive to the southeast got Hommerding to Toledo, where he gravitated to Chesapeake & Ohio’s huge Walbridge Yard.

Grand Trunk Western 3750, an Alco-built 2-8-2, congregates with a GP9 at Durand, Mich., on April 20, 1958. Cecil Hommerding
Like so many photographers of his generation, Hommerding was hooked on steam. “Cecil shot a few diesels when they first arrived in Jackson,” says Doug, “but for the most part, his railfanning ended with the end of steam. He did, however have some 'O' gauge models early on, but even they lost his interest over time.”

Leffler and Hommerding were friends for about 18 years. Before Hommerding died in 1983 of congestive heart failure, he saw to it that Doug inherited his archive of several hundred negatives. “He wanted his collection to have a good home,” says Doug. “I saw him in weakened condition at his home about two weeks before he passed. He was almost like a close relative, and I took the death hard.”

A lot of us likely can relate to Doug’s cross-generational friendship with Cecil. How fortunate we are that Hommerding saw the lasting value of this work, and that Doug is willing to share it with us. It’s one of the nicest surprises I’ve encountered lately. 

Hommerding (with camera) and friends on an NYC fan trip in 1954. Jim Findlay

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