A toast to Lucius Beebe

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 4, 2021

Lucius Beebe, the noted railroad author who died 55 years ago, examines an old glass-plate negative of a Gilded Age Pullman car. Pullman-Standard: Mel Horn
Long before I’d ever heard of David P. Morgan, let alone Wally Abbey or Don Phillips or Fred Frailey or all the other railroad writers I’ve admired, I was a fan of Lucius Beebe. 

My parents had a lot to do with it. Aware that their tow-headed little kid loved trains, around 1958 they purchased Hear the Train Blow, a rambling, picture-driven history of American railroads, written by Beebe (co-credited to his partner Charles Clegg) and produced by E. P. Dutton & Co., a major New York publisher. It was the kind of book you’d see on the coffee tables of people who didn’t necessarily know a thing about the subject, but wanted to it appear otherwise.

The book should have been way over the head of a seven-year-old, but for some reason I wasn’t intimidated. I picked up the book frequently, marveling over all the photographs and 19th-century etchings, but also Beebe’s irresistible prose. He used big words and unfamiliar phrases — I’ll always remember “the nation’s bearded youth” and “the effete ease of Diesel power” — and the railroad context drove me to try to understand what he was saying. 

His chapter titles alone were grabbers: “Zulu No Jug” (immigrants head west by train); “Car Robbers and Bindle Stiffs” (Jesse James and tramps); “The Open Switch” (a veritable catalog of horrifying train wrecks, led by an illustration of a frightening Grim Reaper atop a 4-4-0); and, finally, “Fin de Siécle” (now what did that mean?).

That last chapter was actually a lament, or more to the point a full-blown rant, about the state of railroads in the early 1950s. But it was full of the sort of prose for which Beebe was famous:

“In taking leave of steam railroading, and the ineffable legend of the high iron, America is taking leave of an old friend, whose successor it could not find even if it would. The locomotives and the cars have conditioned every aspect of its life and progress toward the unseen future. It has been good riding, profitable beyond all experience to a nation which has never seen anything but virtue in taking a profit. For the historian, the amateur of departed splendors, the wheel has come full circle and from the vantage point of its completed cycle he can see the pageant of railroading and see it whole.”

Hear the Train Blow (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1952) was one of Beebe's classic celebrations of railroading's steam age.
For several years, Beebe was my talisman for trains, and thanks to my local library I gradually got to know him a lot better. Other books considered by railfans to be classic — I’m thinking here of the Howell-North titles Mixed Train Dailyand The Age of Steam and The Trains We Rode — drew me in deeper. Years later I would hear the criticisms of Beebe, his penchant for exaggeration and his looseness with the facts, all of which are true. But better than anyone else, Beebe made railroading seem heroic.

In a way, Beebe prepared me for what came next: Morgan and Trains magazine. My mother got me a subscription that started with the November 1965 issue, the publication’s memorable 25th-anniversary issue, and I was off to the races. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Here was something a bit like Beebe — erudite, engrossing, beautifully illustrated — and it would come to my house every month!

But it didn’t take long for Trains to break my teenage heart. I was only into my sixth issue, April 1966, when I turned to page 4 to see this headline: “Lucius Morris Beebe, 1902-1966.” Accompanying the obituary was a photo of Beebe, my first glimpse of him, an imposing figure holding up a glass-plate negative. I was just getting started and suddenly this bigger-than-life force was gone. 

As he always did with obits, Morgan wrote memorably and even a bit Beebe-like of his friend and colleague. “He held vast contempt for historian’s historians, valve-motion deifiers, Rudolph Flesch followers, and other nit-pickers of his tidal wave of rich, flowing, opinionated, Victorian copy. He cheerfully acknowledged, and made capital of, the simple circumstance that eluded his detractors — that railroading is to be enjoyed.” 

Hear, hear, D.P.M.!

For a long time, Beebe and Clegg were a bit of a mystery to me, but all that has changed thanks to a pair of fine books: Beebe & Clegg: Their Enduring Photographic Legacy, by John Gruber and John Ryan (Center for Railroad Photography & Art, 2018); and The Railroad Photography of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, by Tony Reevy (Indiana University Press, 2019). 

I highly recommend both books. What I like most about them is the way the authors put Beebe’s life into a context that goes far beyond trains and railroad photography, despite their books’ titles. Beebe lived an outsized life on a grand stage, especially in his years as a celebrated New York society columnist, and so much of that high living found a way into his prose. No wonder this little kid was mesmerized.

It was 55 years ago today — February 4, 1966 — that Lucius Beebe died, succumbing to a heart attack in his home in Hillsborough, Calif. I don’t know about you, but tonight I’ll be making a toast in his honor. We’ll not see his kind ever again.

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