The Guide is dead; long live the Guide

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 4, 2021

Old issues of the Official Guide of the Railways are filled with invaluable information, but their pulp paper makes them vulnerable to the ravages of time.
A recent email from my friend and colleague Dan Cupper, editor of the venerable R&LHS journal Railroad History, took me by surprise. “Would I be interested in writing a tribute to the passenger edition of the Official Guide?” I said “of course,” but to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know it still existed.

Actually, it doesn’t. Last July, publisher PocketList decided to pull the plug. My attempts to reach anyone at PocketList to officially confirm the Guide’s demise were unsuccessful, which probably says something about how irrelevant the passenger version had become. PocketList is owned by the $4 billion British-based information conglomerate IHS Markit, known in other markets for Jane’s Information Group and Carfax. (Don’t confuse the defunct passenger guide with PocketList’s freight-only Official Railway Guide, which it still publishes).

Their decision didn’t surprise me. I can’t remember the last time I consulted a contemporary version of the Guide, which upon Amtrak’s arrival in 1971 became a thin version of its old self, filled exclusively with Amtrak and commuter timetables. The Guide seemed a waste of time when Amtrak’s latest system timetable was always handy, although even that document is now conspicuously missing in action. 

The maps in the Guide, contributed by the individual railroads, were comprehensive but to some extent fictitious. The Milwaukee's line to Puget Sound was hardly as straight as depicted here.
All that said, the Guide’s demise deserves to be noted. The publication went back approximately 152 years, to June 1868, when the National General Ticket Agents’ Association passed a resolution calling for an “authorized source of information for the public in respect to the timetables of the roads here represented.” This new source promised to fix all the problems that plagued the carriers’ early individual timetables.

There are so many things to admire about the old Guide, in its heyday a 1,500-page volume packed with timetables, passenger-train consists, station-to-station mileages, lists of executives, and all those customized, semi-fictional system maps. I love the way its contents meandered from New England down to the Southeast, up through the Midwest before heading out to the West and Southwest, then up the coast to the Pacific Northwest before landing in Canada. It was a time-honored procession: Boston & Maine morphed into the New Haven; if you found Jersey Central, then B&O was only a few pages away; Rock Island led naturally to Santa Fe; and so on. You don’t really need an index. 

Then there was the bonanza of details inside, certainly everything a traveler would need, not to mention a railroad editor decades later. Thinking about writing this the other day, I did a quick accounting of just a few of the things I’ve looked up recently in the Guide. What I found says a lot about the publication’s breadth and depth.

The perishable nature of the Guide's pages led Kalmbach to convert its collection to microfiche, and to acquire machines so staffers could read the thousands of film sheets.
For instance, how far did Santa Fe run its mixed train out of Chanute, Kansas? Only 54 miles to Pittsburg. What’s the railroad distance between Chattanooga and Atlanta? 133.7 miles. What was the Silver Meteor’s consist in the early 1950s? Typically, three coaches, a tavern coach, a diner, and two or three sleepers. How long was Union Pacific’s Idaho Northern branch? 132.8 miles, from the southwest corner of the state to McCall at the northern end of the Long Valley.

These are seemingly random, unimportant details — until you need them. 

It helps that Classic Trains has a nearly complete collection of Guides, going back to the late 1870s. They exist in microfiche form as 105 x 148mm sheets of film, deeply indexed and easily accessible on a battleship of an old Micron 750 viewer. The story goes that at some point in the 1960s, Al Kalmbach converted his library’s collection out of necessity: all Guides produced after the early 20th century were printed on pulp stock, and Al’s books were turning to dust.

When I can’t get out to Kalmbach, my go-to resource at home is my June 1954 edition, a reproduction copy I purchased several years ago. A quick online search reveals that plenty are still available from various vintage book sources. 

The Guide can be fun to read, especially if you’re looking at some of the names on corporate mastheads. My ’54 Guideincludes A. E. Perlman, executive vice president of Denver & Rio Grande Western, soon to storm the Park Avenue executive suite at New York Central; H. H. Harwood, general passenger agent at Cleveland for NYC and father of one of our great photographers; and a 39-year-old James Bistline, commerce counsel at Southern Railway and future czar of SR’s steam program. 

When did Frisco's westbound Will Rogers stop at Newburg, Mo.? 1:32 a.m., according to a reprint of the June 1954 Official Guide.
The listings of the brass can be ridiculous, too. Take, for instance, South Carolina short line Lancaster & Chester. Its February 1955 Guide listing included 31 vice presidents, one for every mile of L&C track. Among them: “Uncle Sam” artist James Montgomery Flagg, golfer Bobby Jones, playwright Charles MacArthur, the “vice president in charge of unveiling” Gypsy Rose Lee, and, last but not least, the “vice president in charge of internal accounting,” someone named Lucius Beebe of Virginia City, Nevada. Somehow, the L&C survived and still operates today. 

So, it’s farewell to The Official Guide of the Railways and Navigation Lines of the United States, Porto Rico [sic], Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, or at least what was left of it. PocketList undoubtedly made a good business decision in killing the book. Meanwhile, the real Guide, the bible of the era of the classic passenger train, will last forever.

But now I’ve got to get back to my research. When did Frisco’s train 3, the westbound Will Rogers, pull into Newburg, Mo.? Here it is, page 694: 1:32 a.m. Thank you, Official Guide!

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