Recalling a classic: 'Journey to Amtrak'

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, April 9, 2021

Mike Schafer's bold photo on the cover signaled that Journey to Amtrak, produced in the months following May 1, 1971, was a different breed of Kalmbach book.
With the 50th anniversary of Amtrak’s inaugural just around the corner, thoughts are turning to that moment when, supposedly, “the trains were worth traveling again.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that May 1, 1971, ranks among the most important dates in railroading. 

But this inevitably makes me think of everything we lost at 11:59 p.m. the night before, on April 30. That’s when for all practical purposes more than 125 years of the privately operated passenger train came to a screeching stop, notwithstanding the outliers Southern Railway, Rock Island, and Rio Grande. The dawn brought heartbreak as well as hope.

This moment has me reaching for one of my favorite books, a slim, potent little volume that gave the traditional passenger train about as fine a eulogy as one could ask for. I’m speaking, of course, of Journey to Amtrak, published in January 1972 by the newly organized Kalmbach Books department. Edited by Harold A. Edmonson with a team of stellar collaborators, the book was a bittersweet photographic trip through the years and months that led up to Amtrak Day. 

Kalmbach was already an old hand at doing books, including such stalwarts as Arthur Dubin’s Some Classic Trains and Bill Middleton’s The Interurban Era. But those were big, heavy, self-consciously “authoritative” titles, years in the making and designed almost as reference books. 

On May 2, 1971, the crew climbs down from the last train into Chicago's Dearborn Station, Santa Fe 24, the old Grand Canyon from Los Angeles. James Farrell
Journey to Amtrak was different, created to take advantage of a brief historical moment and get it done on a tight deadline. At that, the books team succeeded admirably. The 104-page book was loaded with timely photographs, many taken in the runup to Amtrak, even more made in the final hours of sad last runs. For Kalmbach, it was an unusually nimble performance, martialing a small coast-to-coast army of photographers for what was basically a news assignment.

One of Edmonson’s key staffers was Mike Schafer, veteran railroad writer, photographer, and today the longtime editor of Passenger Train Journal. Back then, Mike was just getting started in his 10-year run as an associate editor at Kalmbach. It was an auspicious way to launch a career.

“This was indeed the first book project in which I was directly involved at Kalmbach,” Mike recalls, “so that in itself was a big learning experience — the different steps of putting a book through production. I had never done this before. My main job was writing captions, though I also wrote the ‘Honorary Steam Locomotives’ section about Delaware & Hudson’s Alco PA diesels, probably because Harold knew of my particular fascination with Northeastern railroading.”

Schafer wasn’t the only writer Harold recruited for a series of brief, pithy essays. He got Trains Editor David P. Morgan to pen a melancholy dispatch from B&O’s last Capitol Limited, and A. M. Langley Jr. to write about Central of Georgia’s final Nancy Hanks II. Harold himself took a turn in the writer’s chair, creating a terrific you-are-there summary from the Railroad Capital called “Sixty-Two Historic Hours in Chicago.”

Ted Benson, one of the all-star photographers represented in Journey to Amtrak, captured RDC No. 10 working train 4 of SP subsidiary Northwestern Pacific at South Fork, Calif., on its final day, April 30. 
In fact, that’s the place Journey to Amtrak was hatched in those last hectic days, as hordes of photographers descended on the tracks leading to Union Station, Dearborn, Central, and North Western. “There were fans running around everywhere on those two days, including me,” Mike remembers. “That’s when Harold came up with the idea. He’s really good with ideas of that nature.”

The book turned out to be a who’s who of photographers, with some of their work presented here. John Gruber accompanied his friend D.P.M. on that last Capitol and came up with his usual stellar people pictures. A young Ted Benson recorded action on Southern Pacific and Northwestern Pacific, along with a heartbreaking farewell to Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief. Other notables included Mel Patrick, Victor Hand, John H. Kuehl, Henry R. Griffiths, Ken Murry, and C. W. Witbeck, just to name a few. Some of the best images were by Harold himself.

The bold design of the book should not go unremarked. The art director was the late Larry Luser, at the time a relative newcomer to Kalmbach’s Art Department. As a designer, Larry could be bold, often pushing the envelope as compared to his colleagues. For Journey he expertly modulated big photos with small, and chose a range of contemporary typefaces, including an informal headline script that was far hipper than anything else coming out of the fifth floor in those days. Just four years later, Larry would design a masterpiece: David P. Morgan’s and Philip R. Hastings’ book The Mohawk That Refused to Abdicate, and Other Tales.

Trains Editor David P. Morgan (looking out window at table at right) was aboard the Capitol Limited's observation lounge for the train's final run to Washington. John Gruber
Mike Schafer remembers both Larry and Journey to Amtrak as important landmarks in his own life.

“Larry was the most patient person I’ve ever met, and he became my mentor in terms of typesetting, layout, and book and magazine production,” Mike says. “I had been hired as a copywriter but when Kalmbach discovered I was an art major in college, they also started having me do layout and other graphic work whenever the art department was short of help. This would prove critical to the rest of my career.”

Kalmbach made one more brilliant decision, and that was the cover. Mike credits corporate Art Director George A. Gloff with choosing Schafer’s evocative photo of the California Zephyr, photographed westbound in 1970 at Galesburg, Ill. It’s a great example of graphic understatement, in which the designer resists the obvious. The glint of twilight on stainless steel and the sharp angle of the train slashing across the cover evoke all the trains we lost that day in May.

Mike tells me he’s putting the finishing touches on a special section of his next issue of PTJ, called “Countdown to Amtrak,” and that it will include some photographs by Harold. I’m sure it will be a terrific package. Meanwhile, both these old friends and colleagues should take one more bow for the classic book they created 50 years ago. 


To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.


Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!


Get the Classic Trains twice-monthly newsletter