Western rail photographers remember Don Sims

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Don Sims in his studio. David Lustig photo
Railroad photography came of age as a genre — maybe even an art form — with the November 1955 issue of Trains magazine. Therein, Editor David P. Morgan showcased the work of a dozen photographers, most of whom would go on to become legends. It was one of the first times that photographs of trains were celebrated for their own sake. Specific subject matter was irrelevant.

For anyone reading this, the names in those pages should be familiar: Phil Hastings, Dick Steinheimer, Wally Abbey, Jim Shaughnessy, Bill Middleton, Robert Hale . . . a Mount Rushmore of railroad photography. Alas, all save one — the great J. Parker Lamb — have left us. The most recent loss came just a couple of weeks ago with the passing of Donald Sims, a Californian and an incredibly prolific chronicler of Western railroading. Don died Dec. 11 at age 93 near his home in Poulsbo, Wash.

I never met Sims, but I knew his name from my very first issue of Trains, August 1965, which included his news photo of EMD SD40 demonstrators. This little shot, taken at Southern Pacific’s Taylor Yards in Los Angeles, barely hinted at his immense talent, as both a photographer and a writer.

By that time, Don Sims was a fixture in the magazine, known for his perceptive work at Cajon and Tehachapi and in the Sierras and all around his beloved L.A. There would be much more to come. It occurred to me that Sims’ work must have inspired a lot of other photographers. I was right. Several of them were more than happy to explain. 

One of them was my good friend David Lustig, veteran California-based railroad journalist. Dave and Don were good friends, evident in the lovely obituary Dave wrote for Trains. Lustig remembers a guy who went about his work quietly, but with plenty of determination.

An SP cab-forward takes on water at Saugus, 1954. Don Sims photo
“Normally, Don wasn’t overly chatty, but given the right circumstances he could really open up,” Lustig recalls. “More than once I was with him and Dick Steinheimer when we would meet at a coffee shop in Mojave. Within minutes the two of them were recalling many of their adventures over the years, laughing at their missteps and enjoying the memories. Through thick and thin, railroading was the glue that kept their friendship fresh over the many decades.”

You didn’t have to know Sims personally to be deeply influenced by him. David Styffe, the accomplished photographer, editor, and graphic designer, credits Sims and Steinheimer with inspiring him to get involved in the hobby. 

“My initial exposure to Don’s photography was in the book ‘Western Trains’ (Golden West Books, 1965), which he co-authored with Steinheimer,” says Styffe. “I saw that book in our local public library and checked it out. After I returned it, I checked it out again … and then again. Soon the only name on that library slip was mine.”

And it wasn’t just Sims’ photography that got everyone’s attention. His writing could be equally powerful. Just ask Ted Benson, who describes Sims as a mentor for at least two generations of railroad photojournalists. Benson’s own double-threat status as an author as well as photographer can be traced in part to Sims.   

A Rio Grande 2-8-8-2 gets a wheel into tonnage at Thistle, Utah, 1951. Don Sims photo
“While his photographs always got my attention, his words were what affected me most,” explains Benson. “You got the impression Don didn’t need something as obvious as color film — his prose was a rich palette of hues and nuance. His description, say, of the rainbow of passenger car paint schemes at Portland Union Station in a two-part feature on the Spokane, Portland & Seattle told the story better than any Kodachrome. His breathtaking two-parter documenting the railroads of Los Angeles in 1959 continues to inspire me. No one could capture the sense of place like Sims.”

That same L.A. story made a similar impression on Lustig. “He was such a great storyteller who loved to write about the ever-changing world of railroading. Take that two-part piece in 1959 on Los Angeles. Not only did he tell us where everything was, he had the ability to explain to his readers how and why it worked.”

Sims’ association with Steinheimer shouldn’t be underestimated. The pair were great friends and collaborators, and although “Stein” cultivated a wider reputation, his friendship with Sims was essential in his growth as a photographer, some of which comes clear in Benson’s 1999 book “Done Honest & True,” an affectionate paean to Steinheimer.

“Though only one year older than Stein, Sims brought a strong base of street smarts and common sense that never failed to amaze the wunderkind from Glendale,” Benson says now. “Stein’s tales of the pair’s various automotive mishaps while exploring the Far West are worth the price of admission. Stein admitted that while he was the dreamer, ‘reaching for the stars and stumbling over wheelbarrows,’ Sims was the practical one, always finding ways to overcome the odds in favor of good photographs.”

Santa Fe fireman grabs orders from Chard Walker at Summit, Calif., 1951. Don Sims photo
Good photographs. Lord knows Don Sims created plenty of them. One of the things I’ve long admired about the man is that he so successfully bridged that 1950s transition from the lost world of steam to the new era diesels, something he had in common with other notables such as Shaughnessy and Lamb. Rather than sulk about what was lost — as many of his generation did — he kept at it. 

As Dave Lustig wrote in a profile of Sims in the Spring 2004 issue of Classic Trains,

“… His reasons for his writing and his photography are the same — it’s railroading, and he still really enjoys being a part of it.”

I’m glad Don Sims saw it that way. 

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