For Steinheimer, it all started in Glendale

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Shot from atop a boxcar, Steinheimer caught inbound train 75, the Lark, arriving behind Golden State-painted E7s as train 99, the Morning Daylight, heads for San Francisco in 1949. Richard Steinheimer, Classic Trains collection
The world of railroad photography has been buzzing for a couple of weeks since the announcement that most of the personal archives of famed photographer Richard Steinheimer have been acquired by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.  

This is one of those “big deals” that easily lives up to the term. Arguably the dean of American railroad photographers, Dick Steinheimer not only produced some of the most memorable images in all of mid- to late-20th-century railroading, he has also deeply influenced three generations of admirers.  

Among the materials the Center has received are approximately 30,000 color slides, black-and-white negatives produced by Steinheimer after 1975, and thousands of black-and-white prints and scans. Full disclosure: I’m a longtime member of the Center’s board of directors. Appropriate here is a shout-out to photographer Shirley Burman, Stein’s widow, for her inspiring cooperation during this entire transaction. 

The Center’s announcement prompted me to head for — where else? — Kalmbach’s David P. Morgan Memorial Library, which for so long contained many of Stein’s greatest pictures. Scores of them still reside deep in those files, mostly in drawers labeled Southern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Union Pacific, and the other Western roads Stein knew so well.

I went looking for a theme and easily found one as I leafed through dozens of 8x10 prints. Some that caught my attention are among the earliest photographs Dick ever made, from a very important place in his life: Glendale, the Los Angeles suburb that served as his original California hometown.

Framed by a crossing tower at Los Feliz Blvd., train 98, the Morning Daylight, arrives in Glendale behind E7s on an afternoon in September 1950. Richard Steinheimer, Classic Trains collection
Sifting through Dick’s prints, it occurred to me that pretty much all the legendary photographers of the 1950s and ’60s cut their teeth down at their hometown station. For Philip R. Hastings, it was the Boston & Maine of his native Bradford, Vt. The great Jim Shaughnessy practically lived as a young man at Union Station in Troy, N.Y. Down in Mississippi, a teenage J. Parker Lamb brought his hometown of Meridian to life.

The same thing is true for Steinheimer and Glendale.

Steinheimer was actually a Chicago native, born in 1929 to a family that suffered greatly in the Depression. He migrated with his mother and his sister to Glendale in the 1930s. The family lived in a house not far from the Southern Pacific main line, which headed north from L.A. through Glendale toward Burbank, where it would split to form the Coast Line to the west and the San Joaquin Valley line to the northeast.  

As author and book designer Jeff Brouws wrote in the deluxe Steinheimer compendium “A Passion for Trains” (W.W. Norton, 2004), the trains of Glendale were pivotal forces in the young photographer’s life.  

“Every time a whistle approached, Dick was out the door, running trackside to catch a glimpse of cab-forwards or 2-10-2s beyond the backyard fence,” wrote Brouws. “Trains ran through his dreams. Living so close to the tracks became a habit: over the next 20 years, Steinheimer lived in five apartments or homes that abutted the busy Southern Pacific main lines of California, their close presence providing solace and continuity throughout his life.”

Glendale station lights gleaming in the background, a flagman protects the rear end of train 96, the Noon Daylight, on an early evening in February 1949. Richard Steinheimer, Classic Trains collection
It’s easy to see why Glendale was such a magical presence. For most SP trains serving L.A., it was the first station stop heading north and the last coming into the city. When Steinheimer grew up during World War II, the city was a center of light industry and teemed with trains. Premier varnish such as the Daylights, the Lark, and the Owl stopped at Glendale, as well as a lot of lesser locals, along with a steady procession of freight trains.

Glendale was also a place to fall in love with locomotives. In the steam-to-diesel transition era, you never knew what might show up, from streamlined Daylight 4-8-4s to AC cab-forward 4-8-8-2s to four-motor diesels headed for the Coast Line and six-motor units grinding toward Tehachapi and the San Joaquin Valley.

One person who knows about the place is longtime railroad journalist David Lustig, who has lived most of his life in Southern California. Like his friend Stein, Dave fell under the charms of Glendale, from its charming Spanish Colonial Revival station building, built in 1924, to its generous and gracefully curving platforms.

“Fans always loved Glendale back in SP days,” says Lustig. “Nobody bothered you. There was an outdoor section of the station where you could just sit and relax, and some fans would even spend the entire night there just watching trains. Everyone went there sooner or later.”

The 4-8-4 on train 51, the San Joaquin Daylight (foreground), meets train 374, the overnight freight from San Francisco, arriving behind a 4-8-4 in June 1950. Richard Steinheimer, Classic Trains collection
No one more than young Steinheimer. Although framed by a relatively inexperienced 20-year-old, his Glendale photographs already show the compositional maturity that would set him apart from other photographers. It helped that Dick was oblivious to creature comforts and risk. He’d climb anything for a better photo, go out at any hour if opportunity beckoned, defy the weather if necessary, and he knew how to build trust with railroaders.

It will be a while before the Center’s top-shelf archiving staff can begin to make its Steinheimer collection available to the public, as the organization makes clear on its website. There is research to be done, cataloguing to be completed, and uncountable hours of scanning and processing. But oh, the rewards to come!

In the Introduction to his 2004 book, Brouws put Richard Steinheimer’s life and work in context: “Unlike most celebrities in American life that fall victim to the ‘shooting-star’ syndrome — which sends stars up and then spits them out once they pass their zenith — Steinheimer has never disappointed or faded away. He maintains a humility, graciousness, and integrity that transcend fashion: he’s the real deal.” 

And it all started more than 70 years ago on the sunny platforms at Glendale.

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