Linn Westcott knew his way around a railroad

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Camera in hand, Linn Westcott enjoys the view on Horseshoe Curve, 1937. Classic Trains collection
If anyone had a more wildly diverse set of talents than Linn H. Westcott, I haven’t heard of them yet.


The man who would come to be known as “Mr. Model Railroader” could write and edit, of course — he served 16 years as editor in chief of the magazine we call “MR,” a memorable run at the helm of any magazine. But he was so much more.


Linn knew his way around carpentry, as his pioneering ideas about benchwork demonstrated. His wiring schemes made realistic operation all that more, well, realistic. He was an amateur geographer, a talent that showed up in the maps and track plans he created. He was a student of railroad operations, with an endless curiosity about how and why railroads did what they did. His how-to model railroad books are bestsellers in the hobby. 


Linn was also a first-rate railroad photographer, as I rediscovered over the past couple of weeks as I prepared a program featuring some of his images. Readers who go back far enough with Trains magazine likely know these skills, because long before he found fame as the editor of Model Railroader, he was a mainstay on its sister magazine. When Al Kalmbach launched Trains in 1940, he made sure Westcott was doing double duty on both titles and he stayed on the Trains editorial masthead until 1953. You can see enthusiasm for railroading all over Linn’s face in the accompanying shot of him in 1937 during a trip around Horseshoe Curve on the Pennsylvania Railroad.


Linn’s contributions to Trains were considerable, especially his photography, where his all-encompassing passions are visible in the scores of 8 x 10 prints that remain in the Kalmbach Media library.


Monon train 11 approaches Monticello, Ind., on a cold morning in December 1950. Linn H. Westcott photo
The late Trains Editor David P. Morgan said as much in March 1985 when he featured Linn’s photography in a cover story, five years after Westcott’s passing. Linn’s reputation as a black-and-white photographer was already secure if somewhat forgotten by then, but by the 1980s his small but impressive collection of 35mm color slides was beginning to circulate around the building. Working with Librarian George H. Drury, Morgan assembled “The Color World of Linn Westcott,” a memorable review of some of Linn’s best Kodachromes.


“To set the record straight,” wrote Morgan, “Linn Westcott was more than ‘Mr. Model Railroader,’ the unofficial title he justly earned for an editorial and technical involvement with scales O, S, HO, N, TT, et al, (20 books and 16 years as editor of Model Railroader), which eclipsed this man’s appreciation of the prototype.”


Morgan went on to say “composition rather than content” distinguished Westcott’s photography. “Detail as well as dimension intrigued Linn,” Morgan added. “For example, what is a named passenger train without a tailsign, or terminal tracks without dwarf signals? Thus, Linn stopped where few lingered. And pointing with green-ink fountain pen at a picture detail, he would say, ‘Oh my, now you see what we have illustrated here on the railroad is really quite important.’”


I remember that side of Linn Westcott, having worked with him occasionally during my two years of writing ad copy for Kalmbach in the mid-1970s. By that time, he was serving more in an editor emeritus role at MR, with retirement looming in 1977. Most of the time I routed my copy through Russ Larson, the magazine’s managing editor and 15 years later my boss as publisher of Trains


A pair of F3s is plenty of power for the Tippecanoe's five cars. Linn H. Westcott photo
But some of my stuff had to be run past Linn. Every time it was like attending a deep tutorial on one or another aspect of railroading. I saw him as sort of the mad scientist of Kalmbach, holed up in an immense, dark office on the 5th floor at 1027 N. Seventh Street, keeping mainly to himself. But like “Rocky & Bullwinkle’s” Mr. Peabody, he was endlessly graceful about getting dumb questions from young employees.


I thought of Linn over the past couple of weeks as I prepared a presentation for the Monon Railroad Historical-Technical Society, presented this past weekend in Michigan City. As it turned out, Linn was a major part of Trains’ almost-all-Monon issue of July 1947, covering the era when the great John W. Barriger III launched his “super railroad” experiment along the old Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville, the Monon’s formal name.


Leafing through all the Monon picture files, I found a lot of photos jumping out at me, prints that seemed to capture the essence of the Hoosier Line, and frequently they carried Linn Westcott’s name on the back. All of them displayed Linn’s fascination with the entire railroad context, not just trains.


Train time at Monticello involves a baggage handler, agent, passengers, and crew. Linn H. Westcott photo
Exhibit A is this triptych, taken at Monticello, Ind., on Monon’s Indianapolis branch during the first week of December 1950, when Linn was Trains’ editorial director. Linn was there for the arrival of the Tippecanoe, the daily Chicago-Indianapolis train. You might say train 11 is overpowered, with two F3s for what appears to be a five-car train made up of two head-end cars, two coaches, and a diner/parlor. 


Not content simply to photograph the train, Linn was clearly interested in telling a larger story, depicting the anticipation of No. 11 arriving from the north as well as the commotion on the platform as baggage handler, station agent, train crew, and passengers hustle to make the 10:27 a.m.  departure time. A fine depiction of train time in a small Midwestern town.


Just about everything in these photographs is gone now, including Monon’s Indianapolis line, although Pioneer Railcorp recently served a business on the north side of town connecting with CSX in the junction town of Monon, nine miles to the northwest.


As for Linn Westcott, he died far too soon in 1980 at age 67. We can only image what he might have continued to accomplish. Yet we can be grateful for this glimpse of bygone life in Monticello, thanks to his perceptive camera. Yes, D.P.M., you were right: He was more than “Mr. Model Railroader.”

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