Now arriving, Wally Abbey’s magnum opus

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Diesel That Did It
Some books seem to have a will of their own. Nothing, not the passing of decades, not even the passing of the author, will keep them down. If the story is compelling enough — and if it is blessed with passionate believers — the story will win out.

 That’s how I feel about “The Diesel That Did It,” by the late Wallace W. Abbey, just published by Indiana University Press. Ostensibly about the introduction of the pioneering FT diesel in 1940 and ’41, it’s actually a sweeping testimonial to the ingenuity and persistence of two great companies — Electro-Motive and the Santa Fe Railway — and the bigger-than-life characters who animated them, as well as the vast geography that stood in the FT’s way. In the hands of a master like Wally, that story comes alive.

 I’m prejudiced, of course. I was one of the editors of the book, along with a dream-team partner, Martha Abbey Miller, Wally’s daughter. Our collaboration is a story that goes back more than three years.

 Actually, it goes back further than that for me. It was sometime in the late 1990s when I began hearing from Wally about his magnum opus, which had the working title “Class by Itself.” I was editing Trains and Wally, who was retiring from his public affairs post at the Transportation Test Center in Pueblo, Colo., was interested in materials in the Kalmbach library: books, documents, and photographs that could add details and depth to the FT story. I was excited for him.

FT author Wallace W. Abbey in the early 1970s, when he was running his own public relations business in Minneapolis. Martha Abbey Miller photo
He had already written and published a beloved classic: “The Little Jewel,” about Soo Line diesels, which grew out of his many years as the public relations director for the Soo. Wally was one of those few railroad authors who could be as fun to read as he was informative. The prospect that he’d do the same for the FT was tantalizing.

 Wally was unflagging in his dedication to the FT story, but within a few years health problems intervened and progress on the book came to a stop. Despite his best efforts to find a collaborator who might finish the book, “Class by Itself” went dormant. When Wally died in 2014 at age 86, I figured his FT project went with him.

 I was wrong, I’m happy to say. About three years ago, I got an email from Wally’s daughter Martha, herself an accomplished editor and writer. She had sunk her teeth into her dad’s manuscript — as well as a large box of photographs he had assembled — and was convinced the book could be finished, if only she could find a partner on the project. Did I know of anyone?

 In a flash of overconfidence, I said, “Would you consider me?” I had to tell Martha I was hardly an expert on diesel locomotives, but I had loved my earlier association with her dad.  The chance to assist in adding the book to his legacy was too good to pass up. I was relieved when she accepted my offer.

 What ensued was nearly two years of really hard work. Wally’s manuscript was in good shape — up to a point. He’d completed several highly readable chapters, taking the FT story right through World War II to the point where the next generation of EMD motive power was ready to take its place. But he had planned to go further, exploring in greater detail some of the story lines implied by the FT: advances in engineering and design, changes in railroad operations, and, most of all, implications for rail labor. Alas, these chapters were mostly in the form of scattered notes.


Crowds check out Santa Fe's new FT 100 at Redondo Junction in Los Angeles in February 1941. Santa Fe Railway photo
Some long conversations and even a bit of soul-searching led Martha and me to conclude we could work with what we had, that Wally had created enough to make a complete book, provided we could find a way to tie up the loose ends and bring the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. Along the way we came up with what we thought was a better title. Somewhere in the narrative, Wally had evoked his friend David P. Morgan’s memorable FT phrase “the diesel that did it,” so we lifted it for the cover.

 A word about Martha: she is one heck of an editor. At times I found myself hesitant to edit some of Wally’s prose, the result of having been an Abbey fan since I was a teenager. I was being too reverent. Not a good thing, not for me, and certainly not for Wally. 

 Martha had no such hesitation. Much as she loved and respected her dad, she went after some of his chapters with about as sharp a pencil as I’ve encountered. Her efforts brought more focus and energy to some of the stuff he had written, and I learned a lot from seeing what she did. And she was flat-out brilliant in figuring out how to bring the book to a logical and inspiring conclusion.

 Along the way we enlisted the help of several others who share in the credit, among them photographer and diesel journalist Greg McDonnell, who generously offered our Foreword; former Union Pacific motive power boss Michael Iden; my longtime colleague and retired Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal; and Fred Frailey, a writer who shares a key trait with Wally: he’s always fun to read.


FTs lead an eastbound train through a new rock cut on the Ottawa Cutoff in Kansas in the late 1940s. Wallace W. Abbey photo, Center for Railroad Photography & Art Collection
And now Wallace W. Abbey’s great book belongs to the world. In it, Wally introduces you to giants such as Dick Dilworth, Fred Gurley, and Charles Kettering. He quite elegantly explains why the 567 engine was at the heart of the FT’s success. He takes you to all the hallowed places along the route of the Super Chief, from Chicago’s 18th Street engine terminal to the barren steppes of New Mexico to Arizona’s Supai Summit. He shows you that — back in 1940 and ’41 — EMD and AT&SF really knew how to put on a show. And we’ve loaded the book up with great photos, including several by the author himself.

 If there’s a central thesis to Wally’s book, this might be it, in the author’s own words: “We need to remember the FT if only so that we know how far we’ve advanced the art and the science of the diesel-electric freight locomotive. Since railroads aren’t very good at erecting historical mileposts, with thanks to the scores of the faithful and the historically sensitive, we hereby undertake that chore.”

 It was more than a chore, Wally, it was a mission. Thanks to you and to Martha for giving me a chance to go along for the ride.

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