One man's long love affair with trains

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In his time, Jim McClellan has been many things. At a young age, Jim worked in marketing for New York Central, where he occasionally suffered the acid tongue of its legendary president Al Perlman. After Penn Central’s creation, he left for government, where he helped midwife the birth of both Amtrak and later Conrail (this in an era when doing a stint of government work was considered an honor).

Then at Norfolk Southern, where he was senior vice president for planning, McClellan was a player on the butt-kicking team that denied CSX the pleasure of buying all of Conrail and forced the other railroad to let NS buy what Jim still thinks is the better half. He is no windmill-tilting romantic, in other words.

But those who know Jim are aware he has been a railfan — pardon me, a lover of trains — since soon after he learned to walk. A few of you are aware he paints railroad scenes in oils passably well. Now a lot of people have the opportunity to enjoy yet another element of this man’s aura, his gift as a photographer and commentator on the tableau of railroad history the past half-century and more. Never one to do things the easy way, Jim is self-publishing a multi-volume set of books called “My Life With Trains.”

An Army brat, he began taking photos in San Antonio, Texas, in 1954, at age 14, and never stopped. As Jim got older, of course, his cameras got better, until now they are the very best that money can buy. But even his earliest photography, on display in “Volume One — The Glory Years,” concerning the 1950s, puts you on notice that out of the box, this young man had a good eye for photographic composition. And this first volume makes me weep with happiness to see preserved many of my own memories of Texas railroading in that decade, including “7-Spot,” the 0-6-0 steam switcher belonging to Dallas Union Terminal; the three big E6 units that brought Santa Fe’s Kansas Cityan into Dallas every morning in the 1950s; and Katy’s Alco-led heavyweight Kansas City-San Antonio train, the Bluebonnet. What a pleasure to see these long-ago scenes again.

And that’s just one chapter! Others in Volume One take us to Colorado, Georgia, the Pacific Northwest, and the Richmond-Washington-Philadelphia-New York corridor (Jim went to Penn on a Navy scholarship). It’s clear that he was very talented at talking his way aboard locomotives, including that of the California Zephyr over the Rockies (“I was a cute kid,” is all he will say). Jim plans to publish 1,001 volumes of “My Life With Trains.” Okay, so maybe I exaggerate by 995 digits or so, but I don’t think he knows where this narrative and photographic extravaganza will end.

I must make you aware of my lack of impartiality. McClellan has been my friend for 20 years, my close friend for at least 10. I took my turn editing Volume One. On the other hand, Jim doesn’t have a publisher to distribute “My Life With Trains.” He and his wife of 50 years, Joanne, are the distributors for now. This is strictly a word-of-mouth venture, in other words.

Jim McClellans’s bacon is not everyone’s breakfast. But have I perhaps stoked your interest? If so, get thee to to learn how to share my enjoyment. There are pretty pictures to be found in these books, but also much more. — Fred W. Frailey

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