Tell me a story

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, August 4, 2018

Time for a change. Put aside Amtrak, Richard Anderson, Hunter Harrison and operating ratios. Let’s consider railroad literature. I enjoy good writing and good storytelling, one reason being that there is so little of it. All the better if the narrative is accompanied by arresting photography. But first, tell me a story. As years go on, I find myself returning to the same books again and again. If you can find Archie Robertson’s 1945 groundbreaker Slow Train to Yesterday for less than $900 (what I see it offered for online), grab it. Les Standiford’s Last Train to Paradise about the life and death of the Key West Extension of Florida East Coast Railway is spellbinding, and my copy of Portrait of a Silver Lady, Ted Benson’s tale of the original California Zephyr, is about to fall apart from use. Now, let me let me tell you why these five books also remain dear to my heart.

Mixed Train Daily, by Lucius Beebe. Boston-bred Beebe, chronicler of café society for the New York Herald-Tribune, invented the railfan picture book with his 1938 High Iron: A Book of Trains. But Mixed Train Daily is his triumph. A psalm to short-line railroading in the years immediately after World War II, it grabs your heart, and I suspect it was partially inspired by Robertson’s book on the same general topic several years earlier. Particularly arresting—surprising, too, given his Yankee upbringing and urban veneer—is Beebe’s affection for the little railroads of the South, which occupy one-third of the 368 pages.

Beebe’s rococo writing style was distinctly his own and sometimes over-ornamental. But when he describes obscure railroads below the Mason-Dixon Line, I find almost every sentence quotable. Case in point: “The [Sylvania Central’s] single coach is a bravely painted combine No. 5, with splendid green upholstery on its seats and a gilt-painted coal-oil chandelier of floriated elegance, and it is pervaded by a permanent smell of coal smoke and tobacco that is to railroaders what attar of roses may be to the bazaar connoisseurs of Istanbul.” I dare you to find someone who writes that way today. And to top things off, the book is packed with the best photography ever from the camera of Beebe’s longtime companion, Charles M. Clegg Jr.

The Mohawk That Refused to Abdicate, and Other Tales, by David P. Morgan and Philip R. Hastings. I was never enthralled by the steam locomotive, thinking the lowly GP7 diesel the perfect marriage of form and function. Still. I never tire of this book, the product of five annual two-week trips by the coauthors in search of steam in its waning days. Morgan and Hasting were an odd couple, Phil the hurry-up-and-go guy and David the laid-back, not-so-fast-please fellow. But together, they created the most talked-about series of articles ever to appear in the 78-year history of Trains. This book preserves their work.

Hastings’ black-and-white photography is awesome. His camera of choice was a Rollei whose viewfinder was on top, permitting him to set up spectacular views from the height of the rail. (Just an aside, but nobody seems to do that anymore, which is a pity.) This is Morgan was at his best, too, often fashioning micro-essays in the form of extended captions. Savor this morsel concerning the locomotive that inspired the title: “Too often steam departs from us in the form of a fan trip that suffers an engine breakdown. . . or in a line of dead power nursed to the junkers by a Geep. How much better to wind it up like the 3005, taking a quiet Ohio town apart, pinning its ears back, performing like Alco said her 4410 cylinder horsepower should perform.” That, my friends, is artistry, and the book is packed with such.

Union Pacific: The Reconfiguration, by Maury Klein. UP encouraged and opened its doors to accommodate (but did not explicitly underwrite) historian Klein’s three-volume history of this oldest of surviving American railroads. Taken together, there is nothing in railroad history to quite equal in scope this trilogy. I most enjoy the last volume, which covers Union Pacific for the 35 years after 1969. It is essentially an accounting of three men: John Kenefick (1970-1985), Mkichael Walsh (1985-1991), and Richard Davidson (1992-2004). Together, they elevated Union Pacific from a position of Proud Old Western Railroad to what former Trains editor Kevin Keefe once proclaimed The Colossus of Roads. There were many bumps along the way, which Klein describes with professional thoroughness and detail. What I like especially is that I can pick up this book, open it to any page, and find myself instantly engrossed.

The Men Who Loved Trains, by Rush Loving. Fortune Magazine alumnus Loving is a storyteller par excellence, the sort of fellow you’d enjoy sipping rye over ice with all afternoon while his Virginia drawl seduces your imagination. His tale of the fight for Conrail by rivals CSX and Norfolk Southern encompasses one-third of a century and is filled with the ambitions of men, their vanities, and their occasional flashes of brilliance. The core of this book is how NS let itself be lulled into complacency by CSX leader John Snow and how it clawed itself back into the fight when Snow announced his 1996 deal to buy Conrail, the railroad that controlled access to the Northeast.

The Boomer, by Harry Bedwell. Railroad fiction is a lost art, the last novel I can recall being Michael McGinley’s 1995 chronicle Double Jacks, about a thinly disguised Southern Pacific. Bedwell (1888-1955) inked some 70 short stories for Railroad Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. The Boomer, published in 1942, was his masterpiece. At the core of this novel is telegrapher Eddie Sand, who jumps from railroad to railroad in tune with the seasons and always seems to have one foot stuck in someone’s bucket of trouble. The kicker is that it’s still in print. Please, someone, tell me a railroad story to match this.

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