Book Review: Requiem for Steam, by David Plowden

Posted by Roy Blanchard
on Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Requiem for SteamReviewed by Roy Blanchard, with some help from the German Requiem by Brahms

I. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

David Plowden’s most recent book, the aptly titled Requiem for Steam, is clearly written by a man who mourns the passing of steam locomotion on the railroads, yet he and we are comforted by the passion and craftsmanship he brings to this labor of love. From the acknowledgments on the first three pages to the last photograph, we’re blessed with a collection of lovingly taken, developed and printed photographs that let even the most casual reader sense the excitement that was steam. 

II. Behold, all flesh is as the grass; the grass with’reth, and the flower thereof falleth away. (1 Peter 1:22)

David Plowden loves trains, and that’s no epithet. It’s a compliment of the highest order. There is such a thing as “a passion for the work,” and it shows up in everything from the Sistine Chapel to a well-executed battle plan to building, caring for -- and photographing -- steam locomotives.

Though the book is mostly full-page black and white photographs (there is no color), his own “Requiem” is 14 pages of biography (studied photography with Minor White, assistant to O. Winston Link, his own railroading  experience --a year as Assistant-to-the-Trainmaster upon graduation from Yale in 1955), and admiration for the men who, up to the very end, maintained and ran the locomotives he photographed.

“By 1960, the diesel had won the day. The steam locomotive had virtually disappeared from every class I railroad in the United States.” The flowers were falling.

III. Lord, make me to know the measure of my days. (Psalm 39:4)

It was in March 1960 that Plowden began his quest to photograph the last steam on the CP, the last class I that was still running any steam road power in regular service. The railroad’s Director of Public Affairs had armed our intrepid photographer with a letter “giving me permission to ride any locomotive, freight or passenger train; to photograph in all CPR’s engine terminals. Anywhere.” And since the end of CP steam was imminent, even though there had been no specific date given, David knew the measure of his days left to photograph steam locomotives.

IV. How lovely is thy dwelling place. (Psalm 84:1)

As one who burned a fair amount of film chasing down the last N&W steam locomotives (I worked the Norfolk-Petersburg end with H. Reid while David was in western Virginia with Link), I wanted to know more about what he saw and felt and how he captured it, even down to camera, film, and darkroom preferences. I caught up with him by phone at his home in Winnetka, Illinois, hard by the ex-CNW main to Milwaukee, last week and we hit it off immediately. 

I ask about how he got into railroading in the first place. He says he applied for a job on the Great Northern right out of Yale. He was named “Assistant to the Trainmaster,” not Assistant Trainmaster (David wants to make this distinction as his job was to go out and ride trains to learn how things work). “Imagine,” he tells me, “getting paid to out and ride trains -- all kinds of trains, from local freights to manifests to passenger jobs to work trains!”

And steam-powered, too. David worked out of Willmar, Minn, on the east end of the division that ran between there and Breckenridge, Minn. He says, “The GN had dieselized from west to east so the Willmar Division was among the last to go. This was 1955-1956 and I sure got a lot of hands-on experience in all manner of road operations. But when they ‘promoted’ me to the office at the end of a year I know it was time to go.”

V. Yea, I will comfort you. (Isaiah 66:13)

David again: “Railroading is in my blood. I love the culture and -- yes -- adventure that goes with being out on the railroad. Being in the office is no place for me.” We spend a few moments lamenting the downside of “armchair railroading” and we turn the subject to the physical aspects of photography: film choice, developers, printing and publishing. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I heard somebody say “D-76” or “Dektol” or “I used to mix my own D-23.”

He’s still shooting in black and white with roll-film Hasselblads and does his own developing -- in D-76, the same soup I have downstairs for black-and-white work with my 1973 Leica M-3. He says he’s pretty much stopped printing, though, thanks to some friends who got him up to speed on Adobe Photoshop. All the photographs in Requiem are Photoshop products, he says, and some of the scans are from negatives that were so badly deteriorated he never could have printed them conventionally.

VI. Here on earth we have no continuing place. (Hebrews 13:14)

David says, “Adieu” to steam with a cab ride on the “Scoot,” a mixed train CP ran over the 117 miles between Brownville Jct., Maine and Megantic, P.Q. It’s March 29, 1960 and the 5107, a 2-8-2 of classic CP proportions, is doing the honors. He describes the trip as very matter of fact, with the hostler, engineer and conductor going through their pre-trip chores as they have done on countless days. Nothing special here. But there was in the air a sense of “no continuing place” for the 5107: “When I climbed up into the cab with my Rolleiflex around my neck I was fully aware of the significance of what was about to happen.”

VII. Blessed are the dead.  (Revelation 14:13)

David tells how, at the end of the trip, they dropped the fires and with the remaining steam pressure eased the 5107 back into the engine house. He writes about his climbing up into the cab one last time and watching the steam pressure gauge drop to zero. “I stayed there a few more minutes, unable to say a final farewell. I climbed down from the cab and walked slowly past the driving wheels and connecting rods. I stopped and put the back of my hand against the main crankpin as I had seen many an engineer do. It was still warm.”

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

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