Trains at 75: Happy birthday to us — the first issue

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The first issue of Trains magazine, alongside the original cover image.
If I could go back in time, I would love to ask our magazine’s founder, Al Kalmbach, why he chose the image he picked for the first issue of Trains in November 1940. The irony is that for a magazine called “Trains” it depicts no locomotive, no speeding passenger express, and no plodding freight hog. The black and white cover subject was a close up of a steam locomotive water tower, the spout raised, counterweights down, its well-weathered wooden body showing evidence of the comings and goings of numerous winters and summers. There were no cover blurbs, just the logo “Trains,” and “for November” below and the price, a whopping 25 cents, 30 cents in Canada.

We know little about the image that Trains staffer Linn Westcott took. On the back is an ink stamp that says “Engraver’s copy” and shows a date wanted of Sept. 6. Under special instructions, it says to “block out for ‘Trains’ block.” Pretty simple stuff.

Inside the first issue there were no cover captions to tell the reader whose water tank graced the first cover. Curious, I began to ask around the office, and Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal and Trains Publisher Kevin Keefe pointed me to the library to search the folders of two Wisconsin short lines. The location, they said, was Casco Junction, Wis., the meeting place between the Ahnapee & Western and the Green Bay & Western. It’s about 134 miles north of our headquarters in Waukesha, Wis., in suburban Milwaukee.

The Ahnapee & Western file was a fruitless pursuit, but sure enough, in the Green Bay & Western miscellaneous folder, I found the sacred print. It has weathered these 75 years well, a testament to the printmaking abilities of whoever created it in the summer of 1940. There’s no spotting, very little signs of wear, and discreet crop marks toward the bottom.

In the same folder I found a photo of the disheveled Casco Junction depot; presumably this image, also by Linn Westcott, was made the same day. The station appears to be abandoned, its door flung open, most of the shingles missing, and weeds growing on the platform. In the background of the station, in the distance, stands the water tank that launched this magazine. The station name sign says that Green Bay is 23 miles to the west and Sturgeon Bay, the other end of the Ahnapee & Western, was 34 miles to the north.

Was the water tank a strange choice for the cover subject? I think not. More so, I think it was an acknowledgement of Al Kalmbach’s roots. He grew up in Sturgeon Bay, on the north end of the A&W. This was a way to connect his past to the future. To show the link between the remote and obscure to the national network. I think he used the tank as a metaphor – a fountain for all trains that passed this way is like a source of knowledge, ready to spill out for all those who stopped.

The Casco Junction tank could have been any one of thousands of water towers standing in towns and cities, large and small, across North America. But here it was, on Kalmbach’s hometown railroad, on the cover of his brand-new magazine in 1940 telling all that a new source of knowledge and excitement had arrived on the tracks.








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