Lucius Beebe’s finest hour

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, July 22, 2010

From time to time, I want to reintroduce you to books about railroads I’d gladly take to that proverbial desert island. These are books I love to go back to open at random pages and begin reading. They’re like old friends to me, which means, unfortunately, that they are almost all out of print, some of them for well more than half a century. But a search in or should unearth them all. At the least, please be entertained as I ramble down these paths.
During the 1930s, Lucius Beebe (1902-1966) chronicled the comings and goings of Manhattan’s café society for the New York Herald-Tribune. But he was a man of many interests, including trains. Beebe is credited with inventing the railroad photo book, starting with High Iron, A Book of Trains in 1938. Many other railroad books followed. Beebe had just finished the two-volume The Trains We Rode (coauthored with his life partner Charles Clegg) at the time of his death. But it is Mixed Train Daily, published in 1947, that I hope endures for all time in the hearts of train lovers. Its 362 pages lovingly capture the world of short line railroading just after the end of World War II. To open the pages of Mixed Train Daily is to wander happily into a time warp.
As a writer, Beebe resembled an out-of-control train. Rococo is the term that comes to mind. Case in point: “The railroads of the Carolinas are, for the most part, and in varying degrees, well-to-do little pikes with small concern or none for passenger traffic.” That was easy. Now this about the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (the “Tweetsie”): “Tweetsie itself is a rare, dainty, and proud narrow gage. Its locomotives are Swiss-watch anachronisms with red- and gold-capped stacks, red-painted cab window frames, and rod assemblies that might have come from a jeweler’s display window. When we visited it, the head-end crew of No. 12 had caught and were maintaining in the tool box of their locomotive a large and understandably ungracious possum. In cabins along the right-of-way at Cranberry and Roan Mountain aged beldames in men’s felt hats stood in the doors of unpainted but spotless cabins to watch the train pass. School children were putting their ears to the track to see if it was true that you could hear the engines coming, and we wondered about old Mrs. Judkins at Linville Gap, who had painted hundreds of vaguely Pre-Raphaelite pictures of Tweetsie, its windows filled with happy children waving, and who always explained her choice of subject because Tweetsie was ‘the onliest train there was around.’” And this: “A grand tour of the short lines of Virginia begins, if that is the way one wants to undertake it, with the Washington and Old Dominion, although because it employs a debased form of motive power, gas-electric in design, and has already been very adequately chronicled elsewhere, we decided against any investment of time in its recording.” Got that? My mind is reeling, but that is vintage Lucius Beebe. You either love it or hate it, and I wouldn’t have him any other way.
I adore some of the quotes Beebe attributes to shortline railroaders. This from the man running Virginia’s Chesapeake Western, today a Norfolk Southern branch line nestled in the Shenandoah mountains: “We’re still listed as running passenger service in the Guide, but we try not to do it… *** all passengers on a short haul, anyway. We averaged twenty-seven cents a head before our two gas coaches broke down. Now they’re in the shop and I don’t care if they don’t come out till Gabriel blows. If they do and I have to carry passengers I’ll make it so uncomfortable, inconvenient and disagreeable for them that they’d wish they never bought a two-bit ticket. It was all right when you could afford to carry passengers in steam. It had some sentiment about it even if you did lose money a bit, but *** and blast all gas-electric power to hell and then some. I’m no jitney bus conductor.” Added Beebe: “Mr. Thomas seemed to mean it and the Currier lithographs of old-time engines on the pine-paneled walls could be imagined to beam approval.”
If anything, the images of Mixed Train Daily are more arresting than Beebe’s writing style. I’m looking now at Charles Clegg’s photo of the No. 102, the sole motive power of the 12-mile Bowden Railway Co. in Georgia, a motor rail car that appears to predate the Revolutionary War and vaguely resembles a Rio Grande Southern “Galloping Goose.” In West Virginia, coal miners ride to work on Civil War-era wood coaches aboard the Kelley’s Creek & Northwestern. In Arkansas, the combine of the Prescott & Northwestern trails always from the camera, seemingly running on bare earth as it plows through a sea of advancing weeds.
The author eventually gets to Colorado and its narrow-gauge railroads, and to his beloved Virginia & Truckee (part of which was recently revived) in Nevada. But it is Lucius Beebe’s homages to the little railroads of the South and New England that draw me like steel to an electromagnet. Here he is, talking about the St. Johnsbury & Lake Champlain Railroad: “The management hates its passenger business and would like nothing better than to be well shut of it, as the Yankee phrase has it, but the communities it serves cling to its idiot schedules with a passionate possessiveness. The forefathers of the village rode by the cars and the current older generation will be damned or even forego fishballs at Sunday breakfast before it will board the auto stage. And it is the only railroad in America which, in 1947, still ran its trains over five covered wooden bridges stoutly devised against the assaults of nature and spanning with their architecture not only the ravines they cross but the far greater chasm between the homeric past and the immediate here and now. Compared, say, to the Delaware & Hudson, its neighbor across Lake Champlain, the St. Johnsbury is not an old railroad, but it has its roots in the New England of Longfellow and Whittier and Dr. Holmes and that, of course, is ageless.”

If you were to own just one Lucius Beebe book, make it Mixed Train Daily. The railroad world it pays homage to is long gone, but deserves to be remembered this way. — Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy