Monday, June 11, 2012

Railroad stories

Probably everyone has seen some of the books and articles out there about the experience of working on the railroad, in a variety of jobs, from switchman to brakeman to engineer, and also including operators, road foremen of engines, and others. I want to mention here a few books which I’ve found especially interesting or memorable. Readers of this blog will already know the segments I’ve posted from my long 1990 interview with Mac Gaddis; you can search the blog under that name to find the posts to date.
     As an enthusiast of freight cars and freight operations, I have always had a soft spot for Ralph E. Fisher’s book, Vanishing Markers (The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1976; page size, 7 x 10 inches). It contains a wealth of fascinating material, but the best to me is the account of operating a freight over a division, at night, and all the experiences and problems which can occur (Chapter 8, “Night Freight”). I have gone back and re-read Chapter 8 again and again, and it remains a pure pleasure. The railroad happens to be the Boston & Maine, but the book contains a first-person quality which transcends any particular railroad or geographical region.

     Another favorite, because the stories are colorful, is Larry E. Marnes’ book, Doubling Over (Carlton Press, New York, 1987; page size, 5.25 x 8 inches). I have found that enthusiasts of this kind of writing rarely know this book, but though slim, it is well worth seeking out. Stories are almost all from the Delaware & Hudson, but as with Fisher’s book, the stories are universal.

     A third book, though entirely about an earlier era, is a collection of stories by the great Harry Bedwell, entitled The Boomer (now available as a trade paper reprint from the University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006; page size, 5 x 7.5 inches). The stories are from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, and were first printed in hardback in 1942. Bedwell knew railroading intimately and the stories, though dramatic, convey a spirit of their age like no others I know.

     A more recent author with Southern Pacific stories is Dan Rehwalt, who has self-published several books. I’ll just show one here, which is largely autobiographical (it’s from Grizzly Press, Oakridge, Oregon, 2003; page size 5.5 x 8.25 inches). Among his other titles are Westsider (about working the West Side Line of SP’s Portland Division) and The Hill (about the climb over Cascade Summit). Signature Press is working toward reprinting these works in a single volume, which I hope will happen later this year. Dan is a skillful writer who has the knack of making you feel like “you were there.”

     Rather than show more volumes, I will just list a few additional titles which I’ve found especially valuable and interesting, and which stick in the memory. Foremost among these are Linda Niemann’s works, especially Boomer (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990), which are strong descriptions of work in recent decades. I’m not particularly a narrow-gauge enthusiast, but Josie Moore Crum’s monumental work, The Rio Grande Southern Railroad (San Juan History, Durango, Colorado, 1960), is a rich and truly astonishing account of working on that line. And lastly two collections of working men’s stories, one from the 1920s and 1930s (Workin’ on the Railroad, edited by Ralph Rinehart, American West Publishing, Palo Alto, California, 1970), and a fine collection of interviews with a wide range of Western Maryland employees, Working on the Western Maryland (edited by Wes Morgenstern, Western Maryland Historical Society, Union Bridge, Maryland, 1999).
     Examples could be further multiplied, but these are books I’ve especially enjoyed and found both instructive and very interesting. I commend them to anyone who likes this kind of history.
Tony Thompson


  1. Hi Tony:
    Thanks for this - I have a copy of Vanishing Markers but didn't know about Doubling Over. I've just found a copy and ordered it.
    - Trevor

  2. My wife and I will be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary this August and I've been spending all my spare time planting the yard and preparing the house for visitors. Other time is spent educating myself about and building SP freight cars which leaves little time to read all the other stuff in which I'm also interested - aviation and animals.

    Thanks for the additions to my reading list.

    So many little time.

    La Grange, KY