Wednesday, February 1, 2023

A fine new book about railroading

 Just recently released is a new book from prolific railroad historian H. Roger Grant, entitled The Station Agent, and subtitled “The American Railroad Experience” (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 2022). It is substantially a cultural history, but for model railroaders, does contain a great deal of information about the station agent’s job and how it related to railroad operation. 

It’s a 6 x 9-inch book, hardbound, of 208 pages. It’s not a photo book, it’s primarily a text, but does contain 40-some images, some quite interesting. As you’d expect from a professor of history, it contains extensive end notes and bibliography. And it’s what is known as “jacketless,” meaning the cover art is on the end boards, and there is no dust jacket. Price is $28.00.

Your local bookstore can order it (which is the way that I bought it — they need your support), or you can purchase it online, at: . Here’s the front cover (with a C&NW agent in uniform shown at work, copying a train order, which would be handwritten in the early 20th century):

There are 5 chapters, their titles suggesting the overall thrust of the book: from Chapter 1, “Formative Years,” through Chapter 3, “Maturity: Complexities,” to Chapter 5, “Legacy.”

One photograph in the book that I enjoyed showed a conductor and agent exchanging waybills, a 1940 image taken at Brookings, South Dakota on the C&NW (H. Roger Grant collection), page 60. Grant provides a brief summary of the management of waybills on pages 45, 46.

Naturally a fair segment of the book is taken up with methods of ensuring safe operation, particularly train orders and all the associated issues. In the 1970 photo below, Santa Fe operator Don Burns types a 19 order at Perry, Oklahoma (page 146). The depot still has a telegraph connection; note the traditional tobacco tin sounder, in the background just above the operator’s hands. (Don L. Hofsommer photo)

One of the iconic sights of the heyday of the timetable–train order era was the operator handing up orders to trains. There are several such photos in this book. One I especially liked (page 52) is this view at Biloxi, Mississippi, the agent using a bamboo hoop to hand up orders to the engineer of a northward L&N freight; note he holds another hoop in his left hand, which will be used to hand up the orders to the conductor in the caboose (J. Parker Lamb photo, June 1956).

I enjoyed this book, and it brought together quite a lot of lore about stations and agents, emphasizing that the agent was usually the local face of the railroad in small communities. This was both a responsibility and an opportunity.

I am pleased that Indiana University Press saw fit to publish this interesting book. I recommend it to anyone interested in the broader sense of railroad operations.

Tony Thompson

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