Chronicle of Locomotives Reflects A Vanishing Era

THE AGE OF STEAM; by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg; Rhinehart and Co.; 304 pages; $15

A few years ago railroad enthusiasts across the nation were shocked to learn that Lucius Beebe '27 had sold his vintage private railroad car, The Gold Coast, and replaced it with a brand new pullman constructed entirely of stainless steel and plate glass, and possessed of no historical merit whatsoever.

But in spite of this act of blackest treachery, Beebe has remained the chief spokesman for a rather intriguing group of Americans who are passionately interested in trains. The Age of Steam, his latest effort in the field, is intended as a memorial to the machine largely responsible for the existence of the railfan.

The steam locomotive was, as everybody knows, a potent factor in the historical growth of America, spreading with the railroad into the everyday existence of people everywhere. Few early observers were friendly toward this snorting monster; they found it smelly, noisy, and even dangerous to the established horse and buggy order. But, as time went on, the steam engine became a familiar and even nostalgic item on the national scene.

By the 1930's the railroads, once fearsomely modern, were pleasantly passe. The automobile had crowded out the train as an everyday means of transportation, though people found that owning a car brought headaches as well as freedom, not to mention flat tires. Some of them (never very many) wondered if this kind of progress was really an improvement at all.

Anyone with this turn of mind was potentially a railfan, but there were negative factors to be considered, such as coal dust allergies and love of quiet. And there were still quite a few people around who just didn't like any machines.

As a result the railfan never became a dominant figure on the American sociocultural scene. He usually started as a small child who admired the boisterous noises and heavy clouds of smoke generated by the locomotives of some railroad near home. Then he just never grew up, at least as far as railroads were concerned, which is to say he grew up as a railfan.

The steam engine, a joyfully inefficient and individualistic machine, had become the essence of what made the railroads pleasantly different from more modern forms of transportation. But since the war distressed fans have watched the roads transformed into just another mass-produced product of General Motors. Almost everywhere the nasal blat of diesel air horns has replaced the musical tones of multiple-chime steam whistles.

Squirrel Activity

But the period of transition is not quite over; here and there a steam engine survives. In the meantime the fan movement has been scurrying desperately to store up tape recordings, photographs and other mementos for the dark, steamless days that lie ahead.

The Age of Steam is one of the best examples published to date of this squirrel-like activity of the past decade. Snorting steam engines parade through its pages in glorious profusion under bushy black columns of smoke. The photography is top grade, as no railfan would be caught dead without a good camera (and a surprising number know how to use them). And the Dutch printing and engraving is superb.

Author Beebe contributes his usual flowery prose, entirely in the form of lengthy captions. But aside form its 500-odd pictures, the book has little to offer; it is badly organized and rather inaccurately written in regard to such vital matters as locomotive names and wheel arrangements. The fans, no matter how pleased they may be with the photographs, will most certainly take note of this.

For the more sane portion of the reading public, The Age of Steam presents a pleasant glimpse of a picturesque era but recently vanished. To the uninitiated, it might even offer an inkling of how railfans got that way in the first place