A Review of “America’s Colorful Railroads”

This was one of my first railroad books, and still has a valued place on my bookshelf. Author Don Ball, Jr. chronicles what in my opinion was the most important period in modern American railroading – the 1950s transition from steam to diesel. There are 281 color images depicting the whole gamut of American railroading from coast to coast, but the books also recounts what it was like as a railfan “on the ground” in that era.

What makes this all-color book even more special is the fact that the technical aspects of capturing the action was challenging. There was no Internet to rapidly spread word of movements, and no scanners to listen to traffic. But most importantly, color photography was still new. There was no high speed color film, and camera and lens quality could leave something to be desired as well. Most railfans of the day shot B&W, and the temptation to shoot these important subjects in that “safer” format must have been intense.

Even a decade after the first freight diesels had appeared, there was still an air of newness about the concept – although perhaps lacking in some of the drama of steam and smoke and visible moving parts, diesels afforded railroads the opportunity to operate locomotives that finished in something other than shades of black and gray. The 1950s saw a vast array of colorful diesels, and these are represented by, among others, a C&EI F3, Pere Marquette E7, a large frontal closeup of a Milwaukee Road Erie-built, and another large image of a Rock Island TA. There are many more.

The twilight of steam is also well represented. As the 1950s dawned, steam was still at least numerically king, but the beginning of its reign was coming into view. We are treated to coverage to all manner of steam, from massive B&O EM-1s and UP Big Boys, to a Rutland 0-6-0.

Beyond the locomotives, we also see a great many railroads that have since become part of history. There are several shots of FTs and F3s of the NYO&W, a road whose dependence on coal traffic and vacation goers meant that it would not live out the decade. The PRR was still the “Standard Railroad of the World” at the time, but little more than twelve years would separate the shots of steam and early Geeps on Horseshoe Curve, and the submergence of Pennsy DGLE under Penn Central black. There are Western Maryland F-units, long before the “disco” scheme and eventual assimilation into CSX. Out west, we see Southern Pacific at its most colorful, with the vivid Daylight E7s and 4-8-4 #4458.