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Back Story: Book captures images of steam railroading

Jeff Brouws and his wife, Wendy Burton, both photographers, spent the better part of a decade attending railroad swap meets and shows, and rummaging through boxes and stacks of photographs in search of images primarily from the age of steam railroading.

In the introduction to their new book, "Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs," Brouws recalls attending the Amherst Railroad Hobby Show in Springfield, Mass., in 2002 and encountering massive amounts of railroadiana, including model trains as well as advertising and timetables, or what professional pickers or collectors call "paper."

"To get my bearings I strolled the aisles, not exactly knowing what I was there to buy but definitely on the lookout — the mind set of a flea-market flaneur," Brouws writes. Within an hour, he says, he was "hooked," and we are the beneficiaries of his curiosity, enthusiasm and pocketbook.

"A new facet of my collecting life had begun," he writes.

His and his wife's labors led to this stunning collection of black-and-white photos not only of steam engines, trains, rural whistle-stops, stations and yards, but also several images of railroad wrecks that make the reader wonder how anyone riding those smashed engines or splintered cars possibly could have made it out alive.

And it's obvious from many of these photos that train wrecks brought out the crowds, who must have viewed it as entertainment as they swarmed trackside to take in the spectacle. Here are women dressed in 1930 frocks and cloches, while the gents sport suits, ties and carefully creased fedoras.

This book reveals how beautiful and dramatic industrial photography can be while also preserving for all time a vanished age.

There are several pictures of diesel locomotives, including one of a New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Alco diesel standing at Union Station in Providence, R.I., on a frigid February night in 1961. Also included is a photo of the gritty coaling tower looming over the Baltimore & Ohio's yard in Grafton, W.Va., in 1966.

They have included several streetcar images, including one from the 1940s of the Atlantic City & Shore Railroad, an interurban line that connected Atlantic City to Ocean City, N.J.

Judging from the position of the raised trolley poles, departure time from its terminal across the boardwalk from the Steel Pier is imminent.

The couple found works by such well-known photographers as H. Reid, Fred Jukes, Gerald M. Best, Jim Shaughnessy, Don Ball Jr. and Philip R. Hastings. There are also plenty by anonymous photographers who went trackside or to the depot to freeze for all time trains such as a westbound Central Vermont Railway freight as it chugs through White River Junction, Vt., in the 1950s, while casting great geysers of smoke and steam skyward.

There are a number of B&O; images, such as one of the National Limited, shown hustling toward St. Louis from Jersey City on an October afternoon in 1939.

The authors have wisely included images of railroaders at work — hostlers, station agents, telegraphers, backshop crews and track workers, not to mention the ubiquitous engineers leaning out of their cabs with hands firmly on the throttle. One is reminded of the army of labor that railroads once hired to keep the trains moving and how important a role the railroad played in American life.

There are plenty of images of rural depots and whistle-stops that once connected, through bands of steel, rural America to the great cities of the nation.

One such image is of a diminutive Central New England Railway clapboard depot in Silvernails, N.Y., from the early 1920s. While it is in need of a paint job — no doubt thanks to the smoke and cinders of passing locomotives — there is still a little pride by its agent displayed: Two brooms are standing next to a parked maintenance-of-way work car.

One can only speculate what dreams were about to unfold as someone boarded the steam cars from Silvernails and headed to the lights of the city and a new life.

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