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Rodney H. Peterson, former Chessie System construction engineer and noted rail photographer, dies

Rodney H. Peterson, former Chessie System construction engineer and career railroader who was also a noted rail photographer and whose work was widely published in books and magazines, died Friday of liver cancer and heart failure at the Edenwald Retirement Community in Towson. He was 89.

“I think the most important thing to stress about Randy is the valuable and priceless photo collection that he amassed of railroading from the mid-20th century on to the present. He was a very dedicated photographer,” said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a noted railroad historian, author and photographer and a retired CSX executive.

“We talk a lot about railroading, but Rodney actually had wide transportation interests. He took pictures of ships, planes and covered bridges. He did more than just trains,” said Mr. Harwood, a Cross Keys resident.

William C. “Bill” Kalkman, a rail photographer, was also a traveling companion of Mr. Peterson.

“Randy had an encyclopedic knowledge of American railroading and not just of the East, he also knew the West,” said Mr. Kalkman, a Timonium resident. “We’d be out in Montana, for instance, and we’d cross over an abandoned right-of-way and he could tell you everything about from what types of locomotives operated on the line to when it was abandoned. He knew his facts.”

Rodney Homeister Peterson, who was the son of Victor Henry Peterson, a salesman, and his wife, Amelia Vera Peterson, a homemaker, was born in Burlington, Vt., and raised in Winooski, Vt.

He was a 1947 graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 in mechanical engineering from Norwich University in Northfield, Vt.

Commissioned a lieutenant in the Army Reserve, Mr. Peterson was called to active duty in 1951 and was assigned to the First Armored Division’s 100th Heavy Tank Battalion in Fort Hood, Texas.

After further armored training, he was assigned in 1952 to the 63rd Medium Tank Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division in Kitzingen, Germany.

He was discharged in 1953, and returned to Vermont, where he served with the 294th Ordnance Division of the Vermont National Guard, and attended ordnance school at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1955.

His infatuation with trains began when he was a child standing trackside near his boyhood Winooski home with his favorite Aunt Ella watching Central Vermont Railway trains slowly chug by.

His love of travel was further stimulated by his parents, who took him to the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland in 1936, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1948.

Mr. Peterson’s first railroad job was with the Central Vermont Railway in 1948, when he took a summer job as an extra gang laborer.

He worked the next summer in the railroad’s engineering office in Saint Albans, Vt., and two years later, was a member of a track engineering gang assigned to the line’s Roxbury Subdivision.

He returned to that position in 1954, where he remained until 1955, when he joined the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad; he stayed there until his retirement in 1986.

From 1955 to 1963, Mr. Peterson was in the B&O’s regional engineering office in Pittsburgh, and from 1963 to 1970, he was a project engineer in the division engineer’s office in Akron, Ohio.

When he was transferred to Baltimore in 1970, he served as a resident engineer assigned to the office of the assistant chief of staff, a position he held until 1979.

From 1979 to his retirement from successor CSX, he was a construction engineer with the railroad’s Maryland Division.

In addition to his regular professional responsibilities, he was able to combine his love of railroading with photography.

During his tenure in Pittsburgh, he chronicled with his photography the twilight of the B&O steam era that ended in Ohio in 1958.

Around Baltimore, for instance, it wasn’t uncommon to see Mr. Peterson standing trackside at Warner Street near M&T Bank Stadium in the weeds with two or three cameras around his neck, patiently awaiting the arrival of a MARC commuter train or a heavy westbound CSX freight train squealing and grinding its way up out of the Howard Street Tunnel with more than a 100 cars in tow.

Because railroads can be episodic operations at best, patience is the first thing someone interested in chronicling their operations has to master, as Messrs Peterson, Harwood and Kalkman had.

“We had a lot of adventures together chasing trains, climbing over fences, dodging dogs, and being very nice to railroad policemen who wondered what we were doing there,” Mr. Harwood said, with a laugh.

“Randy was a very dedicated photographer and comprehensive. The man really was obsessive,” he said.

Mr. Kalkman became acquainted with Mr. Peterson in the mid-1980s when both men found themselves railfanning around Baltimore, started talking, and soon began taking day and weekend trips to railroad sites together in the East and New England and then weeklong trips out West.

“We got along so well and had many of the same ideas. We just didn’t focus on locomotives, but also part of the train, and the whole railroad scene,” he said.

“If someone wandered into a picture he was trying to take, he could get quite upset,” Mr. Kalkman said. “Randy was also one of those people who knew a lot of stuff and he didn’t mind correcting someone. He knew he was correct and he knew he was right.”

In addition to photographing trains in the U.S., he had traveled to China, Cuba and South Africa and across Europe and Canada recording on film the railroad scenes there. That work resulted in a collection of thousands of prints and slides. Much of his photography has found its way into books and magazines and onto calendars.

Mr. Peterson was a longtime active member of RABO — the Retired Administrators of the B&O Railroad — a retirement organization that also included those who worked for the Western Maryland Railway and B&O successors Chessie System and CSX.

E. Ray Lichty, a Glen Arm resident whose friendship with Mr. Peterson dated to the 1950s, when both were beginning their railroad careers on the B&O, and later retired as a CSX executive, was for years editor of RABO’s News & Notes, a retirement magazine, which is a repository of members’ stories from their railroad careers and includes rail-related history.

“He gave me a stack of 8x10 prints of engines from different locations on the B&O, much of it in the East, and I put it on the back of News & Notes and called the feature ‘Peterson’s Pic,’ ” he said.

“I selected from that stack for years and years, and it’s really great stuff,” Mr. Lichty said. “When Rodney started photographing the railroad, the steam era was still going strong, but he photographed much more than just the B&O.”

Mr. Peterson, a former longtime resident of Towson’s Campus Hills neighborhood, who has since 2008 lived at Edenwald, was a lifelong member of the National Railway Historical Society.

Plans for a celebration of life service are incomplete.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Ann Parker, a homemaker; two daughters, Julie Peterson Sutphin of Perry Hall and Amy Amalia Peterson of New York City; and four grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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