The Secret Life of American Trains

Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs features over 200 shots of railways and trains, unearthed by the book's authors.

Image
H. Reid

It's hard to imagine a photograph disappearing into the ether today. The internet preserves carefully composed shots and boozy snapshot equally well. But this wasn't always the case.

Back in 2002, Jeff Brouws attended the Amherst Railroad Hobby show in Massachusetts and started collecting inexpensive old snapshots of railways and trains. "I didn't spend more than five dollars for a photograph," he says. It wasn't that hard -- no one was looking for aesthetically beautiful images. Instead, model-train enthusiasts were looking for historically-accurate shots to use in their work.

"These are everyday images, and for the most part were made by amateurs or people who were not artists," he says. He and his wife and co-author, Wendy Burton, scanned and digitized these forgotten images, touching up any marks in Photoshop. Their new book, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs, released this week, features over 200 images from the collection.

He writes in the book's introduction:

Most of the prints were unsigned, with no identifying marks. Several had the names of their makers rubber-stamped on the back. Others, the antithesis of anonymity, contained an abundance of information faithfully recorded.

Roughly half the photographs in the book are unattributed, he says.

Brouws also serves on the board for the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, and hopes to donate his collection to the Donnelley and Lee Library at Lake Forest College in Illinois, which houses the Center's archives.

Below, a selection of images from the book.

Illinois Central Railroad in North Jackson, Mississippi (April 1938 by C. William Witbeck)
Left: Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1913 by Hanna and Hanna Studios); Right: New York Central in Harmon, New York (June 11,1945, by Ed Nowak)
Ann Arbor Railroad in Ann Arbor, Michigan (January 17, 1904 by C.T. Stoner)
Pennsylvania Railroad, location unknown (June 16, 1948, photographer unknown)

Top image: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Fairmont, West Virginia (August 1957 by H. Reid)

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