Thank you for sharing your fond memories with us, Richard!
My Railfan Story
Richard C. Leonard, Ph.D.
I was born to be a railroad fan. My grandfather, Don M. Leonard, was an official of the Boston & Albany in the early twentieth century, and my father, Richard D. Leonard, grew up with a regular exposure to trains and railroads. It was inevitable that he should pass the interest along to me and my younger brother, David. While other dads took their sons camping, or to baseball games, our dad took us trackside to watch trains. I will never forget, for example, watching beside the busy New York Central main line west of Toledo and seeing the stream of high-speed limiteds hauled by the Central’s famous Hudsons – whistle wailing, rods flailing, smoke trailing as they rushed by our vantage point. Of course the New York Central, which leased the Boston & Albany, was my father’s favorite railroad. (He despised the rival Pennsylvania!)
But until I became a teenager, I was dependent on my father to take us to places where we could observe the world of railroading — for example, to the Michigan Central’s shops in Jackson, Michigan, where I had my first cab ride in a steam locomotive, the NYC’s class H-10 2-8-2 No. 2345. That changed in 1951, when my father transitioned from college teaching at Adrian, Michigan, to become pastor of the Methodist church in the small town of Bellevue, just northeast of Battle Creek on the Grand Trunk Western main line — at that time all steam-powered except for some EMD F7 “A” units on manifest freights. Dad had never been a regular photographer of rail subjects, but seizing the opportunity to record the passage of steam power through our village I borrowed his old Kodak folding cartridge camera that used size 116 film and spent many an hour at trackside. Other ventures through Michigan and environs permitted photography of GTW steam at Durand or Battle Creek, or of NYC locomotives in Detroit or elsewhere.
When Dad became a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington in 1954, our move brought exposure to the trains and facilities of other railroads. At first the Illinois Central was still steam-powered in the area, but when that faded away I was reduced to “fanning” the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio’s all-diesel operations in Bloomington, which featured an important terminal and shop. One trip to the Chicago area took us to the Nickel Plate’s Calumet Yard in Chicago during the last months of the NKP’s famous Berkshires. A family trip to New England via Canada yielded views of Canadian Pacific steam, while a visit to Galesburg with railfan friends permitted photography of some late Burlington Route steam. In 1957 a family trip to Colorado and Wyoming allowed us to see and photograph steam on the Colorado & Southern in Denver and the Union Pacific at Laramie, where we captured views of the earlier gas turbines and the famous “Big Boy” 4-8-8-4s. Returning to Illinois along the UP’s main line we photographed 4-6-6-4 Challengers and a few 4-8-4s as well. By that time I was using a 35mm camera for both black-and-white film and color transparencies, and my brother had a good-quality camera using larger film.
As you might guess, steam was my dominant interest. With the passing of steam my railfan activities waned, supplanted by the responsibilities of graduate study at Boston University (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, 1972) followed by episodes of college teaching, theological writing, and serving various pastorates, along with a twenty-year career as a transportation data analyst with Rand McNally. I didn’t entirely drop rail photography, but it lacked the urgency of my efforts during the steam era. For almost four decades railfanning, for me, was generally on the “back burner,” although my rail background was put to good use at Rand McNally when I headed a group of analysts coding the entire U.S. rail network into the computer for a product called “Railroad MileMaker.” After a few years Rand McNally, not well positioned to market to the rail industry, leased the product to another firm and returned me to the highway side of transportation.
The rise of the Internet brought me back to serious railfan activities. In 1998, realizing there was an online interest in rail photography, I built the Steam Locomotive Archive web site based on the photos I had taken back in the 1950s, with pages for all the railroads mentioned above. This became the “flagship” site of “Richard Leonard’s Rail Archive” (www.railarchive.net), which eventually incorporated separate sections for my “New York Central Collection,” “GM&O Gallery,” “Random Steam Photo Collection,” “Vintage Diesel Miscellany,” and much more. The Rail Archive now includes photos contributed by many others, especially the work of my late brother David V. Leonard (some of his Canada images, and mine, are in the “Canadian Corner” section of this blog). But many others, including Tom Rock, have happily loaned images from their collections to the Rail Archive, for which I am thoroughly grateful. The Rail Archive now includes twenty-one sections comprising more than 1800 individual pages containing photos and commentary, or reproducing pages from vintage publications.
Today, in retirement, I am a director of the Keokuk Union Depot Foundation, which is restoring this historic 1891 structure. I maintain the Depot’s web site (www.keokukuniondepot.org) and Facebook page. And some years ago, fulfilling a desire to “own” a railroad, I purchased stock in Pioneer Railcorp, parent company of the Keokuk Junction Railway that operates through our town of Hamilton, Illinois.
As a final note, it’s striking how many steam locomotives I photographed in the 1950s still exist in various museums or displays, or even in operable condition. These include my very first steam photo, GTW Pacific 5030, but also GTW 0-8-0 8380, 2-8-2 3734 (renumbered to 4070), 4-8-4s 6323 and 6325; CPR 2-8-2 5361; CB&Q 4-6-4 4000; NKP 2-8-4 765; IC 2-8-2 1518; Rahway Valley 2-8-0 15; CNR 2-6-0 911; UP 4-8-4 814, 4-8-8-4 4023, and, amazingly, 4-6-6-4 (Challenger) 3985! (I also photographed the famous GTW Pacific 5629 and CB&Q 4-8-4 5632, which had careers in the post-steam era but were later scrapped.) If I really wanted to, I could take digital photos today of around fourteen steam locomotives I photographed in the 1950s on size 116 or 35mm film (and have done so in a few cases)!
Hamilton, Illinois – 800-440-4043
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