Jim Shaughnessy:

An Appreciation

12 August 2018

Jeff Brouws photo, from Classic Trains Magazine's Web site

On the day that I turned 53 years old this past week, Jim Shaughnessy died, at age 84.

 

One of the best-known – and best – railroad photographers in the U.S., Shaughnessy first saw his credit line under a photo in Trains Magazine at age 18, and by the time I started looking at train pictures in 1966 or '67 (long before I could actually read), Shaughnessy's had become one of the premier names in the field (admittedly, a fairly narrow field).  He grew up in a lively railroad town (Troy, New York) where he had a front-row seat during the most consequential era in the history of the American railroads, as they handled World War II's record-breaking traffic and then optimistically faced the prosperity of the 1950s.  Starting even before the war, railroads made the wholesale and complete transition from steam power to diesel, and perhaps better and more comprehensively than anyone else Shaughnessy recorded what this looked like in the northeastern and midwestern U.S. and Canada, and even in Mexico.

Like me, young Shaughnessy had boundless encouragement and support from his parents; in addition to accompanying Jim to trackside, his father, James, appears in a photo here and there, posing as a railroader. James's brother Con had once worked in a steam locomotive shop, and in later years as a stationary-boiler inspector he took young Jim along to jobs, so the budding photographer learned about steam right up close.

 

Although it took me decades to understand it in so many words, Shaughnessy's images captured the full sweep of railroading, i.e. the hardware, the landscape, and the people, and how they all interacted.  By their nature, steam locomotives required frequent comprehensive and complicated servicing, which meant a vast infrastructure and a massive workforce. At the same time as the railroads scrapped steam, they also modernized all aspects of their physical plant, from signals to rails; communications went from Morse code and handwritten train orders to radio.  Because of a myriad of factors, internal and external, the railroads did not share equally in the postwar prosperity with other modes of transportation: Most importantly, commercial airlines and private automobiles siphoned off passenger traffic; the government shifted mail transport to planes and trucks; and trucks likewise took much of the short- and medium-distance freight and all of the less-than-carload traffic (think UPS and FedEx).  Combined with excessive regulation and over-taxation, many railroads, especially in the Northeast, succumbed to bankruptcy by the 1970s.

 

Right after the war, railroads directly employed one and a half million people; it took less than a dozen years for that figure to fall by a third, and although the rate of decline moderated, by 1980 only 500,000 people got their paychecks from a railroad.  In 2018, that number has fallen to under a quarter-million.

All of this meant that as the glory years faded, Jim Shaughnessy spent much of his trackside career as a rear-guard documentarian, on occasion the very last one on the scene before the lights went out.  In spring 1957 he photographed some of the final trains ever to run on the 541-mile New York, Ontario & Western Railway, subsequently abandoned almost in its entirety.  Later that year, the Pennsylvania Railroad dropped the fires on its remaining steam locomotives; Shaughnessy of course photographed some of them, and their crews and the surrounding countryside, on the Elmira Branch in rural northcentral Pennsylvania (photo at right).  (The Elmira Branch survived into the diesel era, with reduced traffic as coal loadings dwindled, and Hurricane Agnes killed it in 1972.

Trout Run, Pa., 1956; photo from Hyperallergic.com

Of the tracks, buildings, bridges, people, and equipment that Shaughnessy photographed, almost nothing remains.)  The two big Canadian railroads stuck with steam a few years longer than their U.S. counterparts, and Shaughnessy made a number of spectacularly productive trips north of the border, including in winter, bringing back images that will live forever (photo below right, the Canadian Pacific at Cookshire, Quebec).

Photo from OCanadaBlog.com

By the middle of 1960, before he turned 27, Shaughnessy faced a fundamentally different railroad world, not even as broad and certainly not as deep as what he had grown up with.  But he did not give up his fascination with railroading, let alone photographing all aspects of it, and he continued to make groundbreaking images: His importance to railroad photography goes far beyond in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time. Because of his sensitivity, inventiveness, and creativity, he could tell stories through pictures in a way few if any had before him: Teaching himself the art of open flash, Shaughnessy made hundreds of photos at night that show us the nocturnal world of switchmen and crossing watchmen, engine crews and station agents (below right, a train on the Rutland Railroad).  Although not as dramatic as the photos of doubleheaded steam locomotives straining to start trains on the grades of Quebec on below-zero mornings, his photo of a Boston & Maine crew on their way to their diesel in a yard on a snowy day in 1985, for example, shows that the “postman's creed” (“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”) applies to other workers too.

By befriending railroaders at all levels, all the way up to the executive suite, and through his assignments for Trains (where the longtime and legendary editor David P. Morgan recognized Shaughnessy's talents and appreciated his wholly original vision), Shaughnessy got access to make photos

             that most other fans could never hope to – in locomotive cabs, from atop coal docks, inside the D. & H.'s Colonie (N.Y.) shops, etc., etc.  In a virtuous circle, these photos reinforce his place as an indispensable “essential witness” (in author Jeff Brouws's term) to six decades of North American railroading.

Did Shaughnessy intend for his photographs to stand as symbols of the larger events occurring in the nation, as O. Winston Link explicitly did when he set out to document the lives and lifestyles of the people along the Norfolk & Western in the last years of steam?  If he did, Shaughnessy didn't say.  He wrote two books, histories of the Delaware & Hudson and Rutland railroads, both of them definitive, and he wrote magazine articles, illustrated with his photos, that told the stories of the trips he made and some of what it took to make the pictures.  Mostly, he made more pictures.  In recent years, two more books came out that feature his work, beautifully-made photo albums – and with other people's words surrounding them, not his own.  Click on the photos of the covers, below, for more information about the books.

Shaughnessy Call of Trains Amazon.jpg
Shaughnessy Essential Witness Amazon.jpg

For someone like me, who has loved steam locomotives his whole life and who finds the now-lost mid-20th-century American scene fascinating, Shaughnessy's photos speak volumes, many more than a thousand words apiece.  This past spring, at the annual conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, we learned that Shaughnessy had given his entire collection of images – almost 100,000 black & white negatives – to the Center, where they will safely reside in perpetuity and continue to get shared with coming generations.

 

I met Jim Shaughnessy only twice, the first time in 1981 or so along the Valley Railroad in Connecticut, where we had all gone to photograph the rare use of the tourist line's steam locomotives on a run to the Amtrak interchange at Old Saybrook, the location where my father and I bumped into him; as a teenager, I had not yet learned how to speak to someone I thought of as almost godlike, and thinking about the encounter now makes me squirm (although Mr. Shaughnessy treated me quite graciously).  Thirty-five years later, I got to make up for it, when the CRPA held a conference, also in Connecticut, and Shaughnessy attended, presenting some of his images from the first of the books he'd collaborated on.  On the walls in the U. Conn. building where we gathered, the special-collections curator had hung a number of framed Shaughnessy prints, and we attendees admired them raptly. Among them, my favorite Shaughnessy photograph, of the last run of Boston & Maine 4-6-2 #3713.  Admittedly, this image does not have many of the Shaughnessy hallmarks: not made at night, not showing a person at work (the engineer does appear, but blurred and almost indistinguishable), and not the result of long planning and set-up.  In fact, I like this photo precisely for its spontaneity, because it tells a story so closely related to my own experiences over half a century of chasing trains, and it captures so well the excitement, the thrill of the chase: When he made this photo, he jumped out of the car and barely had time to set the camera and aim and press the shutter release – but the result speaks for itself:

Haverhill, Mass., 1956; photo from the Center for Railroad Photography & Art

Just two weeks before that conference, I had chased a steam locomotive, Reading & Northern #425, on a trip from Port Clinton to Jim Thorpe, Pa., and back, only a little ways from where I live.  My father and I have photographed the engine since 1985, when the railroad first restored her to service, and in recent years she has put on just about the best show in steam railroading in this part of the world: not the largest nor the fastest (she rarely gets above 30 m.p.h.), but she pulls long trains through lovely scenery and makes the most noise of any steam locomotive I have ever heard, her exhaust a joyful roar.  425 shares her wheel arrangement with B. & M. 3713, and she too looks like a speedy passenger engine (although with 70”-diameter drive wheels compared to 3713's 80” drivers).  It occurred to me that I could try to make a photograph in homage of Shaughnessy's.

 

As much as I wanted to capture the feeling of high speed, I also wanted to make a photo that put the train into a particular, identifiable place, not just somewhere out in the woods.  Downtown Tamaqua seemed like a good possibility: The R. & N. (once upon a time the Philadelphia & Reading, later the Reading, of Monopoly® fame) comes right through the center of town, crossing Broad Street just south of the well-kept station, built in 1874.  On my way through early on the morning of the excursion, heading for Port Clinton to photograph the steam crew getting the engine ready for the day, I “scouted” the location as I drove by (I did not have time to actually stop to look around); I had it in my head that I would try to pan the locomotive as it crossed Broad Street, with the storefronts on the far side of the track receding into the background of the photo – so although they would appear blurred (with only the front of the engine clear), they would still provide the sense of place I wanted.

 

As Shaughnessy had had 50 years earlier, I had company in the car, a professional photographer friend, although someone with minimal experience chasing trains; he let me choose the locations and set the pace. We photographed 425 leaving Port Clinton under a lovely cloud of steamy exhaust, then hightailed it for Molino, just up the line, where we watched her pass from across a field of standing golden corn.  Another energetic drive got us to Hecla in plenty of time to make our pictures of the engine reflected in the little pond across the road from the Franciscan monastery, and then we dove in the car and burned rubber again.  (Well, not really: My Ford Focus wagon doesn't have that sort of constitution.)  Less than forty minutes after leaving Port Clinton, we reached Tamaqua – only twenty miles out, and our fourth location.  We made it through the traffic lights, and I veered into a parking space on Mauch Chunk Street, unstrapped my eight-foot stepladder from the roof rack, and ran across Route 309, waving the ladder as a shield against the oncoming cars.  I immediately saw that without setting up in the middle of Broad Street I could not make that spot work for a photo – too much signage and other impedimenta, not to mention the probability of having cars and trucks blocking the side of the engine – so I ran up the track on the grass opposite the station, set up the ladder, and climbed almost to the top.

 

Because of the alacrity with which I had driven us the nine miles from Hecla, we actually had a couple of minutes to get ourselves organized, and I fiddled with the exposure for most of that time, trying to decide if sun or clouds would prevail.  Then we heard the engine's whistle, coming up the valley from South Tamaqua; then we could hear the roar of the exhaust.  As she got closer, the exhaust got louder and louder – so loud, in fact, that its lower frequencies just about completely drowned out the higher pitch of the whistle as engineer Chris Bost blew for the Spruce Street crossing, a thousand feet away.  I had given up on the sun and had the camera at 1/40th of a second at f22, ISO 250; any slower and I didn't think I could keep the camera vertically steady as I panned.  My heart, which had run at an elevated rate ever since leaving Port Clinton, pounded in my chest.  We could see the plume of steam from the whistle as Chris blew for Broad Street, but we couldn't hear it.  The engine bore down on us.  I set the focus point on the headlight and pressed the shutter release, and then again and again, swinging around as the engine pounded by.  "Wow," said my friend.  "That was great."

Did this one work?  And how does it compare to the original?  I will let you decide.  But I will say that I liked it well enough to make an 8x10 to give to the master when I saw him at U. Conn. two weeks later; on the print I wrote “Thank you, Mr. Jim Shaughnessy, for the inspiration that you have provided me in a lifetime of railroad photography.”  And he smiled when he accepted it.

 

Thank you, Mr. Shaughnessy, again and always.

For a fine tribute to Jim Shaughnessy by Kevin P. Keefe on the Classic Trains Web site, click here.  For the obituary as prepared by the family, click here.