Log in

The cupola view

At some long-ago garage sale, I came across Trains magazine’s “The Historical Guide to North American Railroads,” a squat, thick book that listed pretty much any railroad on the continent that had shuttered since 1930.

My copy, the 1991 edition, was called the “third printing” of a 1985 first issuance and boasted that it was “updated,” with “50 new pages.” The previous owner(s) had well-thumbed this 8¼-inch by 53⁄8-inch (bound on the short side) tome; its 424 pages were discolored and dog-eared and the binding was broken in several places. I think I paid $1 for it.

The book’s author was George Drury, the librarian at Trains and its publisher, Kalmbach (which today publishes titles such as Model Railroader and Garden Railways and is the hobby-store distributor of Steam in the Garden as well). Drury, his editors and company artists had filled the book with history — both relevant and sometimes mundane — as well as black-and-white photos and maps. The typeface was tiny (8½-points on nine-point spacing).

The 1991 edition provided historical information and data on 143 railroads (plus an essay on the general history of railroading and one on the Interstate Commerce Commission), but since it chronicled only those railroads that had closed in the then-past 61 years, there were some startling exceptions: no Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, no Southern Pacific, no Union Pacific. These railroads were detailed in another Kalmbach book of the era, “The Train-Watcher’s Guide to North American Railroads.”

A typical listing in the 1985 book is about two to three pages, with a photo and maybe a map (or a map and no photo, or just text). A fun aspect of that edition were the biographies of railroad men, well known (Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt) and not (George Sprague, the general manager of the 1920s Uintah Railroad who helped design the railroad’s unique 2-6-6-2T locomotives), set off in their own boxed sections.

Kalmbach and Drury came out with a second edition of the book — in the same stubby format as the first three printings — in 1999, adding another 17 railroads, bringing the total to 160. And there the title languished for the next 23 years, until last April, when the company issued a new third edition.

The most startling aspect of the new book is its aspect-ratio: it is a more traditional 8¼-inches by 10¾-inches (bound on the long side) and while not full color, it sports color on at least half the pages. The type is larger (nine-point on 12-point spacing) and the overall layout is much more attractive.

Kalmbach elected to discontinue the “Train-Watcher’s Guide,” and has included many of the railroads that had been in that book in the latest “Historical Guide.” This brings the count of railroads third edition up to 170, including many railroads that had been missing from previous editions.

When comparing an entry for the same railroad between the two books, they are essentially the same: some judicious copy editing has gone on and wordy sentences in the old book have been shortened and simplified. When coupled with the better typography, this means sections are easier and quicker to read.

With the larger color format, Kalmbach and its editors have been able to include updated maps that are more modern in design and are much bigger and easier to read. The nifty railroader biographies are gone from the latest edition, but sacrifices had to be made somewhere, I suppose, and those are facts that can be gleaned elsewhere.

As something of a rail history buff, I appreciate all the hard work that has gone into each of the three main editions (and the two sub-editions) but I mourn the loss of Drury’s name from the cover; Drury — who died last year — is only mentioned in the introduction. There is one last completely unbelievable thing that should be noted when comparing the 1991 and 2014 editions of the “Historical Guide”: The 1991 edition was $24.95 while the 2014 edition is $24.99.

If Kalmbach had priced the latest edition of the “Historical Guide” according to inflation, it should have been in the $43 neighborhood. With only a four-cent price increase, the third edition of the “Historical Guide” is not only a worthy addition to any live steamer’s library, but it is also a bargain to boot.

“The Historical Guide to North American Railroads,” Third Edition, by the editors of Trains magazine. Kalmbach Books, Waukesha, Wisc., 2014. 320 pages. $24.99.