A web exclusive story from Trains magazine

David P. Morgan:

A Passion for Trains

By Thomas M. Jacklin

David P. Morgan, right, perches on a seatbox behind the engineer on Louisville & Nashville No. 1975 in 1954. No. 1975 was a Lima-built 2-8-4 "Big Emma" steam locomotive hauling a 114-car coal train out of Corbin, Ky. Morgan grew up admiring the L&N and was a life-long fan of the road. Photo by W. A. Akin Jr.

About 1960, David P. Morgan attended a luncheon to celebrate the opening of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie’s new push-button yard near Youngstown, Ohio. The boyish-looking editor of Trains magazine found himself seated next to Freeman Hubbard, the garrulous veteran of Railroad Magazine. Hubbard wanted to talk shop, but nothing happened. Morgan, according to Hubbard, “said hardly a word,” and answered tersely and begrudgingly whenever he talked at all. “I could not get him to open up.”

In retrospect, it wasn’t a matter of personal rivalry. Morgan grew up reading Railroad and credited the magazine under Hubbard’s leadership with forging “the first bond of nationwide unity” among railfans. Equally significant, Morgan counted Hubbard’s Railroad Avenue among the “10 best railroad books” ever published. “I suppose,” Morgan opined, “that if a book like Railroad Avenue were not possible, my interest in the subject would not be either.”

Nor was it professional competition. Both editors understood that their magazines had different missions and distinct, if overlapping, audiences. Hubbard’s formula of old-time stories and “true tales” catered to working and retired railroaders while it tried to maintain, with diminishing success in later years, a significant interest for the railfan. By contrast, Trains emphasized the new and the recent past — and facts, not fiction — that appealed to middle-class readers, relatively few of wh om were actual railroaders, together with a small but important contingent from upper management.

So what went awry in Youngstown? Determined to write a profile of Morgan for his monthly feature on “Interesting Railfans,” Hubbard contacted regular Trains contributors and a few staffers, along with Morgan’s boss, publisher Al Kalmbach. Always searching for the human-interest angle, Hubbard wanted to get a handle on this elusive man who was already setting new standards for railroad-oriented journalism. So Hubbard cut a deal. If Morgan would answer his questions in writing, the result would go into print for the December 1961 issue of Railroad.

“With me, profession and avocation are inseparable” — DPM

“With me,” Morgan wrote in response to a query about his hobbies and pastimes, “profession and avocation are inseparable,” a trait Hubbard linked to Morgan’s religious background. “He is a Presbyterian, but apparently regards Trains magazine as a close runner-up to the Bible.” Then he asked Morgan point-blank to comment on the impression that he seemed both tight-lipped and self-absorbed. Morgan’s response was that “writers and editors should be read and not heard or seen.” Their work was “hard, demanding, all-consuming,” leaving them little energy “to impress outsiders in face-to-face meetings. I, for one, prefer to be judged and accepted or rejected on the basis of what comes off my typewriter.”

The passage would doubtless strike a confusing note to the legion of readers who believed they knew him as a kindred spirit whose monthly visits from 1027 North 7th Street, Milwaukee, Wis., always appeared to start with a hearty invitation to relax, pour “a tall, cool one,” settle into the armchair, light up an L&M, and join him for some genial as well as stimulating conversation about “our common preoccupation.” The incongruity, however, was more apparent than real. As an ambitious editor, Morgan had created a personality — “DPM” — with whom readers could identify and a realm where they could feel at home with others of like interests. The emotional connection he nurtured could be magical, as made clear in hundreds of letters from readers relating how they had discovered Trains in their youth and stayed with it from then on.

Statistics on the rate of subscription renewals told the same story: In some deep way readers assumed that the publication belonged to them, a notion that Morgan reinforced at every opportunity. In effect, they were the “insiders” that Morgan cultivated, leaving him little time, energy or desire “to impress outsiders,” as he wrote to Hubbard. That kind of bond, moreover, gave Morgan the freedom to accomplish what every great magazine must do — tell its readers not only what they want to know, but also, for better or worse, what they need to know.

Over his 34-year reign as Trains editor, Morgan pounded out a huge body of work that informed and inspired his generation while it educated and impressed the next. This included more than 600 articles, 415 sections of “News and Editorial Comment,” and thousands of brief but important bits such as the DPM-signed “Greetings” paragraph on the first page, elegant captions for stand-alone photos (known as “Frontispieces”), “Arrivals & Departures” reserved for late-breaking news as reported in short bulletins separated by ellipsis dots, and, of course, the chatty numbered “Series” in the back of the magazine (ads really, designed to seduce new readers with photographs of “The Editor” inside engine cabs and out on the property, apparently living the carefree life of a railfan-boomer.) Ten books completed the tally, though some of these represented anthologies of pieces, his own and others, originally printed in the magazine.

Painfully shy in real life and faintly otherworldly, with large, soulful eyes and a slight build topped by wheat-blond hair, Morgan created a new and exciting journalism by combining traditional enthusiast interests with inquiries into the politics, technology, aesthetics, and economic organization of the industry. This editorial configuration gave him latitude for extended observations of “the larger picture” at a time when an industry in decline desperately needed a forum for fresh thinking. Freeman Hubbard’s Railroad was not about to enter the fray, and the trade press sometimes read as if it were whistling past the cemetery in pages that seemed to contain more rail-equipment-supplier ads than anything else. David Morgan the individual was deeply committed to the cause of railroading, while DPM the editor recognized a timely opportunity when he saw one.

The end result was a “a class act: glossy paper, lots of photos, good writing, a conspicuous editor with a definite personality,” in the words of a former staffer, which made Trains not only the country’s premier enthusiast publication in terms of circulation, but also a primary vehicle for the revival of the railfan movement in its modern form.

David P. Morgan explores the remains of a derelict 2-8-0 Consolidation-type locomotive at the scrap yard in the rear of the Huntingdon & Broad Top at Saxton, Pa., in May 1953. Photo by Philip R. Hastings

Reflecting on what motivated the railfan, Morgan observed that people consumed by “this enthusiasm, this passion” often struggled to explain when and where it all started, but most could “acknowledge the influence of a boyhood spent at the depot or a father who once worked in the shops at Sedalia or an Ives train set of tender memory.” Born the second of three sons of the Rev. Kingsley John and Juliet Freda Morgan in Monticello, Ga., on St. Patrick’s Day, 1927, David Page Morgan enjoyed all three experiences.

His father had worked as a machinist apprentice at the Crewe Works of the London & North Western Railway before entering the Presbyterian ministry and moving to the U.S. from his native England. Rev. Morgan remained an avid fan who read Railroad (then called Railroad Man’s) magazine and helped his sons build “American Flyer empires” all over the attic. He also told them about “other and grander” locomotives than the 500-series Baldwin-built Consolidations that led Central of Georgia mixed trains past the bay window of the depot in Monticello. There an 8-year-old Morgan watched, rapt, as the crew performed its local chores before steaming off toward Macon one way or Athens the other. Those daily mixed trains connected a small county seat to the rest of the world and “when the train left, the fun paled.”

When he was 10, his father was called to the Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church on the east side of Louisville, Kentucky, and the family moved into a house on Hillcrest Avenue, a block away the Louisville & Nashville’s main line to Cincinnati. Young Morgan spent his days camped by the tracks, according to older brother Len, “jotting down engine and Pullman numbers” or exploring nearby stations and shops. “Years later Morgan would immortalize these experiences as a kind of romantic first love, chronicling the joys of “constant courtship” and his “unswerving adoration” to the L&N.

The mixed trains on the L&N became the subject of Morgan’s first venture into freelancing in 1943. While still in high school, he sent a piece to Al Kalmbach, who had founded the “little 25-center” Trains in 1940, but Kalmbach turned it down “for reasons long forgotten,” as Morgan told the story. With his academic performance slightly sullied by all this extracurricular research on “The Old Reliable,” Morgan graduated from Louisville Male High School in 1945 and immediately enlisted in what was then called the U.S. Army Air Forces.

World War II was almost over, however, and the Korean conflict lay five years in the future, so Morgan’s first stint in the service lasted only a year. Even so, it provided him with much material for later essays. Notebook ever at hand, he took in everything from the jet scream of a P-80 as it flew past him at a Florida airbase to the platforms of Denver Union Station, where the last of big steam simmered alongside the “modernism” of an articulated Zephyr and a future heralded by standardized EMD freight power, all of it “great to behold, wondrous to recall.”

Returning to civilian life in 1946, Morgan joined his parents in Taft, Texas, where his father now ministered to the local Presbyterian congregation. He finished two years at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, went to work as a reporter for the weekly Taft Tribune and resumed his freelancing, this time with considerably more promising results. He sold three pieces to Kalmbach at Trains and two to Hubbard at Railroad, hoping all along that he could “stick with railroading around the clock.” On Labor Day 1947, he met Kalmbach at the North Shore station in Milwaukee. The two talked as they surveyed nearby roundhouses. Nine months later, Kalmbach wrote Morgan to offer him a job as an editorial assistant on Trains. Back came a telegram, as Kalmbach remembered the occasion: “Reporting Monday morning.”

Morgan started off copyreading and proofreading. It wasn’t long before a steady stream of articles plus a few turns at the “Railroad News and Editorial Comment” section persuaded Kalmbach that he had found a rising star. Morgan’s talent and discipline doubtless accounted for much of this early success. By all accounts, he thrived on deadlines, wrote things right the first time, understood the importance of research, showed a knack for the kind of details that made a story sing, and cranked out copy at speeds that amazed those who witnessed his one-finger, one-thumb style, hammering out the words one character at a time, on the keys of a Royal.

David P. Morgan on the CBS-TV show, Omnibus, in 1955

David P. Morgan speaks about New York's Grand Central Terminal and New York Central's 20th Century Limited. Video excerpt courtesy of Pentrex

Serious and occasionally thin-skinned, it took some time for him to get used to the rough male teasing that flourished on the fifth floor of the company’s squat industrial building in downtown Milwaukee. With Model Railroader, the first and most commercially successful of Kalmbach’s magazines, just down the hall, expertise in both railroading and publishing pervaded the place. Kalmbach had assembled a redoubtable staff that included such figures as Linn H. Westcott, Willard V. “Andy” Anderson, W. A. Akin, Jr., Frank P. Donovan, Jr., Rosemary Entringer, and Ward Zimmer. It must have been heady stuff for a small-town newspaper reporter.

In the early 1950s, a company known for its stability underwent a series of staff changes. New editorial titles showed up on the Trains’ masthead. While this would not look unusual on other kinds of magazines, the Kalmbach Co. thrived on continuity. Gil Reid, a longtime friend of the publisher, believed that Al Kalmbach was worried about the publication’s red ink and flat circulation.

Kalmbach shifted around staff and brought in an outsider, Wallace W. Abbey, who had been a reporter on a Kansas newspaper. Morgan became assistant editor under Andy Anderson with the September 1952 issue, and Abbey became managing editor. Effective November 12, 1952, Morgan was elevated to editor, replacing both Anderson, who shifted to Ships & Sailing, and Linn Westcott, who returned to Model Railroader. Abbey, who continued as managing editor, wrote that “Dave” liked non-bop jazz, Fords, working nights, North Georgia, Florida, Texas, Time magazine, and “talking railroads” in announcing his appointment.

From photographer Don Wood's caption: "DPM admires EBT gas-electric Brillcar Sept. 23, 2961." DPM means Morgan, EBT is for the East Broad Top Railroad in south central Pennsylvania. Photo by Don Wood

Still a few months shy of 26, Morgan took over what was then titled Trains & Travel (a short-lived Kalmbach idea) at the cusp of what historian Richard Saunders, Jr. has described as the “crying towel era,” the most troubled in all of railroad history. Unlike the 1930s when every industry suffered, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a booming economy while railroading “only managed to survive.” In what became a regular topic of inquiry, Morgan examined the current status of the business in one of his first issues as editor. Optimism within the industry prevailed in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as reflected in the huge increase in orders for streamlined passenger trains and new freight cars. The roads also bought 10,224 diesel-electric locomotives “as a down payment on the biggest, fastest motive power revolution in transport history.”

But a painful paradox soon surfaced, according to Morgan’s analysis. While train tonnage remained steady, net income “hit the skids.” Although it now appears that the crisis had origins going back to the 1920s, if not before, Morgan saw the crux of the problem in more immediate and visible terms — “a rat race to balance inflated costs by increased efficiency.” Notwithstanding his optimism about a brighter tomorrow “urged on by the vast momentum of experience, science, and faith” (note his last word), far worse lay ahead for railroads as various indicators continued downward. The causes and solutions, furthermore, were complex as Trains followed the story throughout Morgan’s years as editor.

At the same time, the magazine was facing its own crisis. Of all the technical innovations that helped railroads cut costs, none brought more trouble for Morgan and his magazine than the diesel locomotive. By the time Morgan had settled into the editor’s office, that holy of holies among the enthusiasts, the reciprocating steam locomotive, had all but disappeared from main-line railroading.

“It is not necessary or relevant to praise the past of the industry by damning its present — and the notion is naive.” — DPM

Some rail enthusiasts believed that the pending end of steam signaled the end of the railfan avocation and, therefore, the end of the line for a magazine such as Trains. Or so, anyway, thought Lucius Beebe. The doyen of popular railroad writers had published a book that Morgan had faulted, in his review for Trains, for its vitriolic attack on the diesel locomotive. Concluded Morgan: “It is not necessary or relevant to praise the past of the industry by damning its present — and the notion is naive.”

A rhetorical firestorm ensued. Morgan published Beebe’s epistle along with an excerpt from his retort in his second issue as editor in February, 1953. Beebe thundered that the “pestilence” of diesel locomotives had “removed railroading almost altogether from the consciousness of Americans.” The steam era “had a claim on the imagination and a hold on the romantic sensibilities,” but now railroading was “just another industrial convenience without personality.” In Beebe’s view, this change doomed Trains to pure antiquarianism or “you will have to fold” because readers will refuse to pay for halftones of “identical” diesel locomotives.

Morgan’s reply was uncharacteristically bland, perhaps in deference to Beebe’s stature. He referred to stable circulation figures, then conceded that the steam engine represented “the most spectacular single device in railroading.” To say that the romance and the avocation it inspired faced extinction, however, hinged upon a “thesis which simply will not hold water.” And yet, as if to confirm Beebe’s claim indirectly, the same issue carried a Morgan-penned photo caption on the advantages of Centralized Traffic Control that featured a 4-8-4 locomotive at the center of the image.

One of the earliest known photos of Morgan was taken in Fort Wayne, Ind., Sept. 2, 1947. Morgan is posing with the nose and pilot of Pennsylvania Railroad T1 4-4-4-4 No. 5507, years before he took the helm as editor of Trains. Photo by Richard J. Cook

The Beebe-Morgan exchange merits attention because it encapsulated the broader challenge that Morgan had to address. As Beebe predicted, circulation did, in fact, slide from 39,000 the year Morgan took over to an all-time low of 34,000 in 1958. Nevertheless, Morgan’s faith in a brighter tomorrow turned out to be justified. Circulation began to rise in 1959 (the same year that steam holdout Norfolk & Western announced plans for complete dieselization) and reached 40,177 in 1962, which was also the first year that Trains turned a profit. By 1970, circulation had grown to 57,378, and by the end of his tenure, it reached 80,000.

Morgan had an interesting take on the situation in an extended commentary that he hammered out with his one finger about a decade after Beebe’s blast. Adding to the horror of seeing diesels consign steam to the cutting torch, fans watched as passenger-train miles plummeted, famous-name trains vanished, and whole railroad companies disappeared. Staggered by the losses, some enthusiasts became historians, “doing a first-rate job of preserving the mechanical detail” if not the economic context of railroading’s past. Others ventured abroad to ride and photograph trains in places where steam was still in use. The more organized fans worked with friendly railroads to sponsor excursion trains led by steam locomotives spared from the scrapper by accident or otherwise, often pulling trainloads of the faithful on lines now classified as “freight only.”

But a growing number of fans had come to accept the emergent order, Morgan wrote, finding upon second look that diesels and piggyback trains and other innovations did come in variety and, in any event, they held the key to the future. This “change of heart,” he suggested, could be registered by the increasing number of clubs, sold-out excursions behind, yes, diesel locomotives, and soaring railroad book sales.

Most salient of all, Morgan believed, a second generation of fans existed, a “group of enthusiasts who because of age never became acquainted intimately with the steam locomotive and therefore mourn her not.” Instead, they “grew up around F3s, wait impatiently for new U25B orders,” and want to hear the latest on new technical developments. In his view, it proved the wisdom behind the magazine’s basic premise of the enduring “color” and allure of railroading, whatever its forms, past and present.

Morgan, of course, had by this time become the custodian of that wisdom. The storyline of progress amid tradition found expression and reinforcement in the pages of Trains, as Morgan constantly welcomed new writers and photographers to his pages, strove to promote new ideas in a stodgy industry, and continued to celebrate its richly textured history. It took a while to turn things around, but, as Morgan intoned on many an occasion, one must “keep the faith.”

That same faith obligated Rev. Kingsley Morgan’s son to challenge his readers, writing editorials and encouraging contributions aimed at what he called “dry-eyed” analysis of railroads and their problems. An early example devolved upon the need for better public relations. Morgan had pounded away at this theme since his first days in the editor’s chair, arguing that the industry’s ham-handed and half-hearted efforts at telling their own story fell far short of what was necessary to secure new traffic and win public support for its complex political concerns, notably fairer treatment from a government that seemed hell-bent on over-regulating railroads while lavishly underwriting highways and airports.

DPM walks alongside a train of unceremoniously stored steam locomotives at Milwaukee Yard, Milwaukee, Wis., in the early 1950s. The one Morgan is beside in this picture is a gallant Milwaukee Road F7 Hudson-type 4-6-4 engine built to pull Hiawatha. Photo from Trains' Collection

The need for more effort to win the hearts and minds of the general public struck Morgan as particularly pertinent in view of railroading’s lurid youth as presented in textbook American history: the cameos of Jay Gould fleecing the suckers, of “robber barons” quoted as saying the public be damned, of construction companies more adept at bilking Uncle Sam out of cash subsidies than building railroads.

The argument made sense on the face of it, but one reader, the manager of Tucson Municipal Airport, took exception. A correspondence and face-to-face meetings followed, and Morgan offered this “combination train-watcher and flying-machine addict” space to sound his views. Bob Schmidt accepted Morgan’s invitation in February 1954 with a sharply written piece, which gave example after example of how the problem for railroads was not public relations, but inexcusably poor performance at precisely those points where members of the public, shippers and passengers alike, actually dealt with railroad employees and railroad operations.

Morgan continued to emphasize public relations, but he also clearly accepted Schmidt’s analysis and incorporated it into subsequent commentaries on the subject, convinced that railroading’s major problems, such as losses on passenger service and over-restrictive labor contracts, pivoted upon the political and regulatory context in which the business operated. To fix that, he insisted, required a three-pronged approach: change public perceptions, explain the specifics to technical and political elites, and toss out “the crying towel” in favor of promoting new initiatives. A sophisticated and well-informed fraternity of enthusiasts, he wrote on many occasions, would be critical to the success of any such effort.

Nowhere was the role of public relations more important than in the emotional issue of passenger-train annulments. The debate about the passenger train, whether it actually lost money or not, raged in the public press and government circles, partly and inadvertently due to the so-called “ICC formula.” Morgan’s point about the industry’s blemished image applied quite well in this case because it accounted for the way in which the public, drawing upon the robber baron school of history, generally assumed sinister motives when railroad executives sought to get out of the passenger business.

By 1958, independent groups and individual researchers had published several studies, all of which concluded that passenger service was, in the words of one scholar, “desperately unprofitable.” That same year ICC Examiner Howard Hosmer concluded that the passenger train would in a decade or so “take its place in the transportation museum along with the stagecoach, the sidewheeler, and the steam locomotive.”

For his part, Morgan had never accepted the ICC’s accounting. Up until the Hosmer Report and similar findings, however, he believed that a progressively organized and managed passenger department could solve the problems and run a break-even or even profitable service, much to the benefit of the railroad company willing to make the effort. Now, in 1959, he came to the conclusion that the crisis of the passenger train was far deeper and more systemic than he had earlier thought, and that nothing less than a completely new concept of the service and how to operate it would save what he considered an American institution. The situation had become so acute and so pressing in his view that he took the extraordinary step of setting aside an entire issue of Trains for his own detailed analysis of why passenger service had neared death and how it could be saved.

The April 1959 issue, with “Who Shot the Passenger Train?”

Thus the April 1959 issue, with “Who Shot the Passenger Train?” emblazoned across a gigantic bullet-hole on the cover, became one of the most famous and immediately recognizable issues of the Morgan years. In common with many other problems facing the industry, he argued that the passenger train would fail or thrive in a context where legislation and public policy counted as much as — if not more than — the inherent efficiencies of steel wheels on steel guideways. “The murder,” as he put it, “does not stem from economics, per se, or technology.” Rather the answer was political and educational.

Because of the growing public-policy component of the magazine, Morgan’s own evolving political views warrant some scrutiny. Although many simply believed him to be a Republican conservative, he was hugely disappointed with the not-so-benign neglect of the Republican Eisenhower administration toward the railroad industry’s problems, and came to admire John F. Kennedy as the first chief executive to take a serious look at railroading since the New Deal.

This was a period when so-called “consensus liberalism” celebrated American-style capitalism for its capacity to stimulate economic growth and work toward a harmony of interests within the economy. Consistent with that belief, Morgan wanted a level playing field for the industry so that the railroad’s superior efficiency in performing certain tasks would bolster economic growth and therefore social justice. Staking out a position in the 1950s that JFK would adopt in his 1960 presidential campaign, Morgan lambasted “meaningless platitudes” about government’s obligation to build super highways, dredge rivers, ante up for airports and air-traffic control systems, while ignoring the railroads. “Me?” he later wrote. “I’m no Old Guard Republican. I just like people and industry to mean what they say, and when railroading says it’s self-supporting, you can believe it.”

Continue reading part 2, in which Morgan the writer hones his style, broods about the state of the industry through the dark days of Penn Central and Amtrak, and attains uneasy celebrity as railfan's elder statesman.