A web exclusive story from Trains magazine

Part Two — David P. Morgan:

A Passion for Trains

By Thomas M. Jacklin

David Morgan gazes through the window of the Montreal & Southern Counties Railroad depot in Montreal in the 1950s. The photo was used for Morgan's obituary in Trains in the March 1990 issue. Photo by Philip R. Hastings

Another aspect of Morgan’s leadership had to do with photography, always a central part of the magazine. Here, too, signs of change appeared early. Railroad photography as a popular art form and commercial success began with Lucius Beebe. Beebe made famous the so-called “three-quarter wedge,” usually featuring a steam-powered limited or mixed train, smoke blasting from stack to sky, rods a blur, from the vantage point of someone standing close to the tracks and watching the train approach, thus giving the overall impression of a wedge. The view was a natural one, freezing the looming size and sense of motion as an observer experienced it at trackside. And the images were far more exciting than the roster shots that prevailed earlier.

A new look, a different look for the November 1955 issue.

Morgan, however, looked for new ways to see and document railroading. An early example of the new look was in the November 1955 issue, appropriately enough the 15th anniversary number. The format Morgan chose for a “selection of the best” showcased the work of 12 photographers, all of whom were asked to submit favorite images and write a little something about themselves and their views of railroad photography as it existed in 1955. The resulting cross-section of people, opinions, and artful images revealed much about the magazine’s evolving identity with Morgan at the throttle. Among those chosen, for example, were William D. Middleton, Richard Steinheimer, Philip Hastings, Jim Shaughnessy, Wally Abbey, J. Parker Lamb, Bob Hale, H. Reid, and Don Sims.

All were contributors and hence familiar to readers. Some had been at it a long time; others were Morgan discoveries. Counting all 12, their occupational profile fit closely that of the readership in general, according to later market surveys. They were predominantly people from the professional and business middle-class. Only two agreed with Beebe on the exclusive magic of steam. Some accepted diesel locomotives while remaining wistful about steam or enthusiastically embraced contemporary railroading as they experimented with innovative ways to bring out the best of it. Steam won out on the photos — by 2 to 1. Still, there was not a wedge to be seen.

The 15th anniversary issue also had some inward-looking commentary on the magazine itself, a practice Morgan started and continued throughout his tenure. So, he asked, what is Trains trying to prove? It remained, first of all, “dedicated to the proposition that any industry as big, useful, unique and fascinating as railroading warrants an independent journal of explanation.” In practice that meant telling the story of present-day railroading in all its facets, while continuing to “serve as a common bond for those sensitive souls” who appreciate the “heart-stopping drama” and “glory” ever associated with the enterprise. Then the kicker last line: “Come to think of it, we’re just getting warmed up to the occasion.”

The distinctive features of the early Morgan era were, indeed, “warming up” and would soon be set into type. Among them were the vivid installments of his travels with Philip Hastings to record the last of steam in the U.S. and Canada; the annual all-steam issue that, in turn, precipitated what Morgan considered a pivotal event in the history of the magazine, an all-diesel issue in 1961 (followed by many more all-diesel issues); and dramatic reports on rail operations, such as the Pennsylvania’s Altoona-Pittsburgh main line (“World’s Busiest Mountain Railroad”) in April 1957. These ambitious projects were part of an impressive flow of monthly reporting and analysis by Morgan and others, and, perhaps most telling, a growing body of work on the character, history, and even romance of the diesel locomotive and of modern CTC-and-piggyback railroading in general.

Behind the scenes, a shrinking staff set the stage for changes in the day-to-day chores involved in running the magazine. In January 1954, Wally Abbey joined the Association of Western Railways. That left Morgan with Rosemary Entringer, who replaced Abbey as managing editor, and an editorial secretary, at first Betty McKenzie and then, after some staff turnover, Nancy Bartol.

The “VI.P.’s,” he dubbed his female assistants. Their hard work and mastery of hundreds of details ensured that the magazine reached the press every month, he liked to tell readers, despite an editor who lost files and needed to be kept on time. Morgan was spinning a yarn, of course. His long and successful campaign to depict Entringer as the magazine’s hardnosed taskmaster was in contrast to his self-portrait as the amiable editor. In other words, he created a persona for her to complement the one he created for himself, and used her, some suspected, to guard the gate and limit his own interaction with others. Described as “a pretty straitlaced character,” Entringer ostensibly took the 5th-floor Kalmbach chauvinism in stride, but occasionally did complain to others that she was tired of being cast as the office “ogre.”

Kalmbach Employees during the Morgan Era

Lynn Wescott, Model Railroader's editor

George Gloff, Trains' art director

Nancy Bartol, Trains' librarian

Katie McMullen

Rosemary Entringer, Trains' managing editor

Morgan eventually married another Kalmbach employee, Margaret Blumer, in October 1961. By all accounts a funny, gregarious woman, she impressed many as the temperamental opposite of the almost reclusive editor who, while capable of genuine warmth around close friends, avoided social occasions whenever he could do so, and refused to chat about anything but trains when he could not. No wonder that visitors, who were always invited to “stop by” 1027 North 7th Street when they were in town, seldom got more than a quick nod and greeting from him. First Entringer, and later Bartol, conducted the tours while the busy, self-absorbed editor retreated to his office. Even after he married, he continued the practice of renting an apartment close to a railroad track.

The process of getting out the magazine reflected Morgan’s peculiar work habits. A late riser, he usually showed up at the “plant,” as he liked to call Kalmbach’s utilitarian quarters, around 10:30 or 11 a.m. After mumbling hello to a few employees, he took refuge in his tidy and well-ordered office, whereupon he would fire up a Camel, hunch over his glass-top desk — which had a number of photos, the largest of which was of Marilyn Monroe — and write notes or short letters (he hated the phone). He wrote charming ones to his railfan-intimates, encouraging ones to his contributors or potential contributors, and kind ones to those whose submissions he turned down. Afternoons required at least one trip down the hall to the art department where he could talk trains with Bill Akin or George Gloff or Gil Reid.

It wasn’t until everyone else had gone home that he really got down to work, and slowly but steadily banged out copy far into the night. After his marriage, his nocturnal hours moderated somewhat. Margaret would typically meet him with the car and they went straight home, enjoyed drinks before dinner, then watched television. And that was it — they had no children and, except when traveling on assignment, Morgan’s life was ruled by rigid habit and structured by the perfect merger of his “profession and avocation.” Saturdays broke the routine only to the extent that he would show up in a plaid shirt and slacks rather than a suit. On Sundays he and Margaret went to services at Calvary Presbyterian Church, an old and conservative congregation in downtown Milwaukee, because “it was his family’s tradition to go to church.” He generally steered clear of the social activities, but did serve a term as elder and clerk of session of the church.

“I think Dave was happiest, and best occupied, when he was writing” — Wally Abbey

“I think Dave was happiest, and best occupied, when he was writing,” Wally Abbey recalls. “Otherwise, he was hard to get to know and sometimes hard to understand. I remember once when my wife and I had some of the staff out to our apartment, Dave spent most of the evening sitting in a chair, detached from what was going on around him, reading the newspaper.”

Especially after Gloff became art director in 1962, much of the planning of future issues took place on Friday afternoons at Deutsche and Graun, a watering hole near the Kalmbach offices. (It was later renamed Major Goolsby’s.) Over drinks, usually Canadian Club, and a pack of Camels, Morgan would trade ideas with Gloff, sometimes joined by Entringer. Conceptualizing each issue in his mind before anything went on paper, Morgan then gave his marching orders to Gloff and Entringer, who made the necessary assignments among the art department and editorial staff who otherwise had little contact with the boss. After their marriage, Margaret often stopped by, socialized with the boys, then drove her husband home.

Thus evolved the “something-for-everybody” editorial approach that Morgan would fine-tune over the years. Useful in several ways, it preserved Al Kalmbach’s original vision of Trains as a publication that portrayed the “drama of railroading” and the “fundamental importance of the privately managed railroad network in the American economy.”

While the occasional crank might denounce this article or that issue, even cancel a subscription, all that did was add color. By far the majority of readers enjoyed the editorial mix. And the Morgan personality — or persona if one prefers — became so finely etched in the magazine as to seem real and alive, at least in the minds of many enthusiasts. He was with them at the local train-watching spot. He was across the aisle on the stiff-backed, red-plush coach seat, exchanging information or offering an observation about “this enthusiasm, this passion.” Month after month, word by word, DPM was building a reputation that would last.

DPM taking notes by a shop light perched on the pilot of a Canadian National locomotive. Photo by Philip R. Hastings

If David P. Morgan the editor saved Trains in the 1950s, it was David P. Morgan the writer whose articles set a standard seldom, if ever, matched in railroad journalism. At the heart of his work was “the railroad idea.” Morgan wrote out of a compelling need to explain and share his understanding of railroads, his emotional attachment to them, and his faith in their economic and social value.

Several influences helped shape his achievement. Some point to the literary tradition of his native South, the biblical cadences of his father’s sermons, the sense of history he brought to a topic, and the authority rooted in a gifted reporter’s eye for the right detail. Others cite the combination of “insight, knowledge, and fun” that he brought to his articles. Still others point to precedents set by the style of highbrow business writing made famous in Fortune, and by feature articles in Railway Age during its glory days of the 1920s.

“Nostalgic sketches and bittersweet memories replaced tales of future greatness as the automobile succeeded the train as the most visible icon of American aspirations.”— Thomas M. Jacklin

Then again, the power and originality of his work stands out when viewed against the larger history of railroad writing. Nineteenth-century literature on the railroad commonly identified it with the national epic, the spearhead of political unity and economic progress. By the middle of the 20th century, a major change swept aside this older tradition in favor of literature in which railroading became part of the past. Nostalgic sketches and bittersweet memories replaced tales of future greatness as the automobile succeeded the train as the most visible icon of American aspirations. Even Thomas Wolfe, whose work Morgan reprinted in excerpts illustrated by Gil Reid, identified trains with a world lost as often as he treated them as symbols of cosmopolitan modernity.

About the only exception was Lucius Beebe, who popularized the older tradition for a growing enthusiast market from the 1930s onward. Morgan appreciated Beebe’s writings, but where Beebe evoked gone grandeurs and lamented their loss, Morgan interwove past with present in a voice that alternated between optimism and irony, realism and nostalgia — a romantic but modern sensibility. Accordingly, his vision of the railroad seemed far more comprehensive and complex than Beebe’s and capable of spanning a broader spectrum of sentiment, imagination, and analysis.

The most intimate and revealing of Morgan’s writings came from his reminiscences of and reflections on the avocation of train watching. The main emphasis was upon the emotional texture of the trackside experience, rendered in a way that made the reader a participant, standing beside him and photographer Phil Hastings as the last active New York Central Hudson stormed past on the Big Four. In early pieces like “Confessions of a Train-Watcher” (May 1957) and “The Railfan” (March 1962), he explained what others felt but could not express, thought but could not articulate — hence the hair-raising jolt of self-recognition that so many readers remembered.

He could turn the particular into the universal as in later essays like “There’s a Spot in My Heart” (May 1976). In it he recalls his teenage adventures alongside the Louisville & Nashville in its home city. The genius of the piece — and others like it — was that all those carefully researched details finally did not matter in and of themselves. Instead, they formed a portal of memory, drawing the reader back to equally vivid recall of his or her own comparable affairs of the heart. “Be thankful you were around when The Event occurred,” he wrote in another one of these sketches, “make apologies to no man.” This was Morgan at white heat.

May 1962: the first all-diesel issue of Trains.

He could also cool it down, conveying an urbane sophistication that was also new to enthusiast-oriented railroad writing. This was especially noticeable in his longer photo-captions, where DPM, your convivial host, commented on a striking image in typically two-page spreads. In contrast to other examples of this common magazine form, he went beyond celebrating or describing the photograph. He interpreted it, inviting readers to ponder its larger historical or emotional significance. He used one of these, for example, as a preamble to the first all-diesel issue, published in May 1962. Entitled the “Most Famous of Faces,” it amounted to a lengthy paragraph based upon Ed Wojtas’s side-on portrait of a Colorado & Southern (Burlington) EMD F7, apparently cropped to accent the signature “bulldog” version of the step-down nose that first appeared on GM’s streamlined passenger locomotives in 1937.

Morgan starts out by noting that the diesel locomotive first entered the scene as an innocent-looking box cab, close cousin to the interurban doodlebugs that spawned its technology. It showed up next in the streamlined experimentals of the 1930s, then “put on long pants” with the development of E and F units on the eve of World War II. GM stylists, he insisted, created “at one stroke” a classic design, both “functional and esthetic,” so “obvious and sound in principle” that it would endure and inspire imitations for 20 years. “Behold it,” he proclaimed, along with all its “appurtenances” from “jutting headlight” to topside horns and “angled side windows.” His conclusion: “Seldom in industrial design has styling been so patently ‘right’ — right from the start.

He cranked out hundreds of these things, some more memorable than others, but consider what he did here. Taking arguably the most widely recognized icon of modern American railroading, he traced its history and explicated its visual appeal in one tight passage. Who, after reading it, would ever look upon this nearly ubiquitous machine — the real one — without sensing a touch of stardust? In this as in so many other aspects of railroading, past and present, Morgan simply did what all good writers attempt but rarely accomplish: he changed the way people looked at the world around them.

This particular example took on added significance because he wrote a sequel to it years later in a 1983 exegesis titled, “The Lingering Legacy of the F.” Reiterating his contention that the F-unit represented a strikingly handsome “indivisibility of style and execution,” he declared it the “soul of dieselized railroading in the Western hemisphere.” For that new generation of railfans Morgan had earlier identified as born during “The Age of the F3,” DPM had once again struck the deepest of chords, the “late Mr. B” notwithstanding.

His travelogues also engaged readers in a magical way. A regular feature of the magazine since its inception, the travelogue offered DPM the chance to share the joys and details of his train trips even as he commented on the painful journey toward Amtrak and beyond. Using the casual, often colloquial style that invited readers to join him, his wife Margaret, and traveling companions in the club car, he took the faithful back and forth across the U.S. and around the globe. The charm of these rested upon Morgan’s knack for making even the smallest details of the trip endlessly fascinating. Car numbers and names, motive power and onboard amenities, lineside treats and dining-car decor, the size of the drinks and the price of the steaks — all this and much more got the Morgan treatment, recorded in the little spiral-bound notebook and then threaded into the tapestry of the experience as recreated in the magazine.

Here, too, the shy and reserved individual in real life transformed himself through print into the genial tour-guide, recommending a Santa Fe dome as the best place to enjoy Cajon Pass or a seat at the rear of the Milwaukee Road’s Skytop lounge parlor car for the exhilaration of hitting 90 per through swirling snow. The exuberant quality of the accounts, moreover, captured the sense of movement itself. So well received were these offerings, in fact, that Morgan continued writing them, sometimes with a grumpier or more elegiac tone, well into an Amtrak era that he never fully embraced.

DPM glances out the fireman's side of a Class 59, 4-8-2+2-8-4 Garratt-type steam locomotive on a visit to East African Railways & Harbours at Matathia Station, Kenya.

Morgan’s historical writings, as opposed to his journalism, pose a more complex set of issues. There are honest disagreements about their character and contribution. While recognizing that he could indeed write beautifully about the past, some have argued that it seemed of secondary interest to him. With stellar exceptions here and there, they contend, Morgan the editor never seemed excited about publishing articles that struck him as purely or even predominantly historical — that is, pieces not intended to invoke the past in sentiment but to explain it through analysis.

Others maintain that he was a serious student of history, even if he never thought of himself as an historian, whose analyses of the here-and-now have won critical acclaim partly because they were so thoughtfully anchored in history as both context and setting. Then, too, some admire his historical pieces, but point out that, whatever the result, he took a journalist’s approach, emphasizing colorful personalities and interesting vignettes, while choosing details more for effect than argument.

All these views, while distinct, are by no means incompatible. They simply cast different but complementary spotlights on Morgan’s understanding of what a railroad is and what it does — an efficient, adaptable system of mass transport, based upon a physical principle so sound that it had endured and would continue to do so as long as people remained free to exploit it and willing to improve upon it. In other words, the idea of the railroad, as he saw it, transcended time. Its history lay in changing applications as shaped by setting and circumstance, politics and technology. An enthusiast, it followed, could study and celebrate the past so long as he or she did not become imprisoned by it.

“The major imperative was to appreciate and enjoy what one saw now, for tomorrow it, too, would be gone.”— Thomas M. Jacklin

By the same token, the deeper meaning of what he took to calling the “railroad heritage” required the believer to promote constant innovation in order to make sure that trains of one kind or another continued to enhance the economy and delight the devotee. Thus, the same writer who chronicled his own generation’s heartbreaking loss of steam stood first among a new generation as he argued powerfully for the preservation of early diesels. The major imperative was to appreciate and enjoy what one saw now, for tomorrow it, too, would be gone.

Although no one piece can be taken as typical of his historical sketches, his 1960 essay on Electro-Motive’s FT road freight diesel, now forever known as “The Diesel That Did It,” illustrates some common features of his work on past time and prior events. For one thing, the sketch depends upon the details of a small story — the 83,674-mile test of FT demonstrator No. 103 in 1939 — to tell a very big story. When the event ended eleven months after it began, “steam’s century-old grip on the freight train had been permanently broken and No. 103 was the prototype for the world’s first standardized, mass-produced line of diesel freight locomotives. There is no equal in the annals of railroading for such a swift closing of the gap between fancy and fact.

The essay then moves quickly into a thumbnail biography of engineer and designer Richard M. Dilworth, “the blunt-spoken onetime Navy electrician,” who “liked to sketch out his beloved locomotives on 36-inch-wide grocery-store wrapping paper.” Describing the mechanical detail, appearance, and evolution of the four-unit, 5400-horsepower test-bed, Morgan accentuated the drama by noting the way in which railroad representatives had serious reservations about the beast as it “set forth to do battle with tradition.” Tonnage, schedule, speed, geography — none of it seemed to matter as No. 103 outperformed its steam equivalent from one end of the country to the other, its flexibility and availability only hinting at “the potential economies of total dieselization.”

“And for all its enormous impact upon the railroad scene of 1939-1940, the 103 was just the beginning.”— DPM

It happened so quickly, Morgan argued, that management could not even begin to total up the savings that would result when railroads no longer needed the labor-intensive shop forces and physical plant necessary to keep the steam locomotive in working order. That soon changed, however, and the orders came in until they were temporarily interrupted by wartime contingencies. Even then, Uncle Sam relented when newly converted railroad management listed the FT’s virtues and the locomotive went to war against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. “And for all its enormous impact upon the railroad scene of 1939-1940,” Morgan concluded, “the 103 was just the beginning.”

Most of his other writing along these lines, much of it on various aspects of the diesel triumph, bore the same hallmarks: sparkling detail, flawless cadence, mechanical minutiae, character sketches, dramatic devices, and historical significance. Most important of all, many if by no means all of these contributions have held up with the passage of time, cited in footnotes and re-read for pleasure.

Drawing upon the past to understand the present, Morgan repeatedly assessed the current state of railroading. Looking at the year 1970 from this standpoint, Morgan came to some grim conclusions. His review of major trends and events inside the industry and out since the founding of Trains compelled him to assert that too much of “1940s railroading” had survived into what he would later call the “sick 70s.”

Would the industry make it another 30 years? Not likely, he believed, unless dramatic change prevailed. Some of the needed fixes would have to come from the industry; some would hinge upon political, regulatory, and public-policy changes. And some of it would depend upon a new and more far-sighted attitude among working railroaders and their unions.

Should all that take place, Morgan thought, railroading in the year 2000 would no longer include branch lines, boxcars, hood units, air hoses, interchanges, sidings, slack action, helper grades, or, alas, passenger trains. A number of fans, himself included, remained emotionally attached to some or all of these things, as this and other reviews of the industry from Morgan’s perspective made clear. But this was November 1970, five months after the shocking bankruptcy of Penn Central. Everything had changed, and the stakes were nothing less than survival.

The trouble would not stop there, given the economic impact of PC’s collapse on the railroad-intensive Northeast — and on the rest of industry. As for the fan: “Train-watching requires trains lest all of us become one with Civil War buffs “ And yet, “praise be,” there remained the idea, and the resultant hope that “a historian yet unborn” will one day look back at the year 1970 and “determine that a mechanism” that wove together a continent and solved the “logistics nightmares of World War II managed to perpetuate itself in a season when the temptation was to break ranks and run.”

Continue reading part 3, in which Morgan continues his journey, keeping the faith as the industry passes through its darkest hour.