Capturing the faces of railroading

Who is Jack Delano? And how did his photography change the way Americans perceived railroading?
RELATED TOPICS: PRE-1950 | HISTORICAL | PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
Delano photo
Frank Williams (1887-1967), a freight car repairman for the Illinois Central Railroad at the yard in Chicago, had eight children, two of whom were in the United States Army, when Delano made the photo in 1943. His youngest daughter, a well educated pianist, became a studio accompanist for Mel Torme.
Jack Delano
Delano photo
Dorothy Lucke (1908-86), an engine wiper for the Chicago & North Western, Iowa, leans against a locomotive wheel at Clinton, Iowa.
Jack Delano
Delano photo
Harry W. Trout (1889-1949), a part of the "railroad family" at Chicago Union Station, worked there from 1915 until retiring in 1949.
Jack Delano
Delano photo
Harry Tostato, a steel car repairman at Santa Fe's Topeka Shops in 1943, today lives in California.
Jack Delano
Jack Delano is well known for the quality of the railroad photographs he made during World War II, despite a relatively short career as a railroad photographer during the late 1930s and early 1940s. But what is little known and astonishing is the information the Center for Railroad Photography and Art has turned up through a careful search for some of his subjects and their descendants.

The existence of the photographs in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress is hardly a secret. The photos were made when Delano (1914-97) worked under Roy Stryker, famous for heading the photography offices of both the FSA and the OWI. During 1942-43, the first two years of World War II, Stryker assigned Delano the job of telling the nation's "railroad story." The intent was twofold: describe an American industry critical to the war effort and create homefront enthusiasm for fighting the war.

What is little remarked, however, is how the resulting photographs constitute a rainbow of racial and ethnic minorities, from all walks of life. For example, one of his subjects was an African American who organized a tenant farmer's group in Arkansas. A grandson of another subject, a conductor, is a television celebrity who keeps his grandfather's railroad watch under glass on his mantel. In sum, in only two years Delano created perhaps the best overall portrait of railroading and its people and culture of any photographer in the United States.

Beginning with his substantial body of images from Chicago, the Center is searching for the stories of the subjects of Delano's railroad portraits. Plans are being laid for a substantial exhibition in the Windy City. The next step is to follow Delano's footsteps along the Santa Fe Railway from Chicago to San Bernardino, Calif., with aspirations of exhibitions in railroad cities along that route.

One of Delano's first stops was Chicago Union Station, where the workers formed a railroad family that established its roots with the opening of the station in 1925. From that family, we have already developed stories for three striking individuals: Marie Griffith, Harry Trout, and Charles Sawer.

Charles Sawer (1883-1946) started his tenure next door to the new station at the old union depot, which served from 1886 until the new Union Station opened. A native of the Polish portion of Galicia, Sawer was a gateman who also served as an interpreter in Yiddish, Polish, German, Russian, Slovakian, and Spanish. Proficiency in such a combination of languages was not uncommon for eastern European immigrants at the time, but Spanish was unusual.

Marie B. Griffith (1904-91), manager of the Information Bureau, worked for the station company from the new building's opening in 1925, until 1965. The bureau, on the second floor, answered telephone questions, such as when a train was expected or the cost of a ticket.

Harry W. Trout (1889-1949), a towerman and assistant train director, started in 1915. He retired on April 1, 1949, and moved to a country home in Oconto County, Wis., where he soon died. As train director at the Harrison Street tower, he helped set the priorities and assigned tracks for trains moving in and out of the station.

The Center is revealing more profiles of employees of other railroad companies, including the Indiana Harbor Belt, Illinois Central, and Chicago & North Western, along with those from Delano's westward quest. The largest concentration of his work is in the Chicago area, while the second largest is in New Mexico. So far, only one railroader Delano photographed has been found living, Harry Tostato, a Santa Fe worker in Topeka who moved to California.

All told, Delano made 2,600 black-and-white negatives and 243 color transparencies (a relatively rare format for the period) of the American railroad. Some of his pictures have become iconic, such as his color portrait of Dorothy Lucke of Clinton, Iowa, railroading's equivalent of Rosie the Riveter. But Delano's own "railroad story" has never developed through the accounts of the lives of the men and women he photographed. The Center intends to remedy this oversight - and to draw significant attention to Jack Delano's railroad photography. You can take a look at our progress at railroadheritage.org.

Jack Delano's work will certainly become better known, not only in the railroad community, but around the country. He has not yet achieved the fame he deserves, probably because after leaving the FSA-OWI, he moved to Puerto Rico and became a leading composer of fine music and a leader in the island's fine arts and educational communities. However, recognition of his powerful work is coming, and it will bring national attention to railroad photographers everywhere.

JOHN GRUBER is a long-time Trains contributor, founder and president of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art, and editor of Railroad Heritage. He has been a freelance railroad photographer since 1960, and received a railroad history award from the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in 1994 for lifetime achievement in photography.
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