Steve Schmollinger, standout photographer of western railroading, dies at 67

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For more than thirty years, photographer Steve Schmollinger prowled some of the most iconic locations in Western railroading, hoisting his telephoto lenses to out-of-way vantage points and recording dramatic images that formed the backbone of several significant large-format photography books.

Schmollinger died Dec. 24 at a hospital near his home in Dallas, Texas. He was 67. The family said the cause of death was COVID-19.

Schmollinger’s photographs were a mainstay in numerous railfan publications. “Steve was an incredible railroad photographer,” said Trains Editor Jim Wrinn. “He captured moments that inspired us all. We featured his photography often, and we will miss his great images.”

Born June 27, 1953, Steven Schmollinger grew up around Stockton, Calif., graduated from Stockton’s Lincoln High School, and attended San Diego State University. He later studied for an MBA at the University of Arizona.

Schmollinger had a successful career as an analyst in the energy industry, with stints at several utilities and energy companies across the west. Most recently he was a regulatory analyst for Dallas-based Ambit Energy, an electricity and natural gas provider. 

Meanwhile, in his spare time, he pursued photography with a vengeance, with his work appearing frequently in Trains, RailNews, and Railfan & Railroad. His first byline in Trains came in the September 1990 issue, in an article entitled “Tehachapi: Contrast and Change.” Several more stories quickly followed, ranging from coverage of Santa Fe in northern Arizona to railroading in the San Joaquin Valley to the retirement of Southern Pacific’s SD7 and SD9 diesels.

Schmollinger’s most recent magazine article covered railroading around Temple, Texas, published in the July 2020 issue of Railfan & Railroad.

As his photography began drawing attention in the 1990s, he had the opportunity to produce four significant books: “Tehachapi: Railroading on a Desert Mountain” (Boston Mills, 1993), “The Feather River Canyon: Union Pacific’s Heart of Stone” (Interurban Press, 1996), “Desert Railroading” (Heimburger House, 2000), and “Images of Western Railroading” (Voyageur Press, 2003). All of them featured high production standards and lavish use of white space.

Although Schmollinger was known for his photography, he was also a deft writer, as in this passage from his 1993 Tehachapi book:

“Railroads don’t exist in isolation. They are inseparably linked to their surroundings, and to the weather. Even in the desert, when men lay down a rail line, it becomes part of the landscape, a member of the local ecosystem where its surroundings have an impact on it and where it, in turn, influences its neighbors. The undulations of the soil, the creek beds and the water in certain seasons flows over them, the hot and cold cycle that causes steel to expand and contract over and over again, all help to mold the character of a railroad . . .”

Schmollinger is survived by his wife, R. Lynn Schmollinger, and five grown children, daughters Wyatte, Carlyle, and Mia; and sons Burke and Alex. Funeral information is pending.

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