All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1984

Book Review: The Railroaders by Stuart Leuthner

(Random House, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022) 1983
152 pages • $19.95

This is not just another nostalgic book about railroads. You can find many books beautifully illustrated with gorgeous steam engines, but scant attention is paid to those who kept them running. The author has done for old-time railroaders what Lawrence Ritter did for old-time baseball players twenty years ago in his The Glory of Their Times. For a dozen years Leuthner has traveled over the country interviewing all sorts of railroaders (including women), some of whom went to work early in this century. We hear the stories of engineers, firemen, conductors, porters, freight agents, brakemen, executives, stewards, chefs, mechanics, machinists, red caps, baggage masters, station masters and railway mail clerks.

One day a few months ago I was putting together some notes and clippings on railroads and suddenly realized that while my father, my step-father and two fathers-in-law worked on the railroads (three of them all their working careers), none of my four children (youngest age 20) has ever ridden on a railroad! Here in a sentence is the sad story of American railroads. (While the persons interviewed in this book observed the decline of railroads in this country, none of them appeared to have understood why it hap-pened-they were, I guess, too close to the forest to see the trees. To understand this decline, read Clarence Carson’s Throttling the Railroads or Albro Martin’s Enterprise Denied. These books document the government regulations that dealt great harm to the railroads, beginning about the turn of the century.)

This book celebrates the men and women who loved working on the railroads, who looked forward to going to work each day, as did my relatives. Now remember how it was on the railroads years ago—long hours, dirty and dangerous work. Yet these persons enjoyed the challenge of the job and took pride in doing it well.

All of these men and women share an appreciation of competence. Like men of the Old West, they were not so concerned with parentage and background as with whether you could do the job. Therefore, they had little patience with “college boy” bosses who might have a lot of book knowledge but who were sadly lacking in practical experience.

The whole tone of this book is lighthearted but the underlying theme is a very serious one. With few exceptions, everyone interviewed in this book hated to see steam engines replaced by diesels. All agreed the diesels were more economical, safer and easier to operate—but the men hated to see steam go, not out of sentiment, but because all the skills they had mastered over the years were suddenly obsolete. Running a diesel was a piece of cake and hence no challenge. But running a steam engine efficiently and safely was a very demanding job, and there was pride in doing it well. We don’t wish to go back to “the good old days,” even if we could, but we need to keep in mind that not even progress is without cost.