Classic American Railroads, By Mike Schafer

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

One of the most interesting books in my collection as been the Classic American Railroads series written by Mike Schafer. The first of these is entitled simply Classic American Railroads and was first released way back in 1996, published by Motorbooks International. In this first book Schafer details fifteen of the largest, and best remembered fallen flag railroads to operate around the country with names like the Baltimore & Ohio, Great Northern, New York Central, Southern Pacific, and numerous others. I have used all three of his books extensively as research material in helping to write this website, particularly regarding the fallen flag section, and they have been an invaluable tool. Not only does Mr. Schafer provide nicely written histories of each company but he also presents fine historic photography throughout the book, some of which is his own work as well as that of other noted rail historians/photographers such as Mel Patrick, Steve Smedley and the late Jim Boyd.

Classic American Railroads is not so much broken down into chapters as it highlighting the railroads themselves (which I suppose could be considered chapters). Mr. Schafer opens the book with a brief Acknowledgements segment describing how it all came together and what you can expect to find within its pages (such as noting that the bulk of the book is comprised of large, colorful photographs). Here the author discusses the intricacies of the book's development and is keen to point out that without the help of several individuals he could not have published such a title. It should also be noted that because of the size of Classic American Railroads it makes for a wonderful addition to one's coffee table, as much as it does in regards to research use). In the next few pages, Schafer provides a brief Foreword and Introduction, which are definitely worth taking the time to read.

It should be noted, however, that the Foreword itself is written by another noted rail historian, Steve Glischinski who, in about four paragraphs gives a ever-so-brief overview of the American railroad industry. In the intro, Mike Schafer discusses what it means to be a "classic railroad", although his writing is more rhetorical in nature considering that it is a topic with somewhat differing views and opinions. Mike also offers readers a glimpse of how the book is broken down. For instance, while there are technically no chapters comprising Classic American Railroads he made sure to include railroads from all of the different geographical areas of the country, something that holds true in More Classic American Railroads and Classic American Railroads, Volume III.

By page eight Mr. Schafer gets into the "meat" of the book, opening with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. While this railroad is alphabetically the first its also quite poetic that it begins the book (and the series in general) considering the great importance the AT&SF played in so many aspects of the American public. The railroad was, and remains, the most well known world-wide and it lefts its mark in many ways from the beautiful scenic views of the American Southwest to its legendarySuper Chief streamliner and the fabled Warbonnet livery. Perhaps more than any other company across the country the Santa Fe helped tell the history of the Native American culture in the region and the railroad went to great lengths molding itself after such.

The Santa Fe is provided coverage over about twelve pages with each following railroad given about the same amount. It should be noted that beginning with the AT&SF article, and included with every railroad, Mr. Schafer provides two additional bits of information; first, he provides an original Rand McNally & Company map (usually dated to around 1950 or before) as well as an "At A Glance" table which provides such details as the size of the railroad, its fleet of locomotives and rolling stock, principle routes, and notable passenger trains. Even today, I continue to come back to these sections of his books for reference purposes, as it's been another great tool.

The "second chapter" of the book highlights the history of the Baltimore & Ohio with subsequent coverage given to the Boston & Maine, Chicago & North Western, Chicago Burlington & Quincy, Milwaukee Road, Chicago Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island), Denver & Rio Grande Western, Great Northern, Illinois Central, Louisville & Nashville, New York Central, Pennsylvania Railroad, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific. Another important note is that Schafer also gives a brief glimpse into the railroads' passenger fleets although for a more detailed history of each you need to pick up a book highlighting either that particular company or a title such as Streamliners: History Of A Railroad Icon (also written by Mike Schafer, this is another excellent book that I would highly recommend purchasing if you are interested in the subject).

As I mentioned above all three of Mike Schafer's books covering fallen flags and other classic railroads remains an important resource tool within my collection. Whether you are interested in the history of the railroads themselves or just want a book of interesting photographs of the nostalgic days of the industry Classic American Railroads is a great title. Also, if you have a young child, family member, or loved one with an interest in trains they are sure to enjoy the book (for instance, I was given this one as a Christmas gift before I was even a teenager and still love it!).