All Aboard! Images from the Golden Age of Rail Travel [Review]

All Aboard! Images from the Golden Age of Rail Travel

by Lynn Johnson & Michael O’Leary
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1999

If you were a graphic artist in the 1980s and 1990s Chronicle Books of San Francisco was your crack, publishing tons of art, art history, design and architecture books every. All were beautifully designed and printed using the latest computerized technology of its time, and as a designer myself, I drooled over their catalogs. (No online shopping back then.) Though not hardcover the books were made to last and be referred to again and again. The paper was heavy and slick, perfect for detailed art and true color. Of course I owned a bunch of them and still do.

But times change, and gradually the internet became the tool of choice for art research and creation. There wasn’t a need for artists to keep libraries of reference material anymore. But I kept much of mine. For both sentimental reasons and just because these books are such a sensual delight. I even like the spicy smell and feel of that heavy, thick, almost plasticized paper.

This book I found at Goodwill and I couldn’t resist. Since it’s about the Golden Age of train travel – roughly from 1890 to the 1950s – it bears a relation to this Summer of Narnia as trains are the primary means of travel in the books. The Pevensies are sucked back into Narnia from a train platform at the beginning of Prince Caspian, and die all together in a train crash at the end of The Last Battle. Uncle Andrew fantasizes about building railways in Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Therefore, perusing the pictures is to go back in time to when C. S. Lewis was actually writing his books, and the first young readers reading them, in an England dominated by rail. And to a certain extent it still is, certainly more the U.S.

Though most of All Aboard! consists of pictures, the text, cursory as it is, is interesting as well. For example, in what is known as the Art Deco design period, in the 1930s,  streamlined train engines became the norm, the sleek designs luring riders with promises of speed and comfort. But in actuality, the new engines were the same design of the steam trains used previously, just with fancy new sheathing and improved mechanics. And to be fair, that streamlined sheath did improve the train’s speed.

Another advertising gimmick railway companies used was to name specific trains and the routes they traveled. Santa Fe had the Chief and Super Chief engines; Union Pacific, the City of Los Angeles route.  Even today in the U.S., with the passenger lines long conglomerated into Amtrak, the route names persist: The Empire Builder, The Sunset Limited, The City of New Orleans, all of them calling back to a slower, perhaps more romantic time.

I touched on the disaster before, but now let’s go into more detail. The best all-around account of the accident is here at the Great Disasters site and it’s not for the squeamish. There is no blood and gore, but photos of the way the three trains are piled up together and strewn every which way is disturbing. If you want a more concise version, the Wikipedia article suffices.

Lewis would have heard about this event when it happened, as all of England did. It remains England’s second-worse railway accident.

The engines involved were the old-fashioned cylindrical steam type without the fancy sheathing popular in America. That wouldn’t have had any bearing on the accident, of course. What did was the efficacy of the rail signaling system that alerted the crew to danger and the soundness of its passenger cars. The third train in the accident had the most modern rail cars, withstanding the crash with only seven fatalities. The other two trains, especially the first one, fared not so well. In addition to passengers, some waiting on the train platform were killed as well by a red-hot hurtling locomotive, and, some thing, some pedestrians on an overpass that another rail car smashed into and destroyed. By the look of the wreckage, those unfortunate souls might not have been in any condition to have their cause of death determined.

After looking at all the pictures again my first thought was, well, what in hell was Lewis thinking when he wrote what he wrote? The crash is the stuff of nightmares, much worse even than any airline accident where the planes are so shredded and burned you can’t even tell what kind of vehicle they were.

After thinking about it, however, I realized that Lewis might have only read about the accident in newspapers, or perhaps saw it in a newsreel at the cinema. Or maybe neither of these. It might have been over the radio (no TV news in 1952) or talk at the local pub. The horrible images we can see today, so easily called up and viewable in the finest digital detail, were not available to the public in Lewis’s time, save for crude disposable newsprint and a magazine or two. Likely it wasn’t visceral to him. If all the friends of Narnia died together instantly on that day, plus the Pevensie parents, likely most would have been horribly mutilated.

Anyway back to the book review. Also included are travel posters from the U.S., England, and Europe; baggage tags and stickers; and menus and other ephemera, as well as historic photos of the trains themselves. So potent was the magic of the rails, and the strength of its images, that in the U.S. at least, older people born before the 1950s mourn it still. I remember talk from my older relatives about how the railway magic was gone and the stations in decay shortly before the formation of Amtrak, when cars and the interstates had become the primary means of travel.

All Aboard! is out of print now, but worth a look or a purchase if you love trains or want to round out your Narnia collection.

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