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The man who loves trains

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Dick Carpenter is hand-drawing his way across 1946 america. and he's gaining a following

Dick Carpenter in his study


BY brian doyle

In 1946, as the Second World War ended, railroad was king. There were 137 railroad companies in the United States, webbing the nation with more than a quarter of a million miles of track and employing more than a million workers—trainmasters, crewmen, signalmen, station agents, roundhouse men, yard clerks, trackmen, freight agents, coalers. The railroad system had performed magnificently during the war, moving incredible numbers of men and material in service to President Franklin Roosevelt's "arsenal of democracy." (Indeed, the railroad system often moved FDR himself, in his private railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan.) While wartime restrictions on gasoline use and nonessential travel had slowed the prewar surge of automobiles and airplanes as new modes of travel and shipping, every rail line carried freight, nearly every line carried passengers and mail, and most towns of any size had a station, a freight agent, or both.

The year 1946 was, in short, a pinnacle of American railroading—and the first year of its modern decline, as Dick Carpenter '55 notes in his new book, A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946, Volume 1: The Mid-Atlantic States, which sets out, with admirable directness and startling scope, to map every aspect of railroading in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Carpenter's labor of love might seem a remarkable but obscure feat of amateur cartography and scholarship—a "foamer's delight," as Oregon railroad scholar Lauren Kessler says, using the term railroad professionals apply to railroad fanatics—but it has earned both sales and salutes. It rose as high as 8,739 in Amazon's sales rankings (out of more than a million books listed) and drew praise from the New Yorker ("surely one of the most appealingly eccentric publishing ventures of the year"), the Baltimore Sun ("nothing short of a miracle . . . the kind of work that only a gang of monks would consider undertaking"), the business magazine Fast Company ("his maps have style . . . a point of view, a voice . . . elegant, wistful . . . compulsively detailed and artistically rendered"), and scholars like the geographer John Hudson at Northwestern University ("the finest railroad atlas ever published . . . he has invented his own style of cartography") and the historian Maury Klein at the University of Rhode Island ("an amazing piece of work . . . it answers questions you didn't even think to ask").

Carnegie, Pennsylvania, grid 56A

Click map to view a larger image

A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946 is an honest but essentially misleading title for the vast American visual poem Carpenter and his publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, are composing—a mapmakers' nirvana, time machine, poignant literature, paean to the Marvy Brush Marker pen set. From the shore of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania to the banks of the Elizabeth River in Virginia, Carpenter records, by hand, in 10 Marvy colors, every scrap of mid-Atlantic railroadia in 1946: lines (in service and abandoned), stations, bridges, tunnels, towers, coaling points, water troughs, mileposts, ownerships, crew change points, canals (in service and abandoned), rivers (including direction of flow), and the boundaries of states and counties.

"Took me about three years," says Carpenter, now retired after a 40-year career as a city and regional planner in Connecticut. "I've always been fascinated by railroads, and much of my work as a planner involved saving and expanding commuter train service in southwestern Connecticut; I was also very interested in freight trains from a planning standpoint, to see if we could reduce some of the incredible truck traffic on Interstate 95. About 20 years ago I began to think 'wouldn't it be nice to have a really thorough American railroad atlas, as the British have,' and about 10 years ago I started to draft maps, and I found that I was enjoying every minute.

"First I would draw a preliminary map in my study [Carpenter works in a small room off his bedroom, with many windows and a view of Long Island Sound], and then I would check every source I could find for more details—employee timetable books in 1946, The Official Guide of the Railways, all railroad maps, Moody's Steam Railroads 1946, topographic maps, anything—and add those details. Then I'd draw a final map on archive-quality 109-pound paper. My maps are 30-minute quadrangles between each full degree of longitude and latitude, and they're easily cross-referenced with U.S. Geological Survey maps and Hammond and Rand McNally state maps. I wanted to convey what you would have actually seen in 1946—signal towers, coaling stations, everything.

Harrington, Delaware, grid 115 Cape May, New Jersey, grid 117

Click map to view a larger image

"The railroad was and is such an integral part of our story, of our culture and character, that I resolved to tell it clearly. I suppose some of my friends wondered what in heaven's name I was doing up there in my little studio, but my wife and children encouraged me all along, and they are thrilled to see this first book published."

While the book is mostly maps, Carpenter also includes voluminous notes and indexes: of the railroads themselves (such New World poetry, such a flurry of ampersands: the Bare Rock, the Conemaugh & Black Lick, the Eagles Mere, the Mount Hope Mineral, the Patapsco & Back Rivers, the Kane & Elk, the Scootac), of coaling stations, of extant and former signal towers (O lost Callicoon! O Paxtang!), of stations and tunnels and viaducts and water troughs. And his opening essay is both eloquent and poignant, noting the smell of creosote preservative in wooden railroad ties, the ways that bells and gongs and buzzers announced the specific directions and origins of trains, the "venerable wooden baggage carts in passenger stations," the "sublime stretches of summer-evening silence on the prairie . . . marked by the unmistakable throaty moan of the steam-engine's whistle."

"I drew my first railroad map when I was a kid in Hartford," says Carpenter. "It was the track layout of the Greater Hartford Society of Model Engineers, and they liked it so much they let me be a member. I never really stopped drawing after that. I was a sports cartoonist for BC's student newspaper, the Heights, and I drew track layouts when I was in the Army, and maps during my career as a planner. I still draw scenes and tracks when I ride the train. I happen to like riding and watching and mapping trains and tracks, and now I spend two to six hours a day drawing maps, so I figure I am a lucky man. Lucky too to be doing such a project in the computer age, because I can sit here in my study, staring out at Norwalk Harbor and Long Island Sound, and call up U.S. Geological Survey maps on the Internet."

Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, grid 121 Baltimore, Maryland, grid 96

Click map to view a larger image

Carpenter has just finished Volume 2 of the atlas (covering New England and New York), is headlong into Volume 3 (Ohio, Indiana, and lower Michigan), and plotting Volume 4 (Illinois, Wisconsin, upper Michigan, and maybe Iowa). After that? "Well, I should turn south, into the Carolinas, but there's something alluring about the West, although I'd certainly have to change the scale of the maps to reflect the vast acreage out there. And sometimes I think it would be fun to map one railroad line in its entirety, all the way across the West—the Union Pacific or the Santa Fe, for example." His publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, has agreed to publish at least three volumes.

And what would Dick Carpenter's favorite railroad moment be? "My favorite railroad memory of all," says Carpenter, "is from a childhood trip with my dad—standing and watching a New Haven Shoreliner Hudson 1400 locomotive pull a passenger train through Kingston, Rhode Island, at dusk. There was a long straightaway there before the town and you could see the whole train coming, blowing its whistle at grade crossings. The Shoreliner had a beautiful steamboat-deep whistle, a sound that filled the world."

 

Brian Doyle, editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon, is the author most recently of Leaping (2003), a collection of essays.

 

Photo: Dick Carpenter in his study. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

 

All maps copyright © 2003 the Johns Hopkins University Press. Reproduced with permission.

 

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