Review by Jeff Saxton/photos as noted
Railroads are not simply conglomerations of autonomous machines, a fact some authors overlook in many history books published about railroads. The focus on operating equipment, track routes and mileage, as well as many other details, can easily overshadow the truth that railroads are also made up of people, and without those people, any railroad ceases to function.
In recent years, I have noticed a spate of new books written by or about CEOs of large railroads, and it’s obvious these individuals’ experience with railroading seems to stem mainly from sitting behind a desk in some corner office shuffling papers, with few ever having functioned in a gritty hands-on environment. But not so long ago, stories about railroaders from an actual railroader’s perspective were quite popular, and Mike Bednar’s new book fits into that long-standing genre quite well.
While all the stories in this book have previously been published in the pages of Trains & Railroads of the Past magazine, in this compilation they are fleshed out with more photos and background information and are now conveniently available as a package deal. The photo coverage is nearly all in color, though there are also some archival images in black and white. The book itself is well printed, sturdily bound, and features a generous page layout. The photo reproduction is very good, other than the fact that several photos are not the result of professional camerawork; they’re pictures taken in daily life while working. If you have an interest in Pennsylvania anthracite region railroads, or early second-generation diesels, the photos alone are likely worth the purchase price.
Not all the photos are from the camera of Mike Bednar; he’s mined a wealth of images from fellow employees and railfans to good effect. There are many Alco diesels to choose from, a few Baldwin switchers, and the rest of the collection of views is fleshed out with more modern power. Sprinkled among the actual railroading photos are the men Bednar worked with, admired, and writes about. While there is nothing glamorous here, it’s real and portrays the life as it was.
Mike Bednar began his railroad career at a young age; as a kid he hung out with the local railroaders after school, getting cab rides on locals, and soaking up valuable information while doing so. He signed of the collection of views is fleshed out with more modern power. Sprinkled among the actual railroading photos are the men Bednar worked with, admired, and writes about. While there is nothing glamorous here, it’s real and portrays the life as it was.
Mike Bednar began his railroad career at a young age; as a kid he hung out with the local railroaders after school, getting cab rides on locals, and soaking up valuable information while doing so. He signed a railroader. Since these stories are from his memories, there is insider lingo and slang, and a healthy dose of nostalgia for any number of things lost in the rush of the modern world — everything from food to locomotives to people that are sorely missed gets a nod. All told, there are 24 stories in the book, each with between two and five pages of text, and the standard layout includes three photos per set of facing pages. The stories are personal, focusing on the day-to-day things; if you’re expecting “daring exploits and adventures,” these are not it.
We get memories of how the mix of creosote, spring blossoms, and Alco exhaust smelled, what it’s like to railroad in the dead of winter, or how it felt to ride an Alco-powered fast freight at speed through the countryside. It’s clear Bednar has a great fondness for having lived this life and worked with the people he did. There are a few digressions, such as a story about how two hurricanes in 1955 (“Connie” and “Diane”) drastically impacted all future railroading in the area covered by forcing the various competing roads to cooperate; or another story about a trip west rail-fanning and looking for work in the early 1980s. Mainly though, the tales all center on his life in the area around where he grew up, Hokendauqua, Pa., and the railroads there.
While it may not be to everyone’s liking, if you’re looking for something a little different that’s not just another all-color portfolio, A Railroad Life – 1, On the Road with Mike Bednar will be a book you’ll enjoy. Between the variety of locomotives and scenery alone, I found it a worthwhile addition to my library, and the tales included just make the concoction all that much better.
This hardcover book includes 128 pages in a 9 x 11 inch vertical format with glossy coated outer cover. The collection of photos presents more than 160 images and several maps. You’ll find this title available from book and hobby dealers, as well as direct from the publisher.
A Railroad Life — 1: On the Road with Mike Bednar
by Mike Bednar
The Railroad Press
P.O. Box 444
Hanover, PA 17331-0444