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Route 66 News

Book review: “Route 66 Railway”

To my knowledge, a book had never explored the relationship between the railroad and historic Route 66.

That’s no longer the case with the publication of Elrond Lawrence‘s “Route 66 Railway” (Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation, 176 pages, $49.50). Subtitled “The Story of the Route 66 and the Santa Fe Railway in the American Southwest,” the book is not only informative, but it’s a beauty, too.

Lawrence has gathered photographs and information since the 1980s about the Santa Fe Railway, which mirrors much of Route 66 in California, Arizona and New Mexico.

I’m no expert on the history of the rail industry, but Lawrence writes with obvious confidence and authority. For instance, he maintains that 1926 was significant not only because U.S. Highway 66 was commissioned that year, but the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway inaugurated its flagship Chief train that traveled along the route. Lawrence makes a strong case for railroads’ huge influence on the Mother Road, and draws the roadies in.

These links between the rail and the highway were indeed important, even before Route 66’s existence. The railroad was a trailblazer for the future 66 because it brought scores of tourists into the desert Southwest during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Fred Harvey Hotels only cemented this region as a destination.

It’s also startling to discover that not only did the interstates decimate Route 66, but also the railroads. Passenger trains, save for Amtrak, all but disappeared. Many freight lines consolidated to survive the following decades. But as Route 66 has found itself in a renaissance, railroads also are on the perch of a revival because of its fuel-efficient movement of cargo.

What’s especially remarkable about “Route 66 Railway” are its images. The photographs come from Lawrence’s collection (along with a few dozen from contributors), and many are beautiful or startling. Such as:

  • A Chief train barreling through downtown Pasadena, Calif., in 1958. It’s fun to spot the period cars and neon signs in the background.
  • A Santa Fe miniature steam train chugging down Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, aka Route 66, in 1930.
  • A spectacular railyard explosion in Kingman, Ariz., in 1973.
  • Seeing Route 66 from train window near San Bernardino, Calif., in 1957.
  • A 1927 steam train and a modern diesel locomotive approaching each other near Ludlow, Calif.
  • A train near the old Colorado River Bridge in Arizona.
  • A long freight going around a curve in Kingman Canyon in Arizona.
  • Images of the steam-powered Williams Flyer of the Grand Canyon Railway.
  • A lightning storm at dusk near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
  • A freight rolling past a huge mesa near Mesita, N.M.
  • A train barreling through a nasty dust storm near Winslow, Ariz.

The photos of  trains and depots (which are often striking structures themselves) are interspersed with images of nearby Route 66 landmarks. It’s worth noting that Lawrence’s text is cognizant of the images on the page and complements them, instead of treating the photos as an afterthought.

“Route 66 Railway,” a clothbound hardback volume, is a first-class production all the way and is as attractive as Jim Hinckley’s also recently published “Route 66 Backroads.”

The Santa Fe Railway veers away from the Mother Road in New Mexico. But Lawrence gives the rest of Route 66’s eastern states their due with plenty of photos of trains and landmarks in the remaining chapters.

I’m glad a book that explores Route 66 and the railroads is finally out. It’s overdue. And I’m sure train fans — ranging from old-timers who recall the original steam locomotives to toddlers who like Thomas the Tank Engine — will delight to find this under their Christmas tree.

Highly recommended.

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