Friday, May 30, 2014

The call of the steam locomotive

This newspaper article by Amy Martinez Starke was originally published in the Sunday Oregonian on April 22, 2007. I originally posted in on my website on October 2, 2007; I had very closely replicated the original layout of the article, but it didn’t translate well into this new format.

The Sunday Oregonian
APRIL 22, 2007



Life Story │ Jack Albert Pfeifer

Jack Albert Pfeifer
Jack Pfeifer of Beaverton worked for the railroad for 43 years, starting in Omaha, Neb., and moving west, and along the way he took thousands of slides of steam trains. The best of them appeared in "West From Omaha, a Railroadman's Odyssey," a book published in 1990.


The call of the steam locomotive
Railroading "was my life," claims agent said, and it was also his photographic love


Jack Albert Pfeifer
Born: Sept. 1, 1921, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Died: March 11, 2007, Portland
Survivors: Wife, Betty; son, Larry; daughter, Michele Dietl; five grandchildren
Service: Private
Remembrances: The Salvation Army Cascade Division

Jack Pfeifer grew up listening to Union Pacific steam locomotives, hotblooded fire-breathing creatures trailing billowing clouds. His father and uncle worked for the railroad, and Jack aspired to work for the railroad, too, as he looked down from atop Council Bluffs, Iowa, west toward the Missouri River.

But Jack never wanted to ride the rails as a career. He was content to be a railroad personal claims agent for more than 40 years, a job for which his meticulous nature was perfectly suited.

"Railroading was not a job I hated to face each Monday morning," he said. "It was my life."

With the Eastman Retina camera he used in his claims work, he also took color photos of trains, impeccably documenting the time, date and place. He would find the ideal locale, then photograph them in different weather and lighting conditions -- the smoke spiraling up, playing against the blue sky.

On an ideal day, he would get a prize shot: a rainbow framing his train.

Because he used color film -- uncommon in the 1950s -- his photographs were on railroad calendars, and eventually he was approached by a publisher, producing a book in 1990 that is a veritable encyclopedia of steam trains.

When the steam trains gave way to diesel, Jack was not interested. He shifted to ships, and almost every day in his later years, he would be down at the Portland terminals, watching ships come and go. Jack died at 85 on March 11, 2007.

Jack Albert Pfeifer in World War II


Jack served in the Coast Guard for 39 months during World War II aboard a tank landing ship and participated in invasions in New Guinea and the Philippines. He attended reunions of his unit for years.


Jack Pfeifer photo of Southern Pacific #4449 at Union Station in Portland, Oregon

Jack took this photo of the Southern Pacific 4449 sitting at Portland's Union Station. It appears in the book.

His love of photographing trains began early. At 12, Jack, the only child of stolid German parents, got a $1.50 box camera and started to take pictures of trains at every opportunity. Soon he had a Kodak 616 camera, better suited for train photography.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Coast Guard and served as a storekeeper on a tank landing ship in the South Pacific.

Every time his ship pulled into a port that had a church, he sent home a bulletin to his home church back in Iowa. Betty Ethington, a young woman also from a railroad family, wrote back. He appeared at her door during a transfer to officer school in New London, Conn. Then the war ended, and so did his military career.

He and Betty married in 1946, and he went to work at the railroad. They had two children.

He was not an affectionate "kid dad"; he was the guy to depend on. He had a great sense of propriety -- once going to extreme measures to return a $1 bill someone had dropped in a depot. Cautious and analytical, he wouldn't make millions, but he would never lose a dime. He wrote personal letters to corporate big shots to describe his experiences with bad customer service -- something that bothered him greatly as a point of honor and integrity.

He held politicians in low regard.

Jack worked first in Omaha, Neb., then Green River, Wyo., then in Salt Lake City. It was in Wyoming that he found his favorite place -- Sherman Hill. He spent maybe five years of his life on a desolate hill there -- "Home of the giants of the rails," he wrote, "Challengers, turbines and the ultimate -- the double-headed Big Boys!"

A promotion brought him to Portland in the mid-1960s, as far west as he could go, he figured. Jack mostly worked out of the Pittock Building in downtown Portland; Betty worked there, too, for about 10 years.

The family rode for free around the country on Union Pacific Pullman cars -- first-class, with white linen and silverware.

On his days off, Jack went down to the Portland train yards to see what Union Pacific was up to, and he photographed trains in the Columbia River Gorge.

Jack retired in 1982 after more than 40 years with the railroad.

Naturally, he had a model train. But a train going 'round and 'round wasn't stimulating enough. So his took up the entire basement, one of the largest HO gauge models in the Northwest.

He meticulously laid the tracks, anchored with tiny rail spikes. It took seven men to run it, operating it like an actual railroad.

Once a month he held "ops-sessions" (operational sessions), or meets. Hundreds of people came and went through his basement, and just as many others hoped to be invited to see or participate.

He and his wife also went on about 15 cruises, all over the world, something she enjoyed after all those trains. After he developed the new hobby of photographing ships, he would get up at dawn, taking photographs, looking at ship's funnels.

For years, he used a log to keep track of the ships that came in and out of Portland. He would see ships in port that he had seen on his cruises.

He was always looking for a great access or vantage point, just as he did for trains. After Sept. 11 security measures, he couldn't go down to the ships so much. They sent him e-mails of ship arrivals and departures, but that wasn't the same -- there was something about going out and seeing it for himself.

Still, whenever he heard a train on nearby tracks at his Beaverton home, he would race downstairs and see whether he could catch sight of it, remembering when . . . .

Amy Martinez Starke: 503-221-8534

Related Links:
The Oregonian
West from Omaha, as listed on
Union Pacific Railroad

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