The Railroadiana Express. Reprinted with permission from the Spring 1997 issue. Copyright 1997.
EVIDENCED BY THE PROLIFERATION OF NEW BOOKSTORES, there is renewed interest in the joy of reading. To those who have seldom experienced the pleasure, it is difficult to explain. To those who read, however, no explanation is necessary. Every RCAI member probably owns some rail books, most own dozens, and some even find their major collecting interest in the printed pages. Many find time only for the picture books or historical tomes about their favorite railroad, but a few blessed "prospectors" have struck the shining vein of rail fiction. For them, "Eureka, I have found it!" barely expresses their feelings at the find.
Readers of the December, 1996 issue of "TRAINS" hopefully noted the announcement that Bookcrafters of Chelsea, Michigan (The Paper Tiger, Publisher) is offering reprints of four classic fiction titles by Frank H. Spearman - The Nerve of Foley, Held For Orders, Daughter of a Magnate and Whispering Smith. The books have pictorial hardback covers but no dust jackets. Prices are moderate, with single titles running about $30 and purchase of all four as a set brings the price down to about $20 each, including shipping.
Who was Frank Hamilton Spearman, and why were these four books chosen for reprint? Well, pull up a step stool and plop down on it, because I am fixing to tell you about the "Dean of the railroad school of fiction." From about 1890 to 1930, a period often called "The Golden Age of Railroad Literature," was a time the Iron Horse achieved its greatest popularity. A locomotive engineer was looked upon with the same respect and awe as an airline pilot or an astronaut today. People not only rode by rail; they avidly read stories about railroads and the men who made them go.
Of the "railroad school" certainly no other author achieved greater popularity, and justly so, than Frank H. Spearman. Born in 1859 in Buffalo, New York, he matriculated through Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Once aspiring to become a doctor, he became a broker at 18, traveling salesman at 20, bank cashier at 27, and bank president - in McCook, Nebraska - at 29. By 1895 he began to write railroad articles for various periodicals, and his fame as a railroad author was established in 1901 with the publication of his first book, Held For Orders. When Whispering Smith was published five years later it far surpassed the first in popularity and set an all-time record (still standing today) for sale of a railroad novel. The story was made into a movie in 1915, again in 1926, and in 1948 became Alan Ladd's first color western.
Several of Spearman's novels were adapted for motion pictures after he moved to Hollywood in 1916, the most notable of which was Whispering Smith. During the 1920s and '30s there was an insatiable demand for Western films of all types, and this film fit that demand in all respects - railroads, cowboys, a western setting and a romance interest.
In Paramount's production Alan Ladd was cast as a real-life, gun-toting railroad detective whose low voice and quiet demeanor earned him the moniker "Whispering Smith." Set in the hole-in-the-wall country (of Butch Cassidy fame) some 60 miles north of Casper, Wyoming the plot has Smith hired to investigate a series of train robberies where the cars were looted following derailments or other man-made mishaps. A disgruntled ex-railroad employee is ultimately run to ground after posse chases, thrilling gunfights and, throughout, the skillful work of Whispering Smith. The hero continually exhibits his calm but dangerous demeanor, his devotion to friends and, of course, his gentleness with women. (Ladd later followed the same theme to greater box office success and acclaim in the movie Shane).
Frank Spearman was perhaps the most polished writer of the Railroad School. Though his plots are good and his style excellent, he really excels in portraying the honest, hard-boiled, two-fisted trainman of legend. Never a railroader himself, he always liked the men out on the line. Practically every one of his characters is an absolute prototype of the railroad friends he made as a banker in McCook... a division point on the Burlington.
Whispering Smith was written after a two-week visit to Cheyenne, Wyoming where Spearman met the division heads, cattlemen and local authorities - in particular Joe LeFors, a United States Deputy Marshal. He was a gun handler never equaled in that country, and was the model for the character of Whispering Smith. LeFors, primarily a range and stock detective, was hired by the Union Pacific Railroad to combat a rash of train robberies. He achieved considerable press and fame in this endeavor and a few years later was involved in the Tom Horn affair.
In 1935 Spearman was awarded the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, given annually to an outstanding Catholic layman. This honor followed earlier honorary degrees from Notre Dame (1917), Santa Clara (1924) and Loyola of Los Angeles (1931). Spearman died in Los Angeles on December 30, 1937, survived by his widow, Eugenie, three sons and a daughter.
I recently located and spoke by phone with Colonel (ret.) Frank H. Spearman lll, grandson of the late author. Wonderfully active and alert at 75, he recalled in detail early years with his grandfather and later sent me some interesting materials concerning the author's life and family.
If you never pick up another book to read, do yourself a favor and read Whispering
Smith. I promise you it will be difficult to put down until you finish it. All of the
Spearman titles are very good, and I heartily recommend each and all.
Bibliography of Spearman Books
The Nerve of Foley (1900) Held For Orders (1901) Doctor Bryson (1902) Daughter of a Magnate (1903) The Strategy of Great Railroads (1904) Close of the Day (1904) Whispering Smith (1906) Robert Kimberly (191 1) Mountain Divide (1912) Merrile Dawes (1913) Nan of Music Mountain (1916) Laramie Holds the Range (1921) Selwood of Sleepy Cat (1924) Flambeau Jim (1927) Spanish Lover (1930) Hell's Desert (1932) Gunlock Ranch (1934) Carmen of the Rancho (1937)
Donovan, Frank P. Jr., The Railroad in Literature, Railway & Locomotive Society Bulletin, July, 1940, p. 6.
LeFors, Joe, Wyoming Peace Officer- The Autobiography of Joe LeFors, Laramie Printing Company (1953) Patterson, Richard, The Train Robbery Era - An Encyclopedic History, Pruett Publishing (1991).