Reprinted with permission from the Spring, 1997 issue of Vintage Rails. Copyright, Vintage Rails, 1997. James Porterfield is a regular columnist on rail fiction for Vintage Rails magazine, a published author in his own right, and teaches sales and marketing at Pennsylvania State University.
The Western Railroad Fiction of Frank Spearman
by James D. Porterfield
Frank Hamilton Spearman (1859-1937), the most accomplished alumnus of the Railroad School of Fiction, is unique for never having actually worked for a railroad. A man of good eye and ear, he first gathered material for his railroad stories and books as a banker in McCook, Nebraska, listening to the men who worked out of the CB&Q division point there. When he took up writing full time, his favorable disposition to railroading and his "gentlemanly" manner as an interviewer encouraged those with whom he spoke to spill all they knew. The result, for those who enjoy the company of railroaders and take delight in their stories, is books that are a Mother Lode of insight into the colorful, exciting, and dangerous work of turn-of-the-century trainmen.
To our good fortune, Spearman's best railroad fiction has recently been reprinted. The Nerve of Foley (1900) and Held for Orders (1901), collections of short stories, introduce and detail the lives of several dozen unforgettable characters, some of whom appear in two subsequent novels. The Daughter of a Magnate (1903), a romantic novel, describes dramatic feats of engineering, such as "Splitting the Paw," wherein an entire mountainside is blasted into fill for a washed-out grade; the daring of trainmen battling enormous snowfalls; and the politics and economics of western railroads being acquired by eastern capitalists - all while seeing Ab Glover, the line's construction engineer, court and win Gertrude Brock, the daughter from the title.
Then, in a best-seller, the novel Whispering Smith (1906), based on the exploits of Union Pacific Special Agent Timothy T. Keliher, Spearman follows the shadowy and mysterious Smith as he pursues Murray Sinclair, a foreman of bridges who is dismissed for looting the site of a wreck, and a gang of toughs who are robbing and pillaging the railroad. Taken together, Held for Orders, The Daughter of a Magnate, and Whispering Smith are known as "The Medicine Bend trilogy" because they are set in a division point by that name. They provide a valuable account of life among the men who mastered the Rocky Mountains and ran trains through them between 1890 and 1910.
The publisher, The Paper Tiger has faithfully reproduced Spearman's books from original first printings, with introductory comments exclusive to each volume. They are printed on rugged acid-free paper and feature the attractive type and spacious layout and illustrations of the originals. Each volume is bound in durable Roxite, the anthologies in beige cloth and the novels in red, and features an adaptive replica of the books' original covers. The result is a book both pleasing to the eye and comfortable to hold. Together, they are "must" readings for anyone who wants to "visit" an early railroad in full operational swing.