Wallace W. Abbey Collection


Wallace W. “Wally” Abbey (1927–2014) belongs to a rare species of railroad photographers: those who have a full understanding of all aspects of railroading, coupled with the knowledge of how to present visual ideas in a manner that excites the railroad community and the general public alike. In Wally Abbey’s creative and comprehensive views, we see people at work, travelers on luxury trains, interiors of cars, workers in the shop and on the track, and trains in many of their varied habitats. A $10,000 preservation grant from Trains is helping to make his approximately 35,000 photographs fully available for research and further publication.

True to his Midwestern roots, Abbey shunned boastfulness, but he took justifiable pride in his work, enough pride to have assembled “Favorites” in 2004—25 black-and-white photographs hand-picked and captioned for his own enjoyment. “Favorites” is an excellent selection of images from the late 1940s and early 1950s, showing his wide-ranging view of the railroad: big engines on the Santa Fe; “George,” the engineer on the Morning Zephyr; shop scenes at Beech Grove, Indiana, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Cumberland, Maryland; people relaxing in the lounge car of the Super Chief; passengers waiting for trains; and Oklahoma-Texas Fast Freight speeding past another freight train. His captions lament both the transition from steam to diesel and the transition from passenger train to airliners.

The Abbey collection came to the Center as a gift from Abbey and his family: Martha J. Abbey, his wife (now deceased), and Mary Abbey and Martha A. Miller, daughters. They want the Center to preserve his work for the public to see and enjoy. An initial selection, focusing on Abbey’s Favorites, is on railroadheritage.org.

Wally Abbey got infected with a lifelong desire to photograph railroads while watching the Frisco and the Santa Fe trains crossing at Cherryvale, Kansas, where he visited his grandparents just before and during World War II. There he stood, waiting as all railroad photographers do, camera in hand when he could find film, sometimes a scarce commodity during wartime. He made his first picture in 1940, at age 13.

If he had a favorite railroad to photograph, it would be the Santa Fe, followed closely by the Chicago & North Western. A multi-talented person, he also is known for originating the Soo Line’s red-and-light gray color scheme of 1962.

Abbey kept his camera with him as a journalism student at the University of Kansas, associate editor at Trains, then through a succession of progressively more responsible jobs in the railroad industry, resulting in the award for lifetime achievement in photography from the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in 2003. He passed away in January 2014, leaving his creative work for all of us to admire.

The Trains index credits him with 63 articles, 59 under the name Wallace W. and 4 under Wally. Fifteen were in a series, “Notable Feats of Railroad Engineering.” WorldCat, the worldwide online library catalog, lists 7 works in 7 publications in 1 language. It notes 119 library holdings, the most prominent being The Little Jewel: Soo Line Railroad Company and the Locomotives that Make it Go, a book self-published in 1984. It is held by 62 libraries worldwide.

For extended profiles, see articles by John Gruber in Classic Trains, Summer 2010, pages 36-45; and Scott Lothes in Trains, August 2012, pages 42-47.

Wallace W. Abbey
Wallace W. Abbey in a self-portrait from about 1950

Abbey Collection Overview

  • Gift of Wallace W. Abbey, Martha J. Abbey, Mary “Maggie” Abbey, and Martha Abbey Miller
  • 23,000 black and white negatives
  • 8,000 color slides
  • 1940s to 2000s
  • United States, especially Chicago and the Upper Midwest, and with extensive coverage of the Soo Line and Milwaukee Road railroads