Donald W. Furler Collection

Biography

Donald Ward Furler was born August 10, 1917, in a house next to the Susquehanna tracks in Hawthorne, New Jersey. He grew up in nearby Glen Rock, with the Erie Railroad Main and Bergen County lines both about a block away. Furler was fascinated by steam engines and trains from an early age, and as a boy he had a basement layout of tinplate trains. The family had no automobile in those early years, and they traveled frequently by train locally and also to visit his paternal grandparents and other relatives around Allentown in eastern Pennsylvania. Those longer trips were usually on the Lehigh Valley Railroad but sometimes on the Central Railroad of New Jersey or Lackawanna routes. During one visit with his grandparents, Don met his future bride, Marie Ellen Weida. She was a best friend of one of his girl cousins. Many of their early dates were long walks by railroad tracks.

After commuting regularly on the Erie to classes at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, Furler graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1938. For a short time he was qualified and employed as an extra board operator for the Erie. He worked many of the interlocking towers on their New York Division. During WWII he tested engines for Curtis Wright Aviation, and most of his subsequent engineering career was with Continental Can Company in Paterson, New Jersey, for thirty-five years until he retired in 1982. Continental Can was a significant railroad shipper, and he was able to use that connection to arrange many cab rides.

Furler started taking photographs of steam engines early in his teenage years. He moved to higher quality still images in the mid-1930s with a bulky 8×10 view camera, and then began using a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera in the late 1930s, becoming a pioneer of railroad action photography. In 1941 he upgraded further to a 5×7 Speed Graphic. He believed the 5×7 proportion helped facilitate desirable train views. Furler generally sought classic, three-quarter angle action shots. He preferred direct light on the engine and perspective from moderate elevation. He liked to see lots of smoke, as long as the engine and train were not obscured. He also tried to capture the driving rods in a down position for a better view of the drivers and running gear.

Don and Marie were married in 1942 and purchased their own home in Glen Rock, with the Erie Mainline directly across the street. Don frequently took photographs nearby and at least watched the passing of named trains whenever he was home. One day around 1943 there was an unexpected knock at their front door. William J. “Bill” Smith extended his hand and introduced himself. Smith said he wanted to find out who was the fellow he was seeing so often by the tracks. Smith turned out to be the senior engineer on the Erie’s New York Division roster. He was regularly assigned to mid-morning Train #1, the westbound Erie Limited. Bill and his wife, Roberta, took the young newlyweds under their wing and became close family friends. After that, Furler usually got all the smoke he wanted for his photos when Smith was at the throttle. Smith made his last run in 1950, completing fifty-eight years of Erie service.

Furler photographed railroads in northern New Jersey, southern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania extensively. He began traveling farther afield as steam was disappearing. The Erie, Delaware & Hudson, Lehigh & Hudson River, Lehigh & New England, Lehigh Valley, New York Ontario & Western, Reading, and Western Maryland were some of his favorite lines. He also appreciated electrified railways and transit, especially interurbans (e.g., Lehigh Valley Transit). Furler remained interested in railroads for his entire life but could never really learn to like diesels. After the demise of regular steam, he focused on steam excursions (e.g., Reading Rambles, Norfolk & Western’s Steam Program, and the revived Colorado narrow gauge lines).

Furler was an early member of the Railroadians of America and the Railroad Enthusiasts, attending meetings and riding many of their steam-era fan trips. He was also an honorary lifetime member of the National Railway Historical Society (Lehigh Valley Chapter).

Most of Don’s closest friends were fellow railfans and early trackside companions. They included Walter A. “Walt” Lucas, Robert F. “Bob” Collins, C. George Krumm, George M. Beischer, Gordon R. Roth, Robert “Bob” Malinoski, John Briggs, Richard “Dick” Loane, Michael “Mike” Koch, Jim Shaughnessy, William P. “Bill” Price, George M. Hart, and David T. Mainey.

Don and Marie raised two sons and two daughters, Alan, Nancy, and twins Lynn and Larry. They were loving parents and, later, grandparents. Alan was the only child bitten by the railfan “bug,” traveling and chasing steam with his dad. Besides trains, Don enjoyed spending time with family. He liked garden projects, band concerts, parades, county fairs, and raising many kinds of animals. At various times, his “pets” included rabbits, chickens, ducks, skunks, parakeets, tropical fish, and Shetland sheepdogs.

Don is remembered fondly by friends and family. He passed away on October 22, 1994.

–Alan G. Furler, February 2017

Donald W. Furler with 8x10 view camera
Donald W. Furler photographing a steam locomotive in the late 1930s with an 8×10 view camera.

Furler Collection Overview

  • Gift of Alan G. Furler
  • Approximately 5,000 images, mostly black-and-white negatives, many of the 5×7 size, as well as color slides in later years
  • Portraits and action views of steam locomotives, primarily in the 1930s to 1950s
  • Extensive coverage of the Mid-Atlantic region, as well as Appalachia and eastern Canada
  • Railroads include the Erie, Delaware & Hudson, Jersey Central, Lehigh & Hudson River, Lehigh & New England, Lehigh Valley, New York Central, New York Ontario & Western, Reading, Lackawanna, Baltimore & Ohio, and Western Maryland