Perry Frank Johnson Collection

Biography

The first two photographs in Frank Johnson’s set of nearly forty railroad albums were taken not by Johnson himself but by his wife, Dorothea Nance Johnson, in the spring of 1942. (In some of his earliest notebooks from the 1930s he calls himself Frank, not Perry.) Mrs. Johnson intended them as a nudge to her husband to take up photography “because,” as he captioned the second image, “he was crazy about trains.” So crazy, in fact, that in the late 1930s he had spent tedious hours creating lists of cars on freight trains near where he lived—no pictures, just exhaustive lists, often written on the backs of discarded mimeographed announcements for activities at the Indianapolis YMCA.

Then World War II and Army service at the headquarters of an armored division in Europe intervened from 1942 through 1945. But on March 1, 1946, Johnson began his years-long rail-photography avocation, writing, “One has to start somewhere if he is to take action pictures of railroad subjects, and after putting it off for a while I started here—on 11th St. in Michigan City, Indiana,” where he was working for the YMCA.

Johnson (1913—2007) had majored in biology for his bachelor’s degree and had obviously developed a natural scientist’s love for categorizing and description—taxonomy. He applied this training to railroads and the images he took, largely in northern Indiana, in and around Michigan City, and in northeastern Ohio, in and around Elyria, where he moved to another YMCA job in 1948. The early albums are meticulously organized, each image printed personally by Johnson and accompanied by typewritten descriptions. Later, he eliminated the captioning, perhaps because it was better to put photographs in albums without writing a paragraph about each image than to let the images pile up unmounted.


Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad extra freight train led by electric motor no. 1002 westbound with twelve cars at Franklin Street in Michigan City, Indiana, at 5:47 p.m. on July 11, 1947. Photograph by Perry Frank Johnson

Johnson did not discriminate among steam, electric, and diesel. He shot what he saw locally, sometimes with people in the images. His first photograph was of a Chicago South Shore & South Bend freight train, with an animated engineer leaning out of the cab. His last images were made in the mid-to-late 1950s. Railroad historian Brian Solomon finds this circumscribed universe a plus for researchers. He calls the albums “a valuable documentary record of everyday railroading,” one which illustrates “the crucial time period . . . when America’s railroads were making the transition from steam to diesel. . . . He . . . didn’t shy away from photographing diesels at a time when many serious photographers shunned them.”

Professionally Johnson worked for the Elyria Y’s boys program through 1961, and he ran its summer camp’s nature museum and classes. From the Y he moved to the Lorain County park system as a naturalist and newsletter editor. He helped found the local Audubon chapter, and edited its newsletter, too. The park system has named a visitor center for him.

Frank Johnson retired in 1984. In 2009 his widow donated his railroad photographs to the Center—ensuring that the very work she encouraged him to produce would be safe and available for the future.

–Jack Holzhueter


Perry Frank Johnson, left, receiving the 1983 Association of Interpretative Naturalists Pioneer Award. Collection of the Lorain County (Ohio) Metro Parks

Johnson Collection Overview

  • Gift of Dorothea Nance Johnson
  • Forty-one albums of black-and-white contact prints and enlargements
  • Static and action views of trains in the 1940s and 1950s
  • Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and California
  • Railroads include the New York Central, Nickel Plate Road, the Chicago South Shore & South Bend