Photo by Jack Delano
Updated: May 8, 2014 9:48AM
Not too long ago, one of my nephews went to work for the railroad, which brought our family to four generations in railroading.
My grandfather was a railroader. So were my father and two uncles. So were my own two brothers, one of whom is still at it.
That’s why I didn’t see as I had much choice when I heard about the new “Railroaders” exhibit, which opened this weekend at the Chicago History Museum. I needed to see it.
The exhibit is based around the photos of Jack Delano, who was working for the federal Office of War Information when he was assigned in 1942 to document railroads and their place in American life and the war effort.
Most railroad photography focuses on the scenic beauty and romance of the trains and the places they travel.
Delano chose to concentrate instead on the people who make the trains go, and for that he came to Chicago, at the time the world’s greatest railroad city.
The result is concurrently a gritty portrait study of American working men and women of that era, a wonderful time capsule of 1942-1943 Chicago, and a captivating art exhibit featuring both black-and-white and early color film.
Most of all, it gives you an idea of what it meant to be a railroader, an all-encompassing term for varied jobs ranging from the freight crews who worked in the rail yards or rode the rails to the mechanics who kept the train engines and cars in working order to the women who scrubbed them clean.
Being a railroader is nothing special, I suppose, unless you are one, or are a member of a railroader’s family, in which case you likely consider it something very special indeed.
Having mentioned my railroad ties previously, I know railroads evoke something deep within many Chicago families whose parents or grandparents, like mine, relied upon these often difficult jobs to put food on the table and make a better life for their families. Of course, many still do.
These are families who knew all about the pluses and minuses of working the on-call schedule of the “extra board” long before it became it an issue in the recent CTA crash at O’Hare.
I think those families will get a kick out of “Railroaders,” although they might want to prepare for it to be a little emotional.
Two years ago, the Center for Railroad Photography and Art conducted genealogical research to track down descendants of many of the subjects of Delano’s photos, then asked Delano’s son Pablo to photograph them with the original portrait of their family member.
The result is a particularly moving slide show and video included in the exhibit. OK, what I’m trying to say is that it made me cry. I sure wish I had photos like that of my own grandfather and father from their days on the railroad.
Most people will get through the exhibit in well under an hour, depending on how patient they are about reading the photo captions.
Even if you don’t like trains, you might enjoy the photo of the Bensenville rail yard looking out over the farm field beyond where somebody later built a little airport — and named it O’Hare.
There are some bells and whistles to hold the kids’ interest, including a mockup of a caboose interior where they can try on one of those goofy-looking railroad caps or some bib overalls and carry a cardboard switchman’s lantern. I can tell you it’s a lot less dingy and better-smelling than any caboose I was ever in.
There’s also a wooden train table complete with a roundhouse and a small switching yard to help children understand the concept of building the train. The dirty, noisy roundhouse was always my favorite part of the railroad, especially if there was an engine being redirected on the turntable outside.
I’d like to think there’s a little bit of railroader in me as well, having worked my way through college as a yard clerk, but that’s always been considered the soft side of the railroad, and I was probably never cut out for the rough-and-tumble part.
Delano chose one railroading family for a more in-depth profile, spending the better part of a week with Daniel Sinise, a conductor for the Harbor Belt, and his wife and children in Blue Island.
There are photos of Sinise’s son Bobby delivering newspapers, practicing his cornet and listening to the radio.
Bobby’s own son is not pictured in the exhibit, but you may have heard of him.
Gary Sinise did not go into railroading, but I’ll bet he’s heard a thing or two about what it means to be a railroader.