Book Review: Steam Echoes of Hamilton

Steam Echoes of Hamilton is a nostalgic look at mid-1950s railway action in and around Hamilton, Ontario.

I have been aware of author Ian Wilson’s “Steam” series of books for some time. People have spoken very highly of his books, known as the Canadian Branchline series, but until now I haven’t read a single one.

Long time readers may know that I am not a steam locomotive fan. I like diesels. I never grew up with steam engines and I feel no nostalgia toward them. I’ve never really paid a lot of attention to them or the terminology involved. I couldn’t identify Walschaerts valve gear if my life depended on it, but I can tell an SD40 from a GP38.

I always assumed that Mr. Wilson’s books focused a lot on the steam engines, given that “steam” is in all of the titles. I expected something similar to Anthony Clegg/Ray Corley “Canadian National Steam Power“.

I was wrong.

The author immerses you in mid 1950s Canadian railroading, describing layer after layer of detail on what trains ran, typical locomotives, passenger cars and freight cars used, and all the many procedures used by railroaders to move freight and passengers over main lines and branch lines.

The really amazing thing is that the author does this without being boring or clinical. It really is a warm, engaging look at how railroading used to be… and you don’t need to be a steam locomotive expert to read this book.

I bought this book as part of a lot of books. It was only a few more dollars to include this in the lot, so I figured, “what the heck.” I’m glad I did.

Steam Echoes of Hamilton takes you through a busy day at the CN yard in Hamilton, with side trips down the branch lines radiating out of one of Canada’s most industrial cities. Wander the bucolic branch lines to Simcoe or Port Rowan and learn about interchanging with the Michigan Central and the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo.

The narrative is paired with period photographs illustrating the action in the story. While the books are written as if it was taking place on a specific day, the photographs don’t necessarily illustrate that particular day but show the scenes from “around” that time. The photographs are generally excellent and the print quality and overall editing of the books is outstanding.

I highly recommend you look at Ian Wilson’s Canadian Branchline series, available from the author’s web site. I know I will.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Steam Echoes of Hamilton”

  1. Five years ago we moved to Lindsay ON to join friends here. I knew very little about the place, except that for many years it was a busy railroad town, with both CN and CP running here and having train yards and passenger car facilities. However, I seen a good size book, Steam Memories of Lindsay by IAN WILSON and I sure learned a lot about the town, geography, and tha many towns those CN and CP trains traversed to. Plus the many various functions those railroads provided this part of Eastern ON. A very interesting read and lots of pictures.

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  2. As you mentioned in your post what distinguishes these books is the way they incorporate the railway into its environment. In those pages of beautiful photographs and data so rich it only makes your heart race that kind of context adds the ability to understand how the railway related to the world it served; that comprehension of the ecosystem.

    I like steam locomotives but because they feel like an accessible technology compared to the complexity of many modern things but as you note it’s a kind of appreciation for something secondhand. The era I grew up with was also diesel so these books invite a connection point I couldn’t otherwise have with places I only know from the future.

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    • Chris, these books are indeed a connection point to a past we can’t visit.

      I find it interesting that you say steam locomotives feel like an accessible technology compared to modern things. I find steam engines bewildering and I am far more comfortable thinking about how diesel locomotives work. Things like valve gear and steam chests and such confuse me, while I “get” traction motors and alternators and wheel slip radar.

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