Fast Company

Making Tracks

Richard Carpenter is mapping every mile of America's railroad system as of 1946. By hand. "It's a story," he says, "that needs to be told."

Amtrak's train #80, the Carolinian, is rocking steadily north out of the Carolinas, into Virginia. And like every form of transportation, the Carolinian has begun to impose its own rhythm on the trip and the travelers.

Even in ordinary coach class, train seats are roomier than airplane seats, and there's no seat belt to cinch yourself in with. A train trip begins with a kind of relaxation, an exhalation.

On this trip, I enjoy one more unique privilege. Open on my lap is a new, green-cloth-bound hardcover atlas that traces tens of thousands of miles of railroad track, and I'm expecting to be able to watch our progress both out the window and on the crisp, colored lines in the atlas.

The atlas is the work of Richard Carpenter: 220 hand-drawn maps--a piece of craftsmanship at once so distinctive, and also so useful, it instantly reveals the sterility of computer-generated maps.

About 5 miles into Virginia, the purple line in the atlas that traces the old Atlantic Coast Line track says we should be passing the town of Skippers. A tiny village wheels past the window, and just visible is a green highway sign with white letters. "Skippers," it says. Well, I'll be.

In short order, we are supposed to pass milepost 65, then cross a bridge over the Meherrin River, followed immediately by the town of Emporia. It's Amtrak, so we're moving slowly enough to catch sight of the mileposts. And there it is: Milepost 65 whisks by. In a blink, we're on a bridge over a river. Almost as soon as we clear the bridge, the train passes a large silver equipment box stenciled "Emporia."

I've been traveling with maps on my lap for decades. I like the traveling and the maps, and the reassurance that comes from matching up the two. But what's happening here on the Carolinian is different. The match is a thrill, every time. Look down, spot the crossing with the east-west track of the Virginian Railway, whoosh, we're passing right through the intersection. Trace along the track to the next water crossing--the Nottoway River--look out the window, and there it comes, right at milepost 48, just as the atlas says it should.

Adults don't much marvel that things are where a map says they should be. With satellites and computers, how hard is that? What gives this particular journey added zest is that Carpenter's maps are so meticulous and engaging--beautiful, really. And I'm taking the train to visit the man who drew them. So it's not the map that has the mileposts where they belong, and the creeks and the curves, it's Richard Carpenter. His maps have style. They are hand-lettered and hand-drawn, even the tiniest place-names done in Carpenter's own careful printing. The maps have a point of view, a voice. It is as if Richard Carpenter is quietly narrating the trip.

Waiting for me in the chilly morning at the Stamford, Connecticut, Amtrak station is Dick Carpenter. He's the guy standing on the platform who looks just like . . . a train engineer. Carpenter is a retired planning director for a regional planning agency in Connecticut, a youthful 70-year-old. He's a big man, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and a cap with the classic logo of the defunct New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. It's easy to imagine Carpenter jockeying a steam locomotive down the tracks, cap pulled low, eyes squinting, elbow out the window.

What Dick Carpenter has engineered is A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946, an encyclopedic work that is as audacious as it is artful. Carpenter aims to draw every mile of railroad track that existed in the United States in 1946. Volume one, published last summer, covers six mid-Atlantic states and more than 23,570 miles of active track. All of which raises a small question and a big one: Why 1946? And why at all?

"No one has ever done this before," says Carpenter, "the portrayal of the tremendous, complex, and very high-performance rail system that existed right after World War II." The nation's railroads had helped win that war, and had yet to feel the bite of competition from airplanes or trucks. The interstate highways didn't exist; back then, the railroads were the interstate highways. In 1946, the railroads were arguably at the height of their economic power. The nation had more than a quarter-million miles of rail in use--nearly six times the size of the current interstate system. And there was plenty of romance: The demands of war meant that modern diesel locomotives still shared the rails with old steam-powered ones. The atlas, says Carpenter, "is a record, a way of putting down in one place the totality of the system, the geography, the topography. It's a story that needs to be told."

An atlas would seem an unusual vehicle for storytelling, except in the hands of Carpenter. Part of his goal is to capture the richness, complexity, and competitiveness of a system that had dozens of major players. The atlas is just a set of maps, but it aims to be about history, geography, culture, and business, too.

On his maps, each railroad gets its own color. So Newark, New Jersey (map 53), for instance, is a tangled yarn ball of colored tracks from the New York, Susquehanna & Western (green); the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (blue); the New York Central (gray); the Central Railroad Co. of New Jersey (yellow); the Lehigh Valley (orange); the Reading (brown); the Morristown & Erie (black); and the Pennsylvania (red).

But the atlas doesn't just show tracks. Carpenter shows, and names, every station--passenger and nonpassenger. He shows every signal tower, every crew-change point, every tunnel, every bridge; he shows mileposts for every railroad every 5 miles, except in the 43 detail maps, where he shows every milepost. The atlas has an appendix with the name of every railroad documented (213). The volume has six separate indexes.

The atlas would be a quixotic venture except for a couple of things. It is being published by the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Press, which has plans for at least two more volumes--more if Carpenter can keep turning them out. And the atlas, the work of a skilled amateur building a second career out of a hobby, has created a minor stir in railroading and geography circles.

"It is an amazing piece of work, especially the level of detail," says Maury Klein, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of a study of the railroad's impact on American life. "It's a treasure trove of obscure information. . . . It answers questions that you didn't even think to ask."

"Carpenter has invented his own style of cartography," says John C. Hudson, a professor of geography at Northwestern University. "Artistically, it's a beautiful product. There are no other maps like this anywhere that I've seen." And then there was Baltimore Sun columnist Fred Rasmussen. "It's the kind of work," Rasmussen wrote, "that only a gang of monks would consider undertaking."

As for Carpenter, he is as appealingly down-to-earth as his work is eccentric. Officially retired for five years, he's busy up in his study, often seven days a week, working on volumes two, three, four, and five. His maps are both compulsively detailed and artistically rendered, and in that way, they are a reflection of the unlikely mix of Carpenter's own personality. The atlas opens with an introduction illustrated by elegant, wistful line drawings of railroad scenes. Carpenter did the line drawings, too.

The atlas "is a record, a way of putting down in one place the totality of the system, the geography, the topography. It's a story that needs to be told."

Dick Carpenter leans over a small light box and starts work on a detail map of the railroads converging in Albany, New York. The Hudson River comes to life in blue, its shore a little ragged and uneven through Albany. The New York Central tracks are laid in next, using a gray marker. "Gray is the color their diesels tended to be," says Carpenter.

For drawing the colored rails, Carpenter has long since settled on a pen called an Artwin Marvy marker. Each has two points--fine at one end, medium at the other. Carpenter flips the pen back and forth, like a dental technician using a double-ended tool, picking the point he needs for the line he's drawing. He is serious about his pens; each one has a tiny slip of paper taped to the shaft with the date it went into service. This is so he doesn't use them for too long and risk drawing muddy lines.

As Carpenter draws the tracks and the shorelines, as he starts to ink in mileposts and the names of stations, what is fascinating is how certain and graceful his lines are. His big right hand has none of the hesitation an ordinary person might have drawing a map. The overall effect is like watching an artist sketch your own face on a blank sheet of paper with a few strokes. It's remarkable to watch the features emerge. And when he snaps off the light box, the map leaps off the page. Carpenter grins. "I'm doing this mainly because I enjoy it," he says. "It gives me great satisfaction."

Each one of Carpenter's hundreds of finished maps is the distillation of days of research, and it is the research that gives his atlas its authority, as well as its quirky variety. "It's sort of like detective work," Carpenter says. One wall of his modest office is a bookshelf loaded with research that he has filed by railroad. Carpenter doesn't travel the routes he documents. Rather, he uses old passenger timetables, more detailed employee timetables, and track charts that detail every mile. The skill and judgment are in combining not just the sources for each line and not just all the lines onto a single map. They are also in resolving conflicts.

Carpenter occasionally travels to consult map collections at the New York Public Library and the University of Connecticut. He has to be alert for dramatic, modern changes to the landscape: Many lakes that exist now, for instance, are the result of rivers dammed since 1946. At some point, Carpenter decided he wanted to show the direction of flow of every river and creek, with tiny blue arrows as the creeks leave the frame of the map. "Sometimes that's the hardest thing of all to track down, which way that stream was going," he says.

Carpenter is an amateur mapmaker, but he is not an amateur geographer. He spent his career as a regional planner (he hand-drew his maps there, too), so he's been thinking about the landscape, and the impact of people and development on the landscape, for 50 years. He started the research and prep maps for what has become the atlas 10 years before he retired. In the late 1990s, Carpenter sent a few of his maps to an old friend, a professor at Rutgers, who recommended that Carpenter get in touch with George Thompson, head of the Center for American Places, which sometimes teams up with Johns Hopkins to publish books about the American landscape. Thompson connected Carpenter to Johns Hopkins, which publishes the book in cooperation with his center.

Carpenter's passion for railroads, and for documenting them, goes back to college, and before. In some ways, the atlas is the work that, at 70, he's been preparing for his whole life.

One of the odder indexes in Carpenter's atlas is also one that reveals how much more than a set of maps it is. It is the "Index of Track Pans." In the 1940s, and even earlier, some rail routes were so intensely competitive that railroad companies couldn't afford to waste a minute. The problem: On long routes, steam locomotives needed to be resupplied with water.

So some rail lines were equipped with track pans. For hundreds of feet between the rails there was an open trough, perhaps 6 inches deep, filled with water. As a steam locomotive and tender roared over the pan at 60 or 70 miles an hour, a fireman could lower a scoop and refill the tender with water at full speed.

"These were concentrated on two lines competing for 16-hour travel time between New York and Chicago," says Carpenter. "You just couldn't stop and take on water." In the context of 1946, the track pans are as vivid a cultural benchmark as instant messaging is today. They are a reminder that we do not live in the first age of urgency or ingenuity.

Carpenter expected to turn in the finished maps for volume two (New York and New England) in January. He planned to pack them in a box, put them in the backseat of his car, and drive them down to Baltimore, to deliver them to Johns Hopkins University Press in person, as he did with the maps for the first volume.

Carpenter keeps his prep maps in blue three-ring binders on the shelves in his study. He appreciates not just his own skill but the remarkable fact that an academic press is publishing his work--and doing so in such fine fashion. He realizes that the maps in the blue binders could easily have stayed on the shelves of his study.

"A lot of people have something to say and never have the chance to say it," says Carpenter. "I'm lucky. And I like to express myself with maps."

Charles Fishman (cnfish@mindspring.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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