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Book Report: Railway images take me down the tracks

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I often receive books that make me think of old friends and relatives no longer here to enjoy them.

Whenever I receive a book by Jerry Apps, the Madison retired professor who writes novels and non-fiction about farms and farming, I think of my father, a frustrated farmer who would have enjoyed Apps immensely.

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Recently I received a beautiful coffee table book that would have floored my old friend Art Hager, longtime Star Tribune photograph with whom I traveled a good deal on assignment.

He's gone now and he never got to see "Minnesota Railroads," by Steve Glischinski (University of Minnesota Press, $39.95).

Art loved trains and the romance of the rails.

One day he told me about his first trip to England. He said he didn't want to go and see "a bunch of old castles," but his wife insisted.

"And she didn't want to ride on England's trains, but it turned out OK after all," Art said.

"I really enjoyed it, especially when we rode to Edinburgh on the Flying Scot, the last steam-operated passenger train in the British Isles."

How'd you get your wife to go along?" I asked.

"I traded her a castle," he said wryly.

Anyway, Art would love Glischinski's new book, which is a photo album with a thorough text of Minnesota railroading from 1940-2012.

Glischinski has been taking photos of trains since he was knee-high to a Lionel and he's gathered in photos from other collectors about the rail yards, the maiden voyages of various famous local trains and their engineers and cooks and dining cars.

He does a fine job of explaining the near death of railroads and how suddenly they've come back with new track and new methods of transportation.

Many of the finest photos come from Star Tribune files.

I wouldn't be surprised if Art had shot some of them, but, unfortunately, names of newspaper photographers are not included. And Art, unfortunately, is no longer around to identify them.

I've been fascinated by the tragedy of the First World War, ever since I saw a snapshot of my father, age eight, clad in an Uncle Sam suit and top hat standing behind a wagon, with a saw blade hanging off the end.

The photo was taken on Armistice Day, 1918. Dad explained: "There was a big parade on Main Street in Whitehall that day and I marched behind the saw blade and banged on it with a hammer to celebrate the end of the war. That was the day the townspeople rounded up the German-American farmers near town and made them kiss our flag," he said not too proudly.

Ever since then I've been fascinated with the big battles at Belleau Wood, where the maps were provided by Whitehall's Harley Hopkins, of the battle of the Somme, and Passchendaele at Ypres called "wipers" by the British troops.

These are the topics that have drawn the most attention since the war's cessation in 1918.

Now comes "The Making of the First World War," by Ian E.W. Pickett (Yale, n.p.).

A British historian, Pickett looks behind the big battles at smaller, sometimes unnoticed events that tell us just as much about how the war transpired and was conducted, as the famous taxicab defense of the Somme and the horrors of trench warfare.

Pickett digs deeper and writes of a plumber who knew how to release the dikes in Belgium and flooded its plain, which made it impossible for the Germans to get to Dunkirk.

Had they arrived there they would have been able to cross the channel and do battle on British soil. Instead, the battles were confined to France and the stalemate that resulted in the loss of millions of life.

"The Making of the First World War" is history writ small, as history often is.

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