This is my review of Ralph Beaumont’s talk on Heckman and his CPR images. Unless otherwise noted the images used are courtesy of Canadian Pacific Corporate Archives.
Bob Lansdale, Clint, and I met with January’s speaker Ralph Beaumont and his friend Rod Clarke for a pre meeting supper at the Trio restaurant upstairs from our meeting room.
Ralph, who used to own the Boston Mills Press publishing company, wrote the Heckman CPR photography book and Rod did the proof reading, image editing and design. We mentioned in the meeting announcement that all images in the book used the original glass plates but we learned that the plates were destroyed years ago and the images came from the albumen contact prints. Due to the way they were permanently mounted in their albums, there was no way the prints could be directly scanned. Instead, the prints were photographed with a digital SLR in situ. Ralph and Rod are both train fanatics with little background in early photographic processes. The finished book is distributed by the Credit Valley Railway Co [http://cvrco.com/bookdistributing2015.htm]
During his sparkling and energetic presentation, Ralph explained he was initially interested in one small rail line, and years ago had written and published a small book called Steam Trains to the Bruce. The book included the occasional Heckman print so two years ago he wrote to CPR for more information. To his surprise, CPR said they had over 4,000 Heckman railroad prints in their archives.
Ralph hopped a train down to Montreal and did more investigation at the CPR Archives. He learned Heckman originally signed on to CPR as a civil engineer but was not successful in that profession, but early in his career he had taught himself dry-plate photography.
In the 1890s, CPR initiated a program to replace all the wooden trestle bridges on its lines with steel bridges which could accommodate heavier trains. Not having a visual record of the bridges, the CPR engineering department elected to send a photographer out to record every bridge and station on its line. Ideally the photographer would also be trained as an engineer, and Heckman was an ideal candidate.
Heckman used a hand car propelled by local trainmen to traverse the entire line from coast to coast. He fashioned a seat and support for his equipment on the hand car. As he was using dry plates Heckman had to develop them before travelling too far in case a photograph had to be retaken. His journals documented each photograph including date, location, time exposure, stop, etc. He numbered the shots both in sequence each day, plus the cumulative total photographs for each trip.
There is no information on what camera he used – and few if any photographs of him in action – other than the occasional shadow. In one print the shadow seems to outline an 8×10 camera. He made contact prints from 8×10 and 4×5 plates although this detail is missing on individual photographs.
Ralph learned that the prints were pasted in books one per page and the books initially shelved for seven decades as a reference in the engineering department! Eventually the books were moved to the archives and carefully stored, but some damage had been done. Sitting on the engineering department shelves face to face in books, some prints curled and a few became spotted with mould. Others suffered abrasions from the engineers’ rulers, pencils, and erasers, although interesting notes about updates to the stations and bridges were sometimes found written on them.
Rod took each print and using an image program from Micrographx on his Windows computer, he restored any fading, removed spots, scratches and any vignetting in the digital copy caused by the print curl. This was a simple but tedious task to clean up the few hundred images selected, returning them to as-new condition. Aside from cropping, all print content remained the same as the original – for example, no wires, people, trees, etc were removed or added.
Heckman’s images as shown and discussed by Ralph reminded me of Arthur Goss and his photography for the Toronto Works and Health departments in the 1920s and 30s. Heckman was commissioned to record every bridge and station, but he made the photographs come alive by often including people like the stationmaster’s children in the scene.
Through serendipity Heckman recorded many rare events as well, making some very scarce prints – a temporary station, a station that was used briefly before being destroyed by fire, a 90 degree crossing of two rail lines, etc. He made one of the few prints of a unique rail switch which ensured a main line was always connected through the switch, avoiding risk of derailment due to error. A series of Montreal photographs showed the famous Place Viger station, including not just the usual street view, but also a rare photograph taken at the rear of the station showing its coach yard and many platform tracks.
Ralph obviously did a tremendous amount of research and could easily speak in detail about each picture he projected. Ralph mentioned that each time he spoke, he selected only a portion the prints in the book plus a couple of others suited to the locale. This allowed him to keep the interest of his audience. For the PHSC talk, he made a general selection from across Canada, plus images of specific interest to a Toronto audience.
After wrapping up his portion of the talk, he turned things over to Rod who spoke about the challenges of cleaning up the selected prints for the book and proofing the text. He designed the book – prints and text – using a publisher program also sold by Micrographx.
Ralph thanked the CPR for their foresight in preserving the prints and albums, and granting him permission for use of selected prints in the book. After the talk there was considerable discussion about the work of Heckman and railroads in general.