The discovery of steam power just 200 years ago powered the Industrial Revolution but like all one-time technological breakthroughs, the world long ago shunted most steam trains onto the sidelines of history.
Yet despite cleaner, more efficient and cheaper forms of transport having taken over, in a small corner of rural Australia the sights, sounds and smells of the Industrial Revolution are still alive.
Puffing Billy is Australia’s last full time railway employing steam engines at its main source of power.
Set in the picturesque Dandenong Ranges on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne, this narrow gauge experiment was born from dour economic times in the 1890s.
For Puffing Billy driver Steve Holmes, whose life has been immersed in its soot and steel since he was painting carriages as a nine-year-old boy, steam, as much as blood, runs through his veins.
“I grew up at the end of the steam era, I’ve been around the engines all my life,” said Holmes, who became a driver in 2005.
The short railway – just 18 miles long and built in 16 months – boasted Victoria’s tightest railway curve and the maximum allowable speed was a mere 15 mph.
These days, Puffing Biily still attracts thousands of visitors a year.
I’ve admired this image for quite some time, finding it in the Library of Congress’ collection of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) color photographs.
It is anonymous, unfortunately, but since there were really only 23 or so staff photographers for this gigantic undertaking (including Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, ten of which are truly monumental names in the history of 20th century American photography.)
I think that we could guess that it was done by the hands of a master.
It seems as though less than 2% of the 163,000 or so photographs made by this section during its eight-year run (1937-1945) were made in color, and I’m glad that this was one of them.