A Special Issue of the Mid-Continent Railway Gazette
Volume 40, Number 4, December 2007

Front cover of Real Photo Postcards Gazette

Front cover of the Real Photo Postcards special issue Mid-Continent Railway Gazette.

Mid-Continent’s mission is to preserve the artifacts from the Golden Age of Railroads, considered to be a period of time from 1880 to 1916. During that same era there was another golden age of sorts, this one based upon the popularity of the penny postcard. It was the fifth in the series of special edition Mid-Continent Railway Gazettes and showcased a private collection of “real photo postcards” assembled by magazine editor Paul Swanson.

Real photo postcards were so-called because the images were printed on photographic paper, scaled down to the proper dimensions of a postcard as prescribed by the U.S. Postal Service. They could be about any topic the production company deemed profitable. Fortunately for us, America’s railroads were considered to be just that.

trackmen operating rail drill

A real photo postcard documents two trackmen tediously working a hand-powered rail drill in an age before motorized track tools.

Most of the postcard images focused on the home town depot, usually with a steam locomotive pulling its freight or passenger train into the station. There are scenes of people, showing railroad employees at work or stopping long enough for the photographer to capture his desired image. Others show passengers and townsfolk gathered on the depot platform or on board the train in anticipation of their great rail adventure. All reveal a way of life now lost to us except for scenes from the family photo album or in these fragmented bits of popular history.

Train at Adel, Iowa depot

The arrival of trains at small town passenger depots was a popular image among real photo postcards. This card, postmarked January 8, 1920, is of the Adel, Iowa depot on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad.

Passengers looking out passenger car windows

Passengers peer from the windows of a Great Northern wooden coach with very similar windows and woodwork to Mid-Continent’s own GN coach #3261 in this card postmarked on July 31, 1913.

Unknown to us at the time it was published, the Real Photo Postcard edition of the Gazette was to be the last special edition for several years. Our focus became one of survival as museum members and friends worked to recover from the devastation of the 2008 flood that temporarily closed our operation. The recovery effort meant cutting unnecessary costs such as the expanded editions of our members’ magazine.

In retrospect the hardships we had to endure made this edition of the Gazette all the more special for us. It was a way to celebrate Swanson’s achievement in collecting hundreds of postcard images and offering them in an appropriate format by someone who had spent many years as our volunteer editor. Swanson also was one of our co-webmasters and the magazine allowed us to promote the fact that he had made the majority of his postcard collection accessible through our website.

Copies of the Real Photo Postcard special edition Gazette can be purchased in the gift shop at our museum in North Freedom or by calling 800-930-1385. All sales of the Gazette support the on-going preservation work of our historical society.

If you have time to visit our online archives page, check out the three-part series of TV commercials we created using the postcard collection. Entitled “The Depot”, “The Collection” and “The Train Ride” these 30-second spots were designed to introduce people to the Mid-Continent experience, where history and family fun are one and the same.

Reverse side of four postcards

Reverse side of four real-photo postcards
A variety of postcard back sides show handwritten messages, manufacturer’s marks, and postmarks that date many of the cards that appear in this special issue Gazette.

Don’t miss out on any further issues by becoming a museum member! A subscription to the Mid-Continent Railway Gazette is one of numerous benefits of membership to the Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society.

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