Classic Trains Community Mileposts Jeff Schmid was a railroader’s railroader

Jeff Schmid was a railroader’s railroader

By Kevin P. Keefe | March 13, 2023

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Man in work suit at the controls of a steam locomotive.
Man in work suit at the controls of a steam locomotive.
Jeff Schmid was a railroader’s railroader: Jeff Schmid puts 1522 through its paces on the Cuba Subdivision in May 2001. John B. Corns photograph

Presumably, David P. Morgan never met engineer Jeff Schmid. The late editor of Trains magazine died in 1990, just as Schmid’s career as a BN engineer was spooling up toward greater things. But D.P.M. had Schmid down to a “T” when, way back in 1956, he described a gallant New York Central engineer he encountered: “Gregarious, informative, seasoned, he was the type who could have commanded a Super G Constellation or a Queen Mary with equal authority; in a cab he was the man all small boys imagine they will someday resemble on the right-hand seatbox.”

That man, give or take, was Jeff Schmid. I know because I witnessed him being that guy. And in the cab of a rocking, roaring 4-8-2, no less.

Steam locomotive operating through a city.
Frisco 1522 — likely with Schmid at the throttle — passes St. Louis’ famed Arch in 2000. Mitch Goldman photograph

Jeff’s recent passing — he died February 8 in Lincoln, Neb., at age 74 — hit me like a ton of bricks. Jeff and I reliably saw each other a couple of times a year at various railroad conferences and events, and it still shocks me to know that won’t happen again. But I have some great memories.

One in particular happened May 18, 2001. I was riding behind Frisco No. 1522 out of St. Louis so it could catch up in Springfield with the rest of BNSF’s Employee Appreciation Special, headed for a 25-day, 3,900-mile tour of the railroad across Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. Accompanying me was my photographer pal John B. Corns.

Jeff was one of the top guys in the St. Louis Steam Train Association, which operated the 1522, and supervising the train’s operation fell largely to him. Somewhere east of Springfield on BNSF’s Cuba Subdivision, John and I got the invitation we were waiting for. Instructed Jeff: “You guys oughta come up to the cab now.”

What ensued was a graduate-school tutorial on how to run a big steam locomotive. Although our train was short — just five cars — there was a lot of pressure on the engine, and especially on Jeff. Although BNSF management had given the OK to use the 1522, we knew that 600 miles away in Fort Worth, the Operating Department was keeping its eye on us, wary of our 75-year-old Baldwin and eager to see it keep moving across the railroad.

No need to worry. Normally a self-effacing sort of guy, quick with a wry smile and a quiet interjection, Jeff became “the boss” once he donned his leather gloves, his dark-blue SLSTA crew shirt, and his radio headphones. Inside the 1522’s cab, it was all business. Jeff didn’t say much unless it was a quick instruction to his fireman; he had a lot of work to do keeping the 4-8-2 in trim. Meanwhile, John and I tried to stay out of the way, except when the photographer got Jeff’s OK to squeeze his big frame up against the backhead, face rearward, and turn his 28mm lens on the engineer.

Jeff lived up to the urgency of this image later in the trip when he coaxed the 1522 and the entire special train up the twisting three-mile, 1.3%-grade of Tiger Hill, the Frisco’s old main line out of the Verdigris River valley, 11 miles north of Tulsa. Jeff had pointedly cut out BNSF’s obligatory C44-9W diesel, giving the old Baldwin a chance to work alone amid a cannonade of sharp exhaust. Along one stretch, the Tiger had tamed our train down to a mere 14 mph. “But it was a steady 14 mph,” Jeff said later, his smile faint but triumphant.

Someone else who witnessed a similar performance by Jeff is Andre Jackson, a member of the 1522 crew in the late 1980s and ’90s and now a journalist in Atlanta. Andre saw firsthand how Jeff’s long tenure on the Cuba Sub — 15 years as a Frisco and BN engineer before getting into management — came to play when it came to running the 1522.

“I marveled at the good time we were making as the engine leaned into the many curves on that winding single-track railroad,” says Andre. “Another crewman remarked that it was a sign Jeff knew the territory well. He was certain of his skill and his train-handling reflected that. He was neither tentative nor foolhardy in his handling of throttle, Johnson Bar, and 26L-schedule brakes. He made a tough, nerve-testing craft look easy.”

Man waiving from cab of diesel locomotive.
Jeff Schmid was a railroader’s railroader: Early in his career, Schmid waves from the cab of a Frisco U30B. Craig Peschka photograph

Jeff was more than willing to explain that craft from time to time, including in a pair of articles for Trains in which he shared adventures running Frisco SD45s and U25Bs. The latter, especially, gave him a chance to share his writing chops. With the original U-boats the Frisco had a diesel you could love as well as hate, as Jeff explained in September 1999, noting the notoriously sluggish response of the GE engines’ four-stroke 7FDL prime mover.

“No matter how fast the engineer advances the throttle,” he wrote, “the FLD 16 engine is slow to rev up, sounding like a washing machine going into the ‘spin’ cycle. And if the engine is annoyingly slow to rev, the ammeter climbs upward at a pace that is positively glacial. The amperage increase, or load response, of the early GEs could be measured as well with a calendar as a stopwatch.”

But Jeff wasn’t the type to carry a grudge, even against a cantankerous U-boat. “I’m not exactly nostalgic,” he concluded, “but I wish 804 had been preserved. I recall working as an engineer on a yard switcher job at Frisco’s Lindenwood Yard in St. Louis when I spotted 804, dead in a transfer cut, being air tested prior to departure for East St. Louis and eventually Erie. I chiseled off a builder’s plate prior to the locomotive being hauled away to its ignoble fate. . . . Maybe I’m more nostalgic than I realized.”

That was Jeff Schmid, a man whose appreciation of his profession went way beyond the norm. From his deep involvement in his BLE local to his later work in railroad safety and Operation Lifesaver to his unflagging curiosity about the industry’s history to, yes, his deft handling of Frisco 1522, he embraced the fullest notion of what it means to be a railroader. No wonder so many are already missing him.

5 thoughts on “Jeff Schmid was a railroader’s railroader

  1. Just to finish up I never worked for Frisco as they were moving office staff to Springfield, MO and I did not want to move there as St. Louis was my home, and Dad never got to retire as he died at 61 of pneumonia Mom had to quit working when she got married as no married women allowed to work. Dad used to take me down after supper and we would sit on yard office steps to watch the trains, When the Meteor and Texas Special passed they were moving fast. And I went up in yard tower a couple of times, I hate heights so had a problem climbing the steps Dad would knock on door and they let us in, awesome view of the yard even could see Dad’s office at other end of yards Great article Kevin and glad I did get to meet him. As sidebar, have met Ed Dickens who runs #844 a few times too as a good friend of mine is his friend too. She got us a tour of steam shop at Cheyenne when we were on our annual railfan trip. I LOVE TRAINS AND ESPECIALLY FRISCO. Wore my Frisco shirt on the BNSF emp trip and got a lot of nice comments, Frisco was selling them one time and Dad bought me one

  2. I got to meet Jeff in 1990 when NRHS had a convention in St. Louis and I went down to see #1522. I told the crew about my Frisco history,, they were not set up for visitors, but they told me if Jeff said OK to help me up into cab, they would get it done. They pointed him out to me and I told him about my family and he gave OK to get into cab. He recognized Dad’s name and had heard he was a long time employee and awesome worker.

    E The crew pushed and pulled me up into the cab where I was able to take pics. They had to guide my feet to a step on side of locomotive and they did get it done. Reverse moves on the way back down. Remember hearing some lady saying “look at that gal climbing down from cab” They also told me when they left at end of convention, #1522 was doing a move back to NMOT and it would be double header with #844, so I was by the tracks when they rolled by and waved. Mom was 3rd generation in her family to work for them. Her grandpa came from Ireland and helped lay the tracks in MO, all 5 sons worked for them too, Mom’s father was freight conductor and later passenger. She would help with his paperwork. She worked at their downtown office as keypuncher and met Dad at employee picnic. He had started at 16 when neighbor was getting his son a job there and asked Dad if he wanted one, he said yes and never looked back. He started at freight house and later worked as car checker at Lindenwood Yard, checked for seals if were OK and if one tampered with notified the “yard bulls”, paid spec attention to those cars hauling cigs and booze. Later he got into yard office where he stayed, last job was liaison between customers and sales dept, and set out the orders for the switchmen who were making up the trains. I met Jeff another time at NRHS picnic when friends who belonged took me along. and I met him again on BNSF employee special when a FB friend who works at the yard gave me a ticket, that was another thrill to ride down thru the yards and past the office where Dad worked. I wrote Jeff’s wife and she was glad to hear he helped me fulfill a dream , I never rode with #1522 but did see her last trip at Webster station which had been the Frisco station, and cried when I got back to car thinking of my parents who were both dead by then and the fun times we had on trains , we took a lot of trips with Dad’s free pass. My name on here is Sunnyland, which I rode for my first train trip to Memphis. I am glad BNSF has kept Lindenwood Yard open and running, as I can train horns and diesel growls just like I did when Dad worked there.

  3. Nice tribute Kevin. I’ve known Jeff and his wife Judy ever since I was involved in moving the 1522 on the C&NW from St Louis to Chicago for its “break-in” runs on the Wisconsin Central in 1988. My “reward” was running the locomotive on a couple of its trips there. Jeff was with me on the first one – to make sure I didn’t break anything I suppose and Judy was up there for a while on the second. A take- away” from this is that contrary to what one might think from the media and press as well sadly as the brotherhoods is that there are lots of railroaders like Jeff who love their jobs and go above and beyond. Second and maybe more important is that those who are married couldn’t do it without a supportive and understanding spouse. There’s a TV ad targeting military folks playing around here nowadays which says “The toughest job in the Navy is the Navy wife” and I think the same is true with railroaders – especially perhaps those who are also railfans. So in addition to Jeff, here’s to Judy and all the others who keep the home fires burning while we’re playing with our trains and often participating. The last time I saw her she was running the baggage car gift shop on the 1522’s last trip in 2002 before going back to the museum.

  4. When I saw Jeff Schmid’s obituary in the Lincoln newspaper I realized I had seen his name on our local railfans club’s membership roster. I don’t recall that he attended meetings and I never made his acquaintance. I wish I had.

  5. Kevin,

    Thank you for this wonderful rememberance of Jeff. I was lucky enough to be among the 10s of thousands to benefit from Jeff and his colleague’s work with the 1522.

    I was lucky enough to start college in St. Louis in 1989 and join the St.Louis Chapter of the NRHS– just in time to be able to volunteer as a car host for the 1990 4 steam engine convention. The trip to Rolla and back was amazing as it was the first public trip I believe for 1522 on its original territory, though the day was hot as blazes. I was able to car host on mutliple other 1522 trips as well. While I was just a volunteer and did not know Jeff well, he always seemed a consumate professional.

    R.I.P Jeff

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