John C. Illman Collection


John C. Illman was born on October 17, 1921, in Seattle, Washington. Growing up, he lived in Seattle; St. Vincent, Minnesota; and Vancouver, British Columbia. At age 14, he was in an all-city boy’s band, the Kitsilano Boys Band, that toured in North America and England, traveling primarily on the Canadian Pacific Railway. This experience sparked Illman’s lifelong interest in railroads.

After earning a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Washington, Illman worked for the Shell Development Company and the Shaklee Corporation, developing plastics.

Illman took up railroad photography at age 26, around 1948, and some of his favorite locations were in the Bay Area, including Giant, Pinole, San Francisco Bay, and east of Richmond, California. To date, more than 500 of his photographs have been published in multiple books, as well as in Trains, Classic Trains, Railfan & Railroad, Vintage Rails, Pacific Rail News, CTC Board, Passenger Train Journal, Model Railroader, and Railroad Model Craftsman magazines.

Illman sold his photograph collection to Dick Dorn in 2003, and Dorn donated it to the Center in January 2022.

Illman Collection Overview

  • Gift of Dirk Dorn
  • 3,954 medium format B&W negatives
  • 3,040 B&W contact prints
  • 1946 to 1993
  • Covers the United States and Canada, especially the Pacific Northwest

Reproduction Requests

  • High resolution scans from the Illman Collection are available for print and electronic reproduction
  • To make requests, visit the collections page or send an email to

Browse Collection

Digitized images from the Illman Collection are available on the Center’s digital collections database, Odyssey.

Finding Aid