Steam—An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen

Following an afternoon excursion, a Nevada Northern crewman talks with locomotive no. 93’s engineer inside the railroad’s shop in East Ely, Nevada, in 2003. The site’s approximately sixty historic structures offer opportunities for many such backward-looking photographs. In 2006, the railroad and this site received highest historic recognition, a National Historic Landmark designation. Photograph by Joel Jensen.

Photographer Joel Jensen’s fascination with steam locomotives grew from a singular event. Driving east into Cheyenne, Wyoming, one morning in the late 1980s, he followed a plume of black smoke to its source—Union Pacific steam locomotive no. 8444 (since renumbered to its original 844), fired up and ready to depart with an excursion train. The sight made such an impression that he changed his travel plans on the spot, dropping everything to photograph the 8444. “From that point on,” he says, “steam became an obsession.”

Over the ensuing two decades, Jensen ranged all over the American West, often sleeping in the back of his pickup truck, seeking operating steam locomotives from UP’s behemoths to diminutive narrow gauge engines. Infused with a deep appreciation for rural America that grew from his father’s penchant for two-lane roads, Jensen’s interests extend far beyond the locomotives to encompass the landscapes they traverse, the industries and communities they serve, and especially the people who keep them running. His photographs are as much a tribute to the crews, shop workers, and volunteers, as they are to the locomotives themselves.

In conjunction with photographer Joel Jensen, the Center produced Steam, An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen, to commemorate his book of the same name (W.W. Norton, 2011), which includes essays by the Center’s John Gruber, Scott Lothes, and Jeff Brouws.

213cropNevada Northern 2-8-0 no. 93 leads empty ore cars over the sagebrush-lined “Hiline” between East Ely and McGill in the Steptoe Valley, a regular route since the railroad’s 1906 inception.
213cropDurango & Silverton machinists Matt Peterson, Chris Brophy, and Randy Babcock strike work-weary poses in front of K-36 no. 480 at Durango, Colorado, in 2009.

Current Venue

  • Evanston Roundhouse, Evanston, Wyoming, Spring 2021 to present 

Previous Venues

  • Nevada State Railroad Museum, East Ely Depot, Summer 2013 to Spring 2021
  • California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, March 9, 2011, through July 27, 2012

This exhibition is no longer in circulation.