Author and history professor Roger Grant has turned his love of trains into a lifelong pursuit and a highly lauded career
By Heidi Coryell Williams
College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities
Roger Grant likes to read dead people’s mail.
It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect to hear someone confess, especially if you’re one of the world’s leading authorities on transportation history and American railroads. But if you’re Grant, and you’re trying to dig up information about failed railroads that no one has ever heard of and the people who ran them, sometimes getting the story means looking in some unseemly places. Things get even more interesting when you’re researching rail companies with scandalous histories — those with stories of bankruptcy, corruption and mistreatment of employees.
More than two dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles later, it’s fair to say Grant has mastered the art of making trains interesting to the masses, not to mention imminently appealing to train fanatics who can never get enough of all-things-rail.
Grant’s interest in trains goes back as far as he can remember, as a toddler in a stroller. His mother would push him to the nearby railroad depot to watch the trains come and go.
“Small children like big things,” he offers as an explanation of the fascination. His family, meanwhile, enjoyed history. His parents were in their 40s when he was born, and he describes the Iowa town where he grew up, affectionately, as the “town that time forgot.” “When you live in a community that thinks a lot about the past, you tend to think a lot about the past,” Grant says. “The newest building on the town’s public square was built in 1904. And when my family got together, they talked about the past.”
As Grant grew and matured, his interest in history and trains never waned. He collected train paraphernalia, and even joined the high school golf team … “because the golf course overlooked a railroad junction.”
Many decades later, he continues to collect train treasures, but he does so more out of professional enthusiasm than fanaticism — and often, as a means to an end.
“I like to be surrounded by the artifacts that I work with,” he says. His file drawers, which are chock-full of promotional brochures, train timetables and photographs that he’s taken and collected through the years, hold materials he now uses to illustrate his books on transportation history. He has traveled to dozens of U.S. cities and even as far as Peru to collect research and conduct interviews for his work. Professorships that he has been awarded through the years have helped support his writing, including Clemson University’s Centennial Professorship and the Maxwell C. Weiner Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of Missouri-Rolla.
Grant’s books that are popular favorites include Twilight Rails: The Final Era of Railroad Building in the Midwest, published by University of Minnesota Press in 2010, and The North Western: A History of the Chicago & North Western Railway System. Another that has become almost a cult classic is his text The Corn Belt Route: A History of the Chicago Great Western Railroad Company, now in its second edition.
Grant’s newest book, Railroads and the American People, has just been published by Indiana University Press.
In a recent review, the Wall Street Journal noted, “With its wealth of vignettes and more than 100 black-and-white illustrations, Railroads and the American People does a fine job of humanizing the iron horse.”
To spend a couple of hours with Grant is something akin to running in an intellectual marathon. Topics for discussion are as likely to cover free-love utopian societies and insurance reform (both of which he’s also written books about), as they are to include his disdain for technology in the classroom and even playing poker. Now a Kathryn and Calhoun Lemon Professor, he teaches a handful of undergraduate and graduate-level courses at Clemson; he calls those students who respond to his enthusiastic approach to teaching “Grant Groupies” because they often sign up for many more of his classes.
“I’m a terrible poker player because I wear my enthusiasm on my face,” Grant says. “But there is some truth to the idea that enthusiasm is contagious. I think my students appreciate that.”
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