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James A. "Jim" Brown, 1938-2020

September 16, 2020

Yesterday morning—that is September 15, 2020 in the early hours—we lost Jim Brown, a pillar of the Canadian historic railway community.

To us, James A. Brown was a professional railway man, a photographer, a historian, a writer, a preservationist, and a friend. Jim was indeed one of my close personal friends. His passing leaves a hole in each heart that was touched by his.

You have come to know Jim’s name, and his photo credit “James A. Brown”, through every one of my publications back to Day One—Steam at Allandale in 1998. He has been responsible for the photographic reproduction over the past six. That contribution has included press checks, such as this one for Speed Graphics and Steam 1957!

Jim was a fellow engineer; he and I have worn the Iron Ring that is associated with an Obligated Engineer here in Canada. His discipline was Mechanical from the University of Toronto in 1961. Jim lived up to our Obligation, especially this passage:

MY TIME I will not refuse; MY THOUGHT I will not grudge; MY CARE I will not deny towards the honour, use, stability and perfection of any works to which I may be called to set my hand.

If you can imagine an adventurer setting out on unknown journeys fraught with pitfalls and uncertainty—but who has an outfitter to whom he can turn to prepare him for those journeys, then you will understand something of my relationship with Jim Brown. In my case, each unknown journey was the researching, writing, designing and publishing of a book. Jim was the outfitter who provided me with maps, photographs, historic documents, personal recollections and the guidance of a mentor.

I lost my father in June 2015. Since then, Jim Brown was the nearest man I had to a father figure. I told him that more than once, and he understood what I meant.

We featured one of Jim’s photographs on the covers of To Stratford Under Steam (out of print) in 2000 and Steam Through London (out of print) in 2003.

Indeed, because of the nature of book production, you will know Jim further through our final two 2020 publications which will showcase his photographic reproduction talents.

Our Canadian Branchline family is reeling with the loss of Jim Brown yesterday. Up to the end, Jim was working on pictures for my upcoming publications. The bulk of that work had involved Speed Graphics and Steam 1958! vol. 3. A couple of weeks ago, wisely as it turns out, I requested that Jim divert his attentions from the book to the colour images for our 2021 Canadian Branchline calendar. He completed that work—and that calendar is on the press at Ampersand Printing as we speak. As my wife Mary-Jo remarked yesterday, that calendar is a memorial, of a type, to Jim Brown.

As for Speed Graphics and Steam 1958! vol. 3, Jim had completed the first half of the pictures for that upcoming volume. The next 16 page’s worth were in his hands, and he’d been working on them until a day or so before his death. We won’t see those now. But the first 96 pages of the new volume—including the front cover—will be another memorial to Jim’s practiced eye at photographic reproduction.

When a writer composes narratives for the printed page, he speaks directly to one reader at a time. Ours is an intimate craft. When we write, we tend to pick a specific individual to whom we are speaking. Writers call this person their Ideal Reader.

Yesterday, before I’d learned of Jim’s passing, I was writing my passages for him—as my Ideal Reader. Specifically, it amounted to pages 87 through 89 of Speed Graphics and Steam 1958! vol. 3 because I had come to an entire spread covered by a night-time picture of CNR Northern 6213 on the turntable at Niagara Falls. Jim Brown, at the age of 21 in the winter of 1960, was instrumental in that particular engine being chosen for preservation in the city of Toronto. In that way, and in a thousand other ways, Jim’s hand has touched our Canadian historical railway community.

(Jim is the uppermost man in this Bob Sandusky photo)

We’re all getting older every day, yet for those of us born just a little too late to have experienced the railway steam era firsthand (as I was), we lose our living memory connection to that wondrous time whenever someone of Jim Brown’s age passes on. There is suddenly a void that cannot be filled. I know I will stop myself a thousand times in the next few months when I’m on the verge of contacting Jim, out of habit, to ask a question about steam-era railway operations.

William Shakespeare and other venerated writers have spoken of the permanence of our craft, that the printed word eventually outlives all physical artifacts, be they pyramids, bronze statues, Hadrian’s Wall—or the steam locomotive. If that is the case, then something of James A. Brown will survive on the pages I’ve etched over the past 22 years and a few to come. May the words convey some of the goodness that he brought to our world.

Speed Graphics and Steam 1958! vol. 3 will be dedicated to the memory of my friend—our friend—James A. “Jim” Brown.

On behalf of my wife Mary-Jo, sons Spencer and Duncan, and myself, I offer heartfelt condolences to Jim’s family members, many of whom I have the privilege to know.

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