Dr. Marty Olliff's monthly column focuses on the evolution of the railroad industry in the Wiregrass.
A resident of Headland, Alabama, from his birth in 1915 until his death in 1988, Thomas W. (Tom) Solomon had a love affair with railroads. He worked as a draftsman for the Atlantic Coast Line then with the Florida East Coast Railroad, but his real passion was photographing and painting railroad machinery and other scenes of the changing infrastructure of rail transport in the 20th century.
Railroads were fairly new to the Wiregrass when Solomon was born. The first line through Dothan was the Alabama Midland Railway ca. 1889. In 1890, Henry B. Plant added the Midland to his Southern railroad empire of 2,100 miles of track as part of his plan to develop the resort possibilities of the Florida East Coast. This included the Florida East Coast Railroad. Plant died in 1899, and in 1902 the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) acquired all of the Plant System.
Sixty-five years later, ACL merged with Seaboard Air Line (later SCL), then merged with the Southern Railway in 1986 to become CSX Transportation. Solomon spent his career in this system of companies.
A prolific painter, Solomon rendered romanticized scenes that tracked the changes of railroad machinery over the century, and there’s a small industry of treasure hunters who try to locate his work that was scattered in a veritable diaspora.Solomon’s photographs, which he took as studies for paintings or as records, show that same transformation of rolling stock from wood-burners (distinguished by their conical smokestacks that held spark arresters) through coal engines (cylindrical, stovepipe chimneys) to diesels. They also record life around trains, and he saved many older photographs by copying them. Most of his original photographs are from ca. 1963 through 1973 and record not only ACL and SCL scenes, but also Bay Line, Apalachicola and St. Andrews Bay, Apalachicola Northern, Central of Georgia, Southern Railway, Amtrak and others.
Solomon’s photographs form the nucleus of the book Railroading In and Around Dothan and the Wiregrass (Arcadia Press, 2005) and can be viewed online in his collection at the Wiregrass Archives at URL https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/146.html.
It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.