Robert O. Hale Collection




JANUARY 21, 1912 – JULY 11, 1992

By Donald Duke and Margaret Hale

Robert Hale was born at Gentryville, Indiana, on January 12, 1912. At an early age,he moved to Kentucky with his family. His stepfather, being a railroad worker at Louisville, had access to the roundhouse. Bob soon became fascinated with the sounds and looks of the mighty steam locomotives. With money saved and earned as a boy, he purchased his first camera. His first photograph, quite naturally, was that of a steam locomotive. At age 12, he joined the Boy Scouts of America, and in short order became the champion bugler of Kentucky.  After graduation from high school, in 1928, he joined the United States Navy. Following boot camp, he enrolled in the drum major training. Besides marching in front of the band, he began to photograph military parades. In time he performed with the Eddie Peabody / Great Lakes Band during hos off hours, circa 1941. Bob self-taught himself the banjo, and later played that instrument in a night club while stationed at Panama. In due course, he rose to the ranks of Chief Petty Officer and was involved in base fire-control. Before leaving the Navy in 1948, he had advanced to Chief Petty Officer – Quartermaster.

Hale was always interested in Photography and dreamed of some day doing it full time. On retirement from the Navy, Bob attended the Art Center School of Photography at Los Angeles. Before completion of instruction, he was called back into the Navy during the Korean war. This time his rank was Chief Petty Officer – Photographer. While assigned to the Navel Base at San Diego in 1953, he made many photographs and became involved in motion pictures. He even made an educational film for a superior officer about the care and treatment of the officer’s handicapped child. It was at this time that he met his wife Margaret. She was a trained professional physical therapist and they worked close together while making the film. They soon fell in love, dated, and were married on August 18, 1956. Once again Hale left the Navy at the end of the Korean conflict. In 1956 he went to work for the Southern Pacific as a photographer.

At this time the SP was in the process of building their pipeline from Los Angeles down through Arizona. He photographed and filmed various stages of the pipeline’s construction. Since the pipeline followed the tracks, he was able to photograph trains, but not for the SP. Following this assignment he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers in northern California. It was his job to cover all the flood control projects between 1958 and 1972. He would photograph trains while enroute to the various project sites.

During the early 1950’s Bob spent much of his spare time photographing the action of the last breath of the steam locomotive. While stationed in San Diego for the Navy he photographed all the aspects of the Santa Fe’s train operation. Publisher Donald Duke, of Golden West Books, met Robert Hale for the first time on the station platform at San Diego. Bob was photographing a 3700 class steam locomotive at night. He would set up his camera and place it on open flash or open shutter. That means the shutter remains open. Hale would walk about the locomotive and pop flashes to light the front end, the driving wheels, and the cab. You might say that Hale was one of the first to take night time railroad shots. Duke became so excited with the prospects of night time railroad photography, that he too began to experiment with night shots, primarily action.

Tired of covering the San Diego area, photographing trains at nearly every good location, Hale spent his spare time at Cajon Pass and Tehachapi loop. It was Cajon station that Hale struck up a friendship with its operator Chard Walker. Chard was not married then, and was living in an old funeral streetcar from the Los Angeles Railway on the hill above the depot. It was moved there, just before World War II, by the Railroad Booster Club of Los Angeles as a weekend clubhouse and place to stay overnight. It was at Cajon that Bob began to take flash shots of trains by using multiple flashbulbs and time exposures. He brought the technique down to a science. Duke, who had experimented with magnesium wire strung our along the track, showed Hale how this would light up the countryside. Soon every piece of magnesium wire had been burned up around Los Angeles and no more could be found.  Thus resulted into astringing electrical wire down the tracks and placing flashbulbs in pie tins. When you pushed the shutter all the flashbulbs would go off at once. He later did a series articles and night shots at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, in which Duke assisted setting up all the wiring, etc. The article appeared in “Trains Magazine”.

Bob’s first darkroom was in his studio apartment bathroom. A trip to Canada, and a swing through the United States, resulted in a series of articles in “Trains Magazine”. Dick Steinheimer had developed a process of panning a trainat a slow shutter speed, following the train along, then shooting at a 60th of a second, thus freezing the action. This blurred the background and foreground. Hale’s trip resulted in a number of shots of this type which were quite unique for the time. With wife Margaret driving the car, Bob began to pace trains and trying his action pan shots, producing some very spectacular photography.

David P. Morgan, editor of Trains Magazine for nearly 25 years, called Bob Hale one of his favorite and innovative photographers. This was mainly due to his unique style of panning a train and his night photography. Many of Bob’s photographs appeared in “Trains Magzine” during the 1950’s, as well as in books and other publications. Duke produced a book entitled “Night Train” in the late 1950’s which was all night time railroad photography. One of Hale’s shot caught the eye of a Graflex Company official and Bob won a Graflex award for his unique photography. In his railroad photography work, Hale used a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera and a 4×5 Graflex. These were press type cameras; however in the late 1950’s everything was going to 2-1/4 square and 35mm film sizes.

The eventual death of the steam locomotive brought an end to Bob Hale’s photography of trains. While he did photograph various streamliners, like the “Super Chief” and “City of Los Angeles”, his heart was with the age of steam.

Bob and Margaret moved to Sun City, Arizona in 1975. He always kept physically fit, and as means of exercise took up cross country bicycling. A bout with pneumonia in 1986 disclosed that Bob Hale had Vasculitis and Myelodsplosice, a bone marrow cancer. Bob did not give up, but kept his exercising. He even made videos for the exercise club of Sun City, Arizona.

Robert O. Hale died on July 11, 1992, but his great railroad photography will live on for many years to come. His  camera artistry has preserved the last vestiges of the steam locomotive in the west.  You might call Bob Hale an artist with a camera. Following are some of his favorite photographs that are considered to be his best.



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