Teller's calendar art, from the old Pennsy tracks

April 18, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen


Dan Cupper; photographed by Ken Murry.

Great Eastern Publishing

184 pages. $69.50.

In 1936, Fortune magazine said:

not think of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a business enterprise. Think of it as a nation. It is a bigger nation than Turkey or Uruguay. Its boundaries are wider and it has larger revenues and a larger public debt than they.

"Corporately also it behaves like a nation; it blankets the lives of its 100,000 citizens like a nation."

The Pennsy boldly proclaimed itself "The Standard Railroad of the World," with its stone bridges, red passenger cars, four-track main line, mighty K4 steam engines that were used to racing near 100 mph daily and the massive Pennsylvania Station.

Designed after the famous Roman baths at Caracalla, Penn Station was described by Lucius Beebe, New York society columnist and rail historian, as "that massive affront to the Vanderbilts."

While the Vanderbilts' New York Central Railroad and Grand Central Terminal held sway in mid-town Manhattan, lower Manhattan was clearly Pennsy territory.

Never disposed toward doing anything on a small scale, its failure in 1970 -- after its corporate heir, the Penn Central (P Transportation Co., went into bankruptcy -- was of such Wagnerian proportions that it became one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in the country's history.

Even though it's been gone for over 20 years, the railroad still looms over the landscape of American industrial history. It represented such a reliable investment as a dividend-payer that it was known since its founding in 1846 as a widows' and orphans' stock.

When the end came, Wall Street was shaken.

But because of the calendar art of Griffith Harold Teller, the glory years of the railroad will endure. Grif Teller began painting Pennsy's annual calendars in 1925 and continued to do so for nearly a third of a century.,

"Teller was both an artist and historian," writes Dan Cupper. "The paintings projected a sense of strength, beauty, and reassurance that all was right with the railroad industry, the undisputed backbone of American life."

Teller was born in Newark, N.J., in 1899, near the tracks of the Erie Railroad's Greenwood Lake branch, where he and his brother ran a lemonade stand and had the opportunity to study the trains up close.

In 1918 he joined the Osborne Co., an art and calendar publishing company in Newark. The failure of an artist assigned to produce a cover for the 1928 Pennsy calendar brought Teller from obscurity.

He was pressed into service to execute a calendar cover so that Osborne Co. would have something to show railroad officials the next morning and thereby save the account for the firm.

He worked through the night creating "When the Broad Way Meets the Dawn," which showed the eastbound Broadway Limited, the Pennsy's crack passenger train, speeding out of the night into the dawn on its overnight journey from Chicago to New York.

Mr. Teller worked in oils, and his paintings became instantly recognizable because of his use of vivid purples, oranges and reds. He employed common themes: great, dark, speeding steam behemoths, challenging chaos and night, or the elements, as in "On Time," which shows a snow-covered Pennsy flyer struggling against the storm. To ensure accuracy, Teller was given the full run of the railroad, its shops, terminals, yards and main line tracks. The railroad willingly arranged cars or locomotives for him to photograph with a Graflex 4X5 camera. It nearly cost him his life one time.

Out along the main line one day studying a scene, he suddenly looked up to find a new GG-1 electric engine bearing down on him while the engineer leaned on the whistle.

Teller continued producing calendar covers until the railroad suspended them in 1961, because of economic conditions,

At the age of 94, Grif Teller lives in upstate New York, still painting.

Mr. Rasmussen is a member of the Carroll County Bureau of The Sun.

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