Reginald Marsh Locomotives

Steaming Ahead: Reginald Marsh Watercolors of Locomotives

This exhibition was made possible in part by the generosity of the Robert T. Leo Jr. Exhibition Fund.

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954) is best known for his images of gritty New York—the beaches of Coney Island, the burlesque halls of lower Manhattan—while his depictions of trains are almost unknown.  This exhibition features watercolors and prints (lithographs and etchings) of trains, produced between 1927 and 1934, along one from 1940, all from the permanent collection of the William Benton Museum of Art.

Etchings were some of Marsh’s earliest work.  He was fascinated by technique and often experimented with variations on etching techniques, all the while keeping careful technical notes. But Marsh was primarily a watercolorist.  He worked almost exclusively in watercolor from the early 1920s until 1929 when Thomas Hart Benton introduced him to egg tempera.  He painted few works in oil.

Marsh wrote of his early years: in 1922 “I’ll never forget a locomotive in the Dial by E.E.  Cummings.... Seeing a Burchfield watercolor in the same magazine starts me doing locomotives. Start painting in earnest in 1923” (in Lloyd Goodrich, Reginald Marsh, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1972, p. 26)

Some have interpreted Marsh’s depictions of the trains as a symbols of strength and power as well as offering a counterpart to his images of strong women, the gritty imagery must have also appealed to him.  While his studio on 14th Street (from 1929 until 1948) was very close to the New York and Harlem railroad this was an electric train, an “El” or elevated railroad.  Marsh focused on steam trains and the closest station would have been the Erie Railroad terminal in Jersey City. It appears to have been his favorite haunt possibly because there were so many engine terminals and freight yards in one relatively small area.

According to steam train expert Audrey Conrad, “Steam locomotives by their nature are accessible to the senses. When you see one move, all of the parts are right out there in the open, you can see the rods moving and turning the wheels; you can feel the heat of the boiler and steam; you can smell the coal smoke and hot oil.  At the time he was painting them, steam locomotives were not obsolete: they were the prevailing type of motive power in the US and the world.”

Loco Watering, c. 1927

This lithograph features a pair of Erie Railroad 4-6-2 (Pacific) type, class K1 passenger locomotives built between 1905 and 1908. These trains were likely sketched at the Jersey City engine terminal in New Jersey. Engine terminals were typically adjacent to the roundhouse where the locomotives were repaired and lubricated. The figure in the foreground serves as a surrogate for the viewer and also as a reference to Marsh himself who was sketching nearby.

Erie R.R. Loco Watering, 1929

In this lithograph, an Erie class K1 locomotive is being watered. Locomotives of this style had “Vanderbilt” type tenders, unique for their cylindrical water cisterns. Coal was carried in the bunker ahead of the cistern. The hostler, a railroad engineer responsible for moving trains in and out of the service facilities, would fill the tenders with coal and water before moving them to and from the roundhouse. Steam locomotives use prodigious amounts of water and coal to propel themselves forward and keep the engines cool enough to function. A single figure stands between the viewer and the train, providing an indication of the large scale of these locomotives.

Loco – Erie Watering, 1929

This etching documents an Erie class K1 locomotive being watered. This class of locomotive was built for fast, main line passenger trains, but by the time Marsh encountered them, they had been relegated to pulling local and commuter trains. The tender is being filled from a “water column,” which has a moveable spout which can be swiveled away from the tracks when not in use. When locomotives were first used so much water was necessary that some trains would have to stop every seven to ten miles to refill. As train technology advanced, the water stops were less and a more streamlined watering process was created.

Tank Car (Rail), 1929

In this etching, Marsh shows us a freight yard where the freight cars are switched from one track to another by a switching locomotive (seen in background) rearranging them into different “consists” for trains going to different locations. Over eight percent of the freight in the US was handled by trains until after the Second World War. He documents this scene from a vantage point quite close to the tracks. In that era, these facilities were fairly accessible (not fenced or guarded) and as long as you stayed out of the way, your presence was tolerated.
Marsh was inspired to depict locomotives as early as 1922. He wrote “I’ll never forget a locomotive in The Dial by E.E. Cummings. ... Seeing a Burchfield in the same magazine starts me doing locomotives.” Born in 1893, Charles Burchfield was a contemporary of Marsh. This watercolor, pictured below, from 1922 was on the art market recently and may be the image by Burchfield to which Marsh was referring. Burchfield’s composition is very similar to this one by Marsh from 1929 and may have served as inspiration.

20th Century Ltd., 1931

The 20th Century Limited was the premier train of the New York Central Railroad, the fastest way to travel from New York to Chicago before the development of air travel. Although it left New York City pulled by an electric locomotive, from Harmon, NY to Chicago it was pulled by steam locomotives at sustained speeds of over 80 miles per hour, stopping only for passengers and to fill the tender with coal. Water was taken “on the fly” via a unique system of “track pans” between the rails from which water was scooped by a device mounted under the tender that could be raised and lowered by the fireman. The class J3, 4-6-4 type locomotive is displaying flags which indicate that another “section” (another complete train running on nearly the same schedule) of the 20th Century is following. At peak periods, the 20th Century ran with as many as five sections and all other trains had to stay out of its way. Note the track workers repairing an adjacent track.

Switch Engine LVRR, 1931

Etchings were some of Marsh’s earliest work. He was fascinated by printing techniques and often experimented with variations on the etching process. He always kept very careful records documenting his experimentation.
Here, Marsh depicts a Lehigh Valley Railroad Switch Engine class L-5 built in 1916 being prepared for work. Note the fireman pushing coal forward in the coal bunker. This locomotive is a “Camelback,” having the cab for the engineer mounted on top of the boiler ahead of the very large firebox. The fireman shoveled anthracite coal into the firebox at the rear, and was protected from the elements only by a small awning.

Erie R.R. Locos Watering, 1934

In this etching from 1934 Marsh brings his vantage point in closer than in any of his other depictions of trains from the late 1920s. Here the train fills the composition and there are more figures included, providing a glimpse into the railroad worker’s life. Depicted are the Erie class K1 locomotives at the Jersey City engine terminal. Once inspected and repaired at the roundhouse and serviced by the hostlers, the locomotives were turned over to their engine crews which consisted of an engineer, who operated the locomotive and the fireman, who shoveled coal into the firebox and maintained the proper water level and steam pressure in the boiler.

Locomotive, 1929

This locomotive, sitting cold and forlorn on the tracks without its tender, a necessary fuel car to feed the engine, is probably waiting to be scrapped. From its small and rather archaic design, it appears to date from the 19th century when trains weighed less. Many railroads scrapped their own locomotives, salvaging reusable parts on other still operational locomotives. At the railyards Marsh would have had access to the active tracks as well as the unoccupied areas providing this view.

Erie Yards, 1927

This tranquil scene depicted in watercolor wash features Erie switching locomotives at the Erie Yards. The trains are sitting at odd angles because they are on tracks radiating from a central turntable, which were used to rotate steam locomotives with tenders around so they would be pointed in the right direction, and were principally used in conjunction with roundhouses. The use of the railway turntable, also referred to as the wheelhouse, would allow for the trains to perform return trips without traveling backwards for extended periods towards their original departure point.

Railroad Work Car, 1927

A railroad work car awaits its load on the track. A four-wheel tip car, like this one, was generally used in mines and quarries to carry loads short distances. The body of this car was designed to tip slightly to the side to disgorge its load. The sides are hinged so they will swing out of the way when unpinned allowing for emptying.

Railroad Passenger Car, 1929

This watercolor shows a wooden passenger car sitting on a siding unattached to a locomotive. We can only assume that this was an outdated car by the late 1920s, and was reduced to work train service, or simply could be waiting to be scrapped. Wooden passenger cars quickly fell out of favor and were retired with the introduction of sturdier steel cars in the early 1900s and then stainless steel in the 1930s. It should be noted that Marsh’s decision to paint a rail car waiting for the scrap yard was made in the same year as the devastating stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.

Old Steam Shovel

As the railroad rapidly expanded across the country and became the predominant way to travel long distances, more and more railroad tracks had to be laid. Prior to laying tracks excavation and preparation of the land was a necessary step. The steam shovel, such as the one seen here painted by Marsh in the early 20th century, was integral in the rapid expansion of the railroad. This old steam shovel was self-propelled and has steering wheels for swifter maneuvering with the boom is resting on its bucket/scraper.

Railroad Engine and Passenger Car

The Central Railroad of New Jersey class J-1, 2-6-2T type locomotive built in 1902 and used until the 1940s as commuter trains is captured here by Marsh. This type of locomotive was favored for short frequent trips as it is “double ended,” carrying its coal in a little bunker behind the cab and holding its water in rectangular tanks alongside the boiler. It could be operated with equal ease going forward or backward making the wheelhouse an unnecessary stop.


Marsh spent a considerable amount of time viewing and painting the locomotives of the New Jersey and New York due his time spent living in New York City. This Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) class G-2, 4-6-2 type locomotive was first built in1923 for fast, mainline passenger trains such as the “Philadelphia Flyer” from Jersey City. These were some of the last steam passenger locomotives purchased by the CNJ, lasting until the introduction of diesel fuel in the 1950s. With the smoke billowing out of smokestack, you can imagine Marsh’s ability to capture the fast moving locomotive.

The Parlor Car, 1940

In this watercolor, Marsh has painted one of his “Sirens,” one of his depictions of a beautiful young woman for which he is best known. Although Pullman was famous for its sleeping cars on night trains, it also had Parlor Cars for First Class service on its day trains. Parlor Cars typically had a fixed base. Inside the car were rotating well upholstered armchairs, as comfortable as any found in a home, that could be rearranged for private or group conversations.