Scanning Old Railroad Photos: Keeping Railroad History Alive

In any industry, media preservation is an ongoing issue, particularly when it comes to film and photography. For example, many early Hollywood films have been lost to history.

To its credit, the railroad industry has been quite proactive about keeping its history preserved, at least when it comes to the largest companies and routes, as have the numerous historical societies that have existed long before the digital age.

That said, much of the history of smaller short line railroads can be much tougher to come by, some of it is all but gone. It was only this week that a user clued me into a small railroad in the Chicago area I had no idea existed; The Midlothian and Blue Island Railway. Certainly, given the size of the ever-changing rail network, railroad historians have had their work cut out for them keeping up with the changes.

The internet and digital media have been a fantastic tool to this end. Without it, my map of abandoned rights-of-way couldn't exist, at least not in a searchable and shareable format.

I've recently acquired another tool to help preserve the past, at least in a minuscule way, a photo scanner to move Kodachrome slides to the digital age.

Union Pacific 7663 near what I believe is Lawrence, KS in the early 1990's. Original photographer: Dan Warren
Much like film, old photographs allow for an important window into our past. In addition to the scanner, I've also purchased about 3,000 photos, many of which I still have yet to process, but in the month or so I've worked on this hobby, I can definitely say it brings me joy that these photos won't be lost to history. 

A view from inside the MetroLink St. Louis shops. Image: Larry Stiles
Slide scanners are nothing new, and there exist dozens on the market, ranging from smartphone scanners to professional grade scanners that cost hundreds of dollars. Mine was on the low end of price; the DigitNow! 135 Film and Negative Scanner. Each of the historic photos in this blog were scanned using that scanner, and while it certainly isn't perfect, it's perfect for what I need it for.

The DigitNow Scanner in all its glory.
It can fit in your hand, although its quite easy to slide slides (or film) into one end, hit scan, and insert another one afterwards. It actually doesn't even need a PC to function, just a USB or power cord, both of which are included. It does need a memory source, and supports SD cards up to 32gb

On the highest setting, each photo is about 3 megabytes in size, so memory shouldn't be an issue with even the largest collections of photos. The quality depends on the photo itself, although with a little work in Photoshop or another photo-editing tool, it's usually good enough for what is necessary for sharing slides.

If you try to remove images too early, quality issues do come into play, like the image below of La Plata, MO.

This one didn't turn out so good, but that was mainly my fault. Original photographer: Dan Warren.
So far I haven't come across any images that I can honestly say have preserved railroad history, but I've also only scanned about 1,500. For those of you with vast collections of slides and photos, I'm more than certain that some of them are one of a kind photos, or nearly so.
A steam-engine tire being put on, using fire to make the metal expand, than cooling it to secure it to the wheel. Unknown photographer, 1988.

UP X3985 during a 1993 excursion trip. This image, and many others like it, were taken in what appears to be rainy and foggy weather. Image: Larry Stiles
I have seen a couple views that you can't really see today, at least legally (and safely). Below is a view from the McArthur Bridge over the Mississippi River. While it is still in service as a railroad bridge, it also used to carry auto traffic.
A shot of the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis' right of way. This shot is from the now-defunct McArthur Bridge, once part of Route 66. Original photographer: Larry Stiles
NKP 587 during a 1990 excursion trip. Original photographer: Larry Stiles
There are many ways, and many media, to preserve all kinds of history. I'm thankful to live in a time where I can share photos with the rest of the world. My plan is to use this scanner to create a searchable database of photos and allow them to be shared with the world. I'm still early on in the project however and thus have nothing more to share on that end, but much like my abandoned railroads map and all the other maps I've created, its main end is to bring transportation history to a wider audience. 

Thanks as always for reading!


  1. As of the end of 2021, how many scanned slides are you up to now?

    1. Thanks for the question, and sorry this comment got marked as spam for some reason. We added about 10,000 slides so far, many of which have helped fill in the gaps in some of our abandoned railroad research!


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