James A. Bistline, 1915 – 2005

Jim Bistline was General Counsel of the Southern Railway when SR President W. Graham Claytor Jr. instituted what became known as “Southern Railway Steam Specials.” From a small start with 2-8-2 4501 and 4-6-2 750, to acquiring 2-8-0s 630 and 722, to leasing many other locomotives and returning Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 611 and 2-6-6-4 1218 to service, Jim was part of the largest steam revival of the Diesel era.

Literally thousands of people were introduced to “man’s most human creation” by Southern Railway, including me. That’s one reason this web site was originally named “Steam Specials.”

Washington Post Obituary

Of Alexandria, VA on September 20, 2005. Beloved husband of the late Lillian; loving father of Scott A. and Mark H. Bistline. Also survived by one granddaughter, Bennett and his companion of many years, Ellen Kenealy. Friends may call at DEMAINE FUNERAL HOME, 520 S. Washington St., Alexandria, VA on Thursday, September 22, from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. A funeral service will be held on Friday, September 23, at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian Church, 2001 Sherwood Hall Lane, Alexandria at 10 a.m. Interment will follow at Mt. Comfort Cemetery, Alexandria. (Published in The Washington Post on 9/21/2005. )

A Local Life: James Adams Bistline
(This article appeared in, and is copyright by, the Washington Post)
A Local Life: James Adams Bistline
Taking an Old-Fashioned Train On a Trip Out of the Ordinary

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005; Page C11

Well into the era of diesel-powered locomotives, Jim Bistline had an unlikely position with Southern Railway: “general manager — steam.”

On its surface, the job title was jarringly old-fashioned. But the revival of steam locomotive excursion trips in the late 1960s, at the company president’s behest, was one of Southern’s most visible public-relations ventures and Bistline one of the company’s most capable lawyers. The Alexandria resident, 90, died Sept. 20 of congestive heart failure.

Drastically more expensive to operate and maintain than diesel trains, the steam lines still evoked a “magnetic groundswell of nostalgia and sentimentality,” Bistline once said. And he was right. Spurring a sense of historic pride, Southern’s steam-locomotive trips throughout the Southeast became the ground transportation equivalent of the tall ships that sailed into New York harbor for the U.S. bicentennial celebrations.

About 75,000 passengers took the roughly 60 to 75 trips Bistline helped arrange every year until his retirement in 1986 from what became Norfolk Southern.

“The interest in steam engines is enormous,” he once told the in-house magazine of Norfolk Southern. “When you’re around an engine, you get the feeling you’re with a living object. It’s got strength, power, a pulse. It breathes and makes lung-like, human noises. It strains, it perseveres, it shows emotions.”

The first train ride for James Adams Bistline was hardly romantic. He was 5, and a friend poked a stick between the spokes of Bistline’s tricycle. He fell, greatly injuring his nose.

The Pennsylvania Railroad rumbled near his home in Newport, Pa., and his father, a manager for U.S. Leather Co., asked the stationmaster to wave down the next train so they could get to a hospital fast.

Bistline began watching the trains, enjoying especially the contrast between the slow freighters and the evocatively named Broadway Limited, the Spirit of St. Louis and the Red Arrow that would dart by.

The first in his family to attend college, he also was first in his graduating class at Duke University in 1937. He completed Columbia University’s law school, worked briefly for a tony Wall Street law firm and became a junior prosecutor in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps during World War II.

He said his most intriguing assignment was the successful prosecution of an Army couple who had stolen $1.5 million in jewels from a German castle that had been converted into an officers club.

After the war, Bistline settled in Washington and met Lillian Hunter, a stewardess for Capitol Airlines. Bistline proposed to her from a distance.

The dawn after a lovely date, he handed a note to the captain of the plane on which Lillian worked. She had instructions to open the letter at a certain point. In a rare moment of sentimental prose, he described his feelings for her and accurately described what she was seeing out the plane, the way the light struck the rocks and valleys below. He knew the terrain from his childhood and frequent train trips for his work at Southern.

Until her death in 1996, Lillian indulged his interest in railroad paraphernalia, including the station signs he left in the back yard; the sleeping car blankets put on beds; and dining car china that was used at the table.

Over the years, Bistline worked on major law cases for Southern covering liability and deregulation. Starting in the late 1960s, his interest was in steam operations. He lent out vintage steam locomotives to Hollywood producers for such films as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Color Purple.” He insisted on having small roles in each, a rare moment of exhibition for a man who was, even to his son Mark, “monumentally buttoned-down.”

But where trains were concerned, he was more daring. He owned a 1920s Railway Post Office car — which he recently donated to the Smithsonian Institution — and traveled more than 1 million miles by rail. He once rode on the roof of a questionable train in Ecuador and in Chairman Mao Zedong’s old office car in China.

He had heady moments on the Japanese bullet train and the Orient Express but called the Trans-Siberian Railway passenger cars a bit smelly (“like potato soup and salami”). Although the Trans-Siberian’s food was lousy, he found “the Armenian wine quite good.”

Norfolk Southern ended its steam-locomotive runs in the early 1990s, citing rising insurance costs, about the same time a new steam line was built in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region.

Ill in recent years, Bistline was unable to make the trip to Inner Mongolia. This was his one regret, said Bruce Heard, a friend and retired Amtrak spokesman. “The white steam smoke effect is most dramatic in winter,” Heard said. “But the trip was just a bit too severe for Jim toward the end of his life.”

Jim Bistline, one-time head of Southern and NS excursion program, dies
(This article appeared in “TRAINS” magazine and on the Southern Railway Historical Association web site.)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – James A. “Jim” Bistline, 90, who oversaw the legendary steam program of Southern Railway and its 1982 successor, Norfolk Southern, for 20 years and became a household name in many railroad circles, died Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005, at a hospital in northern Virginia near his home.

Bistline’s 39-year career with Southern and NS began in the law department in 1948. Bistline (rhymes with lifeline) graduated first in his class from Duke University in 1937 and then graduated from Columbia University School of Law in 1940. He was assigned to the U.S. Army Judge Advocate’s office during World War II, serving both stateside and in Europe. Following the war he was a junior prosecutor during the Nazi war crimes trials.

Bistline’s railroad law career took a major turn in 1967 when W. Graham Claytor Jr., became Southern?s president and asked Bistline to become special assistant to the president. The title meant serving as liaison for the steam-powered excursions between the field and Claytor at Southern’s Washington headquarters The job eventually grew into a full-time position as Southern’s excursion program swelled to 70 trips or more in a season that started in April and ran through November. The trips introduced Bistline to railroad clubs and National Railway Historical Society chapters, which often relied on him as an after-dinner speaker at annual gatherings. During Bistline’s tenure, Southern operated nine different steam locomotives on scores of mainline trips that carried hundreds of thousands of passengers. He also made cameo appearances in many of the movies that were filmed using Southern’s steam train.

Bistline retired as General Manager-Steam Operations for NS in 1987, but he continued to be a perennial attendee at NRHS conventions and on private-car trips and international rail journeys. He was as at home in a coach among fans as he was riding the back platform of an office car. Knowledgeable, friendly, approachable, and energetic, Bistline enjoyed regaling fellow passengers with stories of his international travels, the stock market, and law.

When the U.S. Postal Service, in coordination with Amtrak, sent its “Celebrate the Century Express” exhibition train across the nation in 1999 to mark the millennium, officials chose Southern Railway 36, a 1926 Pullman-built RPO car that Bistline personally owned, to represent the hundreds of RPOs that had once crisscrossed the country. Refurbished, it was donated after the USPS tour to the Smithsonian Institution and is displayed at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C., where Bistline was a director.

Bistline was born in Newport, Pa., where the family home was near the Pennsylvania Railroad’s four-track main line. During his first two years of high school, his family moved to Old Fort, N.C., where he watched the Southern Railway trains climb the grade to Ridgecrest. The family’s next move was to Cumberland, Md., where the Baltimore & Ohio and Western Maryland were influences. All of these experiences led to a deep love or railroading, Bistline would say.

Bistline and his wife of 47 years, Lillian, a teacher, had two sons. Lillian was a flight attendant for Capital Airlines on board DC-3s when the two met in the late 1940s. She died in 1996 at age 75.

Asked upon his retirement which of the hundreds of trips he had coordinated was his favorite, Bistline replied: “Anytime you are traveling by steam train through the beautiful American countryside, it’s a great trip.” Such was the life of Jim Bistline. – Jim Wrinn

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