Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Grif Teller never drew a Pennsylvania Railroad paycheck, yet today his name is more widely recognized and more closely associated with that monolithic transportation machine than the names of any of the company’s fourteen presidents.

From 1928 to 1942 and from 1947 through 1958, Teller cre­ated the distinctive oil paint­ings for the railroad’s annual advertising calendars, which were printed by the hundreds of thousands and distributed throughout the world. His scenes showed glimpses of the Pennsy – once the most influ­ential of all American railroads – at the peak of its power and importance. Teller always depicted PRR trains in settings along the main lines, and among the most popular were those painted at the Rockville Bridge, where the Pennsy crossed the Susque­hanna River north of Harris­burg, and at Horseshoe Curve, where the line punched its way through the Alleghenies west of Altoona.

Stretching from clamoring Manhattan to the gentle Mis­sissippi, the Pennsylvania Railroad once employed one of every ten United States rail­road workers, and carried ten percent of America’s freight and twenty percent of its pas­sengers. In the late 1920s, the company counted a payroll of two hundred thousand and nearly as many stockholders. Chartered in 1846 to build a route from Harrisburg to Pitts­burgh, it eventually stretched to twenty-six thousand miles of trackage in thirteen states and the District of Columbia.

No single corporation, before or since, has dominated Pennsylvania’s economy or political life to such a degree. Its corporate headquarters towered above Broad Street, opposite Philadelphia’s City Hall; its powerful lobbyist occupied a seat on the Senate floor in Harrisburg; its main construction and repair shops, employing seventeen thou­sand workers, dwarfed Altoona; and its operational and industrial heart in Pittsburgh, which generated most of its freight tonnage, secured the local economy.

From Pennsylvania, it reached to New York, Balti­more and Washington on the east, and to Buffalo, Cleve­land, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati in the north and west. Secondary routes blanketed the state so that, taken together with the com­pany’s stock control of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and agreements to use other rail­roads’ tracks, it is easier to identify the four counties – Fulton, Pike, Tioga and Wayne – in which the Pennsy or its affiliates did not operate than to name the sixty-three in which it did!

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s downfall at the hands of changing social, economic and political conditions – combined with unchanging regulatory conditions – led it to bank­ruptcy just two years after a 1968 shotgun merger with its longtime rival, the New York Central Railroad. But that’s another story, as is the resusci­tation of the Pennsy’s freight service by Conrail, its long­-haul passenger service by Amtrak and its commuter service by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA).

The combination of an industrial giant and its far­-flung geography gave railroad art some of its most dramatic, if not flamboyant, examples. Each year, from 1925 to 1958, the Pennsylvania Railroad published a wall calendar, usually twenty-eight inches square, featuring a scene along its lines. While Grif Teller did not paint them all, he painted most of them – twenty-seven of the thirty-three depictions­ – and enjoyed the greatest op­portunity for seeing, firsthand, how this transportation giant viewed itself. Over the years, the paintings captured passen­ger and freight trains; steam, diesel and electric locomotives; summer, fall and winter sea­sons; night and day scenes; and sunny and blustery weather. The theme running through them all was that the railroad – this railroad – was safe and dependable, no mat­ter what.

Grif Teller, born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1899, was given his earliest art lessons by an aunt, Evelyn Ryerson French, at the age of twelve or thirteen. Like many children of that era, he had wide exposure to rail­roading. Each summer his family took the train to visit relatives who lived in the New Jersey countryside. As a fledg­ling entrepreneur, young Grif sold lemonade to Erie Railroad train crews who laid over be­tween runs at the Forest Hill station in Newark, a few blocks from his home.

Although some of Teller’s earliest paintings were exe­cuted on the back of shingles, he soon graduated to canvas and oils. He attended the School of Fine and Industrial Arts in Newark, and the Art Students’ League in New York City. In 1918, he captured a job in the shipping department of the Osborne Company, and quickly worked himself into the art department. Headquar­tered just a few blocks from his home, the firm was a pioneer and leader in the field of ad­vertising specialties and, par­ticularly, the art calendar. The company, founded in Iowa in 1888, moved to Newark in 1899; its sales hit one million dollars in 1911 and exceeded two million dollars in 1925.

The Osborne Company serviced thousands of small accounts; its bread and butter was the advertising calendars purchased each year by feed mills, automobile dealers, foundries, barber shops, fu­neral parlors and the like, and given away free to customers. The firm fielded an energetic sales force that ultimately extended to Canada and Aus­tralia.

In his job, Teller painted landscapes and other kinds of stock, genre scenes that were offered in Osborne’s catalogue of calendars. Each calendar style could be mated with the customer’s business name, address and telephone num­ber for a seemingly custom­ized product.

Osborne also serviced large accounts, including the Stand­ard Oil companies, Gulf Oil, Aetna and Traveler’s insurance companies and John Deere farm equipment. Although Osborne did not depend on these firms’ business for its survival, they held considera­ble prestige value, and many small orders were guaranteed when an Osborne sales repre­sentative simply mentioned the name of one of these heavyweights. In the early 1920s, the company began publishing art calendars for the New York Central Rail­road, but within a few years, Osborne saw an opportunity to secure a larger account with the Pennsy, which was not issuing calendars, and dropped the rival New York Central.

Harold M. Brett, a freelance artist from Boston, painted the first two scenes for the Penn­sylvania’s calendars. The inau­gural painting which appeared in 1925, Speed and Security, showed a rushing passenger train at the east end of the railroad’s landmark Rockville Bridge spanning the Susque­hanna River near Harrisburg. Completed in 1902, and mea­suring nearly four thousand feet in length, the Rockville Bridge was (and is) the longest stone-arch bridge in the world.

Brett’s calendar proved to be so popular that requests exhausted supply, and man­agement decided to reprint the same illustration on its next year’s calendar. For 1927, Brett painted The Broad Way Limited Operating Through the Steel District, a night scene of the railroad’s extra-fare, all­-Pullman overnight New York­-Chicago flagship, its flanks illuminated by the orange glow of a steel mill. (When the train was inaugurated on June 15, 1902, it was christened the Pennsylvania Special; that was changed on November 24, 19U, to the Broadway Limited, to honor not New York’s fa­mous theater district, as many suppose, but the Pennsy’s multiple-track roadway, which the railroad publicized as “the Broad Way of Commerce.” Beginning in 19U, timetables and related advertising spelled the train’s name as it is today, with Broadway as one word. Why the name was altered for the painting titles remains unclear.)

To that point, Grif Teller had had nothing to do with the Pennsy account, but that soon changed. One weekday in the summer of 1927, Teller was at work after lunch when his supervisors came to him with a request. For some rea­son, the preliminary painting for 1928 had not been com­pleted, and Osborne officials had an appointment with the Pennsy management the next day to review it. Could Teller, they entreated, conjure some­thing quickly for them to take to Philadelphia?

Cagily, he replied that he would – with one condition. If the railroad officials liked his preliminary, could he paint the final version? William Seely, Osborne’s president, agreed. Teller worked late into the night, using a theme that the railroad had supplied: “When the Broad Way Meets the Dawn,” the moment the east­bound Broadway Limited first hit daylight on its overnight run from Chicago to New York. During summer, this took place in the Juniata River Valley, and that, appropriately, is the setting of his painting.

Because he was then still relatively unproven, Osborne quietly hired Hy Hintermeis­ter, another artist, to complete a separate (and competing) final version in case Teller’s work wouldn’t satisfy the railroad. But it did, and he won the go-ahead to complete the final version. For the fol­lowing three decades, with a short wartime hiatus, Teller’s signature appeared on the calendar paintings. (His full name was Griffith Harold Teller, and he signed his early, pre-PRR paintings “Griffith H. Teller.” However, his boss, Tom Graham, who headed Os­borne’s art department, ad­vised him it would be more distinctive if he simply signed “Grif,” and so he did.)

Each spring, Teller rode the Pennsylvania Railroad’s pas­senger trains, taking notes on new sites and backgrounds to capture on canvas, and would return by automobile to make sketches and take research photographs. During the sum­mer, he sketched a preliminary drawing to be approved by PRR officials. Many of the earlier paintings have generic backgrounds, but later ones show dearly identifiable loca­tions along the railroad’s routes.

Throughout the summer months, he worked up the final painting. More than once, his supervisors at Osborne interrupted his family vacation with an urgent message to return home for a trip to Phila­delphia and yet another meet­ing with the Pennsy officials regarding the calendar project. By late summer, the final painting, sometimes measur­ing as large as forty by sixty inches, was hurried from New­ark to Philadelphia aboard a Pennsylvania Railroad parlor car for one last approval.

Vice presidents, depart­ment heads and high-level railroaders were summoned to a room in the Pennsy’s old Broad Street Station headquar­ters, and the painting was painstakingly scrutinized. Actually, this process was highly arbitrary, as railroad officials nit-picked about de­tails, such as the number of rivets on the side of a freight car or the number of ties per section of rail, yet overlooked larger inconsistencies, such as portraying certain classes of company locomotives in sur­roundings in which they never actually operated. According to Teller, the railroad always dictated the choice of locomo­tives.

Once approved, the calen­dar went into production and was ready for distribution by Thanksgiving to shippers and customers. Unlike the Chesa­peake and Ohio Railway, whose “Chessie” cat calendars enjoyed a following of their own, the Pennsylvania Rail­road did not intend that its wall calendars go to employ­ees, but only to customers and friends. The paintings also were used in other ways: on playing cards, postcards, and the covers of dining-car menus, passenger timetables and corporate annual reports.

Grif Teller’s early calendar paintings have an impression­istic touch, often showing a single train bearing down on the viewer at high speed, with details blurred. Most of these featured the Pennsy’s premier and most common passenger locomotive type – the K4 class, a ninety-mile-an-hour, one hundred and fifty ton design. Between 1914 and 1928, the railroad’s Altoona shops built three hundred and fifty K4 engines, and the Baldwin Locomotive Works at Philadel­phia manufactured another seventy-five. The K4 class appeared on eleven calendars, more than any other single type.

Later, Teller was required to insert more and more trains, and his calendars of the 1940s and 1950s show two, three, even four trains. Moreover, the steadily improving quality of color photography through the period became a subtle yard­stick by which his painting came to be measured, and the later work is far less impres­sionistic and much more realis­tic.

Although the Pennsy oper­ated considerable mileage in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, most of the calendar scenes were derived from Pennsylvania locations. The reason is no surprise. A Penn­sylvania Railroad train cross­ing a flat cornfield, except for details of engine and cars, looks pretty much the same as a Santa Fe, or Wabash, or Burlington locomotive in simi­lar, innocuous territory. But there’s only one Horseshoe Curve, only one Rockville Bridge.

There was a trick to picking a successful location, too. It could not be parochial, yet still had to represent the traveler’s and the shipper’s experience. Millions of people rode the Pennsy’s trains past the curve and the span, in themselves civil-engineering landmarks, but far fewer people could relate to a painting of the Al­toona or Harrisburg passenger stations.

Early in the Great Depres­sion, Grif Teller recalls that the railroad cancelled its calendar account. However, his supervi­sor urged him to go ahead with a painting anyway, on speculation. When the Os­borne Company unveiled the finished product to Pennsy officials, they reversed their decision and the calendar series continued for another quarter-century. Grif Teller has no records to confirm it, but is fairly certain that the pivotal painting is the one that re­mains his personal favorite: On Time!, the 1932 scene that depicts a K4-drawn passenger train barreling through a blinding snowstorm.

During World War II, the Pennsy continued to issue Osborne calendars, but three other artists’ work was used, because it was much more attuned than Teller’s style to the patriotic and militaristic themes the railroad wanted. Teller, especially since he stud­ied with artist John F. Carlson in the 1930s, had come to specialize in landscape tech­nique. For 1943 and 1944, the paintings were done by Dean Cornwell; for 1945, by Alexan­der Leydenfrost; and for 1946, by Frank Reilly. All were prominent illustrators or paint­ers of their day; Cornwell and Leydenfrost painted cover scenes for the Saturday Evening Post.

From 1947 to the issuance of the final wall calendar in 1958, Teller’s work again was used. His most difficult painting was for 1955, which showed a lineup of Pennsylvania trains that brought football fans to the Army-Navy Game at Mu­nicipal Stadium in south Phila­delphia. Since 1936, the game proved to be an annual logisti­cal feat for the railroad, which characteristically brought in, aboard more than two dozen trains from New York and Washington, some twenty thousand passengers of the total one hundred thousand spectators. (Municipal Sta­dium has since been renamed JFK Stadium; Pres. John F. Kennedy, in fact, rode a PRR special to the Army-Navy Game at the stadium in 1961.) The scene was difficult be­cause it involved so much detail-twelve GG1-class streamlined electric locomo­tives and dozens of people.

For the last few issues, 1956 to 1958, Teller worked directly with the railroad on commis­sion. Although Osborne had been successful, its stock on Wall Street became the target of what is today called a hos­tile takeover, and the company was closed and its assets liqui­dated.

The rising cost – approxi­mately one dollar each to print and distribute a wall calendar in the 1950s – became a factor in the decision to end the calendar program. Each year, about three hundred thousand wall calendars were printed, along with one hundred and eighty-five thousand desk calendars and four hundred and thirty thousand pocket calendars.

Pennsy, which posted its first-ever loss in 1946, its cen­tennial year, soon found its short-haul passengers deserting it in favor of automobiles, its long-haul passengers taking the airplane, and freight traffic being eroded by trucks on new federally-subsidized high­ways. Through the 1950s, Teller found work in commer­cial art for several more years, and sold his own work. He completed two more paintings for the railroad, which were issued in 1960 and 1961 as desk or wallet-sized calendars. He finally retired in 1968.

Grif Teller married Mabel Grant, an Osborne Company secretary, in 1928, and they had three children. By retire­ment, their children were all grown and married, and the artist settled into a quiet life, teaching art classes, playing tennis and traveling to Ver­mont to paint landscapes with barns, one of his favorite sub­jects.

In 1974, Teller’s serenity was broken when he was rediscov­ered by the railroad-enthusiast community. One by one, he began to receive commissions to render railroading scenes – almost always with the Pennsy as a subject. Since then, he has completed more than fifty railroad paintings and always has a current list of requests.

Ken Murry, a Mountville, Lancaster County, professional photographer and railroad fan, got to know Teller in 1976. Murry had bought at a Phila­delphia auction house one of the PRR originals, the 1953 calendar painting entitled Crossroads of Commerce. Teller restored it for Murry, and the two became good friends.

Since then, Murry has commissioned three Teller originals, and one of them, Pride of the Pennsy, evolved as the centerpiece of a project to re-create a contemporary Penn­sylvania Railroad calendar to honor Teller on his eightieth birthday in 1979. The winter scene depicts an eastbound passenger train pulled by a K4 steam engine, rounding Horseshoe Curve as it de­scends the steep Allegheny grade. Murry published the calendar with a 1980 date pad, recalling the format used on the old calendars-the familiar red-and-gold border, for exam­ple, and the same numerals on the date pad.

The whereabouts of other original paintings are only partially known. The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg owns When the Broad Way Meets the Dawn; the Penn­sylvania State University’s Earth and Mineral Science Museum holds the 1927 paint­ing; a Pacific Northwest rail­road museum owns the 1938 painting; and a New Jersey woman possesses the 1932 On Time! Conrail owns a few, as does the Penn Central Corpo­ration, the surviving corporate organism of the Pennsy, which today is a diversified energy­-resources company based in Connecticut. Pennsy officials sometimes made gifts of the originals to influential freight shippers.

Even the calendars themsel­ves have become highly col­lectible. Pennsy calendars from the 1920s, intact and in mint condition, can bring several hundred dollars. Teller smiles at this. When he was painting the scenes, he’d usually bring home fifty or so calendars to mail to friends and family at Christmas; any that were left over ended up being placed face-down and sliced into strips for shelf-lining paper. To collectors, the most desirable calendars are those that have a full date pad – leaves for all twelve months – and the “broadside,” or message from the railroad, which was usu­ally tucked inside the upper metal ferrule.

Calendars of the early 1950s, if complete and in mint condition, may draw forty to fifty dollars, but the 1957 and 1958 versions are in a class by themselves, because their subjects leave many railroad enthusiasts cold. The 1957 scene of an ore dock on the Delaware River in south Phila­delphia represented a major new capital expenditure and a new source of import ore traf­fic for the railroad. Pennsy officials had ordered that this be the calendar subject, and Teller went out in the river on a tugboat one freezing spring day to do preliminary sketches, yet there’s hardly a train visible in it.

For 1958, the scene was a panoramic aerial view of Con­way Yard, situated twenty miles northwest of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River. The Pennsy had recently upgraded the yard as a major new classi­fication facility and wanted to promote it. By showing the entire yard, however, the trains shrunk to insignificance, much like N-Gauge model trains on the floor viewed from a standing position. Symboli­cally, the railroad began dis­tancing itself from its former patrons – passengers and the public generally – just as its calendar-painting perspectives were growing more distant from the locomotives themsel­ves. What was good for busi­ness was bad for art, and Teller doesn’t even consider the 1957 and 1958 paintings to be among the body of Pennsy work.

Grif Teller continues to live and paint in his quiet home in Little Falls, New Jersey. His second-floor art studio still houses the large wooden easel he used at the Osborne Com­pany, on which were created all of his PRR calendar paint­ings. He stays active with his sons, daughter and grandchil­dren, although his wife died a few years ago. He never fore­saw the resurgence of interest in PRR art, and remains philo­sophical about his contribution to railroad painting. “It was a good job while it lasted,” he often says, “but when it was over, it was over.”


For Further Reading

Alexander, Edwin P. The Pennsylvania Railroad: A Pictorial History. New York: Bonanza Books, 1947.

Ball, Don, Jr. The Pennsylva­nia Railroad, 1940s-1950s. Chester, Vt.: Elm Tree Books, 1986.

Bezilla, Mike. Electric Traction on the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1895-1968. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State Univer­sity Press, 1979.

Burgess, George H. and Miles C. Kennedy. Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1846-1946. Philadelphia: Penn­sylvania Railroad Company, 1949.

Stauffer, Alvin F. Pennsy Power. Carrollton, Ohio: Standard Print­ing and Publishing Company, 1962.

Wood, Don. I remember Pennsy. Earlton, N. Y.: Audio Visual Designs, 1973.

The Railway Painting of Terence Cuneo. New York: Cres­cent Books, 1984.


The editor wishes to acknowledge the assistance of the staff of Com­monwealth Media Services in photographing original calendars and ephemera which illustrate this article.


Dan Cupper, currently at work on a book devoted to the life and work of artist Grif Teller, is a Harris­burg writer and editorial consult­ant. An officer of the Harrisburg Chapter, National Railway His­torical Society, he worked with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to preserve and display the first Pennsylvania Railroad electric locomotive to enter Harrisburg. His articles have appeared in numerous maga­zines, including Trains, Railfan and Railroad and Locomotive and Railway Preservation. A former staff writer for Harris­burg’s Patriot-News, he also served as executive editor for the Pennsylvania High Speed Inter­city Rail Passenger Commission from 1984 to 1987.