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."
in the Army JAG Corps in World War II.