American Gallery: Southern Pacific Siskiyou Memories

Between 1990 and 1992, I made a series of trips to Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in northern California and south-central Oregon. This fantastic stretch of railroad was characterized by exceptionally steep grades, sinuous alignments, stunning scenery and ancient lower-quadrant semaphore signaling. As a signal enthusiast, I was fascinated by the large numbers of active Union Switch & Signal two-position semaphores used in automatic block service. While these vintage signals could be found elsewhere on SP’s system, there was no greater concentration than on the Siskiyou in Oregon. Another attraction were SP’s collection of classic Electro-Motive diesels, including 1950s-era SD9s (technically SD9E after overhaul) and my favorite 1960s/1970s-era SD45/SD45T-2s famed for their powerful 20 cylinder 645 engine.

Afternoon sun backlights classic Union Switch & Signal lower quadrant semaphores on Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley, in May 1990. Photo exposed with a Nikon F3, 35mm PC (‘shift’) lens on K25 slide film. Photo by Brian Solomon

At the time I was in a photographic transition: I had just discovered the virtues of the Nikon F3, while still working with my old staple tool, a classic Leica M2 range-finder. This moment of transition and discovery of Nikon’s single lens reflex (SLR) system made my early Siskiyou trips especially exciting. There’s nothing better than have a new tool in a new place! The flexibility, functionality, and ease of use of the F3 SLR was a revelation. Everywhere I turned I saw new photo possibilities! Among the lenses I played with was a Nikkor 35mm PC ‘shift’ lens that allowed adjustments with the front element to correct for linear distortion often associated with wide angle lenses—a tool valuable for keeping semaphore masts parallel to the film plane, and thus avoiding the effect of them visually ‘falling away’ when photographed relatively close. And fun for making skies more dramatic.

More than twenty years later, I still work with my F3T occasionally, as I find it’s strengths are not afforded in any other system. With more than 2,000 rolls through its body, and working on shutter number 3, this old work horse owes me nothing. Like SP’s SD9s, the F3 is tool that has its place, long after more modern and more powerful machines have been acquired to supplant it!

Southern Pacific SD9Es lead a local freight near Phoenix, Oregon in April, 1990. Photo exposed with a Nikon F3, 35mm PC (‘shift’) lens on K25 slide film Photo by Brian Solomon

My visits were well-timed too! SP’s operations of the Siskiyou route were about to wind down. I caught the last gasp of big-time railroading on what had once been SP’s primary route to Oregon, but which had been supplanted more than 60-years earlier by the Cascade route’s Natron Cutoff via Klamath Falls and Cascade Summit. All of my images were exposed with Kodachrome film, primarily K25 (ISO 25). I’ve scanned my images using a Epson V600 flatbed and scaled and optimized the scans for digital display using Adobe Photoshop.

Feel the ground shake! Southern Pacific’s ‘West Ashland’ (symbol MERV-M; Medford to Rosevile) led by SD45 7481 on the ascent of Siskiyou Summit in May 1990; Nikkor 105mm lens on K25 slide film. Photo by Brian Solomon

One thought on “American Gallery: Southern Pacific Siskiyou Memories”

  1. Wonderful stuff. I really miss those days, but at least we knew how lucky we were to still be seeing these trains in this scenery, and we took advantage of it.

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