Cola and a Coal Train

Cola Tower is located in Columbia, Pennsylvania along the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s Port Road Branch near the junction with the Columbia Branch that ran from its namesake to Lancaster. The solid brick building has been closed for many years and retains its Conrail-era blue sign. Evidence of PRR’s electrification abounds, although electric operations were discontinued by Conrail more than 40 years ago. However, I can’t claim to be an authority on Cola or this section of the PRR, and I’ll welcome details about its operation and demise.

I’ve visited Columbia on a number of occasions, but until recently, I hadn’t photographed a train at this historically important railroad junction.

Part of the challenge is that Columbia is a difficult place to portray. There is a lot of trackage, but not many vantage points. The second problem is that most of the action occurs in the evening owing to an Amtrak aytime curfew on the North East Corridor, which effectively limits movements over connecting lines.

Now that we are into the long days its is easier to find trains on the move.

My friend Dan Cupper encouraged me to investigate opportunities on this route. Last year, I caught an empty coal train in the morning at Washingtonboro, a few miles to the south.

Now that we are back into the bright evenings I aimed to try again. So, a couple of weeks ago I drove to Cola Tower with Seamus-the-Dog, reaching there about 7:30pm. After a cursory inspection to check sun angles and signals, we set up near the old tower.

I noticed a group of teenagers with phone congregating near a grade crossing, then a young enthusiast showed up wearing a Nofolk Southern T-shirt. He let me know that I was in luck, and a coal train was enroute via the Royalton Branch.

Camera’s in hand I positioned myself in the shadow of the tower. Before long, we could hear the whistle of an approaching train.

I made a series of photos of the passing train as Seamus watched with interest from the safety of the car. Afterwards, my friend and fellow photographer Pat Yough supplied details about the train which was NS’s unit train number 590, running from Shire Oaks, Pa., to Baltimore.

With this success, I’m anticipating more adventures in the area and hope to learn more about photographing this portion of the former PRR.

Tracking the Light by Brian Solomon publishes Daily Explorations into Railroad Photography!