In Spring 2008, I spent seven weeks in California working on my ‘Railroads of California’ book for Voyageur Press. I focused on elements of California railroading that I’d missed or had changed since I lived there in the early 1990s.
At the end of May, I took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Oakland to Los Angeles. Among my projects was the Los Angeles Metrolink commuter rail system.Aiding my effort, Metrolink provided several comp-tickets. On this day, my cousin Stella and I traveled over several of Metrolink routes. I was delighted by the trains, which were air-conditioned and comfortable.
I focused the evening’s efforts at Fullerton, a location that my father recommended to me. Several years earlier, he’d spent an afternoon waiting for Santa Fe 3751 (Baldwin-built 4-8-4 steam locomotive) that was working an excursion.
Fullerton is a busy place with three main tracks that host Metrolink, Amtrak, and BNSF trains. I exposed this image from the foot bridge as a Metrolink train paused for its station stop. Hazy LA-area smoggy sun makes for a nice soft light source, while backlighting offers good contrast for a high impact image.
In early 1990, I was living in Roseville, California and working in Sacramento. I worked nights, which meant I had lots of daylight to play with for photography. However, this was a Saturday evening. The day had been miserable—cold, damp, and dark. Not what people think of as ‘California weather,’ but typical enough for winter.
I’d been itching to make some photos, but theses dire conditions were uninspiring. Roseville wasn’t especially photogenic even on a good day, but there was lots of railroad interest around the place. Toward the end of the day, I saw clearing to the West, so I nipped down to the yard.
The East-end of Roseville was fairly accessible from public property. There was a grade crossing near the split between East Valley and Donner Pass routes. I made this image just as the sun dropped below clouds that were still spitting rain. A pair of SP’s venerable EMD SD7s working the East end caught the glint of the setting sun. The dark sky and glossy ground with evening sun is hard to top.
This remains one of my few good photos of Roseville Yard. Since then, Union Pacific merged with SP, and UP completely rebuilt the yard. The SD7s are long gone.
On April 9, 1994, I made this image of a freshly painted California Northern GP15-1 in front of the former Northwestern Pacific station at Petaluma, California. In the foreground are some poppies—California’s state flower.
California Northern had only recently assumed operation of several former Southern Pacific lines, including the lower portion of the NWP route via Petaluma. As it turned out, California Northern only operated the NWP segment for a few years, making this a relatively rare image. It was published in Pacific RailNews in the mid-1990s.
Amtrak’s scheduled daylight operation of its California Zephyr over Donner, makes this popular train by far the most photographed train on the pass. In November 2003, Amtrak number 5, passes the signal bridge near Boca Dam on its westward ascent of Donner. I featured this photo in my book The World’s Most Spectacular Railway Journeys.
Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass crossing was one of my big projects. I’ve called this ‘the mother of all mountain grades,’ other authors have simply described it as ‘The Hill’.
I wrote in my Southern Pacific book:
“Where other SP mountain crossings can claim steeper grades, heavier traffic and more sinuous track arrangements than Donner, no other grade is as old or as formidable as this storied mountain crossing. Donner’s exceptionally long eastbound grade—96 miles—rising from near sea level in California’s Central Valley to a summit 7,000 feet high in the Sierra, would test the mettle of any railroader, but what places Donner in a class by itself, is exceptionally harsh, and often unpredictable, winter weather.”
I made my first trip over Donner in my white Toyota Corolla on the final leg of my drive to California, yet I was already well acquainted with the pass through the photos of Richard Steinheimer. In October 1989, I began exploring the pass.
At one point I phoned Steinheimer to ask his advice on making photographs of the pass. His kindness to me told me more about the man than his thousands of wonderful photographs. He spent a least an hour on the phone and inspired my efforts. In later years I occasionally encountered him working SP rails, and he always acknowledged me.
Fellow photographers aided my efforts: Brian Jennison, whom I met in the snow on Donner, and former SP dispatcher J.D. Schmid—known for his skilled use of light to expose Kodachrome slides.
While I’ve explored many of the difficult to reach locations on Donner, for this essay I’ve chosen a favorite image made at one of the most clichéd places, the easy-to-reach Soda Springs grade crossing.
I’d been up on the pass early; I found this westward train led by a Denver & Rio Grande Western SD45, complete with classic dual headlight arrangement. Soda Springs offered nice more ‘glint’, and the train is bathed in an ethereal blend its own exhaust and ground fog illuminated by the rising sun. The details make this image for me; the warm morning light provides atmosphere, while the searchlights on distant SP signal bridge mimic the vertical pattern of the SD45’s headlights.
Between 1989 and 1994, I made more than 50 trips to photograph Donner, and perhaps another dozen since then. Despite my many books, most of these Donner Pass photos remain unpublished. Stay tuned . . .
I’m at Camphora in California’s Salinas Valley along Southern Pacific’s Coast Line, where some venerable ‘beet racks’ are being loaded; it’s near the end of the day, the sun is diffused by a fog-bank drifting in from the Pacific. These ancient old freight cars are the attraction. They’re on borrowed time. Although these still cary Southern Pacific lettering on their wooden sides, SP had sold them to Union Sugar, thus the USGX reporting marks at the ends of the cars. Not only are these among the last freight cars in revenue service that still feature wooden sides, but they are some of the last revenue cars still equipped with traditional friction bearings—virtually all other rolling stock rode on roller bearings.
Fade forward: within just a few years, not only were these old cars retired, but the sugar beet traffic dried up, and in 1996, SP itself was merged into Union Pacific. For me, looking at this image elicits synesthesia: the agricultural smells that accompanied beet growing fill my nose, and I recall the drive I had to make back to the Bay Area when I finished making my exposures.
In September 1992, I was working exclusively with a Nikon F3T, which was fitted with a ‘fast’ 105mm lens (f1.8) for this exposure. The fast lens allows me to work with slow film and my choice of wide aperture allows for narrow depth of field which sets off the end of the beet rack and loading equipment from the background. The wires help frame the image. As with many of my SP color photos, this one was exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film, and even that has gone the way of the SP and the wooden-sided beet racks. Everything changes.