On this day in 1996, I was driving from Wisconsin to Massachusetts in a U-Haul truck with most of my worldly belongings (including the majority of my photographs).
Would you believe me if I told you that I took a detour to follow the old Erie Railroad main line across New York’s Southern Tier, and when I heard on the scanner that an eastward coal train was through Hornell, I drove the U-Haul into a grave yard on the banks of the Canisteo River, climbed a tree and exposed this series of color slides?
Between 1986 and 1991, I documented vestiges of the former Erie Railroad using hundreds of rolls of Kodachrome, Ektachrome, and T-Max black & white film.
I made dozens upon dozen of trips along Conrail’s lines, seeking to make images of this fascinating railroad in its environment.
There could be long intervals between trains, and some days were more productive than others.
October 14, 1988 was memorable because it was a perfect day. I had a very early start. The autumn foliage was at its peak. It was clear from dawn to dusk. Conrail and Delaware & Hudson ran a lot of trains, and I had Kodachrome 25 in my Leica.
Among the photos I made that was this view of Conrail SD50 6774 leading OIBU west through Swain, New York at 8:07am.
I like this image because although 6774 is key to the composition, it isn’t the only subject of interest and it captures the essence of rural western New York in autumn.
Soon old 6753 will be featured on TTL. The lure of the quest is about finding treasures along the way. If I found the prize too soon there would be no joy in the path to it.
Working with my old Leica M2 loaded with Kodachrome 25 slide film, I made this view of an eastward Delaware & Hudson freight led by New York, Susquehanna & Western SD45s crossing Conrail’s impressive Portage Bridge over New York’s Letchworth Gorge.
This was among my favorite mid-Spring morning locations. Winter run off made the Upper Genesee Falls especially impressive, while the sun illuminated the north side of the bridge.
This bridge was erected by the Erie Railroad in 1875, and was considered the first example of a tower supported viaduct, a type that in the late 19th century became a popular type of construction for long and tall bridges.
Norfolk Southern inherited this section of the former Erie from Conrail. The old bridge was in poor condition and had required a 5 mph slow order. NS finally replaced the aged viaduct in 2017 with a modern arched truss.
For me April 7, 1989 sticks in my mind as a great day to photograph along the old Erie Railroad. This was just one of many images I made that day.
Photography is about light. The quality of light makes a difference.
Below are two photographs made at the same location on the same day and of two very similar trains but under very different lighting condtions.
These were exposed on the same roll of Kodachrome 25 using my Nikon N90S near milepost 130 on Conrail’s former Boston & Albany mainline (less than a mile from the old Middlefield Station).
The first shows a pair of SD80MAC leading symbol freight SEBO (Selkirk to Boston) in bright morning sun at 7:59am. The second shows Conrail symbol freight SESP (Selkirk to West Springfield yard) at 9:56am.
My notes from the day spelled out the difference in one word; “cloud.”
Kodachrome did not handle overcast situations well. Both photos are scaled RAW scans without any adjustment to color, exposure, contrast or sharpness.
In recent months I’ve been undertaking a herculean effort. I’m beginning to organize my slide files.
Over the last 40+ years, I have made tens of thousands of slides, while embracing conflicting theories of photographic organization.
Now, I am attempting to consolidate and organize my slide files. In one tub of original boxes, I found a box (one of several) mis-labeled ‘Conrail, Rochester, April 1987, Ektachrome’.
This was a ‘free’ roll of film, given to me as part of photo package from Kodak to students at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Free. No cost to me. At a time when I could barely afford two rolls of Kodachrome a week!
And there was a problem. Giving Ektachrome to a Kodachrome shooter!
I took the film, and I made photos with it. Nothing urgent. Nothing serious. Nothing so important that I’d commit it to Kodachrome.
A more serious problem manifested when I searched for the note sheet that goes with the roll of film. The box said ‘April 1987’, but in fact the photos were exposed on March 11, 1987. I should have known.
This was among the many slides that I scanned yesterday.
In my ongoing effort to scan, archive, and organize my slide collection, I’ve been scanning slides, and reorganizing the original chromes so that they are placed together by similar subject.
Conrail is just one of dozens of my subject categories . Ultimately, I hope to subdivide the Conrail slides in to smaller categories largely based on precursor railroad routes.
This Kodachrome 25 image of a westward Conrail unit coal train was exposed in September 1988 at School Road in Batavia, New York, near milepost 399 on the former New York Central ‘Water Level Route’ main line using my old Leica M2 with 50mm f2.0 Summicron lens.
It is one of hundreds of Conrail photos I exposed between 1985 and 1999 of Conrail trains working the old Water Level Route.
Way back in April 2001, photographer Mike Gardner and I paid a visit to the closed Old State Road bridge over the former West Shore route at Guilderland, New York.
This was only a couple of years after CSX assumed operation of Conrail’s former New York Central Waterlevel Route across New York State. At that time this was an exceptionally busy line with a non-stop parade of freights.
I made this coming and going pair of photos using my Rollei Model T. This featured a very sharp f3.5 Zeiss Tessar lens.
My choice of film was Kodak Tri-X processed in Ifotec HC developer. I scanned the negatives yesterday using my Epson V600 flatbed scanner, then made minor adjustements to the TIF scans using Adobe Light room to improve constrast and exposure.
On a session of the West Springfield Train Watchers, I made this view of four BIG Conrail diesels at the west end of the yard.
It was the evening of July 19, 1983.
I traveled there with Bob Buck in his green Ford van.
As dusk settled, I set up my Leica 3A on a tripod, carefully keeping the yard lights at the edge of the frame. I opened the shutter using the ‘T’ setting and illuminated the train with a Metz strobe to compensate for the inky shadows of the summer evening.
I was keen on making the most of the Conrail C30-7s and SD45-2s leading the evening westbound. These were rare locomotives and worthy of my attention at the time. On the recommendation of my friend and fellow photographer Doug Moore, I’d wrapped the head of the strobe in a white garbage bag to soften and diffuse the light.
Looking back this photo, what strikes me is the relative sophistication my composition. Yet, for years this image sat dormant because of its poor technical qualities. I over processed the film, leading to coarse grain and excessive contrast.
I asked Kris why my early photos benefit from great composition despite their poor technical quality. She suggested that this was because I was making photo for joy of the subject without too much concern for technique.
Over the years my overall techique improved, but as my technical qualities were refined my compositions grew less innovative. Eventually my improved techniques resulted in superior images, but I still look back at my early efforts trying to see what I saw.
Here’s a photo from my black & white archives that I’d completely dismissed. I’d exposed it at Huntington, Massachusetts in March 1985.
There were a few of problems with this image that irked me.
The first was cosmic. Moments before I release the shutter, a cloud coverd the front of the train. That sort of thing used to drive me nuts.
The second was strategic. I’d released the shutter a little earlier than I’d like, leaving the train just a bit distant. I didn’t have a motor drive in those days, and typically would wait for the decisive moment to take my photo.
The third was a chronic failing from my Leica 3 days. I tended to photograph slightly off level, leaving most of my photos annoyingly tilted.
All of these flaws are now easily overcome using Adobe Lightroom.
I altered the exposure and contrast to correct for the obscured sun, while bringing in sky detail partially lost to over exposure. I cropped the photo to minimize the foreground, and this pleasantly altered the composition to feature the code lines to the right of the locomotives and milepost 119 on the left. Lastly, I leveled the image, a task that take now about 2 seconds.
Looking at this photo now, I find that I’m very pleased with it. It has aged very well. The minor flaws don’t bother me, since these were easily corrected, while the overall subject fascinates me. It is the time machine I needed today.
Another choice image from my recently scanned roll of Ilford FP4 exposed in Spring 1985.
I made this view with a 50mm lens looking timetable west at the west end of Conrail’s old Boston & Albany yard in Palmer, Massachusetts. I had driven in behind Howlett’s Lumber to photograph a Sperry rail defect detection car that was stored near the B&A freight house.
Just about everything in this scene has changed. The freight house was demolished in Janaury 1989. The large building at right beyond burned down some years later. The code lines were removed after the B&A was re-signaled in 1986-1987.
I’ve posted two versions of this photo. The top is my unaltered and uncorrected scan. The bottom reflects a series of nominal adjustments using Adobe Lightroom.
For many years, I recorded my photographic adventures with detailed note pages that were organized by date and included: time, location and train information, exposure and camera information, and sometimes interesting or noteworthy details of operations.
On October 20, 1985 (36 years ago today) I was working with my father’s Rolleiflex Model T in tandem with my Leica 3A, when I pictured Conrail’s NHSE (Cedar Hill Yard, New Haven, Connecticut to Selkirk Yard, New York) ascending the old Boston & Albany grade at milepost 126.4 in Chester, Massachusetts.
At that time the New Haven trains still routinely carried cabooses.
Displayed here are the black & white photo exposed with the Rollei with 645-size insert (note notches for ‘Super Slide’ format). I was using Kodak Verichrome Pan 120-size film that I’d processed in D-76 developer.
These are among the photos that I plan to show at my talk to the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts on Thursday evening in Malden.
Here’s another frame from a roll of 35mm Plus X exposed on a summer 1989 trip to the old Pennsylvania Railroad with my old pal TSH.
Until today, this picture has not seen the light of day.
I processed the film 32 years ago in Kodak D76, sleeved the negatives, and made a select few prints, of which this image was not one of them.
It was a dull day, and I was working with a tight budget, where I saved my Kodachrome for the best shots. What seemed a bit pedestrian in 1989, really captures my attention now.
I like the photo today because it frames the desceding train in the steam-era PRR signal bridges, features the famous MG Tower (recently demolished by Norfolk Southern), and captures the drama of a heavy train bathed in brake shoe smoke. It is an image from another era, now gone.
The old Pennsylvania Railroad Middle Division is a favorite stretch of railroad.
I first visited this location on the heavily traveled east-west trunk route back in 1988 with my old pal TSH.
In November 2001, Mike Gardner and I were on a week-long photograph blitz of Pennsylvania and paused a Mifflin for a few hours to make photos of the action.
I exposed this Fujichrome color slide using my Contax G2 rangefinder fitted with a 28mm Zeiss Biogon lens. The Zeiss lens was extremely sharp from corner to corner while offering exceptional color rendition.
These twin semaphores were located near milepost 317 on Conrail’s former Erie Railroad in the Canisteo River Valley east of Hornell, New York.
Although visible from the Canisteo River Road, to reach them required a short walk across a farmer’s field.
The difficulty of capturing this pair of signals with a train was the tight angle on a tangent during normal operations.
My solution to this visual problem was to photograph the signals with a train moving against the current of traffic.
The challenge was finding a train running ‘wrong main’ at the right time of day.
In January 1988, I had my opportunity. A Conrail double-stack had been given a Form-D to run against the current of traffic on the No. 1 track from Hornell to Gang Mills. I raced ahead in time to jog through the field and set up east of the signals.
Working with my Leica M2 and my dad’s 135mm Elmarit lens, I made a series of Kodachrome slides. This image was first the in the sequence and nicely shows the signals and stacks in the scenic valley.
In August 1982, Bob Buck of Tucker’s Hobbies in Warren, Massachusetts brought Doug Moore, John Conn and me on a memorable Boston & Albany West End tour.
We started at Westfield and worked our way across the railroad, making it all the way to Amtrak’s Albany-Rensselaer station.
It was my first experience photographing Washington Hill—B&A’s big grade over the Berkshires.
We caught several Conrail freights, including one that we chased from Pittsfield east up toward Dalton.
Earlier in the trip, Bob drove us in his green Ford van along the right of way of the third track to Middlefield Station. When we reached milepost 129, we inspected one of the remaining 1830s-era stone arch bridges.
Here I made this view looking eastbound to show the GRS search light signal. Among the quirks of New York Central-era signaling was displaying a staggered ‘green over green’ for ‘clear’ on intermediate automatic block signals in graded territory. ABS Signals on the B&A Westend grades were continuously lit, while those on the East End tended to be approached lit.
You can see Bob at the wheel of his van.
I wasn’t good a picking my exposures and this frame of Kodachrome 64 was a full stop underexposed (too dark). For years this image was in my ‘3rds file’ (junk), but with modern scanning technology and Adobe Lightroom, I was able to make the image presentable again.
This Kodachrome slide has languished in the darkness for 32 years.
I’d followed a westward empty Conrail coal train through New York’s Canisteo Valley on the evening of April 7, 1989.
It had been an overcast day with laden clouds. Yet traffic had been heavy on Conrail’s former Erie Railroad lines in western New York.
At the time Conrail was routing coal empties west from Hornell via the old Erie main line that went through Alfred and Andover, then operated as the Meadville Line.
West of Hornell this route ascended a steep grade that brought heavy trains to a crawl.
In the fading light of that April evening, I exposed this Kodachrome 25 slide along Canacadea Creek. If I recall correctly, my shutter speed was about 1/30th of a second.
Why such a slow film?
That is what I had in my Leica M, and so I made do.
Here are two versions of the scanned image. The first is scaled but unmodified. The second is a heavily modified image to make the most of the extremes of Kodachrome’s capturing ability while adding drama to the scene.
Today’s photo is in honor of my late-friend, Robert A. Buck of Warren, Massachusetts, who would have turned 91 today (October 12, 2020).
In the 1940s, Bob Buck made priceless photos of New York Central’s Boston & Albany around Warren, and elsewhere across the railroad. For most of his life he ran Tucker’s Hardware, later Tucker’s Hobbies in Warren, which was a gathering point for those interested in railroads.
On December 6, 1992, I exposed this photo of an eastward Conrail freight, probably SEPW (Selkirk to Providence & Worcester RR) climbing through Warren behind six General Electric B23-7s.
I had Kodachrome 25 film loaded in my Nikon F3T and I used a 35mm PC (Perspective Control) lens, all neatly leveled out on a Bogen 3021 tripod with ball head.
The pronounced chugging of multiple FDL diesel engines powering these locomotives as they ascended the grade through Warren would have announced the approach of the freight several minutes before the headlight appeared west of the old Warren Station.
The making of this image would have coincided with one of my countless visits to Tucker’s Hobbies in the 1980s and 1990s.
On November 24, 1998, photographer Mike Gardner and I were wrapping our photography for the day, having spent it following the old Erie Railroad mainline in New York state. A railroad then operated as part of Conrail’s Southern Tier District.
Just after sunset, we were visiting the old bridge (since removed) over the east end of the Gang Mills Yard (near Corning, New York). A bit of evening ‘drop under’ sun had tickled the clouds pink, when a headlight appeared to the west.
Working with my Nikon N90S with 80-200mm lens, I made a sequence of photos on Kodachrome 200 of the passing Conrail piggyback train. This film offered speed, but it was difficult to work with. Not only was K200 grainy, but it had a fairly narrow expose latitude as compared with either Fuji Sensia or Kodachrome 25.
At the time I made the slide, I’d exposed for the sky, aiming to retain the texture and color, but as a result the tracks and train were a bit under exposed. Last night, I made a multiple pass scan from a slide in the sequence. Then in post processing, I lightened the foreground, while adjusting color and contrast for a more pleasing image, yet one that hopefully looks like it was exposed on Earth, and not on Mars.
Below are two comparisons. The first is the unadjusted scan (scaled for internet), the second is my adjusted scan.
In July 1983, ,Bob Buck and I were attending a weekly summer gathering of the West Springfield Train Watchers, a semi-formal group consisting of mostly retired railroaders who assembled with permission of the railroad at the west end of Conrail’s West Springfield, Massachusetts yard.
I say ‘semi-formal’ because member Norvel Parker printed cards for all the members. Somewhere I still have mine.
Toward the end of the evening, I made this photo with my Leica 3A of a westward freight making a pick-up.
In later years, I photographed some of the members, which was probably far more valuable as a record, than making photos of the trains.
On the afternoon of September 12, 1986, I exposed this photograph of a westward Conrail double-stack container train on the former New York Central Waterlevel Route passing the Amtrak Station at Rochester, New York.
The old New York Central era tower was still standing, and the station platforms, complete with the old ‘Rochester’ signs dated from the New York Central era.
In the lead was a twenty-year old former New York Central GP40, and I was just short of my twentieth birthday.
Yet, this double stack train was unlike anything ever seen on the old New York Central. Among the big changes imposed under Conrail was a clearance improvement program that allowed for much taller trains.
My book Conrail and its Predecessors is available from the Kalmbach Hobby Store.
In addition to my own Conrail photos, this features the work of a dozen talented photographers.
I exposed the cover photo at Becket, Massachusetts in October 1997, using a Nikon N90S with f2.8 80-200mm lens and Fujichrome Velvia 50 color slide film.
This was on an epic Conrail adventure with Mike Gardner, during which in one day we caught the Ringing Brothers Circus train, a Conrail Office Car Special with E8s, the track geometry train and six freights led by clean EMD SD80MACs.
On May 14, 1985, I photographed this Conrail GP10 with a former Pennsylvania Railroad caboose working as a local freight toward its interchanged with Pioneer Valley Railroad at Westfield, Massachusetts.
The location is just west of milepost 107 in Westfield. At the right is my father’s 1978 Ford Grenada, which was the car I drove a lot before getting my own set of wheels in 1986.
At the time of this photograph, Conrail rarely assigned GP10s to its New England Division locals, which makes this a relatively unusual photo in my collection.
My new book Conrail and its Predecessors published by Kalmbach Books will be available soon!
In the mid-1980s, my friends and I would convene at Washington Summit on Conrail’s former Boston & Albany mainline.
Located in the Berkshires, several miles timetable east of the old station at Hinsdale, the summit offered a good view in both directions and a pleasant, quiet place to wait for trains.
On this May 1985 afternoon, the chugging of an eastward freight could be heard for several miles before it came into view. I opted to frame the train with the Top of the B&A sign.
This sign was replaced in the 1990s; Conrail was divided by CSX and Norfolk Southern in 1999; the old Bullards Road over bridge (seen in the distance) was removed in 2003; and the trees have grown much taller. So there’s not much left of this scene today, although the tracks are still there.
Exposed on black & white film using a Leica 3A with Canon f1.8 50mm lens.
Just imagine the roar! Conrail C30-7 6600 leads three former Erie-Lackawanna 20-cylinder EMDs!
So far as I can remember, this was the only time I caught an SDP45 (second unit) hard at work on the Boston Line.
I made these views of an uphill BAL (Ballast train) at Middlefield, Massachusetts on a day’s photography with my old pal TSH on a beautiful spring evening in June 1984. I was a week away from my high-school graduation.
My only regret is that I didn’t have better photography skills and better equipment.