Tag Archives: Donner Pass

Classic Chrome-Screen Saver: SP Tunnel Motor on Donner Pass.


Yes, another favorite from my Screen Saver file:

So where was I 28 years ago? Up on California’s Donner Pass!

I’d hiked up Eagle Lakes Road to Shed 10 where I made this view of Southern Pacific SD40T-2 tunnel motor 8258working east on a rear-end helper set.

The roar was amazing! The clear cool mountain air kept me awake.

Exposed on Kodachrome 25 with my old Nikon F3T and 35mm Perspective Control lens.

This is one of hundreds of Kodachrome slides I exposed on Donner between 1989 and 1997.

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Cover Photo: Southern Pacific on Donner Pass in 1991.

I exposed this Kodachrome 25 slide at the west portal of Tunnel 41 in a heavy snow squall. Lighting was low, so I used my f1.8 105mm Nikkor telephoto at its maximum aperture.

Southern Pacific bought the photo from me and in the early 1990s used a cropped version on the cover of the company magazine (the Southern Pacific Bulletin).

Unfortunately the original image received rough treatment during pre-press and was returned to me with scratches and dust imbedded in the emulsion.

A westward SP freight exits the wooden snowsheds protecting the west portal of tunnel 41 ‘The Big Hole’ on California’s Donner Pass.

Working with Lightroom, I’ve partially restored the image digitally.

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Southern Pacific on Donner Pass.

Today, May 10, 2018 represents the 149thanniversary of the completion of America’s first Transcontinental railroad.

To commemorate the day, I’m posting a Kodachrome view that I made of a Southern Pacific freight on Donner Pass in 1993.

SP’s former Central Pacific route over Donner was a key portion of the original Transcontinental Line.

In the 1990s, I made hundreds of Kodachrome views of the Donner Pass crossing.

An SP westward freight ascends the east slope of Donner Pass near Shed 47 above Donner Lake west of Truckee, California. Kodachrome 25 slide.

 

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Sunset at Yuba Pass—Frame 37.

On the evening of February 9, 1994, I exposed the final frame on 36 exposure roll of a Southern Pacific eastward freight ascending Donner Pass at Yuba Pass, California near where I-80 crosses the railroad.

I used an old Nikkormat FTN for this view and exposed the film with the aid of a Sekonic Studio Deluxe handheld photocell light meter.

This photo demonstrates two things. Firstly the enormous dynamic range of Fujichrome slide film. Secondly, my ability to get the most out of each roll.

At the time I had very little money and yet spent what little I had on film and fuel for my car. I would routinely save the final frame of a roll for something special.

Frame 37 of a 36 exposure roll of Fujichrome 100.

About this time I submitted a page of 20 35mm color slides to the well-known editor of a major railroad magazine, all frame number 37 and 38. I did this to check his attention to detail to see what he’d say.

Years later when I met him face to face, I’d mentioned this effort to him, and he admitted that he’d never even noticed.

You do know that I like to hide things in plain sight? Right? It always astounds me when no one seems to notice. (Rest easy, there’s nothing to see here except a California sunset.)

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Southern Pacific Coal Train Descends Donner Pass—July 1992.

On July 19, 1992, Southern Pacific's SNTA-C descends the west slope of Donner Pass near Midas, California.
On July 19, 1992, Southern Pacific’s SNTA-C descends the west slope of Donner Pass near Midas, California.

I exposed this trailing view of Southern Pacific’s SNTA-C (Skyline Mine, Utah to Trona, California—coal) on its descent of Donner Pass using my Nikon F3T with a Nikkor 200mm lens.

Kodachrome 25 was my film of choice. It performed very well under bright California skies.

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Classic Black & White: July Morning in Cold Stream Canyon on Donner Pass.

 

Walking in Steinheimer’s footprints.

On July 10, 1993, I spent the day on Donner Pass, focusing my morning efforts in the famous Coldstream Canyon west of Truckee, California where Southern Pacific’s former Central Pacific line winds nearly three miles up the canyon, turns on a tight horseshoe curve at Stanford Flat to continue its ascent on the far side.

The area is rich in history. Yet, it can be a challenging place to capture in photographs.

Having thoroughly explored this area on foot on earlier visits, I’d located this angle at Andover that shows SP’s double track line on two levels. The tracks in the photograph are less than a half mile apart as the crow flies, but about five miles distant on the timetable.

Helpers had gone downgrade a while earlier and met a westward GJWS-Q (Grand Junction to Warm Springs ‘Quality’ manifest, ie a carload train) at Truckee.

In this view the freight is in run-8 (maximum throttle) roaring up the canyon. More than ten minutes would pass before it reached the upper level.

I exposed this photograph on Kodak T-Max 400 black & white film using a Nikon F3 with Nikkor zoom lens fitted with a yellow filter.

Key to the success of the image was shading the front element from the sun with my notebook to minimize flare.

Another subtle element is SP’s twin headlight arrangement on the leading SD40T-2: this had been a trademark of SP’s diesels, but by the mid-1990s very few locomotives still carried both headlights and it was getting relatively rare to find one leading.

SP GJWSQ ascends Cold Stream Canyon on the morning of July 10, 1993.
SP GJWSQ ascends Cold Stream Canyon on the morning of July 10, 1993.

This is one of my favorite black & white photos that I exposed on Donner Pass, and reminds me of the work of the late Richard Steinheimer who had been photographing in this canyon decades before I made my exploration.

Click here for a map link (I hope this works)

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Forty Five Minute Exposure at Old Gorge on Kodachrome 25

Forty Five Minute Exposure at Old Gorge on Kodachrome 25

Back in the day, I’d attempt to make long exposures on Kodachrome 25. I was facing a nearly insurmountable wall of diminishing returns, because of this film’s reciprocity curve it suffered very poor low-light sensitivity. In extremely low light (when minimum exposure times were calculated to be longer than about 5 minutes), K25’s effective ISO rating approached zero.

SP_at_Gorge_105mm_45min_exposure_KM_Brian Solomon 234642

This view was made on the west slope of Donner Pass using my Nikon F3T fitted with an f1.8 105mm lens (opened to f1.8) and firmly mounted on a Bogen 3021 tripod. I opened the shutter to allow for the passing of westward SP freight. The head-end headlights and oscillating lights helped illuminate the setting, while the light streaks were largely the result of the helper at the back.

At the left, you can see the lights of Sacramento, California, more than 50 miles away and some 2,000 feet lower. What’s missing is the tremendous sense of elevation and the vast depth of the American River Canyon at the left. Here we have empty black space.

The scene was cosmic. The sound show was sublime. My slide? Not so great. In a situation like this one, Provia 100F would have performed much better, but it didn’t exist then. Today’s Digital cameras would be vastly superior. Compare this view, to the images I made at State Line Tunnel back in February.

See: State Line Tunnel by the Light of the Moon.(<—This is a link, click it to see great night photos!)

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American River Canyon in October Snow.

Union Pacific on Donner Pass; Standing in Steinheimer’s Footsteps.

Among my favorite locations in California is the spectacular overlook at ‘American’ or ‘Old Gorge’ (if you have a really old time-table) located on the former Southern Pacific crossing of Donner Pass east of Alta.

Here the railroad crawls out on ledge high above the waters of the American River. It’s a on sustained 2.2 percent grade, so eastward trains are in full throttle which makes for sublime sound show.

I was in position on an overcast afternoon, October 30, 2003. The American River Canyon was filled with a thick fog. To the west I could hear traditional EMD 16-645E3 diesels roaring in Run-8. That meant SD40-2s. Real locomotives.

Exposed on Kodak Tri-X with I processed by hand in San Francisco. After initial processing I toned the negatives in a selenium solution mix 1:9 with water for 9 minutes, 1 minute agitation (in a well-ventilated area).
Exposed on Kodak Tri-X which I processed by hand in San Francisco. After initial processing I toned the negatives in a selenium solution mix 1:9 with water for 9 minutes, 1 minute agitation (in a well-ventilated area).

As the train approached, the atmospheric pressure changed and the fog rose out of the canyon and enveloped me. Although it was only the day before Halloween, all of sudden it began snowing furiously. Visibility dropped to nil, and the roar of the eastward freight grew intense.

Working with my Rolleiflex Model T loaded with Kodak Tri-X, I exposed a series of images. It was a memorable moment on Donner.

 

Union Pacific SD40-2s emerge from the fog and snow at ‘American’ on their ascent of Donner Pass.
Union Pacific SD40-2s emerge from the fog and snow at ‘American’ on their ascent of Donner Pass.

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Tomorrow: Irish Narrow Gauge Sunset.

 

Southern Pacific at Roseville, December 1989.

Tunnel Motor and a Donut Shop.

Trains crossing vast western vistas make for compelling images, yet, back in 1989 I also made an effort to document western railroads in ordinary urban environments.

in December 1989, this Southern Pacific eastward freight was easing up to the east end of Roseville Yard, preparing to depart for its run over Donner Pass. Its EMD diesels with 20-cylinder 645E3 engines pulsed their dynamic sounds of power.

Southern Pacific 8233 at Roseville, California. Exposed on Kodachrome 25 with a Leica M2 with f2.0 50mm lens.
Southern Pacific 8233 at Roseville, California. Exposed on Kodachrome 25 with a Leica M2 with f2.0 50mm lens.

I framed it up in the trees and featured a non-descript donut shop that was part of the scene. Also, I placed my car in the photo. Soon, I was rolling east on I-80, thinking about where to catch the freight on the grade.

Exposed on Kodachrome 25 with a Leica M2 with f2.0 50mm lens.

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Southern Pacific at Emigrant Gap—Daily Post

Appearances can Deceive.

Exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film using a Leica M2 fitted with a Leitz 135mm Elmar.
Exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film using a Leica M2 fitted with a Leitz 135mm Elmar.

At first glance this might look like a train heading downgrade toward the camera. In fact it is an image of rear-end helpers working the back of a eastward freight ascending Donner Pass.

In December 1989, I was familiarizing myself with SP operations on Donner Pass. I had just recently moved to Roseville, California and this made for a good base of operations to explore ‘The Hill’.

I’d been following this eastward freight. Although it was December, California was in a drought and there was very little snow in the Sierra.

I parked at the rest area off the westward lanes of Interstate 80 and walked down to the snow-shed that protected Switch 9—located east of Emigrant Gap.

I framed this trailing view to take in I-80 as well as the railroad.

How can you tell this the locomotives are trailing? There are three clues: SP normally assigned more than two locomotives to the head-end of trains on Donner Pass. The train is working the normal eastward main (although this was CTC territory, so in theory train could have used either track). For me the real tip off is the headlight, which has been dimmed, a standard practice for helpers.

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20th Anniversary Post

Amtrak’s California Zephyr on Donner Pass on this Day 1994.

Just a few minutes ago I was scanning some slides when I noticed that this image was exposed exactly 20 years ago—February 19, 1994.

Amtrak's California Zephyr ascends Donner Pass near shed 47 on February 19, 1994. Exposed on Fujichrome, scanned with a Epson V600 scanner on February 19, 2014.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr ascends Donner Pass near shed 47 on February 19, 1994. Exposed on Fujichrome, scanned with a Epson V600 scanner on February 19, 2014.

I was driving west on I-80, and pulled into the rest area west of Truckee, California opposite Shed 47 on Donner’s east slope.

I made this photograph on Fujichrome using my Nikormatt FT3 with a Tokina 400mm lens. While not my typical camera and lens combination, it did the job for this photo. This image appeared in TRAINS Magazine a while back.

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DAILY POST: Looking Back at Looking Ahead

 Predicting Change to Plan Photographic Strategy.

In late 1992, I recognized that Southern Pacific and its lightly used Modoc line were not long for the world. I knew then that I'd better act and get out there to make photographs before the Modoc went the way of Milwaukee Road's fabled Pacific Extension. I'm sorry to report, that I was correct. The tracks here at Crest, pictured in January 1993 were abandoned by Union Pacific after it took over SP.
In late 1992, I recognized that Southern Pacific and its lightly used Modoc line were not long for the world. I knew then that I’d better act and get out there to make photographs before the Modoc went the way of Milwaukee Road’s fabled Pacific Extension. I’m sorry to report, that I was correct. The tracks here at Crest, pictured in January 1993 were abandoned by Union Pacific after it took over SP.

When I was a kid, change puzzled me. I’d look back over my father’s photographs and collection of timetables and books and wonder what had happened to the trains and railroads he’d seen and experienced.

But as a young child, I’d assumed that all change was in the past. Certainly things had been different. New York Central had become Penn-Central, and Penn-Central had become Conrail. But I naively assumed that everything else would remain constant!

Then I began to notice change myself: My favorite GG1 electrics were replaced by modern AEM7s and E60s. Those old Penn-Central black diesels were become ever more scarce. Boston’s PCC cars had become fewer and fewer.

By the late-1980s, I’d witnessed enough changes to recognize that documenting the railroad required careful attention to detail, and it was important to anticipate change before it begins.

Too often, railroad photographers wait until change is already underway before they act to make photographs. Sadly, sometimes they wait too long and miss the best opportunities to photograph.

With this in mind, in the 1990s, annually I drafted lists from which to work. It’s one thing to ponder photographing time-worthy subjects; its better to have a clear and prioritized strategy!

In 1993, I was remarkably organized: I’ve included a portion of that year’s ‘photo projects’ list. If you read through this carefully, you’ll see there’s considerable foresight in my approach. I was doing my best to predict the future and act upon that knowledge.

Below are pages from that list:

I drafted this list in late December 1992. I was doing my best to predict change and plan my strategy to photograph railways before they were affected by change. Within a few years of this list, most of my predictions proved true, even if my efforts at putting dates on them  missed by a year or two. Those errors favored my photography and the early start gave me a time advantage. There's more than one lesson here.
I originally drafted this list in late December 1992 (up-dated to Jan 3, 1993). I was doing my best to predict change and plan my strategy to photograph railways before they were affected by change. Within a few years of this list, most of my predictions proved true, even if my efforts at putting dates on them missed by a year or two. Those errors favored my photography and they gave me a time advantage. There’s more than one lesson here.

Page 1 of my 1993 list. This is a scan of my actual list. It has survived along with my notes from 1993. Luckily I that the time and motivational energies (if not the adequate financial resources), to act on most of the subjects listed.
Page 2 of my 1993 list. These are a scans of my actual list. The pages survived the years along with my notes from 1993. Luckily, I had the time and motivational energies (if not the adequate financial resources), to act on most of the subjects listed.

I’m really glad I made these lists! We can look back today, 21 years after I wrote this list, and see that many of the subjects I hoped to document have indeed vanished or changed. The pen-marked ‘ticks’ indicated that I’d made an attempt at the item.

How did I draft this list? Did I have a crystal ball? How did I know in 1993 that SP was soon to vanish? Why did I give SP’s Modoc line high priority? What caused me to anticipate changes to Canadian Pacific east of Sherbrooke? Pay special attention to my notes and comments for the clues. In some cased my anticipated dates were premature, but my vision was pretty accurate (I’m sorry to report.)

What is on your list for 2014?

Change is on-going. Think! What can you photograph now that will soon change unrecognizably? Remember, it is the common everyday subjects that are too often ignored until it’s too late to make photographs. Don’t wait until the last minute. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the rail. Anticipate, plan and then act.

Any suggestions? I’m all eyes and ears.

Canadian National electrics at Val Royal, Montreal on Jan 11, 1993. Time was running out for these ancient machines. Tom Carver and I made special trip to photograph them despite exceptionally frosty conditions. Exposed on Fujichrome Velvia 50 slide film using a Nikon F3T.
Canadian National electrics at Val Royal, Montreal on Jan 11, 1993. Time was running out for these ancient machines. Tom Carver and I made special trip to photograph them despite exceptionally frosty conditions. Exposed on Fujichrome Velvia 50 slide film using a Nikon F3T.

Almost a month to the day after I photographed the electrics in Montreal, I was knee deep in snow on the far side of the continent to catch the first run of SP's rotary plows on Donner Pass in eight years. They worked for three days in February 1993. I'd anticipated their operation in my 1993 list, drafted two months earlier. Exposed with a Nikon F3T on Fujichrome 100 slide film.
A month  after I photographed the electrics in Montreal, I was knee-deep in snow on the far side of the continent to catch the first run of SP’s rotary plows on Donner Pass in eight years. They worked for three days in February 1993. I’d anticipated their operation in my 1993 list, drafted two months earlier. Exposed with a Nikon F3T on Fujichrome 100 slide film.

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DAILY POST: Sculpting with Light and Shadow.

Southern Pacific Truckee River Canyon Silhouette.

During the first half of 1994 I spent a lot of time photographing Southern Pacific on Donner Pass. I was especially interested in making images of hard to reach or rarely photographed locations.

June 21st is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and provides unique lighting opportunities. On this long day, I’d hoped to make some unusual images in the deeper reaches of the Truckee River Canyon.

At the time I had good access to train information, and I knew SP had a westward DVOAF (Denver-Oakland Forwarder) heading up ‘The Hill’ (as SP’s Donner Pass crossing is known, ironically).

Rather than catch this at one of many easy to reach locations off Interstate 80, I decided to hike west of Floriston, California toward old Iceland—where SP’s grade separated mainline came back together. My intention was to photograph the Harriman-era truss bridge with the train in evening sunlight.

Southern Pacific Donner Pass
Southern Pacific’s DVOAF Denver-Oakland Forwarder) works west in the Truckee River Canyon near Iceland at 6:00pm on June 21, 1994. Exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film using a Nikon F3T with f4 200mm lens. Image was scanned full-frame (with edges showing) using an Epson V600 flatbed scanner. One of the benefits of Kodachrome was the ability to expose images like one this with deep inky black shadows. In comparison, other media tend to suffer from bland shadow definition.

As was often the case with SP, my desired westward freight ‘fell down’ (it was delayed) and didn’t reach my location in time. I stayed in place despite this set back. I was rewarded with a dramatic sequence of images, culminating with this silhouette.

The front of the locomotive has plunged into deep shadow, yet a shaft of sunlight has illuminated the engineer. It stands out among my hundreds of Donner Pass images, and is one of my favorite. I just can’t believe its been nearly 20 years since I exposed it!

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DAILY POST: Southern Pacific Yuba Pass, California 1992

 

Westward Freight Descends Donner Pass.

Southern Pacific on Donner Pass.
A westward Southern Pacific freight led by SD45 7422 negotiates the curves on the west slope of California’s Donner Pass at the railroad location known on the timetable as Yuba Pass (and on Interstate-80 as ‘Yuba Gap’). This was exposed on a Kodachrome 25 slide film at 4:25 pm October 4, 1992.

On October 4, 1992, Brian Jennison and I gave a Donner Pass tour to a pair of Union Pacific officials visiting from Omaha.

We started the morning early and drove to Andover on fire roads to witness a westward freight climbing through the curves in Cold Stream Canyon west of Truckee. Later we went up to Troy on the west slope and made an inspection of the Cascade Bridges.

Southern Pacific was busy that day. My notes indicate that we photographed nine trains, including Amtrak 5 and 6 (California Zephyrs).

At 3:40pm we caught this westward freight near Donner Summit at the snow sheds in Norden, California, then followed it west to Yuba Pass.

I climbed to the top of a hill over looking the line and exposed a sequence of Kodachrome slides with my Nikon F3T fitted with a f4.0 200mm lens mounted on a Bogan 3021 tripod. This slide was exposed at f4.5 1/250th of  a second. (I bracketed up and down 1/3 stops to insure I made an optimally exposed slide).

Check out earlier Southern Pacific posts: Donner Pass Part 1Southern Pacific SD45 at Old Gorge on Donner Pass, July 1990Southern Pacific’s Roseville Yard, February 1990, and Southern Pacific SD45s on Kodachrome.

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Southern Pacific SD45 at Old Gorge on Donner Pass, July 1990.

Perspective Control Technique.

I spent a lot of time exploring Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass in 1990. Among my favorite locations was ‘Old Gorge’, sometimes referred to as ‘American,’ where SP’s line rides briefly on an open shelf some 2,000 feet above the American River.

Southern Pacific on Donner Pass
Southern Pacific SD45 7418 is downgrade on Donner Pass between Midas and Towle, California at the American River overlook in July 1990. Exposed on Kodachrome 25 with a Nikon F3T and 35mm PC ‘Shift’ lens.

This offers a stunning view of the American River Canyon, but can be a pretty challenging place to effectively portray a train on film.

On this day in July 1990, I’d been following a westward SP freight downgrade, and driven as close to my location as was practical, and then walked to this ledge overlooking the line.

The classic whine of dynamic brakes preceded the train by several minutes. I made several exposures as the train came into view.

For this image I use my recently acquired Nikon F3T with 35mm perspective control lens. (See recent  posts for detail on this equipment: Santa Fe at West Pittsburg, California, November 1990; Metro-North FL9 at Waterbury, Connecticut, November 16, 1992).

In this situation, I used the camera and lens handheld, and made a slight adjustment to the shifting element front element. Instead of aiming the camera down toward the front of the locomotive, as I would with a conventional 35mm lens, I aimed toward to the far rim of the canyon, while lowering the front element downward to take in the tracks.

As the train passed, I panned the nose of the leading SD45, exposing this frame when it was roughly parallel with the film plane.

Since I didn’t have the camera completely level there is still a bit of line convergence, yet the overall view helps put the magnitude of the canyon in perspective with the train without the locomotive appearing too small or seriously distorted.

Southern Pacific on Donner Pass

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Southern Pacific on Donner Pass, June 1990.

 

Working with Harsh Light in the California Sierra.

On the advice of J.D. Schmid, in June 1990,  I’d bought my first single lens reflex; a Nikon F3T (which I still use, occasionally). Initially, I owned just two lenses: a 35mm PC (perspective control—tilt/shift) and a second-hand Nikkon f4.0 200mm telephoto.

For most of my photography, I was still working with my Leica M2, and so the Nikon was just a new toy.

Living in Roseville, California near the Southern Pacific yard, gave me ample opportunity to explore and photograph SP operations. My favorite subject was Donner Pass, and most weekends would find me wandering around at high elevations seeking angles on the railroad.

Southern Pacific on Donner Pass.
A Southern Pacific freight descends Donner Pass between Crystal Lake and Yuba Pass, California in June 1990. Exposed with a Nikon F3T with 200mm lens on Kodachrome 25 slide film. As with other of my backlit images, the secret is keeping the sun from falling on the front element.

The Sierra can be a challenging place to make railroad photos. On this morning, I was between Yuba Pass and Crystal Lake on the west slope of Donner. I’d photographed this SP westward freight descending the mountain using the new F3T and 200mm lens on Kodachrome 25.

Despite photographic conventions, I was positioned on the dark side of the line, and aimed into the sun, while looking cross-light the train. The glinty back-lit rocks help silhouette the locomotives. Although the time of day resulted in harsh contrast and a stark scene, I like the result. It captures the spirit of raw mountain railroading that for me was SP on Donner.

This is a place where the tracks are cut into a rock shelf and require lots of power to get trains over the spine of the Sierra Range. Back lighting and telephoto compression shows the heat of from the dynamic brakes rolling off the tops of SP’s ‘Tunnel Motors’ (locomotives specifically built to endure the rigors of Donner). In the distance is a hint of one of SP’s wide signal bridges, necessary for winter operations.

 

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Southern Pacific’s Roseville Yard, February 1990.

 

SP SD7s work the East-end of Roseville Yard.

Southern Pacific Roseville Yard.
SP SD7s work Roseville Yard in February 1990. Exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film with a Leica M2 fitted with a Leitz f2.8 90mm Elmarit. Metered manually using a Sekonic Studio Deluxe handheld photocell light meter.

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.

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Donner Pass Part 2

Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Amtrak number 5 in the Truckee River Canyon near Boca Dam.
Amtrak number 5 in the Truckee River Canyon near Boca Dam.

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.

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Donner Pass Part 1

SP’s Sierra Crossing.

 

Shortly after sunrise on June 7 1992, I made this silhouette of Denver & Rio Grande Western SD45 5318 leading SP’s westward 1UPOAM (Union Pacific to Oakland manifest) at Soda Springs, California. Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm lens and Kodachrome 25 slide film.
Shortly after sunrise on June 7 1992, I made this silhouette of Denver & Rio Grande Western SD45 5318 leading SP’s westward 1UPOAM (Union Pacific to Oakland manifest) at Soda Springs, California. Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm lens and Kodachrome 25 slide film.

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 . . .

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