In the early 1990s, Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass was the domain of EMD Tunnel Motors—distinctive six-motor locomotives specifically configured for the route to better accommodate the difficulties operating in tunnels and snow-sheds at high altitudes.
So finding matched sets of modern General Electric four-motor diesels (such as those pictured here) leading freights proved to be highly unusual in the greater scheme of daily operations.
I made this photo in June 1992 at Yuba Pass. Although it has appeared in several places, including Pacific Rail News, I thought it was timely to present it on Tracking the Light. Friday, May 10, 2019 will be the 150th anniversary of the completion of America’s ‘First Transcontinental Railroad’ of which the original Donner Pass crossing was a key component.
This image was exposed on Kodachrome 25 using a Nikon F3T with 35mm PC lens. To compensate for the inky shadows, I made a multi-pass scan using a Nikon Super Coolscan5000 and then imported the hi-res TIF file into Lightroom for adjustment. What you see here are both the unaltered scan and the adjusted versions, both scaled as Jpgs for internet presentation.
In continuing the celebration of the 150 anniversary of completion of America’s First Transcontinental, I present this view of a ‘Kodachrome’ painted Southern Pacific ‘Tunnel Motor’ on Donner Pass.
In the mid-1980s, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe anticipated merger and so painted their respective locomotives in a bright yellow and red merger livery, similar to those colors once used on the familiar Kodak Kodachrome film boxes.
A few locomotives were lettered for the proposed new railroad, SPSF. Executives felt certain the merger would be approved.
The Interstate Commerce Commission wasn’t impressed and refused the merger, twice, so ‘SPSF’ came to mean ‘shouldn’t paint so fast.’
I made this view of an eastward SP train at milepost 140 near Colfax, California on the ascent of Donner Pass on February 9, 1990, using a Leica M2 and, yes, Kodachrome film!
It was one of the last trains I photographed with an SP locomotive in the lead with full-lighting package (headlight, oscillating headlight, red oscillating light and class lights) and dressed in the Kodachrome scheme. By 1990, both of these features were on the wane.
In the spirit of the first Transcontinental 150thanniversary celebrations, I’m posting these views that I made at Newcastle, California on an exploratory trip over Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass in November 1989.
I was perched atop the tunnel, railroad-east of where the line crosses Interstate-80 on its ascent from Roseville Yard to Donner Summit. The roar of EMD 645 diesels made for a great sound show as the train disappeared into the tunnel below me.
Although not my most memorable photos on Donner, these were among the very first that I made. Thousands more followed over the years.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tracking the Light posts new material every morning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .