Piermont, New York was the Erie Railroad’s original eastern terminus. This Hudson River port was so-designated because the railroad was intended to operate within the State of New York. The railroad developed a large pier here for transshipping goods and people via the Hudson to New York City.
The other day my brother Sean and I explored Piermont and it’s Pier. Although there’s very little evidence left of the Erie itself, I was curious to see this once important place. This is part of my on-going research and photography of the old Erie Railroad.
These images were exposed digitally using my FujiFilm XT1. However, I also exposed a few 35mm color slides that will be useful in future slide presentations.
Here’s key to a secret, one tightly held: More often than not I make photographs for a specific audience.
This has myriad manifests. It may be something as simple as photographing a friend’s favorite locomotive, or capturing a location once shared by a fellow photographer.
However, often it goes deeper. I’ll aim to capture a scene by working with light, shapes and subject in a way that I hope will appeal to a friend.
Sometimes, I’ll simply forward these photos directly to the person in question. To my father, I’ll send photos from my travels in Europe, to my mother, I’ll email photos of my friends and acquaintances.
I might forward an image to an editor that I made to pique their interest.
If I score something really unusual, I might goad a fellow photographer hoping to push them into exposing a similar or better photograph.
Yet, often my very best photographs are those that I make to fulfill a personal ideal.
Ok, my most successful images are those I made to please me.
As a fan of the Erie, I’m drawn to Port Jervis out of curiosity.
Historically this was an important place on the old Erie Railroad. The Erie passed into history years ago, and now Port Jervis is little more than a minor commuter train terminal.
Today, it’s Erie heritage is honored at several locations in the town.
The old turntable west of the Metro-North station was restored in the 1990s. Former Erie E8A locomotive 833 is displayed in Erie paint on the table, with a former Delaware & Hudson RS-3 in a near-Erie livery (lettered for owner New York & Greenwood Lakes) rests nearby.
Several blocks away is the restored Erie Depot and a nearby business styled as the Erie Hotel [http://theeriehotel.com/hotel] that boasts historic links with to Erie passenger travel.
I visited Port Jervis the other day and made these digital photos with my Lumix LX7.
I also a exposed a few color slides and some black & white film (pending processing).
The old Erie Railroad is one of my favorite lines.
Mike Gardner and I got a very early start on 15 April 2004. We worked our way west to the Portage Bridge at the Letchworth Gorge in western New York State in time to intercept an eastward CP Rail freight.
We chased this capturing it in multiple locations along the old Erie line to Hornell. At this time Norfolk Southern was the owner operator, while CP Rail operated via Delaware & Hudson trackage rights.
Clear blue dome; bright red EMDs, and great scenery with a good quality chase road made the morning extra productive.
It was April 1989 when I exposed this view of Conrail’s BUOI (Frontier Yard Buffalo to Oak Island, New Jersey) bumping along the number 2 track at Arkport, New York.
At that time this portion of the old Erie Railroad line from Hornell to Buffalo as still directional double track (rule 251) with block signals largely in the from of antique Union Switch & Signal Style S semaphores.
Between Hornell and Hunt, New York, Erie’s old eastward main wasn’t maintained for speeds faster than about 10mph, and when possible Conrail routed traffic against the current of traffic on the westward (number 1 track.) Not on this day though.
I was working with two Leica M rangerfinders that day; I made a similar view on Kodachrome slide film with my M2 that appeared in RailNews for its ‘Farewell to Conrail’ issue back in 1999 (a little more than ten years after I exposed it).
While Conrail was only an extant player in American mainline freight operations for a little more than 23 years, it was my favorite of the big eastern railroads.
A few minutes ago I scanned this Kodachrome slide. When I went to caption the file, I thought,
“Jan 14th 1989. Wow, that’s exactly 27 years ago.”
So, there you go.
I’d been photographing Conrail symbol freight BUOI-4X (extra section of Buffalo to Oak Island Yard, New Jersey). This freight worked the old Erie Railroad route and picked up re-built New York City Subway cars from the Morrison-Knudsen plant in Hornell, New York.
I made this view at the old Erie Railroad East Hornell Yards that was mostly used for storage of old freight cars. (And yes, I do have some nice photographs of the old freight cars).
Snow in May? When I awoke I was astounded. But sure enough, on May 7, 1989, there was about six inches of fresh snow on the ground at Scottsville, New York.
I’d immediately mobilize to make use of the unusual weather.
Heavy wet snow with freshly budding trees was a disaster for signal code lines. Branches had brought down lines along both Conrail’s former Water Level and Erie routes.
I learned of a couple of trains working east from Buffalo on the Erie line. First I chased DHT-4, a Delaware & Hudson double stack, then I doubled back west to pick up Conrail’s BUOI led by General Electric C30-7A 6598.
The train had 103 cars and was moving along at little more than a walking pace.
I exposed this view near Swains, New York using my father’s Leica M3 with a 50mm Summicron. The snow made for some peculiar contrast that was well suited to Kodak Plus X.
My notes from the day read: “Snow! V.Bright” with some light meter readings in footcandles to aid in processing.
General Electric delivered Conrail’s ten C32-8s in 1984. These were a group of unusual pre-production DASH-8 locomotives, and earned the nickname ‘camels’ owing to their humpback appearance.
I’ve always liked these distinctive locomotives and I had ample opportunities to photograph them on Conrail’s Boston & Albany route in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In March 1988, I was skipping class at Rochester Institute of Technology and photographing along the former Erie Railroad in New York’s Canisteo Valley.
In the afternoon, light rain had changed to snow. I was set up by the semaphores at milepost 308 west of Rathbone, New York and caught Conrail’s westward doublestack train TV301 roaring through the valley with nearly two miles of train in tow.
In the lead was C32-8 6617, an old favorite from my travels on B&A. I find it hard to believe that this locomotive was less than four years old at the time.
The old Union & Switch Signal Style S semaphores were decommissioned in January 1994.
On May 7, 1989, I awoke to find more than 6 inches of snow on the ground at Scottsville, New York. The previous day, people had been mowing lawns.
By 11:42 am, I’d caught up with Delaware & Hudson’s DHT-4, a double stack train that was working its way east from Buffalo on Conrail’s former Erie Railroad mainline
At the time New York, Susquehanna & Western was D&H’s designated operator.
More to the point, the late season snow had contributed to a signal failure, and the freight was stopped at red signal near Warsaw, and awaiting instructions from the dispatcher. I made this photograph using my Leica M2 loaded with Kodachrome 25. I had the camera fitted with a Visoflex and 200mm Telyt (which was a combination I was using a lot back then).
Since DHT-4 wasn’t moving, I opted to play around with some non-standard compositions. This slide was in my ‘Seconds box’ (not to be projected to an audience) for 25 years. I also have some more conventional views as well.
I made this square-format black & white photograph on the morning of November 6, 1988 using my father’s old Rollei Model T.
At the time, I was traveling with Pete Swanson in his 1980s-era Renault Encore. We’d driven down from the Rochester area, and at 11:11 am we intercepted Conrail’s ELOI (Elkhart, Indiana to Oak Island freight) working east on the former Erie Railroad mainline west of Salamanca.
Track conditions made this a fairly easy chase, and we made several images around Salamanca, New York.
A few weeks earlier, I’d made some photo copies of USGS topo maps for the Salamanca area, and on a previous trip scoped out this location, located between Carrollton and Allegany, New York.
Although only a short distance from old highway 17 (at that time I don’t think the grade separate Route 17 had been completed), this location require a little fore-knowledge as it wasn’t obvious from the road.
Conrail had recently performed some work along this section of old Erie route which opened up photo locations such as this one. Today, the line is operated by the Western New York & Pennsylvania.
It had hardly snowed at all in Rochester when I departed before dawn in my 1973 Plymouth Scamp. I found the traveling treacherous on Interstate 390 , but I was determined to made photos in the snow along the former Erie Railroad mainline.
I arrived at Gang Mills as the storm was clearing to the east. The sun was just starting to poke out from behind the clouds and there was a fresh layer of snow over everything.
I had three cameras with me that day, including my roommate’s Canon A1 that was loaded with a fresh roll of Kodachrome 64 (a gift from Kodak). Using my Leica, I exposed a few photos of eastward Conrail APL Stack Train TV-302 that was changing crews. Then plotted my course east.
While I knew the line west toward Hornell through the Canisteo Valley, this was my first trip eastward along the former Erie toward Binghamton. I neither had good maps nor a scanner, but I had an eastbound train, fresh snow, sunlight and Kodachrome. (And the desire to make photos!).
Over the next few years, I’d become very familiar with the old Erie mainline in this area, but rarely would I have conditions like this again.
On a pleasant summer day ten years ago, Doug Eisele and I were following a westward Norfolk Southern empty coal train on the former Erie Railroad mainline west of Hornell, New York.
I’ve been fascinated by the old Erie route for a long time. And I’ve always enjoyed exploring the line in western New York.
We caught up with Mike Zollitch who was also photographing the train, and it was Mike who showed us this angle on the old Erie station at Salamanca.
In its heyday, this was a hub of activity on the railroad, located at the east end of the yard. Those days were long gone by 2004, but the railroad was again open to through traffic after a hiatus of more than a dozen years.
I exposed photos from several angles, but only had a few minutes before the coal empties arrived into view. As it passed we continued west looking for more angles.
On July 29, 2014, a little more than ten years after I made this photo, the old Erie station was destroyed by fire. I read this sad news via Facebook in Dublin, Ireland. One more vestige of the Erie is forever gone.
Please share this post and links to Tracking the Light with anyone who may be interested in the Erie Railroad and the old station at Salamanca.
I’d been out along the former Erie Railroad since before dawn that day. The tracks had been alive with freight. By early afternoon, I was down at Gang Mills Yard, near Corning, which served as a local hub for freight.
Back then General Electric B23-7s were a common locomotive. I’d grown up with these diesels working locals and road freights on the Boston & Albany route. I always like their classic GE style and their great sound. My B&A engineer friends despised them because of their ‘slow loading,’ ‘low cab doors,’ and other perceived inadequacies.
I made this photo at the engine terminal. I liked all the Conrail signage behind the locomotive. There’s nothing especially unusual about this scene, it was as ordinary as it got for the time, but today this really says, “Conrail” as I remember it.
Conrail ended independent operations at the end of May 1999, fifteen years ago. Between 1976 and 1999, I exposed thousands of views of Conrail. In 2004, Tim Doherty & I authored an illustrated book on Conrail for MBI.
I thought I try something different; so I reached into a Logan slide storage box on the shelf and fished out a slide. This is what I found!
Step back 27 years . . . Doug Eisele and I had started the morning on the old Erie Railroad near Attica, New York. When Conrail’s heavy BUOI (Buffalo to Oak Island) freight came growling upgrade we followed it on side roads to Silver Springs. Here it took the siding for a westbound.
The signals read ‘yellow-over-red-over-red’—approach. What came along was Delaware & Hudson’s East Binghamton to Buffalo freight with a freshly painted former Santa Fe SD26 trailing.
At the time I wasn’t especially impressed by the D&H train. It was rolling hard out of the sun on tangent track. But, I rarely let an opportunity get away, so I made this going away view to show the signals and the meet.
In retrospect, I find this photo fascinating. The signals that interested me then, are all the more interesting today; the SD26 and leading GE U23Bs are all long gone; and Conrail’s former Erie operations faded into Norfolk Southern fifteen years ago. So, it’s pretty neat to look back and see what has changed!
A thick Spring fog blanketing the Canisteo Valley acted as a sound envelope. The combination of moisture and the valley’s walls produced an acoustic environment that enhanced the railroad experience. Making this special was the almost total void of other human made sounds.
The trickle of water from the nearby Canisteo and a light breeze through the trees was punctuated by the distant roar of an eastward train. Engine noise and the clatter of freight cars gradually swelled as it worked from Hornell down the valley on the former Erie Railroad.
I’d positioned myself at lightly used private crossing near westward signal 318 (measured in miles from Erie’s Jersey City terminus). A hint of blue in the sky marked the rising sun.
After more than ten minutes, I’d listened to the mournful warning blasted for the public crossing in the village of Adrian, two miles to the west. The roar grew louder. Then finally, there was a hint of headlight piercing the fog.
My college roommate had lent me his Canon A1 35mm SLR, which I’d loaded with professional Kodachrome 25 slide film. I had this tightly positioned on a tripod.
When the train began to illuminate the scene, I opened the shutter. This closed again moments before the headlight of the lead locomotive left the scene, leaving a truncated streak of light to represent the train’s passage.
Images like this one will help illustrate my new book; Classic Railroad Signals that I’m now assembling for publication later this year by Voyageur Press.
Three elements of this image interested me when I exposed it on April 7, 1989.
The Union & Switch & Signal Style S upper quadrant former Erie Railroad semaphore; New York, Susquehanna & Western’s former Burlington Northern SD45; and the unusual grade separated mainline, where the eastward track is on a higher level than the westward line.
I could write in detail about anyone of these three things. And someday I will. But not now.
Instead, I’ll examine the composition in a effort to offer a lesson on observing change.
The reason I made this photo in the way I did was specifically to juxtapose the signal with the locomotive. The grade separation not only offered added interest, but facilitated the over all composition because it allowed the locomotive to be relatively higher in the frame while enabling me to include the entire signal (complete with base of mast mechanism and subsidiary boxes/equipment) without producing an unbalanced image.
Today, none of the main elements in the photo are in place. If you were to visit Canaseraga, New York (located about 10 miles railroad-west of Hornell on the former Erie Buffalo mainline) you would find that the semaphore is gone; as is the old eastward main track. If by chance there’s an SD45 in the photo (unlikely, but not inconceivable) it would be on the close track.
In other words, the essential components of the image have changed to such a degree that there is little reason to consider making a photo at this location. And that’s the point!
When photographers (myself included) make railway images, they consciously and unconsciously include (and exclude) line side infrastructure which helps define and structure the photographs.
Changes to railway infrastructure alter the way we see the railroad, and thus the very way we compose and plan photographs. By anticipating change, we can make more interesting images and preserve the way things look for future viewers.
When trackside make careful consideration for those elements you may include or deliberately exclude. Might you be missing a potentially great image by trying to avoid some wires or litter along the line? Is an old fence potentially a graphic element that not only will help located the photo in the future but also key to a dramatic composition?
It is these types of thoughts than can make the difference when trying to compose great (or at least, relevant) railway photos.
On Sunday August 22, 2010, fellow photographer Pat Yough and I were making photos in western New York south of Rochester, when we got word of an unusual train on Norfolk Southern’s former Erie Route. Having worked this territory for more than 25 years, I navigated a course cross country to intercept our mystery train south of Silver Springs at Castile, New York. We were both curious to see what this was. As it turned out it was a single SD60M leading a portion of the James E. Strates Show train. We made our photo at Castile near the remains of old Erie Railroad water tower, then chased eastward. We followed it to Swain, Canaseraga, Arkport, and to Hornell, New York, then into the Canisteo River Valley. Among the locations we chose was at West Cameron, New York, a spot on the inside of curve, where in the 1980s I’d often photographed Conrail and Delaware & Hudson trains passing a former Erie Railroad Style-S upper quadrant semaphore (see Curiously Seeking Erie Semaphores posted on September 23). Conrail had single-tracked the old Erie route through the Canisteo Valley in 1993-1994, so it had been a long time since the semaphore came down, yet a portion of the old westward main was retained at West Cameron for use as a setout track, so despite changes, this location didn’t look substantially different to me than it had ‘back in the day’ .
Afterwards, I searched back over my 120-size black & white negatives, and located this view made with my old Rollei model T of Conrail’s BUOI in 1988. Compare these two photographs made at virtually the same location, at approximately the same time of day, yet more than 22 years apart. There are many advantages to working the same territory repeatedly over the years. While familiarity may lead to boredom, it can likewise lead a photographer to make interesting comparisons.
A lesson: keep making photographs despite changes that appear to make the railway less interesting.
On the morning of October 8, 2009, I made a project of photographing Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad’s westward freight HNME (Hornell to Meadville) that was working along the former Erie Railroad mainline in northwestern Pennsylvania.
I started before dawn near Niobe Junction and followed the train to its terminus at the former Erie yard in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
Speed restrictions on the line made for ample opportunities to photograph the freight as the sun brightened the sky.
See Tracking the Light post from December 11, 2012, Erie October Morning, for more images of this train exposed on October 8, 2009.
Mike Gardner and I were poking around Scranton on October 14, 1997. Although the foliage was nearing its autumnal peak, the sky was dull, so we were mostly exploring locations.
We drove into this spot along the old Lackawanna triple-track mainline used by Steamtown excursions and Delaware Lackawanna freights. I was curious about the abandoned former Erie line that crosses in the distance on a truss.
Neither of us expected to see a train, but to our surprise this Delaware Lackawanna local returning from Moscow came down grade. Even with 100 speed Fujichrome Provia 100F my exposure was difficult. I think this image was made at f4.0 at 1/60th of second with my Nikon F3T and 80-200mm zoom.
Interestingly, a decade later I made a project of photographing Delaware-Lackawanna operations while working on my book Railroads of Pennsylvania published by Voyageur Press. Between 2005 and 2007, I traveled about a half dozen times to Scranton and had several very productive chases of trains PT97/PT98 on this route.
Here’s an excerpt from Railroads of Pennsylvania:
Visitors to Steamtown will be pleased to see the occasional passing of freight trains on the old Lackawanna mainline. These are not for demonstration but rather are revenue-earning for profit freight trains operated by Genesee Valley Transportation’s Delaware Lackawanna railroad. Since 1993, Delaware Lackawanna has provided regular freight service in Scranton. Today, the railroad operates on three historic routes. The most significant is eastward on the old Delaware, Lackawanna & Western mainline. Here D-L freights share the line with Steamtown excursions, much in the way the historic DL&W’s coal trains shared tracks with its famous Phoebe Snow. Three days a week D-L freights make a round trip eastward over the Poconos, through the Delaware Water Gap to a connection with Norfolk Southern at Slateford Junction near Portland, Pennsylvania.
In October 2001, I was working on my book Railroad Masterpieces (Published by Krause Publications in 2002). Among the featured ‘masterpieces’ was Erie Railroad’s magnificent Starrucca Viaduct at Lanesboro, Pennsylvania. A classic Jim Shaughnessy under and over view was used on the book cover.
Posting photos on Tracking the Light yesterday of Lanesborough, County Longford, reminded me of this image at another Lanesboro (albeit a different spelling) many miles and an ocean away.
On October 21, 2001, Tim Doherty and I drove to Lanesborough so I could photograph Starrucca. At the time Norfolk Southern was operating the line and very little traffic was traversing the bridge. We didn’t expect to find a train and as it happened, we didn’t see any that morning.
Later, we photographed the former Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Tunkhannock Viaduct and former Pennsylvania Railroad Rockville Bridge. All three bridges were covered in the same section of the book, and I thought it would be neat to visit all of them in one day.
A black & white variation of this image appeared in the book, but I don’t think I’ve ever had the color version published. I’ve always liked the tree shadow on the inside of the 4th arch.
In March 1989, I was halfway through my final term at the Rochester Institute of Technology. My course load was light enough to allow me several days off a week to pursue my own work.
On this day, my flat mate Bob lent me his Hasselblad, which I loaded with 120 Kodachrome 64. Wow, was this ever a winning combination! It offered brilliant color with exceptional sharpness on a large transparency.
While I took advantage of Bob’s Hasselblad and 120 Kodachrome on several occasions, the relatively high cost of this format precluded my frequent use of it. At the time I was living on about $30 a week and a single roll of 120 Kodachrome processed was beyond my budget. (Also, Bob occasionally needed his camera).
Once I completed my degree, the high cost of Hasselblad cameras put them well out of reach for years. Other considerations were related to practicality. I found the Hasselblad awkward to use for my style of photography, and I had very limited applications for 120 transparencies.
Realistically, the 35mm slide format was not only better suited for most of my color needs, but also far more affordable.
Yet images like this one continue to nag me. From time to time, I have continued to experiment with 120-color transparency film, often with very good results. I’ve never been satisfied with my reluctance to make the plunge. Tough choice.
A week after I exposed this photo, I made an 11x14in Cibachrome print of it. (Thanks to my dad who fronted me the cash for 50 sheets of Ciba paper). Incidentally, the scan of the original image fills nearly 280 MB on my hard drive. If I’d scanned it at the maximum capabilities of my Epson, it would probably reach a GB. That’s a lot of information in one photograph. The image could fill a wall.
While on the topic of the former Erie Railroad, I thought I would post this unpublished view of brand new New York, Susquehanna & Western Dash8-40Bs working a Delaware & Hudson freight on Conrail’s former Erie route between Hornell and Buffalo, New York.
The new units were ordered by NYS&W during its brief court-ordered operation of D&H between 1988 and 1990.
I started following this train earlier in the day. It was a typical western New York morning, with fits of sun bursting through a deck of thick gray clouds.
That’s the reason for this unusual composition: for a moment the sun emerged to flush the front of the bright yellow GE’s. I made a spot decision to photograph the train more distant than I’d originally intended.
At that time, Conrail was only maintaining the old number 2 track (eastward mainline) for 10 mph. Most traffic was routed on the number 1 main (traditionally the westward track) that was in much better condition. However, by Spring of 1989, Conrail’s Erie route was bursting with traffic. To avoid congestion, Conrail’s dispatcher opted to keep this D&H train bumping along at 10mph, while westward traffic stayed on the faster track.
East of Canaseraga, the Erie line was in characteristic grade separated arrangement that probably dated from Underwood-era improvements in the early 20th century. If I write my book on the Erie, I’ll be finally able to confirm this fact.
In the early 1990s, Conrail reconfigured this portion of the Erie. It replaced the traditional directional double-track with a single-track main and centralized traffic control-style system. The change resulted in abandonment of the number 1 main at this location, and spelled the end for the steam-era Union Switch & Signal Style-S upper quadrant semaphores.
Just for the record, I made several closer views of this train.
On June 14, 2010, I spent the day tracing the route of the old Erie Railroad between Marion, Ohio and the Ohio-Indiana state line. At Marion, the former Erie line is still active, albeit integrated with other routes. West of Marion, it’s largely abandoned. In some places the former double-track mainline is easy to follow, in others it has been ploughed under with virtually no evidence left to hint that it was ever there.
At Kenton, Ohio, I found this vestige of Erie double track, where the line crossed County Road 140, east of Main Street. I’m looking east, toward Marion. I can only imagine The Lake Cities (Jersey City-Chicago) racing west across this crossing, or one of Erie’s magnificent S-class Berkshires hitting the crossing with tonnage.
I was happy to find track in place to give me some sense of what the railroad was about. Who knows what I’ll find if I return in ten years time.
Here’s another view from along the old Erie Mainline. Once common, the picket-fence effect of multiple-tier code lines along American mainlines has largely vanished in recent decades. These poles and wires are a vestige of another time, another era. Today, when wireless information reigns supreme, such archaic remnants remind us how much has changed. I exposed this view with my Canon EOS-3 and f2.8 200mm lens on Fujichrome. Will film soon go the way of the code line? Banished to realm of obscure obsolescence? Relegated to curiosity by newer technology—faster, easier, cheaper, and yet more ephemeral.
Here’s an unpublished image from my archive. In the gloom of early morning on April 7, 1989, I made the hour and 15 minute drive from Scottsville to Portage, New York to make time exposures of the old Erie Railroad Portage Viaduct. I featured this pioneering tower-supported viaduct in an earlier post (see: Erie Railroad’s Portage Bridge May 12 2007). Blessed by a stunning setting and significant history, the old Portage Viaduct has been a favorite subject on many occasions over the years. For this image, I used my Leica M2 rangefinder with 50mm Summicron lens to make a long exposure (about 8 seconds) in the pre-dawn twilight. The predominantly blue light combined with Kodachome’s spectral sensitivity to produce a near monochromatic view. The roaring Genesee falls have taken on an otherworldly ethereal quality, while the dark sky lends a nightmarish cast. This image exists only on film; at the time of exposure, it seemed very different to my eye. Later in the morning, an eastward Delaware & Hudson freight eased over the bridge at restricted speed; I followed this for several hours, making numerous images of it, mostly in black & white.
During the second week of May 2007, I was in western New York to photograph for my book The Railroad Never Sleeps. This project involved coordinating 37 photographers across North America who produced railroad images on May 10th — the anniversary of the completion of the first trans-continental railroad in 1869. The concept was one full day of railroad photography organized chronologically. Each photographer picked their own topics and techniques. I opted to work my old territory from college, which included a cab ride (by prior arrangement) on Genesee Valley Transportation’s Falls Road Railroad. While the book featured the best of the photography on May 10th, I continued to make images over the next few days traveling with fellow railroad photographer Hal Reiser.
The old Erie Railroad is one of my favorites, and on the morning of May 12th we were poised at Letchworth State Park near Portage, New York to photograph the famous viaduct over Genesee Upper Falls in Letchworth Gorge. At 8:17 am, Norfolk Southern’s detector at mp 359 (near old River Junction) sounded alerting us to a westward train. The roar of the falls can make it difficult to hear a train approaching and it is helpful to have some advanced warning. A few minutes later NS freight 309 inched across the trestle with now-rare C39-8 ‘Classic’ 8554 in the lead. I made a series of color photographs with my Canon EOS-3 and Rollei model T. One of the telephoto vertical views appeared on page 13 of my 2011-title Modern Diesel Power published by Voyageur press.
To learn more about the significance of Erie’s Portage Viaduct see my detailed and illustrated response in ‘Ask TRAINS,’ page 64 of the February 2013 issue (on stands soon!). For this article, I show the bridge with a westward Delaware & Hudson freight exposed on Kodachrome almost 19 years earlier (May 14, 1988).
Since the mid-1980s, I’ve made a project out of the former Erie Railroad. (See posts: Curiously Seeking Erie Semaphores and Erie Semaphores Revisited). For more than two decades, I’ve examined the old Erie route on film, exploring its lines across its old network. While the Erie has been gone for more than half a century, the context of this historic property lends continuity to my photography, despite a variety of different modern operators. In addition to photos of moving trains, I’ve documented structures, bridges, as well as both active and abandoned lines. I spent a week in October 2009 photographing along the Erie between Hornell, New York, and central Ohio. On the morning of October 8, 2009, I followed Western New York & Pennsylvania’s westward freight HNME (Hornell to Meadville) from Niobe Junction to its terminus at the former Erie yard in Meadville, Pennsylvania. It passed Niobe Junction at 6:45 am, and my first photos that day were made in the early twilight. Speed restrictions on the line made for ample opportunities to photograph the freight as the sun brightened the sky. Changeable October conditions lent for a cosmic mix of low light and ground fog. Working with my Canon EOS 3s and color slide film I produced a variety of satisfying images that fit in well with my greater body of Erie photography.
When I discover something that fascinates me I’m drawn to visit repeatedly and make photographs. Long before I ever saw the old Erie Railroad route, I found it oddly compelling. The Erie was built early; it was a pioneer, constructed to the exceptionally broad six-foot track gauge. Although a major railroad, it suffered in the shadow of New York Central and Pennsylvania systems and yet never really thrived. It spanned sublimely beautiful pastoral countryside, yet operated as a ‘big-time’ railroad, focusing on heavy freight operations in its later years.
I never saw the Erie since it was merged into Erie Lackawanna six years before I was born. For that matter, I never properly experienced Erie Lackawanna, as it vanished into Conrail in 1976 when I was in fourth grade.
Move forward ten years, in autumn 1986 I was living in western New York while attending college at the Rochester Institute of Technology majoring in photography. On October 24th of that year, I ventured south from Rochester with the sole objective of following the old Erie Railroad mainline from Corning to Hornell. After a visit to the yard at Gang Mills, I drove west to Addison, and then took the Canisteo River Road that ran parallel to the old Erie main. This is a lightly populated and supremely scenic valley characterized by exposed shale cliffs, the lazy sinuous green-tinted Canisteo, and rustic farms with fields of corn and classic red barns.
The Erie has occupied the valley since the 1850s and seemed to me as much a part of the landscape as the river. Not far west from Addison, I spotted a silent sentinel—an old upper quadrant semaphore with its pointed yellow chevron blade aimed skyward. This Erie relic was as much key to my fascination as the distinct Canisteo Valley. Continuing west, I spotted another semaphore, and another. Leaving the Canisteo River Road, I drove down to the railroad on Newcomb Road near the village of Rathbone. Here I found a semaphore to inspect up close, located near a closed truss bridge on Newcomb Road. As it turned out, the bridge wasn’t long for the world; thankfully I had the insight to make a series of black & white photos of the old span while waiting for a train to pass the semaphore.
Finally, after hours of patience, Conrail fielded its daily OIBU (Oak Island, New Jersey to Buffalo, New York), a westward manifest freight. This came roaring up the valley. I learned my next lesson: freights really roll on the old Erie! Soon I was in hot pursuit. Following that freight up the valley I discovered semaphore after semaphore, each guarding the old Erie, as most had done for the previous 70 years. Erie’s famed S-class 2-8-4 Berkshire and K-class Pacific steam locomotives had worked past these old signals as had its early diesels. These signals were the glue that tied the past to present; they were part of a greater infrastructure that shaped the look of the line including the time-worn ‘code line’ (often incorrectly called a ‘telegraph line’), and rock-slide fences to prevent crumbling shale from causing a derailment.
I found that most of the signals between Addison and Hornell remained as Erie semaphores. Better yet, west of Hornell to Dalton, New York, was likewise populated, as was the railroad east between Elmira and Binghamton. While I didn’t have the opportunity to capture it all on film during my first fleeting experience, the spark of fascination was firmly seated in my eye. Something as antique as an old semaphore couldn’t go unnoticed, and situated in such a stunning setting made them even more interesting. And yet the clock was ticking—I knew these old signals were on borrowed time. Having seen what happens when a railroad is torn asunder by efforts to modernize infrastructure I knew I needed to act! I spent the next three years making photographs along the Erie; not just signals, but trains, stations, bridges, towns, and railroaders. In fact, in most of my images the signals are incidental; they add interest, but only occasionally are the prime subject.
My friend Doug Eisele aided my efforts. He shared my interest in signals and educated me about them, while helping locate specific signals not obvious from main roads. Doug generously shared his own photography dating to the Erie-Lackawanna period, and helped put my work in context while providing hints for locations and lighting in various seasons and at different times of day.
The semaphores are now gone but I’ve continued my photography along the Erie route. My work now spans 25 years. I began working with Leicas, a Rollei model T, and a Canon A1, and Hasselblad 503c both borrowed occasionly from my college roommate. My original color work was largely exposed on Kodachrome, mostly K25, but other flavors as well. Later work was on Fuji and Ektachrome. My black & white photography was in its most experimental phase so I worked with a variety of films: Kodak Plus-X, Tri-X, my old staple Verichrome Pan, as well as Ilford emulsions. Most of the B&W work was executed in 120 format, but I played with 35mm and some 4×5 as well.
History and Context
I believe in learning as much as possible about my subject. My interest in railroad signaling dates back to my early childhood. As I matured I gradually researched this topic and this led to my book Railroad Signaling, published by MBI in 2003.
In the U.S. automatic block signals followed William Robinson’s 1870s development and perfection of the closed track circuit. Early automatic block signals were designed to automatically protect following movements, thereby providing a greater level of safety at relatively low cost. Electrical equipment was then in its infancy, and while the manually operated mechanical semaphore was well established in Britain, the lack of sufficiently compact and powerful motors made it impractical for this type of hardware to serve automatic block service. Instead, the earliest American block signals were enclosed banner style signals typified by the Hall disc, commonly known as the ‘Banjo’ signal because of their distinctive shape. The Hall Signal used a simple vain relay to display a light-weight colored disc within a window in the wooden frame. Hall promoted its disc signal standard until the early 20th century. It was most popular with eastern railroads; Boston & Albany, Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley and New Haven system all made widespread use of disc signals. Reading Company was probably the last railroad to employ Hall discs with a few signals surviving until after World War II. Although the disc was an early standard, within a couple of decades it was superceded by the semaphore as a block signal.
The Pennsylvania Railroad adopted the mechanical semaphore for interlocking signal service in the 1870s. In 1882, PRR installed pneumatic lower-quadrant signals for automatic block service. By the early 1890s advances in electric motor technology made electrically operated two-position lower quadrant semaphores commercially viable. Over the next few decades many American railroads installed lower-quadrant semaphores in automatic block service to improve safety and line capacity. Among the most popular types of automatic semaphore was Union Switch & Signal’s Style-B lower-quadrant. (‘Style-B’ refers to the control mechanism, which on this variety was located at the base of the mast.) Southern Pacific was one of the largest proponents of this style of signal. US&S lower quadrants survived in active service on several SP lines into the 1990s. These signals were featured in my post: “Southern Pacific Siskiyou Memories.”
Among the difficulties with lower quadrant semaphore was that each blade displayed two only aspects;: if three aspects were necessary, two blades were required. In 1903, the electric upper-quadrant semaphore was patented; it was widely adopted after 1908 and for many years reigned as one of the most common styles of American signaling. Each signal blade could display three aspects with a single blade. Coincident with development of three-position semaphore mechanisms was research by New York’s Corning Glass that produced standardized colored glass for signal lenses. This resulted in the universal adoption of red, yellow, and green as standard colors for railroad signals (later similar colors became highway signal standards). Prior to this, railroads employed a variety of different lens colors, which specific tints varying from line to line.
Union Switch & Signal’s Style-S mechanism was designed for three-position operation. Erie Railroad was an early user of the three-position semaphore, with its earliest installation dating to about 1906. After 1910, Erie installed large numbers of Style-S semaphores along its lines. By 1924, Erie had switched to US&S color light signals for new installations, yet continued to maintain semaphores where they were already in operation.
West of Binghamton, New York, these signals survived into the Conrail era. By the late 1980s, the old Erie Style-S signals that dated to the early 20th century were nearing the end of their service lives, and were being replaced as they failed. In the early 1990s, Conrail converted sections of its former Erie ‘Southern Tier line’ from directional double-track operation to a single track with passing sidings under a centralized traffic control style system (described in Conrail literature as ‘Traffic Control System’). As part of this program, traditional signals were removed and replaced with modern color-light hardware featuring signal heads with the triangular light pattern favored by Conrail. (This style was not new, as having been introduced by US&S in 1924.) A handful of Style-S semaphores survived for a few more years on a section that remained as directional double track between Waverly and Binghamton. In 2005, Norfolk Southern finally replaced the last Erie semaphore which had protected the eastward track near Endicott, New York.