It was a clear September 1989 morning when I parked near the twin former New York Central tunnels at Breakneck Ridge and followed a hiking trail to this commanding vantage point looking back toward Cold Spring, New York.
I exposed this photo on Kodachrome 25 slide film using my Leica M2 fitted with 50mm f2.0 Summicron firmly mounted on a Bogen 3021 tripod.
It was a hot and humid day. TSH and I were on a New York Central Hudson Division kick. I was working with my father’s Rolleiflex Model T loaded with Verichrome Pan black & white negative film to emulate the style images exposed here decades earlier.
Where in the 1940s, New York Central photographer Ed Novak had made photos of 4-6-4 Hudson and 4-8-4 Niagara type steam locomotives, and in the early 1960s my father had captured New York Central’s E-units with stainless steel streamlined cars, on this day, we had to settle for more modern trains.
I’ve always made it a point to make the most of whatever comes along. We were hoping to make photos of Metro-North’s FL9s, which were then the most interesting locomotives on the line, so far as I was concerned.
When this three-unit set of Budd-SPV2000s rolled by on a shuttle from Poughkeepsie, I framed up the classic view and released the shutter. No regrets now. I Processed the film in D76 using stainless steel tanks. 25 years later I scanned the negatives.
Tracking the Light posts new material every morning.
John E. Pickett is among the great photographers I featured in my book The Twilight of Steam. A life long friend of Jim Shaughnessy (also featured), John has had the opportunity to photograph steam locomotives all across North America.
In the 1940s, he was fortunate to grow up in Canajoharie, New York, located just across the Mohawk River from New York Central’s four-track mainline at Palentine Bridge. His early experiences watching the parade of Hudsons, Mohawks, and Niagaras working the Water Level Route inspired him to make wonderful photographs of locomotives at work before diesels took over.
The Twilight of Steam features dozens of John’s images and tells of his experiences and techniques.
In 2007, I coordinated a team of 37 photographers to document a full day’s worth of North American railway activity from Nova Scotia to southern California and from the Pacific Northwest to southern Florida in what became a book titled The Railroad Never Sleepspublished by Voyageur Press.
In addition to coordination, I played an active role in making photographs. I’d coordinated with Genesee Valley Transportation to ride a locomotive on their former New York Central Falls Road (now Falls Road Railroad) and boarded the train at Lockport, New York.
My aim was to make photos of the crew to capture the feeling of an active short line railroad. Hal Reiser shadowed the train making photos from the ground, and at one point collected me so I could also make trackside views.
I’ve included several of the images from May 10, 2007.
Although The Railroad Never Sleeps is now out of print, it remains a stunning photographic collection, which is especially impressive considering it was entirely accomplished within the limits of just one day!
My friend Bob Buck of Warren had advised me to photograph old freight cars, especially those from the ‘fallen flags’ (railroads that had merged or were otherwise lost).
I kept a keen eye out for the cars of Conrail’s predecessors, which were a special interest to me.
In July 1984, I was passing Conrail’s sprawling West Springfield Yards on my way to the Boston & Albany ‘West End,’ when I saw this old New York Central ‘Early Bird’ 50ft double door car.
By that time, New York Central had been gone 16 years, and I was only 17, so the time seemed like a lifetime to me. Following Bob’s advice, I dutifully exposed a three-quarter view of the car. One frame. That is all.
In retrospect, I wish that I’d taken a few more images of the car. Today, I’d focus on the car and make some detailed views. Looking back on this car today, what I find noteworthy was that it still had its catwalks, an accessory that had been out of favor for years by the time I’d exposed this image.
New York Central 50-foot boxcar at West Springfield, Massachusetts, July 1984. Exposed with a Leica 3A with 50mm Summitar lens.
Contrasting Views of Indiana Railway Lines, June 2004.
In a world of railway mergers and consolidation, we can divide railway routes into groups; survivors and losers. Some lines have prevailed while others have been abandoned and ripped up.
Of course, we can further divide surviving lines. There are lines that continue to function as busy corridors, while others may only exist in fragmented form, or as downgraded local routes. Often fragments have been sown together and so now old railway line serve routes that may be very different than as originally intended.
Putting these concepts on film presents a puzzle and a challenge.
In June 2004, I was exploring western Indiana with Pete Ruesch and with his help I exposed these two photographs. The ‘winner’ is a sunset view of Norfolk Southern’s former Wabash mainline at Marshfield, which serves as a heavily-traveled long-distance freight corridor. The ‘loser’ was a recently abandoned vestige of New York Central’s Egyptian Line at the Indiana-Illinois state line.
Both were exposed with Nikon cameras on Fuji color slide film.
In October 2007, I was working on my Railroad’s of Pennsylvania book, when Pat Yough and I made a very productive chase of Tioga Central’s excursion train, which operated, from Wellsboro Junction, Pennsylvania compass north along the old New York Central Fallbrook route (including over a Penn-Central-era line relocation).
Back in the mid-1980s, I failed to take the opportunity to chase an empty Conrail coal train down the line south of Gang Mills Yard (near Corning, New York). At the time the line still went all the way to Newberry Junction, near Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Conrail operated ENSY/SYEN (Enola-Syracuse) manifest trains on this route three days a week, plus unit coal trains.
I’d been standing at the bridge (now gone) at the east end of Conrail’s Gang Mills Yard. There were two trains coming. A westward double stack on the former Erie route, and a southward unit coal train heading down the Fallbrook. I opted to follow the stack train because I didn’t have a good map of Pennsylvania.
Six months later Conrail abandoned the Fallbrook as a through route, and lifted the line south of Wellsboro through the super-scenic Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.
While, I’ve since chased Wellsboro & Corning freights and the Tioga Central excursion, I’ve always regretted my poor decision that day. A map, a map, my kingdom for a map!
An RS-1 wearing a Lehigh Valley-inspired livery leads a Tioga Central excursion north of Wellsboro Junction on October 7, 2007. I’d just bought a second-hand 24mm Canon lens from Thom Kinard, and this was a good opportunity to try it out on Canon EOS 3 loaded with Fujichrome.
Last week I rode from Chicago Union Station over the former New York Central Water Level route to Albany and then via the Boston & Albany to Worcester, Massachusetts.
A familiar run, I first made this trip in August of 1983 and I’ve done it many times since. However, both my first trip and most recent have a commonality: I began these trips with some photography on the former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy ‘Triple Track’ near Aurora, rode a ‘scoot’ into Chicago and changed for the Lake Shore at Union Station.
While I enjoy train travel, I’m not especially keen on really long runs. My usual limit is about 8 hours. I make exceptions for the Lake Shore. For me this is one of the most interesting American runs.
The queuing process at Chicago Union leaves much to be desired. It reminded me of a recent experience with jury duty. Yet once ensconced in my seat in an Amfleet II coach I was happy enough.
We departed Union Station 3 minutes after the advertised and gradually lost more time over the course of the run. I don’t mind this especially, after all the train’s long standing nick-name is, “The Late for Sure Limited.’
Gliding east in the darkness, I squinted to pick out familiar landmarks, as this trip is the thread that really ties my recent posts together.
At 9:37 pm we eased over the 21st Street Bridge; a few minutes later we clattered across the diamonds with the old Rock Island at Englewood, and at 9:58 we raced through Hammond-Whiting, Indiana. I noted where Chris Guss and I had stood a week earlier to photograph both an EJ&E freight and NS’s Interstate Heritage Unit.
Northern Indiana was alive with trains. We passed a CSX stack train at Curtis on the adjacent former Baltimore & Ohio. East of Michigan City we overtook a South Shore freight led by a pair of GP38s roaring along under wire like an apparition from another era. I heard the Doppler blast as the South Shore hit a crossing alongside of us. It was just a momentary glimpse in the night and not far from a spot where Mike Danneman made photos on an icy February afternoon some 18 years ago.
A seeming endless parade of Norfolk Southern freights greeted us on the Water Level Route. Every few minutes a low base roar would precede locomotives blasting by on an adjacent main track. Although Conrail has been gone 14 years, I still find it odd that Central’s old Water Level Route is now run by two separate railroads.
I dozed off, waking briefly at Toledo to watch an oil train roll east, and empty hoppers used to move fracking sand clatter west. Somewhere between Toledo and Berea, Ohio we lost about an hour.
Near Berea we met the rising sun and passed the old tower—sacred ground visited by my late friend Bob Buck and countless other fans over the years. This is the divide, from here east we were rode on CSX tracks.
We paused for Cleveland, then Erie, and for many miles we ran parallel to the former Nickel Plate Road, which now carries Norfolk Southern freight east of Cleveland. I was pleased to see many photographers line-side; my train’s journey was well documented!
At Buffalo, I had a pleasant surprise: instead of taking the normal route via CP Draw and CP FW, we were routed over the Compromise Branch that takes a more northerly (and slightly longer route) through Buffalo, rejoining the other line at CP 437 (the control point near the ghastly decaying remnants of Buffalo Central Terminal). Amtrak’s 48/448 serves the suburban Buffalo-Depew station instead of the old terminal.
Behind me a woman traveler was on the phone describing her trip on Amtrak from Oregon: “We live in such an amazing country! Crossing the plains I saw endless herds of wild Bison and red Indians on horseback! There were wagon trains crawling dusty trails against purple mountains and rainbows! And amber fields of grain! Is that wheat, do you think? And Chicago was like the emerald city, its towers scraping the sky. Such a skyline! And all through the Midwest big factories making the produce of America! It’s just wonderful!”
Indeed. Was she on number 8? Or perhaps one of those ‘Great Trains of the Continental Route’ as advertised in my August 1881 Travelers’ Official Guide?
At Rochester, my old friend Otto Vondrak came down for a brief visit. He and I share various Rochester-area experiences. Then eastward into ever more familiar territory.
At Schenectady, a Canadian Pacific freight overtook us on the Delaware & Hudson before we resumed our sprint to Albany-Rensselaer, where we then sat for an eternity waiting for station space. Here 48 and 448 are divided, with the latter continuing down the Hudson to New York City.
East of Rensselaer, I paid extra special attention to our progress. There are few railroads I know as well as the B&A. At 4:38pm we met CSX’s Q283 (empty autoracks) at Chatham. We paused at CP171 (East Chatham) to let pass our westward counterpart, train 449. At Pittsfield, CSX’s Q423 (Worcester to Selkirk) was waiting for us.
The highlight of the trip was the sinuous descent of Washington Hill’s west slope. There was test of the Westinghouse brakes near the deep rock cut east of Washington Station, and I continued my trip through time and space. Familiar places and landmarks blitzed by the glass; Lower Valley Road, Becket, Twin Ledges, old Middlefield Station, Whistler’s stone bridges along the valley of the Westfield’s west branch, the old helper station at Chester, and east through Huntington, Russell, and Woronoco.
At West Springfield we passed the old Boston & Albany yard. Watching the parade of trains in evening at the west end of the yard were ghosts of departed members of the West Springfield Train Watchers; among them founding member Norvel C. Parker, Stuart Woolley—retired B&A fireman, Joseph Snopek—photographer and author, and of course, Bob Buck—B&A’s greatest fan and proprietor of Tucker’s Hobbies. I waved and they waved back. (Hey, at least I wasn’t seeing herds of wild bison!)
After a stop at Springfield Station, I was on my final leg of this journey. We rattled over the Palmer diamonds—where I’ve exposed countless photos over the years, and raced up the Quaboag River Valley, through West Warren, Warren, West Brookfield, Brookfield, and East Brookfield—where my friend Dennis LeBeau and his loyal dog, Wolfie, were line-side to salute my passage.
At Worcester, my father, Richard J. Solomon was poised to collect me. And so concluded my latest Lake Shore epic. And, yes, 448 was indeed late: 1 hour 15 minutes passed the advertised. Tsk!
On Saturday, May 18, 2013, CSX had four eastward unit oil trains working the Water Level route between Buffalo and Selkirk, New York. Mike Gardner and I were in place to catch two of these monsters. Mile-plus long strings of black heavily-laden tank cars hauled by colorful variety of locomotives.
These were only part of the show and mixed in with CSX’s seemingly endless parade of intermodal trains and mixed freight. While waiting for first of the oil train to reach us, we experience the highlight of the day. To the east I heard the classic roar of EMD 16-645 engines.
What could be making such a racket? This is a railroad dominated by the muffled sound of modern GE four-stroke diesels and the occasion EMD 710. By contrast this sound sent me back 20 years . . .
Working west in run-8 were three SD40-2s (one Canadian Pacific and two painted for Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern/Iowa, Chicago & Eastern) with empty ethanol train in tow. The crew was enthusiastic and passed us with a friendly blast of the horn and bells ringing. It was just about the coolest train I’ve seen on CSX in several years!
After it passed we caught the first two unit oil trains, one right after the other, followed more ordinary traffic. This oil business is a new phenomenon and seems to be growing. I expect I’ll see more liquid energy on the move.
This day, twenty four years ago, April 12, 1989, I sat in the morning sun at School Road in Batavia, New York, 399 miles from Grand Central Terminal. This was a favorite location to watch the Water Level Route on a weekend morning. At the time I was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I lived south of Rochester at Scottsville, New York, and it was about a half and hour drive to this lightly used crossing. Here I’d read, write in my notebook, and document the passing parade of Conrail freights and the occasional Amtrak train. A talking equipment detector a few miles to the west would alert me to approaching eastward trains, but westward trains might creep up on me. These tended to be crawling, as there is a slight grade up the Niagara Escarpment known local as Byron Hill. ‘Hill’ is a relative term, since this grade seemed almost invisible to the eye. However, freights powered for the low-grade run from Selkirk to Buffalo would stagger up this nominal rise. On this morning, the distinctive chug of General Electric 7FDL diesel engines caught me ear above the twittering birds and the rush of a light breeze. Before I knew it the gates were motoring down and lo and behold, a westbound was coming down the hill.
My Leica M2 was fitted to an f4.0 200mm Leitz Telyt using the awkward Visoflex II attachment, which effectively transformed my rangefinder into a single-lens reflex. This entire contraption was positioned on my recently acquired Bogen 3021 tripod with ball-head. (The ball arrangement seemed like a good idea when I bought it, but I was forever fighting it to make fine adjustments with long lenses.) This morning, I had everything all set up and pre-focused; I exposed a couple frame of Kodachrome 25. Leading the train was one of Conrail’s unusual GE-built C39-8s, a favorite model because of its angular cab-arrangement.
Six weeks after I made this image, I graduated from R.I.T. and by end of September that year, I was on my way to California. The old crossing at School Road closed a number of years ago as part of a grade crossing elimination scheme. Last summer, I unexpectedly found a former Conrail C39-8s at Lansdale, Pennsylvania along with a few of its ilk in black Norfolk Southern paint, but that’s a story for another post.