Classic Image in California’s Feather River Canyon.
In the early hours of May 18, 1990, I departed Sacramento, California destined for the former Western Pacific mainline through the Feather River Canyon.
On the drive, I saw a pair of eastward trains in the Central Valley north (railroad timetable east) of Marysville. This sighting influenced my decision to work the lower regions of the canyon, rather than driving through on Highway 70 toward Keddie and Portola, as I had done on previous trips.
A bit west of Pulga, there’s a long and winding dirt road that drops from Highway 70 down toward the North Fork Bridge. Finding it is counter intuitive. On an earlier trip I’d become rather lost trying to find the bridge. A Northern California DeLorme Atlas ultimately provided me the necessary navigational tools.
Having reached the bottom of the road, I hiked into position before 8am and waited on the side of a hill overlooking the modern open spandrel concrete arch bridge. This is late-era construction, built in the 1960s when construction of the Oroville Dam resulted in flooding of the lower Feather River’s North Fork which required relocation of Western Pacific’s line out of the canyon via a series of tunnels and bridges.
At 8:15 am, Union Pacific DASH8-40C 9174 rolled westward across the bridge with an APL double stack train. The sun hadn’t fully hit the bridge and I was happy that the stacks bought me additional time on my anticipated pair of eastbound trains.
The westward stacks must have met the first eastbound at James, a CTC siding immediately west of the Canyon (and another favorite place for photos). Just 20 minutes after the stacks had passed, the first eastward train emerged from the tunnel on the west side of the bridge. I made several exposures, bracketing from f4.5 to nearly f5.6 1/125th of a second on Kodachrome 25 film.
Exposure in the Feather River Canyon can be deceiving. Because of the depth of the canyon, less skylight reaches the tracks than in open territory. Also, the dark green trees and bushes lining the canyon walls absorb a considerable amount of light. The result is that direct and unfiltered sunlight isn’t as bright as it seems.
Careful use of my handheld meter was crucial in calculating the accurate exposure, but I still felt compelled to make fine adjustments as the train rolled into view.
The second eastward train was 20 minutes behind the first. I stayed for the rest of the day in the lower reaches of the canyon and photographed five more Union Pacific trains by 6:09 pm.
Caption: Union Pacific C30-7 2474 works an eastward train over the North Fork Bridge near Poe, California on May 18, 1990. Exposed using a Nikon F3 with 135mm lens on Kodachrome film. The camera was mounted on a Bogan 3021 tripod with a ball head.