Sunday, June 22, 2014

Spencer, North Carolina: When Dreams Came True

Friday night's photo session: Like something out of an old Wally Abbey or Parker Lamb photograph, Pennsylvania, Baltimore & Ohio, and Chesapeake & Ohio EMD cab's gathering in a light rain--as they might've in Cincinnati, say, in 1958. .

A couple of times a year, I have a recurring dream.

I sneak into a locomotive rebuilding shop, dodging employees who would throw me off the property. Scattered among the many tracks outside the shops are old locomotives, largely derelects, relics of the great era of unmatched variety in diesel locomotives: Alcos, EMD's of course, a few GE's, perhaps a Fairbanks-Morse or two. All locomotives I thought I'd never see again, so long ago had they been replaced and sent off to the boneyard.

I find my way into the shop's offices, and ask if I might wander around taking photographs. Usually in the dream, I get told to leave. But sometimes, I strike paydirt, and an employee offers to take me around the place, where I'm taken to a restored brick roundhouse building. And inside, sheltered from weather and prying eyes, is a collection of pristine EMD covered wagons--E-units and F-units of every type, wearing a dozen different paint schemes. It's as if I stumbled into the Electro-Motive Division factory in suburban Chicago in the 1950s. How did they get here, lovingly cared for and restored, and hidden away from everyone for so long?

It's then I wake up, without getting an answer to that question.

Do dreams come true? Not very often, but amazingly this dream came to life last month in North Carolina, where the North Carolina Transportation Museum hosted "Streamliners at Spencer," a gathering of two-dozen streamlined locomotives from across the US and Canada. It wouldn't be too much hype to call this a "once-in-a-lifetime" event, as the logistics of getting together all these locomotives from varied railroads, museums, historical societies and private owners is mind-boggling.

I almost didn't attend, being the type of rail enthusiast who eschews big events like this. . . but I got off work Thursday morning and was bombarded via facebook with images of a staggering variety of locomotives en route to Spencer. How could I just dismiss this as "another collective railfan orgasm?" The E-units and F-units: these are locomotives of MY generation. Well, not truly: by the time I'd come to the party, they were on their way out the door--but I'd been weened on old TRAINS magazines with photographs of these very locomotives. But I was there to see the last of them stricken from the railroad rosters and most sent to scrappers.

To think is to act: I've got the weekend off, I've got frequent flyer miles, and a few nights in a motel and a cheap rental car wouldn't cost THAT much. I have 64 hours between leaving work Friday morning and returning Sunday night. Rest would be in short-supply. Sleep? I'll sleep when I'm dead, as Warren Zevon sang.

I booked my flight.

I left work immediately after my shift ended at 0630 Friday, making a frenzied drive to the airport to catch an 0830 flight. It was another bare-knuckle connection at Greenville, SC, for the 20-minute hop into Charlotte, then grab a rental for the 45-minute drive to Spencer. Adrenaline? After more than a day without sleep, that was all that was keeping me going, but it was all worth it when I pulled up into the parking lot at Spencer shops to see a beautifully restored A-B-A set of "chicken wire" F3's in Lackawanna Railroad paint leading a short freight train of vintage equipment. That resonant "blat" from the Leslie Tyfon A200 air horn immediately rolled back to the years!

And it only got better: scattered around the 37-stall roundhouse (one of the largest remaining in the US, I'd gather) was a truly staggering congregation of classic streamlined diesel locomotives, a full listing of which can be found here.

A few were truly significant locomotives: clearly, the most important, the original 1939 Electro-Motive Corporation FT A and B-unit demonstrator 103, the very locomotive that barnstormed the country in 1939-1941 proving that the diesel locomotive could cut costs, raise train speed, and improve availability over the entrenched steam locomotives (the irony here at Spencer is that the EMC 103 initiated dieselization that would allow Southern Railway to close the Spencer shops in 1960--allowing its eventual acquisition by the state as a first-rate transportation museum); Atlantic Coast Line E3 501, representing (with Burlington E5A 9911a) the classic early slope-nose E-unit line; Wabash E8A 1009, EMD's 10,000th locomotive; Soo Line 2500A, built as an FP7 demonstrator by EMD; and "Nickel Plate 190", one of the very few surviving Alco PA-series passenger diesels (originally built for Santa Fe, sold to the Delaware & Hudson, thence to National Railways of Mexico before being repatriated as a wrecked hulk to the United States by preservationist Doyle McCormick).

But to single out these few is unfair to the others, for each of the locomotives is "the real deal," something easy to forget while merrily composing and snapping photographs of them preening for the camera.  They aren't big model trains in pretty paint jobs as if they'd just come out of a box. They've all got a long history performing service to the country, and while several wear paint schemes for railroads they never actually worked for, they all had a long service life and against all odds somehow ended up saved from the torch and preserved by a special brotherhood of gearheads, historians, and volunteers who worked long hours with little or no pay and even less recognition to make such a happening take place.

It truly was amazing.

I'd heard an estimate that around 10,000 attended the four-day event, drawing from around the world. The event primarily catered to the photographer, and the display of locomotives around the roundhouse turntable was constantly changing. Each day, the locomotives were paraded past the gathered masses south of the roundhouse; each evening, portable lighting of the type found on construction sites were set up and locomotives posed for night photography. And short passenger and freight trains were run up and down Spencer's two-mile or so "mainline" for more happy snaps. If you felt confined in Spencer's cozy complex, there was Bennett Levin's preserved Pennsylvania Railroad business car train running betweeen Spencer and Charlotte, pulled by a beautiful Pennsy E8A!

It wasn't all locomotives and train photography--I renewed friendships with several old acquaintences and made several new connections. The camaraderie made the trip worth it as well, as did the opportunity to consume lots of Cheerwine and true Carolina pork barbecue. All because of a gathering of locomotives.

It was tough to pull myself away Sunday morning, as a Chicago & Northwestern F7A led passengers around the grounds. I couldn't spend another minute waiting for it. My plane was waiting, with an arrival back at DFW at 2030, then a drive to work to protect my 2230 shift.

And like that it was over. Once in a lifetime, no doubt. Those 64 hours truly felt like stepping into my dreams.

Thanks to the organizers, volunteers, railroad who provided transportation, and organizations that graciously sent their locomotives. Impressively well done!

Below are a few photographs from the weekend. A larger gallery is available to see on my Flickr site, right here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Chimping Allowed: First train chase with the Fuji X-series

 W. of Mustang Creek:1/1600 f6.4 55-200mm @ 200mm ISO

I've had my Fuji X-E2 camera system since December, but really hadn't had the opportunity to take it out on a true "hard core" train chase trip until last week.  Until then, I'd not had too many chances to try out the camera's continuous focusing ability on moving targets (no, I wasn't about to stand on the shoulder of the highway just to satisfy my curiosity!).

The Fuji acquisitions began with the first X-E2 body and "kit" 18-55mm 27-80mm 35mm equivalent) zoom and the 55-200mm l(80-320mm 35eq) long zoom. I added an 18mm f2 (27mm 35eq) prime lens in January, and last month, Fuji ran a very good sale on certain lenses, including the 27mmf2.8 (43mm 35eq) for over half off. And I added a second X-E2 body, used, at a very good price. So there's a good kit in the bag: two zooms for light travel, two primes for even lighter urban photography.

It's been a busy year for photography so far, partially inspired by the new gear, partially inspired by wanting to learn how to use the new gear. A mirrorless camera with electronic viewfinder is a different beast than a digital single lens reflex: 30 years of using SLR's for film and digital photography has trained my reactions to that kind of gear, and it is a learning curve to learn how to unthink using an SLR and retraining myself to the ways of the electronic viewfinder.

The transition has gone pretty good, but there's a lot to learn with the X-series cameras; I'm more than pleased--tremendously pleased--with the files these cameras produce: though I've been shooting everything both JPEG and RAW, I've not processed any raw files through Lightroom, so impressed have I been with the quality of sharpness and tonality (color and black and white) of photographs directly from JPEG files. I've shot a fair amount of documentary-style photos, "street" photos, graphic compositions--I'm very happy with the results. And I've put a bunch of them on my gallery site,

But the one thing I hadn't tried with the X-E2 that was a staple of my years of SLR photography was the action railroad photograph. The digital Canons, incommon with all medium- and high-end DSLR's, are tops in continuous follow-focus: This is why professional sports photographers prefer DSLR's to, say, rangefinders or even mirrorless cameras. It's been a struggle for mirrorless camera producers to match the ability of the DSLR's to stay in focus while following a fast-moving subject. And while the typical moving train is certainly not the equivalent of a race car or tightly-focused athletes moving through the viewfinder, I was not fully convinced that the X-E2 could handle the task passably.

So, the Sunday afternoon meet-up with fellow rail photographers Dan Munson and Chris Palmieri would be my first test of the Fuji's train-chasing ability. Now, friends well know my aversion to any contemporary BNSF or Union Pacific locomotives, so the opportunity to chase old-school EMD conventional cab locomotives on the Fort Worth & Western Railroad was not to be missed.

We followed the four old EMD's--a pair of SD40's and a pair of GP38/40 types--out of Fort Worth on a trip along the former Santa Fe to Cresson. The day was beautiful, and after around 90 minutes waiting for the train from atop a parking garage on Fort Worth's near west side (i.e. "Seventh Avenue"), we jumped ahead an began a run-and-gun chase the last 10 miles or so across rolling prairieland into Cresson.

How'd the X-E2 do? I was curious, of course, so if Dan was giving me shit for "chimping" my LCD after each train runby, I plead guilty by explanation: I wanted to see if the Fuji was up for the task. And it was! It actually reacted quite similarly to the Canon DSLR's by wanting to search for a focusing target when encountering headlights or ditchlights, so in that respect the experience was the same. The camera kept up with the train with regards to continuous re-focusing. I didn't miss any shots due to shortcomings of the camera.

So, I'm ready for a longer trip now--carrying a MUCH lighter camera bag!

Herewith the gallery (click for full-size files):

 Passing Montgomery Plaza, Fort Worth--18-55mm @ 24.3mm, 1/800 f/8 ISO400

 W. of Mustang Creek--55-200mm @ 200mm, 1/1700 f6.4 ISO400

 Nearing Cresson--55-200mm @ 200mm, 1/1900 f6.4 IS400

 Nearing Cresson--18-55mm @ 48.4, 1/1000 f9 IS)400

Nearing Cresson--18-55mm @ 40, 1/1100 f9 ISO400 (B&W conversion)

 Arriving Cresson--55-200mm @ 200 1/1800 f6.4 ISO400

 Arriving Cresson--18-55mm @ 18 1/800 f10 ISO400

Dan Munson: "Get The Shot." 55-200mm @ 156 1/750 f/7 ISO400

 At Cresson--55-200mm @ 190 1/1000 f/9 ISO400
At Cresson--55-200mm @ 104 1/640 f/9 ISO400

At Cresson--55-200mm @ 141  1/110 f9 ISO400 (B&W conversion)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rebirth from a Killer Tornado.

I joined a couple friends and snuck up onto a parking garage under construction today along Fort worth's bustling West 7th Street, ostensibly to photograph a train passing by the imposing facade of Montgomery Plaza, a high-end condo development.

I got the shot of the train alright, but I'm almost happier with this composition of the old Monkey Wards warehouse building, framed by the new concrete parking garage of yet another new development transforming this once past-its-prime boulevard on the west edge of Fort Worth's downtown into a very popular urban village.

It wasn't too long ago you'd never see such bustle, activity, restaurants, condos--and money!--in this area.

And it's easy to say to the day when the transformation of this area of faded retail storefronts and low-density industrial and warehouses into one of the hottest entertainment districts in the city began: March 28, 2000--14 years ago.

This was the day a tornado tore through this section of town. It wasn't a particularly large tornado--only a couple hundred yards in width--but it cut a sporadic 4-mile track from west of downtown, through the heart of the business district, and on east to dissipate in Haltom City. In this West 7th area, seven buildings collapsed, and a worker at the Montgomery Wards warehouse was killed while running across the truck storage lot. The twister moved into downtown and heavily-damaged 17 skyscrapers, breaking out windows with pea-gravel scoured off roofs and innundating building interiors with wind, debris and water that several were unuseable and had to be stripped down to bare skeletons and rebuilt. Damages reached $560 million, the 10th costliest in US history. One more death occurred east of downtown; a total of 80 were injured. The tornado touched down at Rush Hour, creating a worst-case scenario. Nearly 15 years later, this storm is mentioned in the same context as the deadly Oklahoma City storms in discussing deadly tornadoes in a dense urban area at peak commuting time.

As bad as the storm was--and not to downplay injuries or deaths that resulted from it--it ultimately a blessing to Fort Worth's economic growth since 2000.

The 1928-built Wards warehouse once housed a retail store on its ground floor, but by the time of the tornado, Wards was on its last legs financially, and the warehouse closed in 2001. A newer warehouse addition took the brunt of the tornado damage, and was torn down. It took another three years before developers purchased the Wards warehouse and began its transformation as one of the West Side's anchor developments. Tax abatements had to be negotiated with the city as well as designation of the structure for historic preservation--while still allowing a six-story chunk of the front of the building to be removed to create a promenade through the middle of the building. The upper floors now are given to loft condos; the ground level is a variety of retail stores and restaurants. Property once occupied by the damaged warehouse is now home to national chain stores and a grocery store--a necessity in the area to entice residents.

Now named "Montgomery Plaza," it has anchored the east end of the West Seventh Street redevelopment which has continued west to the city's Cultural District of museums. The area is now filling in with condo developments and retail, and now spilling east of Ward's to the new bridge across the Trinity River.

It's not overstating the importance of the March 28, 2000 tornado to call it a trans formative event for Fort Worth--certainly not in the scale of commercial development which has followed in the wake of the F3 tornado.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Scavenger.

Here's four locomotives. To me, they're linked forever in time, and not just because of their location of operation, or their era, or their owner. Bear with me.

Burlington Northern F3A 702: It was unusual enough to have seen an actual "chicken wire" F3A in service in August of 1979, where we see the former Northern Pacific 6000D storming southbound across the White River bridge in Kent, Washington with train #139. This one was one of two BN F-units still in service sporting a "bolt on" nose door headlight, presumably salvaged from a long-retired Northern Pacific FTA unit. That in itself made this locomotive a favorite of mine. Not visible in this view is the locomotive's original three window porthole configuration--on the fireman's side only, the portholes on the engineer's side having been removed sometime after the merger.

Burlington Northern C636 4368: The true monsters of locomotion on Burlington Northern, here's the 4368 leading a sister and small-by-comparison C424 off the Columbia River drawbridge and into the yard at Wishram, Washington, in July 1977. Though BN's ten former SP&S C636's were matched in horsepower by scads of SD45's and 45 F45s on BN's roster, their appearance just seemed tougher: the combination of the rounded cab, the curved fuel tanks, bitchin' Hi-Ad trucks and that snow shield above its radiator fan up front that added that much more bulk. Another all-time favorite! And of the 636's on the railroad, the one I seemed to come across the most.

Burlington Northern RS11 4194: Okay, so this is the 4193, substituting for the 4194, which I guess I don't have any photos of. But, it's doing it's thing at Linnton, Oregon, just west of Portland, in April 1979, a former Northern Pacific unit working with ex-SP&S RS3 4064 on the wonderfully-nicknamed "Linnton Tramp." The RS11 wasn't anywhere near as popular as EMD's GP9, but they were similar locomotives of the same era.  The were the only high-hood B-B Alcos of any note. They didn't get up to Seattle very often, it seemed, as they were highly-regarded on switch jobs and locals near their home base in Vancouver on former SP&S lines.

Milwaukee Road U36C 5802: The U36C wasn't an overly-popular locomotive among American railroads; General Electric's attempt at matching EMD's wildly popular SD45 fell flat (but at least it was more popular than Alco's last-gasp C636), but Milwaukee Road picked up four of them (and 6 SD45's). Two of them achieved a bit of infamy for being banished to the west end of the railroad along with a bunch of GP40s in 1979 when the transcontinental fleet of SD40-2's were moved onto the eastern core of the railroad. They were the biggest and newest locomotives operating the lines west of the Dakotas. Here's 5802 at Cedar Falls in February 1980, tied down in the yard as the Tacoma Rotary plow appears after a stint on Snoqualmie Pass. A month later, 5802 would lead the final train east out of Tacoma on the evening of March 15, ending nearly 70 years of operations of the Western Extension.

These locomotives are long gone, cut up years ago for scrap. Seemingly nothing of them survived. But follow me into my attic, above the garage.

Back behind an old sleeping bag, boxes of my wife's family photos. Push away a big heavy box of old newspaper and magazine clippings. There. These number boards of plastic and fiberglass and steel are where these locomotives are united through time, where these magic numbers 702, 4368, 4194 and 5802--digits from my youth--survive three decades after their locomotives they identified ceased to exist.

I acquired one in trade; the others were, um, "liberated" in late-night raids from storage yards or scrap yards. If I hadn't gotten em, it's unlikely someone else would've. It's not like I had immediate plans for these souvenirs: I've schlepped them from Seattle to Idaho, from Colorado  to Utah, back to Seattle and now down to Texas. I've always planned to mount them on a wall, perhaps illuminate them from behind for a theatrical effect. But after thirty years, I've still not gotten that far. But at least I've still got these small scraps of their existence with me.

I'm sure my wife wonders why I've held onto these for all these years. I think most railfans acquire stuff like this for the same reason, keeping stuff that really isn't worth anything except in its value of sentiment. I don't have much of a collection. The biggest thing I have is a semaphore blade, and it, too, has been hauled from town to town with me. 

The reason we save this stuff is simple. It isn't because of its value. It's because, besides photographs, that's about all that proof that remains that they existed at all.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

David Nicoletti, 1949-2014

David Nicoletti, 1949-2014

I don't remember when, exactly, I first met Dave Nicoletti, but I can pretty well guess the location: in the parking lot at the depot in Vancouver, Washington.

That'd be a pretty good bet. Dave spent many of his Saturdays watching trains from inside the iron triangle formed by the BNSF lines going south into Portland and east up the Columbia River Gorge. In later years, he'd forsake sitting in his car and would put down a folding lawn chair, where he's preside over the happenings like some sort of unelected Mayor of The Wye. For a guy like Dave, the location was a natural: in the middle of the action, where nothing could get by him.

But that fit Dave's personality, of course. For he always knew what was going on. He was "connected" to the railfan grapevine back before there was an internet. Dave seemed to know everybody. And somehow, whenever anyone visited the Portland area for the first time to watch trains, they ended up coming across the big short guy with the mop head of hair and long sideburns. And after a few minutes in conversation with Dave, they invariably discovered that somewhere in the family tree of acquaintences in the rail hobby, Dave knew someone they knew. It was sorta like "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," only with Dave at the center of it all.

Dave died suddenly March 2nd in Portland, just past his 65th birthday, and hearing of his death brought back once more that we're all getting older and those acquaintances from the past we'd taken for granted were slipping away, one by one.

As I write this, Dave is being eulogized in Beaverton, Oregon, his birthplace, in a Baptist church. I'm not sure if this surprises me, nor if it matters at all, but I'd always though of Dave as a Mormon. Or at least that's the impression I got from our discussions of life outside of railfanning. Of course, that mention at all of religion was brought on by looking at photographs he'd taken in southern Idaho of Union Pacific branchlines in the winter: "Yeaaah", Dave'd say in that slow drawl he's inflict from time to time, "I was living down in Mormon country." I think Dave's wife was LDS, and though he might not have converted, he adopted the religion as his own.

After that first meeting with Dave, I'd made several trips to Portland, and he several trips up to my home base in the Seattle area. Dave was the one who called me about a BN RS-3 repainted in NP paint for BN's defense in a grade-crossing accident. I rushed right on down to take a shot, and scooped the locals by getting the photo in TRAINS. I was a carpetbagger, but if Dave minded, he never said anything. Dave hosted a great evening of slides one weekend I spent in Portland, introducing me to several other talented Portland rail photoraphers. And what a great host! I'm not sure where I stayed that weekend, but it was probably at Dave's house--not that Dave had a lot of room, mind you, for he was a father of six.  Yeah, that Mormon thing. I can almost hear his voice in that sentence.

I found this photo of Dave the other day--just before his death, actually. This will be how I remember him. In the parking lot at the Vancouver depot. He wasn't a grumpy type, and this grumpy face was just for show, like he was pondering a question to ask. He was a good soul, gentle and always fun to be around.

Others can eulogize Dave far better than I can. I hadn't seen the man in probably 20 years. I'll admit dropping the ball on many of my friendships and letting relationships wither and then die from neglect--this was one of many. And now hearing of his death, well, pity on me for not being the kind of guy, like Dave was, who kept his friends close, no matter their physical distance. A look at his facebook page revealed the love his children and seven grandchildren had for the man, and added the dimension of Life Outside Railfanning to my knowledge of Dave.

One comment from a friend particularly made me smile: "We can chase the good stuff in the next life."

Indeed, he probably is doing it already!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Oasis in the Urban Core: Phillip Johnson's Water Gardens, Fort Worth

For as much as I malign Fort Worth, Texas, the place does have a few good thing going for it that help make it at least somewhat tolerable to live here: its art scene.

Downtown has a strong performing arts community with a symphony, an opera, several small acting companies and great performance venues. It has three world-class art museums, the Kimbell, the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. And it has several notable sculptures and public art spaces that demand your attention.

One of my favorite places in all of Fort Worth is the Water Gardens, constructed in 1974 on the south side of the downtown urban core. Water Gardens was created by noted architects Phillip Johnson and John Burgee, and consist of three components: an active water area, with water cascading from all directions into a center basin, which can be accessed by steps into its core; a plaza surrounded by terraced limestone or terrazo walls, suitable for public performances or gatherings such as weddings; and a sunken reflecting pond--the "silent waters" surrounded by angled aggregate walls down which water runs; the reflecting pool is surrounded by trees which give the area shade in summer. The entire installation seems removed from a bustling downtown just steps away, and the circulation of water makes it a cool refuge from the heat of a Fort Worth summer day.

Water Gardens isn't without controversy: three children and an adult, visitors from Chicago, died in the active water pool in 2004 when one fell in and was sucked underwater by recirculating pumps. The others subsequently died trying to rescue the first child. Though a large settlement was reached with Fort Worth, to the city's credit the Water Gardens reopened after modifications that didn't effect its appearance much at all.

It is a beautiful place to visit. Peaceful. Removed from the bustle. And the angles and movement of water through the piece make it a wonderful photographic subject.

I've uploaded a gallery of images from an afternoon spent at the Gardens, and you're invited to visit it here: