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:

For Miles and Miles. . .

Five hours earlier and 75 miles south of our previous photograph, we first encountered the same low-priority LVSC, loping along at MP633, laving just left the siding at Clear Lake, Utah.  The idea that there's any sort of lake out here in the Escalante desert of southwestern Utah is a laughable idea. But the Escalante is a big bowl with no drainage, and on those rare years of excessive snowfall (yes, it does snow here in the winter) and precipitation, the water has nowhere to go. . . except into the lowest spot in the basin, which would be Clear Lake.

This 61 car train is the de-facto local freight between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, handling cars for the few local industries en route, picking up repaired bad-orders, taking speed-restricted cars that would otherwise ride on faster manifests, and carrying equipment and company materials for maintenance of way--such as those aqua green ballast hoppers five cars from the head end. For the crew called for this dog, it'll be a full day's work getting to Salt Lake. There's a lot of traffic out here in September 1990, and this train will be seeing a lot of sidings.

This is a little-traveled part of the state, 25 miles west of Interstate 15. To the south 50 miles, the small crew change town of Milford, population 1300; another 20 miles to the north, another small town, Delta, population 3400. Between them, there's nothing but the railroad, an occasional ranch, and 2-lane Utah Highway 257. North of Delta, the railroad begins its climb across the East Tintic range before dropping into the Great Salt Lake valley. South of Milford, there's another 80 miles of desert to the Nevada line at Uvada and descent towards Las Vegas, 240 miles west of Milford.

There's a lot of long, lonely miles out here in the Great Basin. 

Rain Shower in the East Tintic Range

How I miss the west! I've lived in Texas now going on 18 years, and while the popular image of the place is decidedly "western," I tend to disagree.

Utah. Now THAT is the west.

While I do like the enormous weather overhead here on the Southern Plains in the springtime (and it's coming up again right soon), to me, the real wide-open spaces are found west of the Rockies. You can still get lost in yourself out in the Great Basin, be far away from any other human being and hear nothing but the sound of nature--it's so quiet sometimes that you'll swear you'll hear the molecules of the air around you buzzing as they rub against each other.

It would be hard to choose a favorite single place. I certainly love the high desert southwest of Salt Lake City, in the East Tintic Mountain Range where Union Pacific's Lynndyl Subdivision climbs across Boulter Summit. This piece of railroad was constructed in the early 1900's as part of the Leamington Cutoff project, which featured a new line bypassing Provo west of the Oquirrh Mountains. It's beautiful country, juniper covered mountains and sagebrush.

On this day, September 5, 1990, I'm near Lofgreen siding as the eastbound LVSC (Las Vegas-Salt Lake City) long-distance division local descends the grade behind an SD40-2 and C30-7. It'd been raining here moments before, and the clouds have parted to bathe the scene in a mixture of sunlight and shadow, accented with a fleeting rainbow. The air is rich with the smell of rain, wet sage, and mountain juniper. The bright yellow locomotives just complete the scene.

I wish I was back in those mountains again today. It'll have to wait until a vacation sometime in the future.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Welcome to the Northwest! Yakima, October 1976

My first BN train photographed as a Washingtonian: Ellensburg turn returning to Yakima behind GP9 1728 and F7A 704.

I'm sure the jaded railfan in 1976 would have seen the railroading world as getting more homogenous by the day, with mergers and abandonments sweeping away hallowed traditions. Just that year, ConRail (originally with the uppercase "R") consolidated a number of colorful bankrupt railroads in the east (along with Penn Central). Only six years before, the four major northern tier railroads merged as Burlington Northern.

In October that year, my family moved from Salt Lake City to Seattle. I was only 16, so I wasn't jaded yet; my whole railfanning world had consisted of Rio Grande and Union Pacific, so the opportunity to move to a new corner of the country and experience new railroads was pretty exciting to me.

We left for our new home early on October 8th, spending the night in Boise. Any trains I could expect to see would be familar, as southern Idaho is still "Union Pacific," and indeed, we paced a train that afternoon for a few miles near Glenns Ferry behind the usual mixed-bag locomotives I'd seen in Salt Lake City: GP30, SD24B, GP9B, U30C. Dad was nice enough to keep the LTD throttled back so I could lean out the back window and snap a few pan shots, then we scooted off to Boise, where I was given a few minutes to explore the classic Moorish Union Pacific depot on the hill  overlooking downtown. It was largely a corporate showpiece at the time, as there'd been no passenger service to the building since 1971, and regular Amtrak service via the Pioneer wouldn't begin til the next year.

The next day would've been a great opportunity to see more Union Pacific, paralleling the railroad across the Blue Mountains, but if I saw anything, I don't remember it. We overnighted that Saturday in Yakima, the idea to ride the resurrected Portugese trolleys operating on the electrified Yakima Valley Transit, a tourist service restored in time for the Bicentennial year.

After getting the family settled in at the hotel, dad trusted me with the keys to to the car and let me head off and explore the city's railroads. Yakima was served by a Union Pacific branch from the Tri-Cities area, and of course was a division point on BN's former Northern Pacific mainline between Auburn and Pasco. Fruit and lumber were the primary traffic staples, BN had a couple branchlines generating from the Yakima area;Union Pacific was fed by its Yakima Valley Transportation subsidiary, still amazing operating with steeplecab electrics.

I was in luck: I immediately stumbled upon a GP9 and F7A returning from Ellensburg on a BN local, a few carloads of saw logs ahead of predominantly ballast hoppers. Nearby, a Union Pacific GP9 switched in the yard--nothing new there. I followed the YVT trackage imbedded in the street north towards Selah, the current TRAINS magazine handy on the front seat next to me, open to Ted Benson's timely article on the YVT. I parked the car and walked up the short but scenic canyon along the Yakima River, hoping to somehow luck onto a YVT train returning from Selah--no luck, but I did stumble onto eastbound Amtrak "Empire Builder" behind a pair of SDP40F's and a dozen cars including three domes. Pure class!

Heading back into town, I finally found the YVT returning from west of Yakima on Tieton Drive, brakeman riding the front beam of steeplecab electric 298 easing down the middle of city streets delivering interchange to Union Pacific, two 57 foot mechanical cars that dwarfed the little motor up front. The crew worked quickly, picking up a string of cars for Selah, and they soon departed north up North 6th Avenue. I followed them until the sun had set, reluctantly leaving to meet my promise to be back to the hotel in time for us to go out to dinner. What a fabulous introduction to Northwest railroading! And all that in just a couple of hours!

The trolley ride the next day was anti-climactic. But you can bet I was quick to unload the darkroom equipment and process the film as soon as the moving truck arrived the following week. Again, haste made waste--the exposures were largely cooked and the film over developed.

And strangely enough, even though YVT continued electric freight operations until 1984,this was my first and last visit to this amazingly photogenic operation. Shame on me!

 Familiar to a kid from Utah, Union Pacific GP9 300 switches in Yakima yard, VYT's trolley barn in the background.

On-time eastbound Empire Builder between Selah and Yakima behind SDP40Fs.

 Ripping off a similar Ted Benson view in TRAINS: YVT 298 "sneaking up on the motorist" in the streets of Yakima.

 YVT 298, dwarfed by a following PFE mechanical reefer, arrives at the UP interchange.

 End of the day, and YVT 298 delivers to Union Pacific.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Slipping off the Learning Curve: on becoming a teenage railfan.

Photographers often hear the phrase: "You're only as good as your last picture." Well, this post isn't about my last picture. It's about my first. Maybe not THEE first (I believe those were done on a hand-me down Kodak 126 roll camera, and who knows where those are), but at least the first efforts I made in putting railroads to film.

So, maybe the appropriate phase here is: "Show me the shittiest photographs you can imagine of trains."  And I can probably meet that expectation and raise the bar a few notches.

Another phrase here comes to mind, that of the big room filled with a million monkeys banging away on typewriters: eventually, the saying goes, one of them will just happen to produce a best-selling novel.

No monkeys here. No novel. No typewriter. But maybe a million photos down the road, I've ended up with a few pretty good ones. And this here is where it all started.

Now, excuse the self-indulgence, because this posting is entirely self-indulgent. If you've come for great photographs, you won't see them in this posting. But maybe, if you're a photographer yourself, you can relate to how I got into this hobby, and you too will remember the months and years of struggle to get up that steep learning curve and begin to make some photographs that don't end up getting filed in the cabinet for forty years.

The First Roll
 So, here I am in my way-cool imitation leather jacket, striking a pose for my dad in front of Union Pacific 4-8-4 833, which was retired to Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City. I am 13 years of age, and have yet to get braces. And thank God I did. I'd just gotten a Mamiya/Sekor 500TL 35mm SLR camera with 50mm lens for Christmas 1973, and my father has driven me from our east bench suburb to gritty downtown SLC--vagrants! Pan handlers! And as I was later to learn, gay sex in the bathrooms. I saw none of it.  I just wanted to try out this new camera.

Most of the shots on that first roll of film filed in the "railroad" collection are abysmal. This one actually turned out okay: GP20 493 and a couple of switch engines at UP's North Yard engine facility. Whenever dad had an errand downtown, I'd come along, and we'd drive by the shops and see what was around. There was a fascinating variety on the UP back in those days. And only occasionally we'd get tossed off the property. We didn't have a problem with that this day.

My Sister, the Taxi Service 
Without a driver's license, I really had no way to scratch that itch to make train photos, being as I lived probably 10 miles from the closest railroad tracks. So, along with trips downtown with dad, or family vacations boating (with any luck, there'd be some train tracks nearby), I occasionally begged my older sister Ronnie to take me out. Since she was five years older than me and toting around her kid brother was definately NOT cool, it didn't happen too often. But somehow, she ended up being my chauffer on a February afternoon in 1976. I'd heard on KSL radio that a Union Pacific ore train had scattered all over the ground around 20 miles north of Salt Lake City, near Kaysville. Amazingly, she drove me up there, and not too long after arriving and surveying the wreckage of the ACUW ore train, along came a southbound led by DDA40X 6905. Welllll, farrrr out!, as the catch phrase by singer John Denver so popular about that time went. I think this was probably the first action photograph I made that was reasonable sharp. I might mention that at that time, I had the local drugstore process my film. It wasn't spectacular, but it was consistent.

Travels With Stan

Not too long after this, I started to attend the monthly meetings of the Promontory Chapter, National Railroad Historical Society. Then, as now, it was largely populated by elderly men who bemoaned the end of the steam era. But where else would you find a concentration of other people in Salt Lake City who loved trains? I discovered one of my high school classmates was an attendee with his father; we kept our railroad interest secret at Skyline High School, for being "outed" as a train buff surely would be as traumatic as being accused of being a high school smoker. Hey, it was Utah. One of the few younger guys in the group was Stan Jennings, probably early 30s. He liked going out and photographing trains, too, and was tolerant of having me along, so with Stan I made quite a few trips into the hinterlands. 
 One good thing about the NRHS, apart from the monthly slide shows, were the contact made and information gleaned from others. We learned of a Union Pacific officers special coming back from Los Angeles, and Stan and I spent the day waiting for it west of Salt Lake City, chasing it back to town and photographing the two E9A's leading the train off the Provo subdivision/"Passenger Line" on 300 West Street.  

Stan and I also photographed Union Pacific's Park City branch, and the local that operated it behind sets of GP7's and GP9s. The crew was friendly, and part of the day was spent riding the train while it switched the phosphate load-out facility at Phoston. It was right about this time that I graduated to processing my own film in the downstairs bathroom--talk about trial and error! When the results were good, they were far better than the drugstore film developing, but once more I bumped up against that learning curve and more often than not, I'd either under developed, over developed, or somehow damaged the film while processing. This didn't help matters, as my exposures were all over the place, which I can now attribute to following the built-in light meter. I'd follow it, as photographer friend Mark Hemphill would so aptly put it years later, "right into the ground!" Indeed. I'm amazed I was able to salvage and of the images from some of these trips

 Thanks to Stan, I was able to make my first trips to Soldier Summit, though, once again, my inexperience with exposure, holding the camera steady, and composition made the results quite disappointing. I did manage one or two frames where the Rio Grande Zephyr remained reasonably sharp; let's not mention my experiences on a beautiful afternoon following the westbound Utah Railway coal loads right into the sunlight down Soldier Summit in July 1976--blurry, out of focus, and over-exposed by several stops. 

The Sandy Local

The nearest tracks to my house were Union Pacific's Provo subdivision, which paralleled but were just a couple blocks east of the much-busier Rio Grande mainline between Salt Lake City and Provo. This was about 10 miles due west of our home in Holliday, an hour by Schwinn Sting-Ray down 4500 South Street. I made the trip a few times, usually stopping by Art Chase's home on the way. I met Art, who was my age, through the Golden Spike Model Railroad Club, and if we didn't spend the afternoon running his brass model of UP 8444 around his 22" radius curve on the layout wedged into his tiny bedroom, we'd head over to the tracks and see if we could find the the only train to operate on this line with any regularity, the Sandy Local. Art knew the crew, and we often ended up riding around for awhile on the EMD switch engine. I have no idea, in retrospect, why we didn't walk over to the Rio Grande to see more trains. Today, this UP line has been rebuilt by Utah Transit Authority and is used for a light-rail route to Draper.

Travels With Dad
 It was my father who really nurtured the railfan/photographer in me. He encouraged me accidentally by leaving issues of TRAINS magazine around when I was barely reading age, and when the model railroad bug hit about the same time the photography bug did, he spent many hours painstakingly building a 4 X 8' model railroad for me. Those trips downtown usually included a stop into Keith's Hobby House to check out the amazing basement model railroad department, and then there were the boating trips to Bear Lake in Idaho, where one night on our week-long vacation we'd drive into Montpeiler for a steak dinner, stopping by the Union Pacific there to look around. My dad was a regional sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, and his territory included southwestern Colorado--including Durango. So in the late summer of 1976, he took me along on a sales trip, highlights of which were putting me on the Rio Grande narrow gauge train for the day between Durango and Silverton--still operated by Rio Grande at this date!--and picking me up in the afternoon. It was a great week, seeing my dad at work and meeting his coworkers, seeing him in HIS environment. And it wrapped up with me riding the Rio Grande Zephyr home to Salt Lake City from Grand Junction. The Silverton Train, though--back in 1978, still operated by K28 Mikado's with fake diamond stacks and the two trains a day pulled right up into town while passengers shopped and ate lunch. Quite a change from the operation today!

Travels With Mom

My mother was amazingly tolerant of her son's railroad photography. She shared her laundry room, afterall, with my Durst F30 enlarger and stinky, messy chemicals. And more than once she took me out of school for the day to take me to various "must see" railroad events such as the Freedom Train and several iterations of Union Pacific Passenger specials. With her, I rode family day trains behind NW2's and GP30s--such as this push-pull set in 1976 north of Salt Lake City preparing to head back to the downtown depot. And with learner's permit in hand, she suffered through my driving her bright red Mustang convertible down Weber Canyon at 90 miles an hour to get back ahead of a UP Old Timer's special behind A-B-B-A E-units. THAT was a battle of wills--hers vs. mine! She finally dumped me off with Steve Sequine and Jim Belmont to chase it the rest of the way to Salt Lake City, though Steve's Camaro was quite a bit faster than mom's Pony.

Travels on My Own
 By the late summer of 1976, I'd finally gotten my driver's license. Not too long after that, my folks left for a long weekend "business convention" trip to the Bahamas or Hawaii or Disneyland, leaving me and my little sister under the iron thumb of an old woman we called "Mrs. Yaztee" for her love of the dice game. I was allowed to drive mom's mustang to work, but it wasn't long until I snuck out of the house before sunrise several days in a row to go exploring. The open road was finally mine, and I made the most of it, exploring the Salt Lake Valley: the Rio Grande Zephyr, the Midvale Tramp and its SD9's, and the curiosity of Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine operation and "low line" heavy-haul electric railroad. My camera technique was still not up to my ambitions, but I saw a lot of operations I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Was it worth it, the punishment for taking the car and putting a few hundred unauthorized miles on the odometer? Hell yeah. Absolutely.

On Meeting Mr. Schmid
Looking back nearly 40 years, I now see September 9, 1976 as being an important day in my development as a photographer. It was a chance meeting with a young photographer from California that made me realize that rail photography didn't have to be only a hobby, but rather it could be a lifestyle, a zen-like pursuit to make the best photograph you could using all the resources and tools available to you. From that day forward, I don't think I approached rail photography the same way again.  

I'd just found out we'd be moving to Seattle the following month, my father taking a promotion in the company to Regional Sales Director. I'd spent the day making one of my last trips to photograph trains downtown, and by accident had happened across the long-haired Californian in a VW Baja Bug taking in the action near Grant Tower, Salt Lake City's primary rail junction. At an inopportune time, a UP transfer drag from Roper Yard had stalled strung out through the bottleneck of Salt Lake rail operations, its single EMD switcher unable to keep its heavy train moving through the tight S-curve in the interlocking. UP's yardmaster sent a second switcher, and when this failed, sent a third. Three tries, and finally the ponderous drag was moving, three locomotives, three crews, and an interlocking once more fluid.  The photographer and I got to talking, and I learned this Berkeley postal carrier, Jamie Schmid, was deep into his yearly month-long trip throughout the west. A whole month? Photographing trains? I was dumbfounded. He slept on the ground next to the track. He used a slew of Nikon F-series cameras and lenses. He had a scanner. And he carried a notebook of hand-drawn topo maps. Clearly, this guy was dedicated.  I had to learn more. Without approval from the higher ups, I invited him to stay at our house, and he took me up on the offer, a bit worried, though, that perhaps I should check with my parents. It'd be okay, I assured him, and breathed a big sigh of relief when my mom said it'd be okay. I had the coolest parents, and Jamie agreed. 

We stayed up late that night discussing railroads, photography, the hobby, and a lightbulb went off above my head. This is what I need to be doing, I told myself. I traveled with Jamie the next couple of days, up to Ogden and out onto the Great Salt Lake causeway, then down to Soldier Summit where we did an after-dark chase--no photos, just diggin' the experience--of a heavy Utah Railway coal train down the mountain. The dynamic brakes on the RSD15's up front glowed orange in the night. It was spell-binding.

As one period of my life was ending, another was beginning. It was this encounter that set me straight on the opportunities for exploration in my new home in the Pacific Northwest. And I remember it like it was yesterday. Jamie's work has been an inspiration to me ever since. And I'm fortunate to count his as one of my longest-lasting friendships.