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!