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.