Friday, November 21, 2014

Appearing from the Shadows

The path back to 16 Mile Creek and America's final transcon has led south out of the small town of Ringling and up and over small passes where cattle roam and the road is single track.  On this little path, it is easy to feel alone and lost - even if just for a moment.  The mountains that climb around a sole traveler seem too high, the dirt road too infrequently passed, and there are none of the sounds that mark civilization: no car horns, no cell phone coverage, no slamming doors - just all-encompasing quiet. In some ways this makes it easy to see the land the Milwaukee built through in its push west.

Pushing on and through the doubts, past little pieces of Americana along the way, the road empties into a wider valley where, once again, the Resourceful Railroad lies in pieces.  Far across the valley floor, a brace of wooden trestle bridges loft the smooth right of way between fills on timbers that seem too spindly for the likes of a Little Joe.  At their feet is the remains of an old homestead resting next to the creek.  A few trees provide it some shade in hot summer months just as they were designed to do by those who settled here long ago.  They have outlasted the little farm, the hearty folk that planted them, and even the transcontinental railroad.  Living in this little valley, I wonder if the railroad provided that sense of connectedness and civilization that seems so distant?

"What if" is a dangerous question to ask, but perhaps this scene is just a little too quiet?   For years the state of Montana has complained that it is held captive by a single railroad that seems isolated from free market pressures.  With the growing trend in oil by rail shipment, these problems have worsenned.  Automobiles sit on manufacturer lots insterad of dealer lots, other freight like grain sits due to motive power and crew shortages, and passenger trains run hours off the mark on a regular basis.  What if the Milwaukee's exit from the West hadn't been so complete and thorough?  

In the enlarged scene above, the old house and trestle bridge are marks of an alternative reality, perhaps the road less taken.  On this day, in the late June sun, all is quiet and these are just pieces of history lying in the shadows of times past.  The storm that came here was decades ago, but the damage it incurred is felt daily in ways both seen and unseen.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Railfan 5 Challenge

The challenge was first posed by Mr. Eric Gagnon, over at Trackside Treasure.  It was taken up by several others, that include some other Lost Rail friends: Oil-Electric and Confessions of a Train Geek.  Robert over at Oil-electric passed the challenge directly to me.

The challenge share five photos that visualize my introduction to and development as a ferroequinologist.   This is a difficult challenge: actually choose 5 photos (I have included 5.5) that show my journey as a rail "enthusiast."  Perhaps this is made easier for me only because many of the formative pictures are still kept by my parents so I am left with a smaller selection.  My choice of 5 spans the decades and leads to a future second installment, picking up where this series leaves off. 

Picture 1:  CPR 374, Vancouver BC ~1982
CPR 374 was the first locomotive to pull a train into Vancouver.  The date is pre-1983 when she was removed from her park setting (where children liked to play on her) for restoration as part of Steam Expo '86.  Our hero looks back at his mommy in the picture below who is capturing the moment with another relic from a bygone era, the Pentax Spotmatic.  Growing up in BC, it was the Canadian National that I really loved, however.  Perhaps it was because its mainline was only a mile or two from our house and the old house would shake each time a train rolled by.  Other photos from the period show the young lad wearing train hats and playing with some indestructible Lionel trains.  I have often wondered if all small boys go through a period of loving trains, but a few of us never outgrow it?

I would cross paths with the 374 again many, many years later when attending a conference in 2010.  It wasn't until I uncovered this earlier photo that I realized the old girl and I actually had a history.

Picture 2:  Amtrak's Hoosier State in 1992
In the late 80s my family moved from Vancouver to Iowa.  Though I started life in Vancouver, BC and still feel at ease in the Pacific Northwest, in many respects, I grew up in the Midwest.  Instead of mountains, it was big skies and fields that provided the backdrop for the boy's upbringing.  For a brief period of time before I acquired my own Spotmatic gear, I was the proud owner of an old Kodak Brownie of one sort or another.  It loaded film easily and with the click of a button captured images like the one above: the local Hoosier State making its daily call in Lafayette, IN.  It's interesting to note that Horizon cars and Amfleets were in use then just as they are today.  I reckon they had a few less miles on them then though, just like me.

My grandparents lived in Lafayette and I would eagerly await early morning walks down to Lafayette's 5th street to see the trains through.  During these years the Hoosier State was daily while the Cardinal operated on its normal 3 days per week schedule.  Unlike the Hoosier State (above), the Cardinal had a diner and sleepers and would arrive just a bit earlier in the day with breakfast being served.  The smells of breakfast from the diner were always a special treat.

My grandpa and I spent quite a few mornings wandering the length of 5th street, hoping for a Family Lines locomotive to slowly meander down the middle of the road.  It was still early enough in the CSX era that Family Lines were not difficult to spot.  Not far away were the former Wabash tracks that would host many, many trains per day including the new and strange looking Roadrailers.  Grandpa would point out the old Monon station on 5th street (being used as a performing arts theater) as well as the old Wabash station that looked decrepit even in those days.  These were memorable experiences and still stick in my mind as I reflect on the railroads and times that were formative. 

Picture 3: Iowa Interstate in Iowa City, IA in 1997

While this blog is normally focused on the Milwaukee Road's Lines West, it was the Rock Island which formed an initial and lasting bond through my years in Iowa.  The large bridge over the Iowa River still held Rock Island logos, and daily interchanges with the local CRANDIC Railroad were always fun to watch.  Locomotives like the 401 would come charging up the interchange track from the lower CRANDIC line to the main yards on the old RI main.  The speeds were slow, but the noise and action was fierce.  These rebuilt Paducah GPs were the mainstay of the IAIS fleet during the 1990s and their distinctive headlights still make me smile.

Number 401 herself lasted for a long time around Illinois and Iowa.  According to the unofficial IAIS photo archive and railfan guide, the 401 started tenure with the IAIS in 1987 and was sold in 2005.  Not bad.

Picture 4:  Monon Semaphore Signals, Indiana, 1998
As my interests in photography expanded, my attentions began to focus more on the "remains" or "left behinds" of prior state of the art.  One evening in the summer of 1998, a friend and I were doing some railfaning around the state of Indiana and I happened to glance right to the old Monon mainline that was running parallel.  Standing out against a low setting sun was this lone blade, 130.6.  

We stopped and took about a roll's worth of film and set about the next day to find as many other blades as we could.  I would return to these signals different times to capture them before they were removed from service by CSX.  As with many of the holdovers and remains I've come to seek in my wanderings, I am always amazed and humbled a bit by how much history has passed during the tenure of these old signals.  They were originally placed by the Monon and saw countless freights and passenger trains (like the Thoroughbred) that spanned the steam and diesel eras.  They were a lasting presence out on those Indiana planes and the sunset captured that day is just one of thousands that cast its light on the silver sides of the old blade.  One day, I'll put together a blog posting about semaphore signals.  These Monon signals are among my favorites: upper quadrants, captured in active service in a time period that has long since passed them by.

Picture 5: CTC signal on the Rock Island at West Liberty, IA, 2003
 The final photo finds a dismantled CTC signal at West Liberty, IA.  This is the north-facing interlocking signal along the North-South line which protected the crossing of the East-West Denver main.  The signals were controlled, as I recall, by the operator who was stationed in the West Liberty depot.  Over the years I had found the late light of evening and sunset to produce some very interesting photos and, just like the blades along the Monon, the old CTC signal stands out well against the planes of the MidWest.  It is winter time in the photo above, and I had spent the day out and about looking for relics just like this one.  The days of Rock Island passenger trains like the Zephyr-Rocket are gone as is the railroad that operated them, but the lone signal remains as a standing reminder of what once was and what we've lost along the way.  

A few decades from now, I wonder if any young railfan will attempt their own Railfan 5 Challenge?  Will the images be filled with Amtrak Genesis units and a sense of nostalgia over bygone Horizon cars?   Perhaps even a photo of a GE "Toaster" will make it in?