Sunday, April 26, 2015

Out of Time but not Out of Place

While the Milwaukee Road is the standard fare for this collection of writings and remembrances, there are a few other railroads that occasionally make a guest appearance.  In the past, the Rock Island Lines have graced these pages, as have former Wabash (Norfolk and Western) and even the Monon.  

One of the lasting images of Golden Age railroading must be Superpower steam and an upper (or lower) quadrant semaphore signal.  These "blades" usually collected in pairs, and stood high above the horizon lines of railroads across the country.  Though they were unpopular on electrified lines because of the overhead catenary and the related difficulties of visual discernment, traditional railroads embraced them.  The simple mechanical system that moved the blade itself was an effective visual aid that supplemented the poor optical qualities of the lenses of the day.  As lenses improved, and visibility at distance increased, the semaphore slowly vanished from the landscape of US railroads and the horizon lines of the land itself.

In contrast to modern signals with high visibility, tightly focused optics, the semaphores at night provided almost as much ambient lighting as a streetlamp.  One night as I lay awake aboard Amtrak's Cardinal many years ago, I watched intently out the darkened windows as the short train of Superliners rolled and pitched its way along old Monon trackage near Romney, IN.  When we hit semaphore territory, there was no question what the bright light was that flew by outside the window at regular intervals.  It was the soft white glow of railroading's yesteryear.

There are few places today where real, operating blades may be found.  Though CSX took many years, the Monon blades have now been removed.  In Oregon, a few years back, lower quadrants existed along former SP lines though their days were numbered even then.  And Amtrak's Southwest Chief still split the blades for decades after the Superchief and the El Capitan stopped rolling across New Mexico.  Today, the Raton Pass line is still home to sets of matching blades, perhaps the last few mainline semaphores remaining in the US anywhere.

Dear reader, permit me to share a few photos of the Monon Semaphores from 2002.  Enjoy these relics of railroading's golden age standing tall along a Midwestern mainline, just as they were always intended.