Railroad interlocking towers once dotted the landscape so much that it seemed like they would always be there. Many towers still stand and watch silently as their human operators and the interlocking levers they controlled have been replaced by new technologies controlled from afar. Many other towers have vanished completely, with only a patch of gravel marking the spot where the tower once stood.
In the small, central Illinois town of Shattuc stood one of these towers. For years Shattuc Tower stood as a silent sentinel, watching the trains of many railroads roll by its broken and boarded up windows, its interlocking levers frozen in place from when the tower was decommissioned and the tower operator walked out of the tower at the end of the very last work shift. In its heyday the tower controlled the movements of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads. In later years the tower stood guard over the Burlington Northern and Chessie System, before being closed sometime in the 1980s. After being closed, CSX and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) trains rolled past the unused tower on the CSX’s Illinois Subdivision and the BNSF’s Beardstown Subdivision.
Today the tower is gone, and one of the two rail lines it once controlled is no longer a through route. Shattuc Tower was torn down in December 2014, after having stood as an empty, silent sentinel for many decades. In 2015, in a filing to the Surface Transportation Board under STB Docket No. AB-55 (Sub-No. 748X), CSX requested and received approval to discontinue service on its Illinois Subdivision between Caseyville, Illinois and Aviston, Illinois. Because of this, the rest of the subdivision now lies dormant with an uncertain future. However, BNSF trains still ply the rails of the Beardstown Subdivision, rolling past the empty spot where the tower once stood.
When I came across Shattuc Tower back in 2005, the abandoned railroad tower grabbed my attention more than the previous abandoned railroad towers, depots, and stations I had come across. Previous to coming across Shattuc Tower I had never thought much about these by-gone structures disappearing, which is a shame because so few of them are still standing and even fewer are being used. Shattuc Tower made me realize just how important it is to document the railroading environment as a whole, rather than just locomotives and the rail cars they move. The tower had stood watch along with its operators for so many years and then in the blink of an eye it was abandoned. This abandoned state was to me a reminder of just how quickly life can change after being the same for so long. The tower was a reflection of life and how the advancement of technology changes how people interact with their world. Before being torn down, Shattuc Tower taught me the valuable lesson to get out and document what I can because what is standing today may not be standing tomorrow.
“There is no such thing as bad light,
just misunderstood light.”
That’s a quote I think a lot about. Like most photographers, I’m drawn to”blue hour” and “golden hour” light. It’s eye candy for us. Sometimes we get so obsessed with “good light,” though, that we ignore possibilities for other lighting situations. I find cloudy days wonderful for shooting detail shots with soft, even light. Night light (after blue hour) is made for contrasty, high drama photos. And yes, even harsh mid-day light can be useful.
This is a photograph that I took on a drive out on the plains east of my home in Pueblo, Colorado. The railroad line I’ve followed here is called the Towner Line and it’s part of the old Missouri Pacific Railroad. The line has faced some tough times lately and was poised to be abandoned and torn up. There’s an interesting legal case that may offer a reprieve, but even if that is the case, the line is still a shadow of its former self and faces many challenges.
The harsh mid-day light really called to me to tell that story. In this photo, we see the old signal with the lights and electrical components either scavenged or stolen. Colorado’s treeless plains form a background along with clouds that speak to the possibility of precipitation. What precipitation does fall will evaporate before hitting the ground and the strong winds caused by that effect will be the only hint of rain on this day. Life can be challenging on the high plains.
Had I taken this shot with the lower, warmer light of golden hour, I’m sure the result would have been more appealing aesthetically. However, I don’t think that it would have told the story that I intended it to. In the end, that’s always the most important component of any photo for me — conveying what it is that I feel when I take a photograph. In this particular instance, I’d like to think that I took a moment to understand the light as Mr. McCullin urged.
Grade crossings are among the most mundane aspects of the railroad landscape, but they are not without interest for photographers.
So on a drizzly afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I decided to undertake a small project to photograph the grade crossings along the old Chesapeake and Ohio Piedmont Subdivision, which is not too far from my home. Chartered as the Louisa Railroad in 1836, the Piedmont Sub is the oldest section of C&O track. It extends from Richmond, Virginia to Charlottesville and the line is still in use today, operated by the regional shortline Buckingham Branch Railroad.
The old store at the crossing at Green Springs, Virginia has an interesting story to tell. Shortly after midnight, on April 15, 1914, Buck Dunkum was awakened by cries of "fire!" and looked out of his bedroom window to see his store engulfed in flame. Later that same morning, Victor Hall was shot in the head and lay fatally wounded in his general store, just across the tracks from the smoldering ruins of Dunkum's store. His wife, Elizabeth Hall, was charged with his murder and a sensational trial followed.
Today, little remains of Green Springs. Rail passenger service ended in 1945 and the C&O demolished the Green Springs Depot and tore up the siding. Most of the other buildings, including the Hall house and store are gone. In 1914, Dunkum rebuilt his store on the original foundation and today it stands vacant next to the tracks at this lonely grade crossing.
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At its beginning, the city of Nitro was not considered a railroad town. Prior to the 1880s, Nitro was just another tract of land along the east side of the Kanawha River. However, the construction of the railroad through this undeveloped area played a significant role in its development a year before the end of World War I.
The history of the railroad through Nitro began with the construction of the Atlantic & Northwestern Railroad Company(A&NW) which was originally chartered as the Guyandotte & Ohio River and Mineral Company on February 28, 1872. The name was changed to A&NW on April 1, 1881 and it was during this year that right of way was acquired to build the railroad. The following year, the A&NW was acquired by what was then the Ohio Central Railroad which had a line into Ohio northwest of Point Pleasant, WV. The Ohio Central went into receivership on October 31, 1883 and the portion of the Ohio Central in West Virginia became the Kanawha & Ohio Railway. The Kanawha & Ohio went into receivership on February 19, 1889 after which emerged the Kanawha & Michigan Railway.
The Kanawha & Michigan(K&M) was incorporated on April 25, 1890. On July 1 of the same year the K&M purchased the Charleston & Gauley Railway from Charleston to Dickinson. The K&M extended the line to Gauley Bridge where it connected with the C&O and began operations on August 21, 1893. Thus the K&M had a route from Corning, OH, (approximately 52 miles southeast of Columbus) to Gauley Bridge, a distance of 163 miles.
During its first 10 years of existence, the Kanawha & Michigan was controlled by the Toledo & Ohio Central Railway(T&OC), however, the K&M remained independently operated. Around 1900 the K&M came under control of the Hocking Valley Railway. It was during this period that the K&M was upgraded to handle the requirements of transportation for that period. Then in March, 1910 the Chesapeake & Ohio obtained half ownership of the K&M from the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, which was affiliated with the New York Central Railroad. By June of 1914, the C&O sold its 50% interest in the K&M to the T&OC because of anti-trust actions brought by several railroads including the New York Central. The K&M remained an independently operated company through the first World War.
The United States’ involvement in WWI created a great and sudden demand for gunpowder. The government needed a location to build a plant and Nitro was selected tops among two other locations which were Nashville, TN and Louisville, KY in that order. Production at the Nitro and Nashville plants exceeded demands such that the proposed plant at Louisville was not needed. It is interesting to note that among the criteria called for in the Deficiency Appropriations Act” (passed by the US Congress on October 6, 1917) for the location of a plant was access to rail and water transportation, the availability of raw materials and the lay of the land. Nitro met those qualifications with the Kanawha & Michigan railroad, the Kanawha River and the 1,772 acres of land available for the plant and housing for the workers.
Ground was broken on December 23rd, 1917 at the site of the present Nitro City Park for the construction of the first of twenty-seven 200 person barracks. Construction of Explosives Plant “C” as it was known was also about to begin. During the 11 months that construction was ongoing, it was estimated that as many as 110,000 or more workers were on the payroll but there were never more than 19,000 on any given day. Turnover rate however was extremely high. The average worker stayed on the job for 40 days.
The Kanawha and Michigan was in place at the right time and certainly played a big roll in getting supplies and workers into this “boom” town. The government compiled a comprehensive report of railroad car loadings. A total of 37,236 cars were received at Nitro which worked out to an average of 104 cars per day. This included 4,339 carloads or 110,152,000 board feet of lumber unloaded. It was recorded that 141 carloads, or 31,000 kegs of nails were purchased, along with 4,634 picks and 15,879 shovels. In addition, 2,023 wheelbarrows and 2,225 carloads of common bricks were shipped to Nitro for use in constructing smoke stacks and buildings.
There was no laundry plant in Nitro so the laundry had to be shipped out by rail to places that had laundries like Charleston, Huntington and even Parkersburg. Also there were no bakeries, so bread was shipped by rail from facilities in Huntington and Charleston. They did a tremendous business shipping as much as 14,000 loaves of white bread and 3,000 loaves of Italian bread daily.
Because of the large amount of food and materials required, larger distribution centers were tapped. Meat, poultry and general supplies came from St. Louis, Chicago and New York; butter, eggs and cheese from Cincinnati; fish and oysters from Norfolk. Fruits and vegetables were shipped in from the south and west. In all a total of 1,132 carloads of the items listed above were received in Nitro in 1918.
The Kanawha & Michigan operated four through passenger trains between Columbus, OH and Charleston. It is interesting to note that all trains were designated with odd numbers. The usual convention was for eastbound and northbound trains to carry even numbers and westbound and southbound trains odd numbers. There was a depot in the southern part of Nitro named Lock Seven. The Nitro depot was located in the northern part of town and was moved in 1925 to the foot of 21st Street where it stood until it was demolished in 1967. A new building across the yard replaced the old depot and is still in use.
The end of World War I in November, 1918 brought on great celebration but also brought a sudden halt to the production of gunpowder. At that time, Explosive Plant “C” was producing 350 tons a day and 90% of the town was completed. Within two weeks after the end of the war nearly 12,000 people had moved away. The plant was gradually shut down and eventually it and the housing was surplussed and then sold to a group of investors approximately a year later for $8,551,000. People who elected to stay were allowed to buy houses and Nitro was on the way to becoming a self-sustaining community. The city of Nitro was incorporated in 1932.
The Kanawha and Michigan did its job to keep supplies and people moving in and out of Nitro through the 11 months of the war. However things were beginning to change for the railroad. On January 1st, 1922, the Toledo and Ohio Central began leasing the K&M, and on that very same day the T&OC was leased to the New York Central Railroad. Thus the mighty NYC began making its mark in the Kanawha Valley. On June 30th, 1938, the K&M was merged into the T&OC and on June 30, 1952 the T&OC was merged into the NYC thus giving it full ownership.
By 1921 Nitro had become an attractive location for a number of chemical companies and other types of businesses. One of the first to locate there was The Viscose Company, later American Viscose. It originally manufactured cotton linters, an ingredient used in gun powder but later turned to manufacturing rayon fibers. Afterwards other plants began operations including Monsanto, Ohio Apex, General Chemical, the Nitro Pencil Company to name a few. The plants provided much business for the railroad from this time into the 1980s when many of the plants were gradually closing down.
The New York Central served Nitro and the Kanawha Valley for a little over 46 years, but on February 1st, 1968 a new era began when the NYC merged with its rival the Pennsylvania Railroad to form Penn Central Transportation Company. Two years later Penn Central declared bankruptcy, setting the stage for the formation of Conrail on April 1st, 1976, from PC and six other bankrupt railroads in the northeast. The old NYC line through Nitro became part of the West Virginia Secondary of Conrail. Business was fair with merchandise trains, through coal trains from mines in Kanawha and Nicholas counties, and chemicals from other plants in the Kanawha Valley. There was enough business in Nitro to keep the yard operating but not up to the volume of cars that were handled between the 1920s and the late 1970s.
Conrail was government owned at its startup but by 1987 it was returned to the private sector. Ten years later Conrail was jointly acquired by the two other eastern carriers, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway. On June 1st, 1999, NS began operating the West Virginia Secondary.
Between 2011 and 2015 Norfolk Southern claimed business on the Secondary had declined 57 percent. Part of the decline was attributed to a decrease in the shipment of coal as power generating stations switched from coal to natural gas. Also chemical traffic and other types of traffic declined as well. Because of this, Norfolk Southern decided in February, 2016 to discontinue the two daily (one each way) trains between Dickinson Yard, near Charleston, and Columbus, Ohio. Freight for Nitro and other points in the Kanawha Valley was rerouted on other NS lines to Deepwater on the former Virginian Railway. No trains operated north of Nitro except occasional one or two car movements to Point Pleasant for interchange to CSXT.
On May 20th, 2016 WATCO Companies, a holding company that owns 35 short line railroads in the United States agreed to lease the West Virginia Secondary (except the first seven miles out of Columbus, OH) from Norfolk Southern. In their press release, The Kanawha River Railroad, LLC, a subsidiary of WATCO, said they plan to return daily through freight service between Columbus and Dickinson Yard through Nitro. Kanawha River Railroad will also lease 53 miles of the former Virginian Railway between Deepwater and Maben. The lease will take effect sometime in July, 2016. This is certainly good news for Nitro and the Kanawha Valley.
While this article is geared toward the railroad’s service to Nitro, resources are available that detail the history of Nitro. One is Nitro-The World War 1 Boom Town by William D. Wintz. Another source that was very helpful in writing this article is The Kanawha & Michigan Railroad – Bridgeline to the Lakes 1888-1922 by Donald L. Mills, Jr. The City of Nitro website cityofnitro.org has more detailed information as well.
Derailments are a fact of life in railroading. Today teams of well equipped, well trained contractors wearing high visibility reflective vests are called in to help. Their specialized equipment makes quick work of most derailments and cleanups. But for many years, the railroads maintained wreck trains equipped with flat cars carrying replacement wheels and huge steam cranes, along with tool cars bringing everything, including the kitchen sink, to the scene.
In spring 1967, Maine Central (MEC) train B-12 was meandering on its usual run along the Kennebec River, just south of Dresden, Maine. This was a daily, routine trip from MEC’s Bangor interchange with the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad at Northern Maine Junction to Portland. Something went wrong—probably a broken rail or wheel, dragging equipment. or whatever—which resulted in about eight cars “on the ground.” Happily there was no leaking cargo or injuries. Once the damage was assessed, the engines took the front part of the train on to Portland, and the caboose and rear end of the train was towed back to Waterville and routed down the back road via Lewiston and on to Portland.
That left the derailed cars and damaged track to be dealt with by the Waterville wreck train, which was dispatched along with track and car department crews to get started on the delicate and dangerous job of re-railing the cars and clearing the line.
Pictures of railroad accidents usually make the news, but photos of the crews doing the cleanup work, not so much. On this job, the crews working under the supervision of the wreckmaster have been careful and methodical in clearing the wreckage. The cleanup has gone well, and after working through the night, all the cars are back on the rails and ready to be towed back to the Waterville shops. New track is in place, and soon the railroad will be back to normal.
Here’s the weary crew riding on the open deck of the tool car, just under the big hook’s boom. Their difficult job is complete, nobody got hurt, and you can tell by their tired but relaxed expressions that they are pleased with their work, and know the railroad is ready for tomorrow’s B-12.