Editor’s Notebook


The Squirrel and the Crow

A Thanksgiving Fable

One chilly November morning, a gray squirrel was gathering food for the winter. He was a very gray gray squirrel, for he had seen many seasons come and go, and he knew just where to hide his winter food, safe from nosy groundhogs and thieving bluejays. Soon the winter snows would fall.
Presently, he came to a road that runs through the wood. He stopped on the edge of the road, flicking his tail nervously. Just then, he heard a loud voice, coming from high above, and he looked up to see a shiny black crow high on a branch overhead.

"CAW! Be careful friend, for a dangerous menace hurtles up and down this path, and it flattens any creature that gets in its way." The crow was hungry and quickly made a plan. "Wait, and I will watch  and tell you when it is safe to cross, for I have keen eyes and from my branch I can see very far."

The squirrel settled on his haunches beside the road. He arranged his tail into a question mark over his back and waited. He waited for what seemed like a very long time before the crow spoke again.

"Get ready!" the crow cawed and spread his wings. "Now! Now! Now!"

But the gray squirrel, instead of starting across the road, turned and looked up at the crow. "Thank you, kind crow!" he called, but his words were drowned out by the roar of a big black car that hurtled down the road just as he spoke. The disappointed crow flew off  and the gray squirrel scurried safely into the woods on the other side of the road.

Back in his warm den, the squirrel ate a feast of hickory nuts and some red berries that he had saved special to celebrate the beginning of winter. Then he burrowed into his nest and arranged his tail to keep his feet warm. The light was fading and he listened to the sound of the wind in the trees.

It is a good thing to always give thanks, he thought to himself and soon he was sound asleep.

Edd FullerText and photograph copyright 2016

Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the United States, and The Trackside Photographer will be taking the day off. Please check back on December 1st for the next new article.

When Documentation
  Becomes Art

Elevator at Sunset, Yuma, CO – January 6th, 2013

Grain elevators have fascinated me as long as I can remember. Growing up in the Midwest meant seeing these unique buildings along the tracks of even the smallest communities. Symbolic of the agrarian roots of the region, they were often the tallest and most imposing structures in farm belt towns. Along the granger railroads that I grew up with, the grain elevator was as much a fixture of the trackside infrastructure as the depot. Because of that, grain elevators have long played a role in my railroad photography—so much so that I often made an effort to photograph them even if there wasn’t a train around for miles.

An example of incorporating an elevator into a railroad composition during my early photographic years. Kankakee, Beaverville and Southern Railroad in Beaverville, IL. Date unrecorded but in the mid to late 1990’s.

When I moved to Denver, Colorado in 2001, I was enthralled to find that the grain elevator was as prevalent on the high plains of eastern Colorado as it was back home in Illinois. Once again, I found myself taking photos of these magnificent structures. Something happened in early 2010 that really sealed my commitment to this exercise. One day while driving past Bennett, CO, I noticed that the old wooden elevator there was no more! Seeing the bare ground where the elevator had once stood hit me hard. Shortly thereafter, I decided that I really wanted to start documenting as many of Colorado’s remaining elevators as I could before other elevators suffered a similar fate.

A large format photograph of the wood elevator and one of the concrete elevators in Bennett, CO. The wood elevator was torn down in late 2009. While shot with a large format camera, this image is pretty similar to my efforts across all photographic formats at the time. Documentary but hardly artistic. Date unrecorded but probably taken in 2007.

My initial efforts were about as documentary as a three-quarters wedge shot is of a locomotive. I tried to shoot with good light but the compositions were all similarly nondescript. They were serviceable as illustrations but hardly noteworthy in any artistic way. I think my goal at the time was merely to photograph as many as I could before they were gone. On a very cold February 18th, 2012, though, that all changed. I arrived before dawn to get morning light on the Eastlake elevator north of Denver. When I arrived, there was a really nice crescent moon just begging to be photographed. I had my tripod and quickly set-up to photograph a “blue hour” shot of the elevator, something I hadn’t tried yet. When I got home and compared that image against my more typical shot after sunrise, I was smitten by the additional grace and beauty of the moon scene as a whole. Indeed, the elevator became even more interesting to me. After that, I really started challenging myself to see elevators in new ways by looking at details, placing the elevators in the environment where they reside, incorporating vehicles and other elements into the frame, etc. These all became new photographic tools for me.

The photograph that changed my approach to the Colorado grain elevator project. Eastlake, CO – February 18th, 2016

2012 proved to be a wonderful year for the project in another way, too. That was the year that I came across the grain elevator page of Gary Rich. Gary’s PBase page (http://www.pbase.com/grainelev) was full of information about the grain elevators of Colorado and many other states. It was also full of wonderful elevator imagery. Gary has since become a great friend and we have gone on many grain elevator photographing excursions together.

Detail of Steel Tile Elevator, Broomfield, CO – February 25th, 2016

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” – Ansel Adams

That quote has come to embody precisely how I approach my grain elevator project now. When I take a photograph of an elevator, I’m hoping to convey exactly how these magnificent structures move me. I want the viewer to feel the same appreciation I do for them, both as beautiful buildings and as symbols of the men and women who have toiled for generations to feed the country. If I can succeed at that, the project has been worth the effort I have put into it.

Click on photograph to open in viewer

Christopher MayPhotograph and text Copyright 2016
See more of Christopher’s work at Fine Art Photography by Christopher May

Trackside Elegy

“Where have all the boxcars gone?”

Empty storage tracks at Bucksport paper mill. – September 2016

Alas, another trackside industry that relied upon dependable railway service  has finally met the scrapper’s torch. The Verso Paper mill in Bucksport, Maine, closed down December 1, 2014. At first, I thought this was another example of creative destruction. However, I am not sure anymore. At present the physical destruction has begun. Unfortunately no creative concept for future development of the property has been revealed. According to local press releases the digital shift, consolidation and off-shore competition were the primary catalysts for closure.

Empty storage tracks behind Bucksport commercial buildings next to seawall. – September 2016

The eighty-six year old paper mill operated under the aegis of four different owners: the Seaboard Paper Company, St. Regis Paper Company, Champion International Paper and Verso Paper Corporation. During this period the mill, valued at $385 million in 2014, was served by a single nineteen mile long railroad branch line that had undergone three consecutive masthead changes: the Maine Central Railroad Company, the Guilford Rail System and Pan Am Railways.

GP40-2LW shunting tank cars at Bucksport paper mill. – May 2007

Constructed at a cost of $10 million, the mill opened its doors in November 1930. It employed as many as 1,000 workers in a town of 5,000 inhabitants in the year 2002. When the mill closed, 570 employees lost their jobs and all of the slow moving strings of boxcars and tank cars were doomed to oblivion. The net result was the loss of 24/7 rail activity punctuated by the sound of railcars rocking and rolling over unruly track behind growling diesel switch engines that shunted their daily burdens parallel to Rt 15. Together the railroad and mill provided the perfect place for train watchers and railroad photographers alike.

When the mill was in full operation one could either walk or drive behind the quaint storefronts that cradle the main street of tiny Bucksport. There, one could find three storage tracks crammed with lines of 50 foot boxcars arrayed before a dramatic backdrop that embraced the Penobscot River, historic Fort Knox, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and the rambling mill complex. Today, as a lamenting trackside photographer, I have to ask myself the question,”Where have all the boxcars gone?”

Boxcars on storage tracks at Bucksport paper mill. – May 2007

David Kahler, FAIA – Photographs and text Copyright 2016

The Kate Shelley Story
 Part Two

On a stormy summer night in 1881, 17-year old Kate Shelley crawled across the Des Moines river bridge in the dark to warn the approaching Midnight Express of the collapse of the Honey Creek bridge. She became a legend. This is part two of her story. Part One is here.
Building the High Bridge, 1900 (Chicago & North Western Historical Society Photo)

A New Mainline

Some 18 years after the dramatic events of July 6th, 1881, the Chicago & North Western Railway began construction on a new high tech mainline located several miles north of the Shelley Homestead, near Moingona, Iowa. This new cutoff was part of a multi-year project to rebuild the highly important mainline between Council Bluffs and Chicago. Construction of the portion through the Boone area began in 1898, and work on a new viaduct over the Des Moines River began in 1899.

Likely the first train on the bridge, 1901 (Chicago & North Western Historical Society Photo)

In early 1901, the new cutoff opened to traffic. The highlight was a half mile long, 185-foot-high viaduct over the Des Moines River. Originally referred to as the Boone Viaduct, it gradually became known as the Kate Shelley High Bridge, as a tribute to the young girl who saved the Midnight Express in Moingona. The viaduct was engineered by famed engineer George S. Morrison, and was one of his final projects. Both American Bridge Company and Union Bridge Company supplied the structural components for the bridge. At 2,685 feet long; it is still regarded as one of the largest double track railroad bridges in the world. Soon after the new line was opened, the Moingona line was downgraded to a branch line.

Newly Completed Bridge, Ca. 1902 (Chicago & North Western Historical Society Photo)

Despite the constant attempts by the railway to hire her, Kate oftentimes had other jobs; working at the Iowa State House as menial labor, or as a school teacher in the area. However, Kate finally took the job of station agent in Moingona. She remained unmarried through her life, despite the interest of coworkers in the area. Her mother died in 1909, and she stayed with her brother, John, who also worked for the railroad. In 1910, Kate’s health began to fail. She had some brief stints in hospitals, before returning to Boone County, where, in September of 1912, she succumbed to Bright’s disease.

Moingona Bridge Ruins, March 2013 (John Marvig Photo)

In 1930, the Moingona line was removed in preference of the Chicago & North Western route north of the area. All traces of the line were removed, including the Honey Creek Bridge that had collapsed and set in motion the events of that night in 1881, and the Des Moines River bridge that Kate Shelley crawled across in the dark to save the Midnight Express. The remaining artifacts included the 1901 depot, which replaced the original structure that burned the same year, a stone arch in Moingona over Mill Creek, and several miles of railroad grade.

Mill Creek Stone Arch near Moingona Depot, Built 1881, March 2013 (John Marvig Photo)

Over the years, Kate Shelley became a legend in the area. The Chicago & North Western designated a train from Chicago to Omaha as the Kate Shelley 400. The name was created in 1955, and removed from service in 1971. Boone County created a museum at the Moingona station, called the Kate Shelley Railroad Museum. The portions of the rail bed around Honey Creek and the Des Moines River are footpaths for those seeking to follow in the foot-steps of Kate’s heroic run in 1881. The Boone Viaduct, while never officially renamed the Kate Shelley High Bridge, still stands and can be visited very easily. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In addition, a number of documents pertaining to Kate and her family are in a special collection at the Iowa State University Parks Library.

The Kate Shelley High Bridge

Kate Shelley High Bridges, July 2012 (John Marvig Photo)

In 2006, after 105 years of use, a project began to replace the High Bridge near Boone. Chicago & North Western was purchased by Union Pacific in 1995 and the Union Pacific continued to use the line to full capacity. The new bridge opened in 2009. At 190 feet high and 2,813 feet long; it is larger than the old structure. This bridge was officially christened as the New Kate Shelley High Bridge. In 2016, the old structure is closed to trains, while the new concrete and steel structure carries the traffic. Side by side, the two bridges create one of the most impressive spectacles in Iowa.

Kate Shelley High Bridges, July 2012 (John Marvig Photo)


While Kate passed away over 100 years ago, her legend and story is one of the most inspirational and common stories passed to children in Iowa. At college in Ames, Iowa; I was hard pressed to find a student who grew up in Iowa not knowing the story of Kate Shelley. The two high bridges off Juneberry Road between Boone and Ogden attract tourists, rail fans and history buffs alike. While the new bridge oftentimes serves over 100 trains a day, the old bridge has been closed since 2009. It is hoped that it can someday become part of a memorial walkway. One would find it very difficult to visit Central Iowa without at least a glimpse of the legend of Kate Shelley.

John MarvigPhotographs and text Copyright 2016
See more of John’s work at John Marvig’s Railroad Bridge Photography