The Track Comes First

Stations: An Imagined Journey
The cover of Michael Flanagan’s Stations features his painting “Chalybeate Springs,” based on a Charles Rotkin photograph taken on the Central Railroad of New Jersey in High Bridge, New Jersey that appeared in a 1972 Fortune magazine essay on eastern U.S. railroads.

In the summer of 1992 I attended an industrial archaeology field school at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and spent my free time investigating railroad action around Martinsburg, Winchester and the surrounding Shenandoah Valley. Two years later, my annual Christmas stocking-stuffer book was Michael Flanagan’s illustrated novel of railroad paintings, Stations: An Imagined Journey which to my surprise was set in the same geographic area.  I was immediately drawn to the paintings, many of which looked like familiar places.  The narrative seemed cryptic on the first reading.  But I kept returning to the book, which eventually led me on my own journey, a personal exploration that rewarded me with a deeper understanding of my attraction to the railroad landscape.

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Inside the East Broad Top

“The Current Chapter”

The last time I saw the East Broad Top under steam was October 29th, 2011, during a freak pre-winter blizzard fondly referred to as Snowtober. The storm produced unusually early season snowfall across the northeastern United States, breaking records for total accumulations. In fact, in some cities Halloween was cancelled and children were left without treats. Two months later, the tourist excursion season ended, and the East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Company suspended operations indefinitely. The narrow gauge railroad has been dormant since, their doors locked. Once touted as the oldest operating narrow gauge steam train at its original location in America, water has not boiled inside a locomotive for five years. But I never stopped going back to visit this historic landmark. Face-to-face in the presence of absence; the current chapter.

One of Matthew’s images from the day, aptly named “Train on a Snow Day”, placed second in the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s 2014 Awards Program

Since its most recent closure, I have been routinely visiting the towns of Orbisonia, Mount Union, Robertsdale, and all points of interest in between. Regardless of season, weather conditions, or time of day, it is my mission to photograph and document the facilities as they exist present day. With permission from EBT management and ownership, access to the railroad complex has been graciously granted to capture photographs of these spectacular scenes. Read more

Editor’s Notebook

Expressive Documentary

Town of Shenandoah, Virginia – May, 2011

Recently, I have been thinking about the role of photography in documenting the railroad landscape. Photography and the railroad grew up together. Both were born in the early years of the 19th century and photography has provided a valuable documentary record of the industry that helped power the industrial revolution and the creation of the modern world.

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Our Man in Havana

The Central Railway Station

 

The American Architect, 1913 Sept. 10, v. 104.
Courtesy of the Avery Library, Columbia University, New York, New York

Cuba is a fascinating travel destination in every way – culture, music, architecture, art, nature and bird life. And the people are friendly, gracious, and welcoming.

I borrowed my title from Graham Greene’s 1958 novel, Our Man In Havana, which was set in Cuba before the 1959 Revolution. It is about a vacuum cleaner salesman, who may be a Mi6 British spy, or maybe he isn’t. Who can be sure? It’s a great read, like most of Graham Greene’s novels.

When I visit new cities, I like to check out the railroad station and train infrastructure. Read more

Twenty-Two Hundred Miles
 and Counting

Part One
The namesake mound for the town of Wagon Mound, New Mexico. sits just south of the semaphores on the BNSF’s Raton Subdivision

In 2008, Congress passed legislation requiring Class 1 railroads to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) by December 31, 2015.  This was the nail in the coffin for the remaining “classic signals” left in the United States—the signals we grew up with. Semaphores, tri-lights, color position lights, and searchlights; all were slated to come down, replaced with the new “Darth Vader” signals that many despise. This new legislation’s deadline was extended, giving time to capture the last gasp of the “old signals” that are falling by the day on railroads all over the country.

Like many, I nearly waited too long to capture these unique structures before they were gone, so it was time to get moving. Last July it became apparent that if I was to see and capture any of these signals I would need to act quickly. A decision was made that, along with my dad, I would take off on a four day adventure through the Southwest to capture the last semaphores in mainline service in the United States. Little did I know, there were other gems to be found along the way. Read more

Robot Railfans

Canadian National 8894 passing hotbox detector outside Winnipeg

Railfans have been around for a long time—perhaps as long as there have been trains. Even before early railfan photographers like Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, no doubt there were people who observed train movements and took notes.

Today’s railfans are generally a sophisticated lot, tapping online forums and Facebook groups, listening to radio scanners and watching rail cams, exchanging emails and text messages and tracking every “special” locomotive and railcar.

However, they have nothing on the robot railfans, employed by the railways to keep a close eye on their trains. These tireless observers watch the trains, day and night, through sunshine and sleet, looking for trouble and reporting on it. With far fewer people trackside these days to give visual inspections, these devices are the last line of defence against defects and derailments. Read more