Preserving the Past

Like so many of us, my interest in railroading led to a parallel interest in photography.  Not only did I have the pleasure of planning the photo, but later the images evoked powerful memories of people, places, and events I had encountered as I learned more about this fascinating industry.

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The Doe River Gorge

High above the Doe River

The East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC) was a mainly narrow gauge line that ran from Johnson City, Tennessee to Cranberry, North Carolina.  The original intent of the line was to haul high-grade iron ore from the mines at Cranberry to transfer points in Johnson City.  The ET&WNC began operations in 1881 as far as Cranberry, and by 1918 the railroad reached Boone, North Carolina.  The ET&WNC was also laid with dual gauge tracks from Johnson City to Elizabethton, Tennessee and  served two rayon plants there.  The little narrow gauge served the people of the mountains faithfully for many years, and become known affectionately as “The Tweetsie.”

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Returned to Reality

Rebirth of the Wiscasset, Waterville, and Farmington Railway

On June 15, 1933 the southbound train of the Wiscasset, Waterville, and Farmington Railway (WW&F) jumped the track in Whitefield, Maine. The locomotive nosed down an embankment towards the Sheepscot River, coming to rest just feet from the water’s edge. Although the WW&F had been resurrected from near-closure on at least two other occasions, this time it was not to be. The WW&F was closed for good. Following closure, the railway’s mainline was scrapped to satisfy the creditors, and equipment was either scrapped or sold. While the railway faded from the daily lives of residents in the Sheepscot Valley, it would live on in their memory. Well remembered especially by children, like Harry Percival, who grew up along the right-of-way. For them, the railway was a playground where their imagination could run wild. Percival’s memory proved to be the ember that, when fanned, gave rise to today’s WW&F Railway. Read more

The Adventure of
  Rail Yard Findings

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It was very windy and cool for June at the Strasburg Rail Road yard. With my DSLR, tripod and cable release in tow I walked around in search of a good place to capture the evening setting sun. And yes, at the rail yard!

This brings me to the subject matter for the article I am honored to write for The Trackside Photographer. When you visit your local rail road station(s) are you only interested in photographing trains? I suppose most of us are, but there are opportunities waiting for our creative eyes.

For example, the photo above illustrates an empty rail yard at sunset. Take a good look at the image. What do you see? For starters, the train tracks. What about the building on the left? The red rail car on the right? If you were at the rail yard, what other photographs would you compose? If you were composing the image above, what would you do different? Move in closer? Capture the image at a lower angle?


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This image was also captured at the Strasburg Rail Road yard. It was a overcast day and late afternoon. On this day I was searching for something different. Did I photograph locomotive run-bys? Yes, but my self assignment was to capture the different things that you can find at the rail yard.

For images like this one, I did post process it via HDR. I like the effect for old time buildings and such. It does bring out the details too. I was also attracted to the primary colors – red, blue, and yellow. When these colors are prominent in a composition, it tends to draw the viewer in to take a closer look.

Do you see a photo within a photo?


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This old rail car was photographed at the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad yard in Chama, New Mexico. It was my first photo tour in the southwest and this location was one of the last photographic locations of the ten day tour.

It was captured back in 2011 and I was very new to photographing the railroad. You see, vintage railroad became my niche after riding and photographing the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s Photographer’s Special. If you haven’t been on this special train, be sure to add it to your bucket list. It was absolutely amazing!

Getting back to the photo, this rusty crusty old rail car sitting on the tracks with the golden fall foliage, was an amazing find. I revisited this rail yard again in 2014 hoping to capture more images of this transport, but it was no longer there. Not that I thought it would be.

It sure has been through hard times though. Can you “picture” what it was like when in use?


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I have been blessed with being able to reside in the Susquehanna Valley as there are two vintage rail yards within 45 minutes of my residence. The Strasburg Rail Road, and the New Freedom Railroad.

This image, of the Engineer’s Gloves, was photographed inside the locomotive in New Freedom, PA. It was my first visit to the New Freedom Railroad AKA Steam Into History.

The engineers noticed me capturing the train at certain run-by locations. When the locomotive and I arrived back to the station, they asked me if I would like to come aboard. The gloves were laying near an opened window. If those gloves could talk, imagine the stories they would tell.

In closing, I hope that the next time you are out and about photographing the old railroads of yesteryear, that you will look for something more to capture. Maybe you will place yourself on a self assignment as well!

Cynthia SperkoPhotographs and text Copyright 2016
To see more of Cynthia’s work, visit her website Cynthia L Sperko Photography
Email Cynthia

Macro vs. Micro

Railroads are generally thought of as extremely large, heavy and powerful entities. Their primary design and function was to be able to travel great distances with the aid of engineered cuts, fills, bridges and tunnels that enabled locomotives and their cars the ease of crossing wide plains and tall mountain ranges with great speed and ease.

With this fact in mind, it is easy to understand why the vast majority of photographic and artistic attention has been dedicated to illustrating the drama and excitement of railroads and their locomotives while conquering these geographic barriers.

What I have chosen to examine in this edition is some of the inner workings of a few of the overlooked pieces of hardware that is, or was at one time, a vital part of making the drama and excitement of crossing those mountain ranges and desert plains possible. Lanterns, semaphores and incandescent bulbs were once widely used on every railroad in the United States, North America and elsewhere around the world. The advancement of technology, the LED and computer chip to name a few, has rendered all of these items undesirable and in some cases illegal. Most are no longer visible in the landscape of today’s mainline railroad environment.

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Interior of Lantern – Nevada Northern Railway

In 1908, the Corning Glass Works of New York developed Pyrex glass based on a request from the railroads to produce lantern glass that would not break when the hot glass was struck by rain or snow. Corning developed globes made from low-expansion glass that could withstand the abuses of weathering and rough handling by employees who readily broke the flint type glass globes of previously manufactured lamps and lanterns. Pyrex was later developed for use in switch lamps to act as a heat deflector and also to prevent the wind from blowing out the flame inside of the lamp housing. Pyrex was introduced to the public in 1925 and became universally accepted as tough, durable cookware that has since been used in millions of homes around the world. This photo is a study of a lantern at the Nevada Northern Railway that I made in 2009.


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Union Switch & Signal Style B Semaphore

The Union Switch & Signal Style B semaphore was once the preeminent choice of signaling for railroads such as the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific. Developed in the latter part of the 19th century, the lower quadrant semaphore was a major step forward in railroad signaling and therefore the device quickly became synonymous with safe rail travel. The Southern Pacific even used a graphic version of the Style B semaphore surrounded by their familiar circular company logo. The particular signal in this photo was once located on the Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou line through Oregon at milepost 623.7 near Cottage Grove, Oregon. The shot was made in September 2000 shortly before many of the Style B’s were removed from service.


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Interior of drive system – Style B Semaphore

Resembling a somewhat advanced version of one of A.C. Gilbert’s Erector Sets, we’re viewing a close up study of the inner workings of the venerable Style B reduction gear and chain drive. This is the drive system that when actuated by current, regulates the position of, in this case, the “Home” and “Distance” aspects displayed by the spectacles and blades. This is part of a series of photos I made exclusively for The Trackside Photographer in June of 2016.


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Motor – Style B Semaphore

The heart of the Style B semaphore is its motor. This relatively small motor is capable of lifting the two 20 ft connecting rods, both of the heavy cast iron spectacles and the porcelain covered blades into the proper aspects as dictated by the current sent through the code line. The reduction gears are a great aid in enabling this low voltage motor to have the ability to lift the heavy apparatus. The glass bezel has been removed in order to reveal the fine craftsmanship of this century old signal in what was really one of the first steps in electro-mechanical robotics.


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US&S Style R Signal

Concentric circles radiating outward from the filament inside this US&S Style R signal are a result of viewing the device from the open rear service door of the signal. The circle effect is caused by the Fresnel lens of Kopp Glass heritage. As glass bulbs with tungsten filaments eventually replaced kerosene illuminated signals and switch-lamps, the glass bulb is being nudged aside by the Light Emitting Diode or LED. For almost 100 years, the bulb was the heart and soul of every type of railroad signal imaginable. From CPL to wig wags, they all employed some form of the bayonet mount signal grade bulb. This image was made from a signal in my small collection displayed in my own back yard, which is why I was able to leisurely create this view.


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Hand Lantern

An Adams & Westlake hand lantern once used on the Denver & Rio Grande Western is probably no stranger to cold snowy evenings. The many years of use and abuse by brakeman and conductors alike is obvious in the state of its dilapidated top and disconnected bar still circling and protecting the fragile glass globe that has also seen better days. But what character this piece of railroad history has! I’m sure if it could talk it would speak of tall tales of harrowing adventures, swinging at the end of a caboose or a galloping goose while winding in and out of the highest passes the Rocky Mountains had to offer. This photo was made during one chilly evening in the relative safety of the East Ely Yards of the Nevada Northern Railway in February of 2009.


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Switch Lamp

Adams & Westlake, also known as Adlake, offered to their railroad customers many styles and variations of kerosene burning switch lamps. The large fuel tank seen at the bottom of the lamp would hold enough fuel for the flame to burn for many hours without a refill. Of course you would still need someone to light the flame in the evening and put it out in the morning. As you can imagine, it was quite a labor intensive activity to keep entire railroad yards full of these lamps fueled and illumined every night of the year regardless of adverse weather conditions one may encounter while preforming this duty. Many yard track switches are still protected by lamps but have long since converted to electrically powered devices such as the US&S ES (electric switch) 20. But even these signals are now, or have been, replaced by signals using LED illumination. Recently I was in Japan and saw an example of what appeared to be an Adlake type switch lamp. However this particular model was sporting LED’s in place of the traditional colored glass rondels. The photo above was made at the Nevada Northern Railway in February of 2009 with the kind permission of the director of the railroad.


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Switch Lamp and Hand Lantern

Switch lamps are often times used as a foreground element but seldom are they the primary concern in the composition. This observation was a motivating factor in creating the last few images seen in this edition. In order to accomplish a series of images concentrating on these devices, I needed two elements to come together simultaneously. First, I needed access to a railroad that would allow this sort of photographic activity on their property and secondly, I needed access to a collection of kerosene burning lanterns and lamps. I found both of these requirements conveniently located in one place: the Nevada Northern Railway (NNRY) in Ely, Nevada. Every February for the last ten years I have conducted the night photo shoots at the railroad. But the evening photo shoots only took place during one evening out of the three days the event was being held, leaving at least two other nights available for other activates. With the kind permission of the management of the NNRY, and after the locomotives and rolling stock were all tied up for the night, I set out in the early hours of the evening to start making exposures just as the sun set behind the mountains to the west of town. Fresh snow and azure blue skies formed the perfect backdrop to show off the dramatic and vibrant colors of these old lamps. We actually used kerosene to light the lamps and lanterns, and at least one flashlight to rim light the dark, rusty bodies of the lanterns for better separation against some of the muted colors of the buildings in the background. Since 2009, when I first started doing this series, I think I’ve produced about twenty five images where lamps and lanterns are the primary element in the photo. The lamp in the image above is an example of a competitor to the Adams & Westlake Co, The Dressel Railway Lamp and Signal Company, with the D&RGW hand lantern by its side.


I have enjoyed a good long run photographing railroads and trains. As with any endeavor you wish to master, you must start with simple compositions. Perhaps it’s simply shooting the train at the station or the train at the grade crossing, or maybe it’s shooting a train while crossing a bridge. Capturing images like these help master your technique, learning shutter speeds, f-stops and framing. These are all basic elements in the process of learning to document the world around you as you see it, in your time and place.

I’m very grateful for the efforts of those photographers that preceded me. Their mastering of rail related subjects to the point where I was inspired enough to imitate them is the basis of my work today. Then at some point in the game, one develops the desire to express something more than shooting the train at the station, the crossing or the bridge. You search for other subject material that challenges you to create your own mark, you own style that hopefully will inspire others to document and create their own vision with whatever image-capturing devices the future holds for them.

For the most part, I think I have accomplished everything I needed to accomplish in shooting kerosene lamps at night in the snow. I’ve moved on to explore other subjects in railroading. Maybe they’ll show up here on this site in some future edition of The Trackside Photographer.

Steve CrisePhotographs and text Copyright 2016
See more of Steve’s work at www.scrise.com