Out of the Shadows

Mr. & Mrs. Henry Wilhelm (former Margaret Mitchell) in California

Henry Theodore Wilhelm was born in 1905, in the middle of arguably the most exciting and constructive decade in American history. The Panama Canal, electrification of mainline railroads such as the New Haven, huge new steel bridges and other infrastructure improvements, all were part of investment in America and her future. The list of what was deemed possible, and then doable, goes on and on.

At age 14, Henry became fascinated with railroads, and especially with the thousands of manned interlocking stations and cabins. This led to his lifelong hobby of documenting these unusual places, which the railroads had built as a necessity for preventing collisions, given the high volume of trains transporting passengers, mail, and freight all across the country. Over time, he photographed more than 2,500 junctions and the towers that controlled them. His notes were precise and detailed, and his negatives individually numbered and described in his log books.

Following graduation from college, Henry took a job in engineering, working for the Bell Labs division of AT&T in New York City, and then suburban New Jersey. Fortunately for us, he applied his remarkable talents in photography, logistics, organization, and enthusiasm to embark on a lifelong hobby of photography that is a pleasure to all of us reading The Trackside Photographer.

Henry was what we today call a “railfan,” and his records and photographs are a treasure trove of railroading history that can be shared electronically with others. Henry died in 1986, and so did not enjoy the benefits of the internet, but I am sure he imagined it happening in the future and would have loved it. After all, he was working at Bell Labs.

There are around 7,000 black and white negatives in the Wilhelm archives. During one of his railfan adventures, Henry met and befriended a 14 year old enthusiast on a 1947 New Haven Railroad fan trip from New Haven to Maybrook New York, over the famous Poughkeepsie Bridge. Henry and his new young friend were both standing in the vestibule of the last car, where Henry was taking notes of mileposts, sidings, and especially signals. The young boy thought this an interesting exercise, so he started taking notes, too. Henry became a mentor for his new friend, Dick Carpenter and together they shared many other railroad adventures over the years. Later, Dick Carpenter created and produced a remarkable set of volumes of meticulously hand drawn maps of the entire United States as the railroads were in 1946, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=richard+carpenter+railroad+maps&ref=nb_sb_noss

Henry’s documentation of railroad structures, scenes, stations, and of course trains, included meticulous notes and records of every photograph, including file number, railroad, tower designation, town and state location, and date. Much of his work was done between 1927, when he was twenty two, and 1939, during which time he met, courted and married Margaret Mitchell. The couple continued to travel extensively, always with notebook and camera at the ready.

They also had a son, Alec, and when Henry passed away in 1986 at age 81, Alec gave this collection of negatives, drawings, and records to Dick Carpenter, who in turn donated them to the National Railway Historical Society affiliated SONO Switch Tower Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, with John Garofalo as custodian of the material.

People emerge from the shadows, and we can only wonder what they were thinking when they saw Henry with his camera.

I have been digitizing images from slides, glass plate negatives, prints, and B&W negatives for more than twelve years, and have now completed more than 104,000 images. So when John asked me for help in scanning Henry’s original negatives, I enthusiastically agreed.

Torn, damaged and overexposed negative
After repair, exposure correction, and retouching damaged portions

Here are some examples of the structures and the people which Henry so diligently photographed, made possible through the wonders of computers and scanning technologies, which Henry would have loved.

The photographs are remarkable not just as a record of the railroad signal towers which were found in great abundance, protecting virtually every switch, diamond crossing of different lines, junction and station. Some were taken after driving to often remote locations, and many others were taken from Henry’s favorite place to ride—standing in the open vestibule of the last car of his train, recording the network of switches, signals, signs, stations, and of course, towers and people as they receded into the distance.

But the photographs provide much more than an architectural record of the towers. Steam engines and the railroads they ran on, with frequent stops to resupply water, coal, and to lubricate the countless moving parts of the locomotive, were very labor intensive. Track maintenance was performed by gangs of twenty of more men, not by sophisticated machines operated by a skilled operator working in air conditioned control cabs.

It is these people, often not even noticed in the photo until after the negative has been scanned (I use 1200 dpi settings for B&W negatives) and enlarged on the computer screen who make the photos so fascinating. People emerge from the shadows, and we can only wonder what they were thinking when they saw Henry with his camera. Who is that guy with a camera taking a picture of the tower when there is no train around? Why does anyone want a picture of ME? It is a fascinating record of railroading in the era from after World War I and through World War II, which Henry Wilhelm’s photos and Dick Carpenter’s Railroad Atlas document so thoroughly.

Here are some examples of the structures and the people Henry so diligently photographed, made possible through the wonders of computers and scanning technologies, which Henry would have loved. We are very fortunate that the collection exists to provide such a wonderful view of life, and of railroading in the United States as it was one hundred years ago

A nice ride with the top down, visiting Erie Towers!

New York Central F Tower
Tracks, signals, and a Tower with no trains
New York Central F Tower (detail)
Mom and three daughters in their Sunday best for an after church visit to Dad in his tower

Eastview, New York
Train leaving Eastview on a sunny summer day

Seneca, New York
Steam engine, Diesel Engine, Tower and Yard, Seneca NY
Seneca, New York (detail)
Two proud engineers wanting to be in the photo of their cabs

Syosset , New York
Signal Cabin on the LIRR – Cold on the winter nights!

Topeka, Kansas
Union Pacific Station from rear vestibule of departing train
Topeka, Kansas (detail)
Enlargement with conductor’s salute and baggagemen with cart
Topeka, Kansas (detail)
Passengers awaiting their train, grouped with other travelers

Penn Station, New York
Tower A – Pennsylvania Station before the station’s destruction.

Shippensburg, Pennsylvania
PRR Pennroad Tower with train and signals
Shippensburg, Pennsylvania (detail)
Detail of operator, engineer, and lady friends who have joined a summer outing chasing trains

Carbur Cabin, Florida
Signal Cabin on ACL with operators expected to wear suits and ties

Gunpow, Maryland
Notice the tower, operator, automobile, and oncoming train…
Gunpow, Maryland (detail)
To impress your railfan boyfriend, stand next to a speeding doubleheaded steam train in lovely summer dress and white high heels!

New York Mills
Easy to miss the two people behind the left telephone pole if you are watching the oncoming train!

Waltham, Massachusetts
Bike, car, and foot traffic resumes once the gates go up

Boston, Massachusetts
OK boys, let’s get these switches cleaned

Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Marine traffic has the right of way

Croton Harmon, New York
Ready for the most famous train, the Twentieth Century Limited, on the New York Central

Kansas City, Missouri
Keep the camera at the ready for the most interesting train and watch for interesting things from that rear vestibule

The records and photographs made by Henry Wilhelm and many others comprise a wonderful view into railroading and railroaders, and deserve to be preserved for history. If you decide to scan your images, either your own or others, you’ll derive great enjoyment from your work and learn things you never knew about railroads in the last century.

Bob HughesPhotographs and text Copyright 2019

Track Houses

Bentonville, Virginia

I suppose you get used to it: the dishes rattling in the cupboard, the thundering locomotive, the diesel fumes invading the front porch, the clack of wheels on steel rail, the wait in the driveway for a train to pass.

Life along the tracks. It may be hard for railfans to appreciate that if you live this close to trains, the railroad becomes commonplace, or perhaps a nuisance. The early morning noise, your favorite TV show drowned out by a train—the railroad is an inescapable part of your day to day life.

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The Evolution of ALTO Tower

ALTO tower in 2012 as a pair of NS helpers push past.

Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1915, ALTO (JK) tower, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, remained in service for the next ninety-seven years, closing in 2012. Over that time it worked under the auspices of four different railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), Penn Central, Conrail and Norfolk Southern and each railroad, in turn, brought something new to the table. It is easy to think of railroad history over the last century to be one of subtraction; infrastructure being removed as a transportation monopoly yielded to competition from air travel and highways. However, for at least its ninety-seven years in service, ALTO’s story was one of adaptation to the ever changing times.

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Saturdays and Sundays at NW Tower

A diesel coming to tie on and take the train to Brewster.

By the mid 1960s, my father was still working a “relief” job. This meant OW on Mondays, JO on Tuesday and Wednesday, and NW on Thursday and Friday. For several years the railroad was short on towermen, and my dad worked his days off at NW.  Saturday was my big day to go with him. My dad was always a good relief and came in early—most men were. Jim Donahue was the day man and was ready to leave after we showed up and he let my dad know if anything was not normal. That meant with the interlocking machine as well as trains not running in their normal order.

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Tower Architecture

“CW Cabin” – Hinton, West Virginia – Chesapeake & Ohio – Robert Staples photo

Railroads today are very standardized in their operations and equipment. It is very difficult to distinguish one railroad from another other than by their paint scheme. Things were different in the golden age of railroading. The railroads were very different from each other in terms of operating practices, the equipment used to move freight, and even the structures used to support operations such as depots or interlocking towers.

I will cover just the general look and design that the railroads followed most of the time. Please keep in mind that there were always exceptions to the rules.

Each railroad’s towers had their distinctive look and most followed a standard design or plan, but even within the same railroad, the towers could differ in looks or style from line to line. Read more

Blowing the Past Away

I was driving down Highway 4, between Rosetown and Swift Current, Saskatchewan, when I saw the old abandoned wood crib elevator in a farmer’s field just off the highway. How, I wondered, did it come to be there, all alone?

As it turns out, the elevator was once on a railway line—the old Canadian Pacific Railway McMorran Subdivision. Built in 1923, it was one of at least two elevators in the hamlet of Thrasher. But on this summer day in 2015, there is only one elevator left, abandoned like the rail line, and like Thrasher itself. Read more