425 and Her People

October 2021

Zion Phillips photographing Reading & Northern 425 departing Port Clinton -- Oren B Helbok photo

In late September of 2021, my friend John Riley texted me to ask if I had plans to come out to chase the Reading & Northern's excursion from Reading to Jim Thorpe on the upcoming Saturday.  Until that moment, I had not; as of that moment, I did. 

Our mutual friend Dan Drennen texted me the night before to ask if he could join us -- well, of course!  None of us had particular photos in mind that we wanted, no definite locations, so we set out that morning happy to play it by ear and see what presented itself.

By ear -- an apt idiom for a day spent with the loudest locomotive that I have ever heard, one whose exhaust can completely overpower whatever whistle she happens to wear.

By the time we reached New Ringgold at a few minutes after 10 a.m., we had already photographed the train before departure at the Outer Station in Reading; crossing the stone-arch bridge at Washington Road south of West Leesport; coming under the Route 61 bridge at Port Clinton; and at Millers Crossing Road in Molino -- a typical energetic chase.

 

New Ringgold has a mess of stuff surrounding the railroad, and nothing especially attractive -- no old brick factory or a line of pretty houses, let alone a depot.   And yet I keep coming back, trying to make interesting images there.  For examples, see here and here and here and here.

 

When I parked the car on South Railroad Street, just down from the pizza place, I'd no idea what I wanted to do.  But I immediately saw a mother and her son next to each other, both looking expectantly down the track; she already had her phone out, ready to record the event, and I heard her saying to him "You should stand here until you can see the train coming around the corner, and then you can go farther back."  Perhaps I could do something with them.

 

"Do you mind if I take a picture of you two watching the train go by?" I asked her.   She looked utterly nonplussed but said "Sure, go ahead."   I set up behind them just as we heard the engine coming, a distant whistle and then that joyful roar, quickly louder and louder.  The boy, instead of running away, backed against his mother for protection from the oncoming monster, and she put her free arm around him -- and as that roar grew to a bone-shaking din, he put his own hands over his ears.  I could tell that engineer Shane Frederickson had the whistle blowing, because I could see the plume of steam above the cab -- but I could just barely hear it.  As the engine approached and passed us, I squeezed off more than a dozen shots while BB-sized cinders rained down on the assembled faithful.

Donna and Alex Oxner, Reading & Northern 425, New Ringgold, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

Donna and Alex Oxner, New Ringgold, Pa. -- 2 October 2021

It was AWESOME.

 

I waved at all of the people on the train -- thirteen cars of them -- and at the nabobs on the rear platform of the observation car, and then I turned my attention to the mother and her son again.  I handed her my business card and said "Drop me an e-mail and I'll send you a copy of the photo I made."  That night Donna Oxner did, and I did.

 

I remember that experiences have happened but not really the experiences themselves -- I do not FEEL them in my memory -- and almost all of my mental images of experiences at trackside come from the photos that I have made.  I hope that Donna's son has a better memory than I do, because he saw something AWESOME that day, and from right up close, with his mother's arm around him; a memory like that could warm him for his whole life.  Donna plainly feels that awesomeness; her e-mail to me read thusly:

 

"We live right in town and have been watching the steam trains come through town for so many years.  We can see the tracks from the front of our house.  When the neighborhood kids were all little they would hear the train whistle blow and run to the front of the house to watch it along with our dog.  The kids are mostly 13 and older now except my youngest who is 8.  Even though the kids don't run to the front our dog is still train crazy and will run up to see it.  There is just something about a steam train that is just magnificent.  Thank you for taking the time to take our picture."

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Two weeks later, going out to chase another Reading-to-Jim Thorpe, Pa., fall-foliage trip, one location stood out as the most important, and not one that I chose myself: My friend Christopher Bost had told me that he and fellow R. & N. engineer Steve Gilbert would go to Dauberville, along the former Reading Company main, to watch the train go by before chasing it up the line, and I wanted to make a photo of Chris with the locomotive that he has more than a third of a century of experience firing and running.  (At the time, Chris held seniority position number 2 on the R. & N.)

 

And I wanted to take the opportunity to catch up with Chris, whom I had not seen since the previous summer, when Railway Restoration Project 113 gave him the proceeds from the benefit train ride that they and the R. & N. collaborated on to raise funds to help Chris and his wife through Chris's CIPD -- Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, which Chris developed in fall 2020 after his flu shot.  (Exceedingly rare, CIPD afflicts about one in six million people.  The sold-out train in June 2021 operated from Minersville to Port Clinton and return, with more than 400 riders, 50 of them who paid extra to ride in two open gondolas -- great fun until it started to rain in mid-afternoon, but so far as I know no one complained.   The local newspaper and TV news gave good coverage the next month when Project 113's Bob Kimmel handed Chris a check for $12,000.)

 

Chris and Steve arrived in Dauberville well before the train even departed North Reading, so we had fifteen or twenty minutes to chat.   Chris has maintained a 100% positive attitude throughout his illness, and he talks about all of his trials and tribulations and treatments with stoicism, confidence, and good humor; I admire him greatly.  We also talked about trains too, of course, on the R. & N. and elsewhere.  While we talked, I knelt alongside Steve's car, the composition of my photo falling right into my lap, although I did have to ask Steve to adjust the sideview mirror a little to make it work.

 

Presently, we heard the whistle coming up the valley as the engineer blew for the three crossings in West Leesport, just over a mile away.   Then we could hear the exhaust, the magnificent roar that only the 425 can make.  The Bellemans Church Road crossing has lights and gates, but oddly no bell of its own, so it gave us only the visual cue of the imminent arrival of the train -- but the increasingly loud whistle and stack talk left no doubt that we would witness something utterly grand momentarily.

 

As the 425 came into view around the curve, I started shooting; the image here has the best overall composition, but the sequence shows Chris sitting up a little straighter in his seat as the engine nears -- his excitement at the sight undiminished after all of these years.

Chris Bost and Steve Gilbert, Reading & Northern 425, Dauberville -- Oren B Helbok photo

Steve Gilbert and Chris Bost with 425, Dauberville, Pa. -- 23 October 2021

Steve and Chris agree: At Dauberville, the engine sounded LOUD.   Exactly what they wanted to hear.

Thanks to Steve for serving as the chauffeur.  The word "chauffeur" comes from the French for "fireman", fitting for the person on the lefthand seat; with Chris on the righthand seat, I consider him the engineer on their excursion.  And I eagerly look forward to the day when we all can see Chris again on the righthand seat of the 425, his hands on the throttle and the whistle rope, making her talk.

When I got to the Broad Street crossing in Port Clinton a few minutes later, I found Zion Phillips already set up to record the energetic departure northbound in just a few minutes.  I had met Zion three months earlier at Glen Onoko in the Lehigh Gorge, where he and his mother and two of my friends and I had all converged to watch the spectacular show that the always 425 puts on when accelerating a "Gorge Train" across the Lehigh River and through the rock cut, on the way to Old Penn Haven.  In one of those grand coincidences that we all enjoy, it turned out that Zion and his mother live more or less around the corner from one of my two companions, and she two decades earlier she had appeared in the same high school musical as one of my friend's sons.  She told us that she did as much as she could to support her own son's train passion, and she sees how many friends he has made at trackside -- many of them kids who would otherwise find making friends very hard but whose social lives have blossomed in the company of like-minded fans.   (Zion posts to instagram.com/ziontrainguy; for a photo of Zion and his best friend, click here.  You'll find Zion's YouTube channel here, with his video of the 425 in the Gorge that day at youtube.com/watch?v=lH36PLqC-aM.)

 

When we saw each other in Port Clinton, we exchanged friendly greetings and compared notes about what we had already done this morning; after seeing the train depart North Reading, Zion regretted not having enough time to set up at West Leesport, and the video that he showed me on the back of his camera, while capturing the thrill of the chase, sure had all of the hallmarks of haste.

 

Two quick blasts on the 425's whistle brought our conversation to a close, and we prepared for action.  Zion looked over his shoulder and saw me standing behind him.  "Am I in your shot?" he asked.

 

"You got here first," I said, "and besides, you are my shot."   He smiled and turned all of his attention back to the task at hand.

Zion Phillips photographing Reading & Northern 425, Port Clinton -- Oren B Helbok photo

Zion Phillips and the 425, Port Clinton, Pa. -- 23 October 2021

At New Ringgold, I suspected that I might see Donna again, and indeed I found her at the exact same spot where we had met three weeks before, this time with both of her sons, Alex and Jonathan, to whom she introduced me.  "I'd like to take your picture again," I said, and she laughed and nodded.  We again had just a minute to wait.

Jonathan, Donna, and Alex Oxner, Reading & Northern 425, New Ringgold, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo
Jonathan, Donna, and Alex Oxner, Reading & Northern 425, New Ringgold, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

Jonathan, Donna, and Alex Oxner, New Ringgold, Pa. -- 23 October 2021

Fingers in and hands over ears certainly make sense when the 425 comes to town -- oh, what a feeling.

From New Ringgold, I beat the train to Tamaqua, and that makes for another story altogether; you can read it here.

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Below, more photos of 425's people -- both fans and the crews who keep her maintained and who put on such a good show with her on the Reading & Northern throughout the year.  My heartfelt thanks goes out to all of those railroaders.

Mennonite family watching Reading & Northern 425, Port Clinton -- Oren B Helbok photo
Mennonite family watching Reading & Northern 425, Port Clinton -- Oren B Helbok photo

Mennonite family watching Reading & Northern 425, Port Clinton, Pa. -- 23 October 2021

R. & N. engine crewman Shelley Hall heads to work, Port Clinton, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

R. & N. engine crewman Shelley Hall heads to work, Port Clinton, Pa. -- 2 October 2021

The R. & N.'s Shelley Hall and Shane Frederickson, Port Clinton, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

The R. & N.'s Shelley Hall and Shane Frederickson, Port Clinton, Pa. -- 2 October 2021

"Mr. Reading & Northern", railroad owner Andy Muller, Reading, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

"Mr. Reading & Northern", railroad owner Andy Muller, Reading, Pa. -- 2 October 2021

Railfan photographers Dan Drennen and John Riley, Molino, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo
Railfan photographers Dan Drennen and John Riley, Jim Thorpe, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

Railfan photographers Dan Drennen and John Riley, Molino and Jim Thorpe, Pa. -- 2 October 2021

Reading & Northern switchman Tom Skrutski, Nesquehoning Jct, Pa -- Oren B Helbok photo

R. & N. switchman Tom Skrutski,

Nesquehoning Jct. (Jim Thorpe), Pa. -- 2 October 2021

Reading & Northern engineman Carter Jones,  Jim Thorpe, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

R. & N. engineman Carter Jones,

Jim Thorpe, Pa. -- 2 October 2021

Reading & Northern engineman Shelley Hall, Jim Thorpe, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

R. & N. engineman Shelley Hall,

Jim Thorpe, Pa. -- 2 October 2021

Reading & Northern enginemen Shelley Hall and Ryan Bausher, Port Clinton, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

R. & N. enginemen Shelley Hall and Ryan Bausher, Port Clinton, Pa. -- 2 October 2021