Back Home Again
on the Arcade & Attica
Hey, it's good to be back home again
Sometimes this old Ten-wheeler feels like a long lost friend
Yes, 'n, hey it's good to be back home again
-- John Denver (more or less)
John Denver released that song in 1974, and it seems likely that my father and I would have heard it on the radio on our travels the following summer, when we drove to Detroit and back, by way of various steam railroads, including the Arcade & Attica in western New York.
Each summer from 1972 through 1978, he and I spent a month on the road, in search of steam; I do not remember the 1972 trip, nor do I have any photos to show for it, but I know we visited the A. & A., because my father made the photo that for a number of years illustrated the railroad's page in the Steam Directory, the annual softcover that listed all of the tourist railroads, railroad museums, and trolley lines in the U.S. and Canada -- the combination Bible and Baedeker for railroad fans, and one that gave us access almost wherever we went: Arriving at a railroad, my father would stick out his hand and introduce himself as John Helbok from New York City, in town to take pictures for the Directory. At the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire in 1974, this led to us receiving permission to ride any train up the mountain and to signal the crew at any location that we wanted to get dropped off, and likewise to signal any other train that we wanted to get on. As a result, my father got a timeless photo of one of the eccentric 0-2-2-0s pushing a coach away from a stop at Waumbek Tank, halfway to the top, that appeared in the Directory for years starting in 1975; that same year, his credit also ran under photos for the A. & A., Conway Scenic, Wolfeborough, Morris County Central, Black River & Western, New Hope & Ivyland, and Virginia Transportation Museum. Always a generous sharer of his prints (which granted us yet more access), when we went back to the Arcade & Attica in 1975 my father brought them a sepia-toned 11x14 print of the 1972 photo:
Whether or not the print made it happen, he and I got a cabride in 4-6-0 #14 that year, with engineer Cecil Lester.
And then 42 years went by. Although my father and I still chased steam here and there before, during, and after my college years, and now and again since, we never made it back to the A. & A. Nor did I make the trip up there on my own -- just outside of the radius that encompasses most of the railroads on which I have gathered megapixels the last few years. But in the spring of 2017, my friend Ross Gochenaur said that he planned to go to his family's hunting camp in McKean County, Pa., over the weekend before the Fourth of July, and make a day trip to Arcade; would I like to come along?
Late on a Thursday afternoon, Ross drove up to my house in his minivan, with his father and his three oldest children aboard; I stowed my duffel bag, sleeping bag, and camera bag, and off we went, over the rivers and through the woods, through Williamsport, Liberty, Wellsboro, Galeton, Coudersport, and Port Allegany -- after Wellsboro, along U.S. Route 6, through country I believe I had never traversed before. It had long since gotten dark by the time Ross turned down the gravel farm road at the camp. When we unloaded the van, the watermelon went into the springhouse to stay cold; Ross's father turned on the gas in the old farmhouse and lit the lights and the propane-powered fridge and we made ourselves at home.
Friday morning dawned cloudy and wet, but the rain let up by the time we reached the goal of our first field trip, the Kinzua Bridge. I never saw the 2000+-foot-long, 301-foot-high bridge before a tornado took down much of it in 2003, which I regret (even more so because the steam-powered trains of the Knox & Kane crossed it until 2002), but I enjoyed this visit immensely; with three children seven years old and younger with us, we did not hike down into the gorge, but the walk out onto the bridge and the view from the end -- including straight down through the thick glass panels -- deserve the adjective "spectacular". The almost-brand-new visitors center had a hugely fun interactive exhibit on the bridge -- one can build it in Brio-style blocks and then knock it down -- and the ranger on duty made sure that Kenny, Marian, and Daniel each had a turn at it. A video playing at the front desk featured Odo Valentine, who in 1939 flew his biplane between the trestle bents and under the bridge -- and just a couple of months before our visit, Mr. Valentine himself, age 102, had come back to the bridge to tell his stories and sign autographs. We had pulled into a mostly empty parking lot, but by the time we left a couple of dozen cars had arrived, along with a group of motorcycle riders, which heartened me considerably: Although this state park does not sit exactly in the middle of nowhere, you sure can see it from there.
We stopped on the way back to camp to photograph the Route 6 Diner in Smethport, home of the Hubber Burger (size of a hubcap) and sadly out of business (a Web search reveals that it has opened and closed a number of times in the past few years). In June Hollow as the weather cleared through the later afternoon I got a tour of the property, and as the sun neared the horizon, the deer came to eat in the field across the valley; we all went outside to look at them.
Saturday morning we arose bright and early, although under clouds again, for our voyage to Arcade; Ross's father decided to stay behind and do chores at camp, so five of us piled into the van and headed north. Almost all of our route paralleled the Western New York & Pennsylvania's former Pennsy Buffalo Line; in Olean, New York, we crossed the ex-Erie main line, also now part of the W.N.Y. & P., but we never saw any trains. Olean has some of the strangest traffic circles I have ever seen, five of them on Route 16 (Union Street) through the heart of downtown (yes, they probably do slow traffic down), and Olean also has some of the strangest street sculptures I have ever seen, analogous to Norfolk, Va.'s mermaids and Bucks County, Pa.'s horses -- here, squirrels, each decorated to memorialize its sponsor, or some such. The Santa squirrel caught the children's eyes, but in the on-line gallery Ronald McSquirrel struck me as the single zaniest. In one of the little towns along Route 16, we fueled up and the boys made a pit stop; while we waited at the gas pump, I explained to five-year-old Marian how one can tell a New York State town from the architecture, the Greek Revival houses quite distinctive.
At Yorkshire we turned off Route 16 onto 39, which becomes Arcade's West Main Street. We crossed over the Buffalo Line right at the A. & A. interchange -- no trains to see, of course -- and then entered town the way one comes into too many American towns anymore, through an increasingly dense commercial strip (McDonald's, Tim Horton's [evidently we had gotten closer to Canada], supermarkets, car dealers -- oh, and the Little Red Caboose, ice cream parlor and mini-golf with two cabooses, an ex-New Haven steel car and a wooden car from the A. & A., earlier the Erie, and recently "restored" somewhat inelegantly). We crossed the A. & A. at grade, passed the Arcade School (now the "Pioneer Central School at Arcade Elementary" -- since when did schools get names like housing developments?) and reached the center of town, where the railroad again crosses Main Street right at the depot. Ross took us around the corner, making a right onto Liberty Street and another right on Mill, where we parked close to the crossing; brand-new modern "yield" signs had gone up under the crossbucks, a somewhat startling anachronism on a shady small-town street on which we could smell soft-coal smoke coming from a steam locomotive just a hundred feet away.
As a Google satellite view shows, the Arcade & Attica yard nestles right in amongst the streets and houses of the town -- not like at Strasburg, or Ringoes, or even Port Clinton, where the railroads' yards occupy the edges of towns. That same satellite view, at least as of this writing (March 2018) shows the tracks at the A. & A. enginehouse largely empty -- one might expect to find at least the passenger coaches parked outside. A virtual tour of the railroad solves the mystery, for what should one find at Curriers but a southbound excursion train leaving town, the steam locomotive's tender just about to cross Chaffee Road, the smudge of coal smoke drifting a quarter-mile north across the fields.
We of course found the coaches and the engine in the yard, the crew preparing 2-8-0 #18 for her two trips up the line and back. Ross visits the A. & A. regularly, so he knew the engineer, Brad Mapes, and the fireman, Dean Steffenhagen -- and they knew him and his children well enough that when the children asked if they could visit the diesels in the enginehouse they got an immediate affirmative answer. I would not turn down an opportunity to poke around inside either, so Ross took me on a quick tour. The A. & A. had effectively dieselized in 1941 -- one of the very first railroads to do so -- with purchase of a GE 44-tonner, #110; a second 44-tonner, #111, spelled doom for the railroad's first steam era in 1947. Although 110 no longer runs, and now sits on display a block north of the Arcade depot, 111 still operates, and she shared the enginehouse with a 65-tonner, #112, dating from 1945 and bought used, and 80-tonner #113, built in 1959 and just recently acquired from a power plant near Rochester and at the time of our visit still in yellow paint -- unlike the bright-orange-and-black of the older diesels (and the coaches, and the depot).
While the children enjoyed the cab of the 112, I stepped into the adjoining stall, to see to the queen of the fleet -- although she has fallen on hard times: 4-6-0 #14 has not run in quite a few years, and she will need hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, replacements, and renovations to operate again.
Kenny and I paid our respects to the 1917 Baldwin, and I made a few images to document my visit.
Outside the enginehouse, even under threatening clouds, we all felt happier, with a crew readying a living breathing steam engine for her day's peregrinations. Brad and Dean between them have more than three-quarters of a century of service on the A. & A. -- no boomers, they -- and they look and dress the part of steam-era railroaders.
In color photos no less than in person, no tourist railroad matches the A. & A. for eye-catching. I will confess that I do not find the orange appropriate, especially as many places as it has gotten splashed on poor #18, but Ross loves it, relishing it as a relic of a particular era in the tourist-railroad industry, when the idea of running trains pulled by steam locomotives seemed brand new, and the pioneers involved in the effort, whether at the A. & A. or the Carroll Park & Western or the California Western, had more important things on their minds -- simply selling enough tickets to pay for coal, say -- than accurate historic preservation. Half a century on, the Arcade & Attica has operated for far longer with orange-bedecked engines and coaches than it ever did with the more soberly decorated equipment that kept commerce moving between the towns of its corporate title between the world wars. Ross and Brad caught up with each other, and watching the children patiently keeping their father company reminded me of the days when I listened to my father and railroaders talk; why, the scene must have looked almost exactly the same in 1972, when Cecil Lester, my father, and the seven-year-old Oren stood here.
A little after 10:30, Brad swung aboard the engine and backed her out of the yard, headed north to the station. Ross has the good sense to sometimes keep his eye away from the viewfinder and simply take in the sight of a 1920 Alco doing her thing.
Before we walked back to the van, I photographed #18's tender, now disappearing into the weeds; 55 years after the A. & A. bought her from Michigan's Boyne City Railroad, remnants of that line's oval herald remain, among the few bits of paint left (along with some tenacious orange too, of course).
For her entire A. & A. career, #18 had faced north, but as a special treat in May of 2017, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the railroad's incorporation, she went around the wye just south of the enginehouse. She ran through the spring facing south, and so she remained facing at the time of our visit. This meant that she did her hardest work running in reverse, heading uphill up the broad valley of Monkey Run in the middle three miles of the seven-mile trip to Curriers, but it also meant that her smokebox would face the open car at the north end of the train, and we would have the best possible position to watch her work when we rode the train -- well, except for in the cab, of course. In the station, we bought our tickets to ride -- trains would run at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. -- and looked at the historical photos and paperwork that adorn the walls; plenty of railroads have such things in their depots, but I have never seen such an extensive collection on public display: The frames fill every inch of space in the rooms and hallways between the gift shop and the snack bar, and the images and schedule flyers represent every era of the railroad's history. I especially appreciated that the pictures of employees bear the people's names, the railroad's curator recognizing the importance of telling the human story. And most gratifying of all, I found the 11x14 print that my father gave to the railroad 42 years earlier, hanging near the rest rooms and looking just as good as the day he lifted it from the rinse tray and hung it to dry in the "darkroom" in his apartment in the Bronx.
We had decided, somewhat at random, to ride the first trip and chase the second, and this turned out a lucky choice, since the sky quickly got very dark and rain started pelting down. We had already boarded the train and staked out our spots in the open car, an old Erie gondola with a more-recently-added roof, so we had protection from the downpour and watched with equanimity as our conductor, 19-year-old Patrick Connors, Jr., directed passengers and strolled the platform as it became a river. Note the authentic Penn Central conductor's badge on his hat; these young fans have a completely different perspective on that railroad than those of us who saw it as a giant black stain blotting out our hometown lines -- but, born 28 years after PC's bankruptcy and 22 years after it disappeared into Conrail, Patrick can regard it with nonchalance, if not actual irony.
The children did not mind the rain, and Kenny did a series of experiments in fluid-dynamics in the puddles on the top of the gondola sides.
In the deluge, I photographed the raindrops bouncing off the headlight's platform.
By the time we left town, a few minutes off the advertised, the rain fell more lightly. Before backing out of the station, Brad looked back at his train --
-- and as we crossed Main Street, Dean waved to a passer-by.
A few other families with young children shared the open car with us, those children and Ross's soaking up the close encounter with steam. Did the kids get as much out of it as their fathers? Or as much as I did? I cannot say. What do you think?
From our vantage point, we could watch the crew in the cab going about their business -- less dramatic than what David P. Morgan saw while pacing a New York Central Hudson in 1954 ("Illinois incident", pp. 72-77 of The Mohawk That Refused to Abdicate -- wait, you do not have that book yet?), but still entirely satisfactory.
The view looking down at the end of the car differed little from what one would see on many other steam-powered tourist railroads, but that orange paint clearly marks this as the A. & A.
When we got to Curriers, the crew cut the engine cut away from the train and moved her onto the runaround track, which here sneaks around the back side of the wooden depot.
We lingered in the open car so I could photograph the crew in the cab as they passed us.
With the engine stopped on the siding, where passengers could admire her up close on their way to the snack bar, Dean performed the age-old ritual of oiling around --
-- and answered questions from the assembled devotees; I wish I could remember what made him laugh.
The train crew likewise took time to relax and banter, brakeman Brian Pacos and his conductor sharing stories. Add up their ages and they did not equal Ross, himself 14 years my junior.
After the crew moved the steam engine to the south end of the train and pumped up the brakes, Patrick brought an air gauge to the tail end to test the leakage in the train; we had reboarded the open car by then and watched him work.
For the southbound leg of the trip, we stayed in the open car; we had gotten to listen to the engine work hard on the way up, and now we would relax, eat our lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, of course), and enjoy the scenery along Monkey Run -- certainly one of the oddest stream names in this part of the country. After the rain, the run ran high, fast and brown.
A railroad with few curves, it offered few possibilities for photographing the head end of the train, so Ross and I photographed each other.
At the depot in Arcade, Brad ran #18 around the train, and Patrick brought him in for the hitch. As with the photo above, no knowledgeable fan would mistake that pilot as belonging to any other railroad's locomotive, with that orange paint so liberally applied.
Since Ross has spent a lot of time along the A. & A., at least relative to me, he had some ideas about where we ought to photograph the 2 p.m. train, and I had none at all, so I let him choose our locations. We took a look at the Cattaraugus Creek bridge on the north side of Arcade's downtown, but it does not hold a lot of appeal, with a parking lot crowding its south end and the creekside below it recently rebuilt with giant and unphotogenic riprap. Just around the curve beyond the bridge, though, sits an abandoned factory (whether toys or candy or furniture, I have forgotten), and it had possibilities. On the side facing the track, a small porch against a lean-to addition allowed some elevation, especially if one stood on top of the railing -- a vastly less secure vantage than on my ladder on top of my car, but by taking up a position and resolutely not moving a muscle I could balance. The rain had ceased entirely by now, and the clouds showed signs of breaking up, as if a giant wool card had just started work on them -- and the engine passed us a few minutes after 2 o'clock in a tiny spot of sunshine that moved up the track with her. The open car did not have a large crowd of riders.
As you would expect, the train travels at a leisurely pace, and with the road almost right alongside for the first half of the trip, we had plenty of easy choices for photo locations. At the back of a heating contractor's parking lot off Route 98, some flowers caught my eye, and I went wicked arty; Ross went farther into the field and came bounding back after making his exposures.
Just past Genesee Road, the railroad and the highway come close together and then swing apart, and not a single public road crosses the track in the 4-3/4 miles up to Curriers. So we took advantage of the accessibility that the cornfield here offered, both of us setting up at cornstalk height -- nowhere yet near as high as an elephant's eye, and in fact the old saw "knee high by the Fourth of July" seemed entirely apt; I just looked that up, though, and it turns out that farmers do not place much stock in that cliche nowadays. Far from it, they downright fear growth that slow: "Knee high? Well, it's supposed to be probably chest high by the Fourth of July," organic farmer Rachel Hollerich told Minnesota Public Radio a few years ago. "And if it's knee high you're not sitting very good anymore." The story continued, "That the phrase has outlived its usefulness says a lot about how much plant breeders have improved the genetics of corn. They've been cross breeding the plant for more than a century to make it grow better." But we didn't think so much about agronomy as an almost-century-old Consolidation ambled past us, the gentle breeze blowing #18's smoke northwards at a velocity that pretty much equaled the train's.
The children, still a little young to jump in and out of the van as fast as their elders would wish, stayed patiently put at each stop; Daniel, the youngest, age 3, kept his siblings amused by singing:
Well, I guess I had better not make any assumptions about what Marian and Kenny thought.
Since we had not made arrangements with any of the local landowners, we did not try trespassing on any of their farm lanes and woods roads, so we did not see much of the train for a while. A little more than a mile south of Curriers, though, from the side of County Route 44, we could look across a third of a mile of gently sloping field to a little more than a train-length of track unobscured by trees. Someone had recently driven something very large around and around in the muddy grass, and the tire tracks made an offbeat foreground for the photo here. The wind had died down, and although Brad had not picked up the pace, he could now outrun his own smoke.
In Curriers, flowers again caught my eye, these the ones planted in the baggage cart parked by the station. Brian waved stoically at the photographer, while brakeman Matt Slocum gave a friendly smile more worthy of a tighter crop.
Before the engine completed its runaround, I took Daniel in hand and we crossed Chaffee Road so I could photograph the movements: Patrick dropped off the cab steps to throw the switch for the main and then rode the the tender as the engine backed towards the train. Although he makes a photogenic conductor, Patrick does let me down by wearing those anachronistic sunglasses . . .
Brad kept an eye on the passengers boarding -- not impatient to leave, although you might not guess that from his expression and posture.
And when he did get the 18 moving southward at half past three, the stately departure briefly degenerated as the engine lost her purchase on the rails and her stack erupted with a volcano of dirty wet exhaust. Brad got the slip under control and #18 marched off with her composure restored, perhaps content to have sown a few wild oats.
We revisited some locations on the way back to Arcade, including on the low-down in the corn --
-- but we also stopped at a new one, behind the Town of Arcade's maintenance shed, where we scaled a large pile of road gravel to look down on the line's equivalent of the Jukes Tree outside Chama.
I wanted to try to capture something of the small-town feel in downtown Arcade, so Ross parked the van on Main Street across from the station. Daniel, who had not napped, had a classic three-year-old meltdown on the steps, but this did not stop a woman of indeterminate age and indeterminate grasp on reality from engaging the rest of us in conversation -- or, rather, engaging in a monologue about her own photographic efforts here. Not that she had a camera with her now, but she told us all about the pictures that she had made, and yet wished to make, and various other things (I must confess I did not listen too carefully).
As all of you who know me know, I have nothing but respect for pedestrian crosswalks -- I use them, and I believe that drivers need to respect them absolutely -- but that does not mean that I like the way they look in front of steam trains; the bright-yellow markers here do nothing for the ambiance of this scene. So let's just consider these three photographs as portraits of the train crew at work -- first the conductor, Patrick, and then brakemen Brian and Matt.
The clock now read quarter past four, and we had three tired children, more than an hour's drive ahead of us, and a stop to make to pick up supper, so we climbed in the van and headed out of town. Just like in the morning, we didn't see any trains on the Western New York & Pennsylvania on the way back to camp, but our stop in Turtlepoint more than made up for it: The building that houses Carlson's General Store has stood right next to the railroad (and diagonally across from Depot Street) for much more than a hundred years, and the same family has owned the store since 1920. If I had brought my camera inside, we might never have left: From the creaking wooden floors to the post office window* in one wall to the work gloves for sale hanging within arm's length of the giant cans of bulk sauerkraut -- well, we had definitely stepped back in time. In truth, it felt a lot like Pop's IGA in Millville, Pa., where my family bought milk in glass jugs into the early 2000s -- and like Pop's used to (it closed a few years ago), Carlson's maintains its own butcher shop in the back, feeding a single glass-fronted cooler. I didn't write down any of the prices, but they all looked quite reasonable, and you sure can't beat the place for service: We needed more hamburg than what we saw in the case, so the woman behind the counter shouted an order to someone out of sight, and in a few minutes we had three pounds of freshly-ground beef wrapped and ready to go. According to the Wal-Mart Web site, one can find exactly 50 of their stores within 100 miles of Turtlepoint, but only six within 50 miles, and only two within 25 (in Olean and Bradford, both 16 miles away), so somehow Carlson's manages to hang on. Long may it do so.
And the next time I go to the Arcade & Attica -- much sooner than another 42 years -- I will stop at Carlson's. And I will bring my camera in.
* "While the post office became a part-time entity in 2013, many postmasters served the area. In a 1988 Olean Times Herald article, George L. Carlson, then 94 and serving as store owner and postmaster, said he believed the post office was there at least since 1850. He recalled the first postmaster was a 'Miss Mullen', and another named Frank Wanamaker was also a telegrapher and freight and ticket agent along the busy railroad. George Carlson told then-Times Herald reporter Cora Niver that he met the train five times a day at one time, with only two stopping. Mail pouches were thrown from the train at the other times."
Oh, and in 1972 my father also made this photo of me on the railroad's quadricycle; next time I visit, I need to find out if it has survived the decades.