Bloomsburg's 2018 Easter Bunny train
March 24th, 2018
For more than fifteen years, Downtown Bloomsburg, Inc., the recognized Main Street organization in town, has run Santa trains in late November as a fundraiser. Using the beautifully-restored coaches and ex-Pennsy caboose owned by Jeff Pontius, who used to work for the North Shore Railroads, and North Shore diesels, DBI's trains now operate on both weekend days right after Thanksgiving, in 2017 selling out more than 2500 tickets. (The director of a non-profit on Main Street in Bloom, I have also served on the DBI board since 2012.) In the spring of 2017, we added Easter trains, on one day in April, and sold 900 tickets; this year we tried again, and with Easter coming early ran the trains on the 24th of March -- possibly too early in the year, people still hibernating for the winter, since we only had 600 or so riders. Nonetheless, everyone who came seemed to have fun, including Jeff and his crew (although I cannot personally vouch for how much fun the person in the bunny costume had).
Bloomsburg's first railroad dates back to 1858, when the Lackawanna & Bloomsburg reached here from Scranton; by 1860 the line reached its full 80-mile extent and a connection in Northumberland with the Sunbury & Erie Railroad (which shortly fell under Pennsylvania Railroad control). By 1867, the L. & B. carried more than a quarter of a million passengers annually, but it made its real living hauling coal from the mines along its upper third, between West Nanticoke and Scranton. The iron industry in Danville, and to a much lesser extent Bloomsburg, also contributed carloads: "By 1870
there were eight blast furnaces, four rail mills and a number of puddle mills, foundries and machine shops" in Danville, where the Montour Iron Works had rolled its first modern T-rail in 1845. (Opinions vary about whether this counts as the world's first such rail.)
In 1873, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western took over the L. & B., renaming the line the Bloomsburg Branch, and so it remained for more than a hundred years, through the Erie Lackawanna era (my friend Ed Kaspriske has a great movie of A-B-B-A F-units on the Bloom in 1974) and into Conrail. Big Blue did not want the line, and 25 miles in the middle got torn out in the late 1970s or early '80s; the eastern end fared better, with the ten miles as far as Pittston still in service today, owned by Norfolk Southern and Reading & Northern, and another few miles through Exeter and Wyoming only recently removed, after operation by the Luzerne & Susquehanna.
The iron industry in Danville had faded even before 1900, as the local mines played out and steel overtook iron, but Berwick's American Car & Foundry plant boomed, becoming one of the largest railcar manufacturing facilities in the world; as part of the war effort, 1940-45, it employed more than 9000 people, producing more than 15,000 Stuart tanks and then 10,000 D7 bulldozers. After World War II, though, AC&F moved its
operations to its other plants and closed Berwick's entirely in 1962; many of the buildings remain standing, owned by the Berwick Industrial Development Association and leased to various businesses, some of which get rail service. Bloomsburg remained a fabric and carpet center even into the 21st century, and new industries (pet food and plastics) sprang up on farmland east of town. You can see some historical images of the line in Bloom and Berwick in photos collected by Andrew Hoke of Berwick.
Today a little more than 40 miles of the western end remain active, from the Norfolk Southern (once upon a time the Sunbury & Erie) interchange in Northumberland through Danville, Bloomsburg, and Berwick to the nuke plant at Bell Bend, which occasionally ships in casks for waste storage. (Without a place to store them forever -- i.e. Yucca Mountain or the like -- the casks never leave, or at least have not yet.) The quasi-governmental SEDA-COG owns the right-of way, with service provided by the North Shore.
When I moved to Bloomsburg in 2010, this became my hometown railroad -- and in fact for the first time in my life I live within sight of a railroad track: From my living room window, less than 800 feet away across 5th Street and the Weis Markets parking lot and Route 11, I can watch the North Shore's five-days-per-week freights go by, usually two to ten cars' worth, mostly covered hoppers. And with the boarding area at the site of the long-demolished Lackawanna station, I can hear excursions head west as they blow for Market Street, three-quarters of a mile from home.
As a loyal DBI board member, I had signed on to help with the Easter trips -- just to spend a little over an hour on the ground, giving candy-filled eggs to the children getting off the 10 a.m. trip and checking people in as they arrived for the noon train. We had sold tickets ahead of time only on the Web, so we had a printed list of all of the buyers, who might arrive with their own ticket-purchase print-outs or just a screenshot on a phone; we also got armed with bank bags with some cash for change so we could sell tickets to walk-up passengers, and in fact I did sell half a dozen between 11 and 12.
My colleague Al and I could hear the 10 a.m. train coming our way more than five minutes before we could see it, as the engineer blew for the crossing at Rupert. Then the engine rounded the curve down by Streater Field, almost a mile and a half away, and we could see the headlight and ditch lights. For much of the time as the train neared, a local pedestrian made his way slowly up the track from Railroad Street, the next crossing west of us; I need to send this photo to Operation Lifesaver. (At 400 millimeters of telephoto, it looks more dangerous than what the pedestrian actually had his back to, with probably a thousand feet separating him from the engine, the latter moving only ten miles per hour or so. Nonetheless, yikes.
Then the engineer blew for Railroad Street, and the pedestrian skedaddled.
As the passengers debarked, Al and I handed out eggs; each of us had a small laundry basket full of them, and I crouched down to let children choose their own, whether green or orange or purple. As you might have guessed, the youngest children almost always reached for a second and third egg -- more eggs than they had hands -- but I knew that we had 500 eggs and only 600 riders, including adults, so I did not worry about later volunteers running out. With an hour to go before the next train, things go pretty quiet there in the Sherwin-Williams parking lot -- more people in and out buying paint than coming for the train for quite a while -- so I found a few of the train crew whom I have met in the past, including Jeff Pontius himself, casually dressed (i.e. not in costume; he used to play Santa every year); Jeff invited me to ride the next train, and although I had intended to go home and work on editing pictures and writing stories for this Web site, I figured I could always go home after a ride. After Al and I got the noon riders checked in, and with the clock about to strike the hour, I hoisted my camera bag onto my back and swung aboard the coach.
Jeff had specifically invited me to come down to the crew car for lunch -- he always provides for the volunteers who work as train crew, plus those who help him work on the equipment, plus any other friends he invites along, and this train had quite the gathering in Chicopee Falls, the pre-war Pullman-built 6-double-bedroom-lounge car that he has lately added to his fleet. (Westward from Chicopee Falls, the train consisted of a heavyweight "table car", converted from a coach; a smooth-side air-conditioned coach; three former Lackawanna MU trailer coaches; and the N8 caboose. The Lackawanna cars, the table car, and the cabin car all wear fresh Pennsy-style lettering and striping; the smooth-side coach has a well-weathered version of the same; and the Chicopee Falls has only red-oxide primer and basic lettering now, with the full repaint coming soon. All of the cars look great on the inside, with fresh paint, well-done upholstery, and clean windows, not to mention framed vintage photos, posters, and ads -- a high-class operation in every way.)
You can get a sense of the work Jeff and his friends have done by the view above in the lounge; when he bought the car, moments before it went off for scrap, it had served on the Altoona wreck train, so you can bet that it did not look anything like this. In addition to rewiring the whole car, to run off a standard 110-volt generator, Jeff replicated all of the missing light fixtures around the perimeter of the ceiling, having them cast in aluminum. In the tiny "buffet" at the far end of the lounge, a few crock pots now held hot dogs, mac & cheese, sloppy joe, and ham & potatoes -- not Broadway Limited fare, but highly satisfactory, and I happily dug in.
In 1954, by the way, owner New York Central assigned the Chicopee Falls (one of 18 in the Falls series on the NYC) to trains 89 westbound and 290 eastbound, the Forest City daily between Chicago and Cleveland, offering a buffet breakfast on the way into each terminal in the morning. (For the complete Pullman assignments that year, click here.)
Among the guests, a group of Vietnam-era-and-slightly-later vets sat and kibbitzed at the near end of the car, and I sat at the edge of the group as I ate. All friends, various members plainly had years of experience teasing others over past events and personal failings, real or imagined, the very-slightly-older ones relishing recounting having to hold the very-slightly-younger ones' hands through difficult experiences. Across the aisle, though, another veteran had them all beat, having served in the Navy and landed on Iwo Jima shortly before Joe Rosenthal made the immortal photograph of the Marines raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi. Although I did not talk to Dick Donald myself, I could tell he had a good time aboard the train, and he did not mind telling stories about his service. And he looks d----d good for 90+ years old.
When we got back to Bloom, I once again thought I would head home, but then I got to talking to the next shift of DBI volunteers, and the sun continued to shine -- something that almost never seems to happen when these trains run -- and I had my camera with me . . . so I decided to chase the 2 o'clock trip. The scenery surrounding the Market Street crossing does not excite me much, so I drove down to Railroad Street and eyed the possibilities there; I had not brought the ladder, but I did have the car, so I parked it at the edge of the pavement almost up against the crossing signal and climbed onto the roof -- but not before putting a penny down on the near rail: Now that this had become a railfan day, I would need to bring a flattened coin home for my wife. (After 28 years, I have filled a stoneware jar Sara made with these souvenirs, and I have started on the second jar.)
Although the details on both sides of the penny got erased, the coin did not expand much -- it must have come off the rail after only a wheel or two went over it -- so I would not count it as one of the more interesting efforts, but I stuck it in my pocket and took off after the train. I had to drive all of the way down Railroad Street to the river, and then wind around on Fort McClure Boulevard, taking more than two miles to get to Rupert while the train had almost a mile less distance to reach the same place. So the possibility exists that I went faster than the posted 25 miles per hour. I climbed up on the car again for a slightly better vantage to frame the view with the covered bridge over Fishing Creek, but a cloud blocked the sun just as the train appeared on its own deck bridge, and I will spare you the mediocre result.
Just west of the Train Street crossing, the Lackawanna maintained an interchange with the Reading, at the more convenient of the two places the two railroads met (the other ten miles down the river in Danville); although occupying a comparatively tiny area, this became an important gateway after the Penn Central merger in 1968, as the Reading and D.L. & W. successor Erie Lackawanna tried to compete for business with the new behemoth. With the advent of Conrail, though, the Reading's venerable Catawissa Branch (it had reached Rupert by 1854, even before the L. & B.) became one of the first casualties, and no one will ever again see the spectacular scenery of Long Valley from a coach window. The site of the Rupert yard now hosts a township shed and a lot of lawn. Harper's Monthly printed a vivid description of a ride on the Catawissa in 1862, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet one can read it yet, complete with woodcut illustrations. Andrew Hoke's Web site has good photos of Rupert in both steam and diesel days.
Now I headed down the highway, State Route 42, where it parallels the North Shore's track within easy spitting distance, through the Narrows. The Native American path here had become a road in the early 19th century, and a bridge spanned the river to Catawissa by 1833 -- although following the 1904 flood, which destroyed the bridge, and through to 1908, citizens had to rely on a steamboat to cross the river here -- the Mary Ann, operated by the Columbia & Montour Street Railway Company! The North Branch Canal built through the Narrows in the 1850s, just a few years before the L. & B. squeezed through along side it, and the two modes competed for something like 40 years before the need for the canal finally evaporated. Just about the time the canal died, the trolley came, but that service only lasted from 1901 to 1926 -- a remarkably short lifespan and evidence of the almost instant influence of the Model T.
An overhanging rock to this day marks the Narrows's narrowest, and it has become known as "the Indian head", although some older residents believe that the name actually refers to the entire height of the cliff here, which resembles Shikellamy's Profile down the river across from Sunbury. A few remarkable pictures of the Narrows live on the Internet; click on the one to the right below to see the full-size scan of the 8x10 glass negative and admire the detail -- including in the distance the multi-span Catawissa Railroad bridge, probably the second at the site (and the Phoenix Bridge Company built the Reading yet another in 1933-34, the one that stands today).
The first view above looks downriver (westward), while the second looks upriver (eastward).
As the Focus and I came towards the hanging rock, I missed the parking area -- well, wide spot in the mud -- a couple of hundred feet east of the Indian head, and I had to go down to where Legion Road joins the highway, just before the railroad crossing and the bridge to Catawissa, to make a quick u-turn. Although I have lived in Pennsylvania for more than a quarter-century now, and more than seven years in Bloom, and I have driven through the Narrows probably hundreds of times, I had never once photographed a train here; I had thought about it, and wondered what times of day and what times of year the light would work. It turns out that around 2 p.m. in late March works -- as long as not too many clouds pass in front of the sun: The distant photo has a train in full sun, while the near one does not. I did, however, get lucky with traffic, and I managed to make these images without any cars or trucks in them.
After the train passed, I listened for the sound of the horn at the crossing, a third of a mile away: Since I could not see the crossing, I wanted to know if I would have the warning of the sound when the train came back, probably twenty minutes from now. Between vehicle traffic, and the curve of the hill, the sound just barely reached me, so I figured I would have to maintain vigilance. But first I would do some exploring: I crossed the road and the track, to walk a ways along the riverbank. The railroad had just done a lot of tree-cutting here, but a photo in the summertime would still not have much of a chance of a view of the river -- quite unlike the "then" photo above. Over the years, the river has pretty much destroyed any trace of the canal here -- any trace left after the track got moved over and the road widened, anyway. The river bank drops straight down twelve or fifteen feet, and I wonder how many years and floods will pass before the track comes under threat of undermining. Before going back to the car, and after finding a spot pretty well in the brush, and looking both ways to check for cars, I peed off the bank and into the river.
In order to have a clear view of both rails, and the river, I would need some elevation, and I had not brought my ladder, so the roof of the car again would serve. I backed down the shoulder to within fifty feet of the Indian Head, turned on the four-ways, and climbed up on top. A few vehicles slowed as they passed me, and a few gave me a wide berth by passing over the yellow line -- did I look that dangerous? -- but no one, as far as I saw, waved. Keeping an ear to the west, I ate an apple and kept an eye out for birds -- bald eagles do patrol this stretch of river -- but I didn't see even a sparrow. Indeed close to twenty minutes after the westbound passenger special had gone by, and during a break in traffic, I heard the horn again; in a stroke of good timing, I had just finished my apple and had both hands free to run the camera. To properly frame the train with the overhang, I crouched down a tad. As the engine appeared and rounded the curve, I once again had a car-free view -- but them my luck ran out, and one and then another and then another vehicle appeared, all moving considerably faster than the train, but still in the way. I cursed -- possibly under my breath, possibly louder -- and tried to squeeze in photos with the cars in the least obnoxious places. The second photo here actually had another car in it, and I photoshopped it out, but I do not have the skills to get rid of that d----d SUV.
With my next location, at the Rupert covered bridge, fairly close, I did not linger atop the car waving at the passengers but instead jumped down, jumped in, fired up the 2.0 liter four-banger, and roared up offa that shoulder, sprayin' pine cones, rocks, and boulders -- well, not really, and I had very carefully looked in both directions for opposing traffic. I turned down Train Street and crossed the track; a glance to the east, at the bridge, revealed a couple of people standing out on one of the stone piers -- I hoped not going to dive in, since the water under the twenty-foot drop measured only about two feet deep (not like during the 2011 flood, when the water reached higher than the railhead and pushed up against the adjacent covered bridge halfway to the eaves -- and drove a tree trunk right through the siding). I waved at the driver who had thoughtfully stopped at the stop sign at the end of Covered Bridge Road, and then zipped through the covered bridge -- after carefully looking for opposing traffic, of course. I dropped down the steep hill and pulled in next to a couple of fishermen's cars, jumped out, and ran back up to and through the bridge. Plenty of time. After choosing a spot, I cleaned up some trash -- Dunkin' Donuts cups, two empties and a half-full one -- then settled in to wait for the train. Here again I got lucky, with no cars appearing at the last instant to get in the way. As the engine passed, I could sense it slowing, almost to a crawl, and I ran to the other end of the bridge, from where I could see one of the engine crew out on the end platform, admonishing the trespassers. Then the engineer opened the throttle and the train accelerated into the woods, on the long curve that would take it towards the fairgrounds and town.
On the home stretch now, I had one more view in mind, looking directly side-on at the train across the corn stubble on the Streater Farm. Not wanting to get stuck in the soft ground on the river side of Fort McClure Boulevard, I parked with the left wheels still on the pavement and climbed onto the car; at a slight telephoto (70mm), the train still looked pretty tiny, almost half a mile away.
No way I would beat the train to Railroad Street, but perhaps I could make it to Market Street without doing anything too foolish. Up Fort McClure, past the sewage plant, past the high school, past the Little League fields. Slow to a rolling stop at Market Street, hang a left, head uphill towards the heart of town. Park at the top of the last rise before the track, dig the camera bag out from where it had fallen behind the driver's seat after a quick stop, put on the long lens, walk out to the double yellow line -- just as the lights start to flash and the horn blows. At 400mm, the half-mile to the Civil War monument gets quite compressed; too bad about all of those cars in the shot.
Happy passengers detrained, helped by the friendly crew. I had met Bob Smith on one of the Christmas trains in Williamsport at least fifteen years ago, when he still worked for Norfolk Southern as an engineer out of Renovo. Now retired, he never misses an opportunity to volunteer with Jeff.
Yet another shift of DBI volunteers had come down to hand out eggs, including a mother and daughter from one of the banks in town, plus Tim Wagner, DBI's president. While the women checked in riders for the last train of the day, Tim and I talked, and when he mentioned that he thought he would ride the 4 o'clock train, and that he would take the caboose (which no passengers had bought), I decided that since I had spent most of the day out I might as well not bother going home now. Tim invited the women to join us, and right before 4, just before the train crew pulled the metal steps away from the car, we all climbed aboard. It turned out the women -- mother probably close to my age, daughter in her 20s -- had never ever ridden a train
before, "except at Knoebels" (our local amusement park). Good heavens. I told them that nothing beats riding in the cupola of a caboose, and they climbed up on the lefthand side, giggling. I took the opposite side, and a couple of minutes off the advertised (after waiting for a late-arriving family) we rolled west. The women then spent the majority of the ride on their phones, and after I discovered that the cupola windows do not open I went downstairs to talk with Tim and Don, another of Jeff's volunteers. (Don's wife had served us all hot chocolate right after we boarded, and I drank that while still up top, watching the scenery as we passed the former Magee mill and the fairgrounds.)
As we approached the hanging rock in the Narrows, I looked at the cliff above it in a way that I never do when driving, and although I do not yet see how the whole height suggests a person's profile, the overhangs towards the top of the picture here do remind me of the Old Man of the Mountain, the New Hampshire rock formation
that used to grace Franconia Notch and that appears on the back of the state's 25-cent piece. The Old Man collapsed in 2003, but our hanging rock and Indian head remain, for now, seemingly firmly affixed the the edge of this riverside bluff. Of course, everyone thought that the Old Man would forever frown on the Notch . . . .
Years ago, when I used to ride Jeff's cars on these excursions -- in 2000, say, with not-yet-three-year-old Maia, from Sunbury towards Shamokin and from Rupert to Norry -- no one minded if passengers spent the whole trip out on the cabin car's platforms, and so of course I rode out there, even with my very young daughter. Times have changed, and the railroad does not allow this anymore. At the stop in the woods a mile west of Rupert when the engine crew changed ends, I popped out for a photo looking up the length of the train. As we crossed Fishing Creek at Rupert I tried a similar view up the other side of the train, including the abandoned Reading bridge in the photo. You can make out in the photo that the bridge's piers do not sit at a right angle to the trusses, but the trusses make up the whole skew in their end panels -- odd and interesting, and if I remembered anything from the statics class I took in the spring of 1985 I could tell you something about the engineering involved. The Reading itself built the bridge, I believe, circa 1889, when it built its branch into Bloom to serve the industries in town -- including the Bloomsburg Car Manufacturing Company (one of the 13 companies that combined in 1899 to become American Car & Foundry [see above]) and the then brand-new Magee Carpet Company -- and meet up with the also brand-new Bloomsburg & Sullivan Railroad, which served the lumber and leather industries in the northern end of Columbia County (where Columbia abuts Sullivan County, thus the name). Google Books has digitized the Historical and Biographical Annals of Columbia and Montour Counties, Pennsylvania, Containing a Concise History of the Two Counties and a Genealogical and Biographical Record of Representative Families, originally published in 1915, and by searching for "Bloomsburg & Sullivan" one can trace the early history of that railroad.
After we stopped at Sherwin-Williams and the engineer blew one short blast on the horn, we thanked our hosts and climbed down the steps. Yet another shift of DBI volunteers had come to hand out the candy-filled eggs, and I handed the money bag from the noon train to the organization's treasurer. Jeff and most of his crew would ride the train back to Northumberland, where it would get parked somewhere within Norfolk Southern's ex-Pennsy yard. (The roundhouse there, which had sheltered the Pennsy's collection of historic locomotives before they moved to the museum at Strasburg in the early 1970s, fell in the mid-1980s, just before my first trip through the area, after college, on my way west to see America.) In May, the train will make two trips from Shamokin, as part of the Anthracite Heritage Festival, and from October through December a further 55 trips, from Catawissa, Bellefonte, Williamsport, Bloomsburg, and Sunbury, for fall foliage and then to convey Santa. And you know, I had such a good time chasing on this sunny day in March, I just might come out in the fall to do it again. If you want to join me, get in touch.