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Schuylkill Haven Borough Day 2018

"More poetic, she said, to leave out the train."

In 1994, a strange little book came out called Stations: An Imagined Journey.  The author, Michael Flanagan, a painter by vocation, had never written a book before, but a series of 38 of his paintings caught the eye of one of the editors at Random House -- none other than Jacqueline Onassis -- and she encouraged Flanagan to tell the whole story that the paintings had started.  When the book came out, just over a hundred pages, "profusely illustrated" but measuring less than eight inches by nine, my stepmother bought it for my father.  I looked through it, admiring the hyper-realistic trompe l'oeil paintings but also unreasonably resentful that some of them seemed to strive to duplicate photographs that I knew from other places, probably the most well-known the timeless classic by James Gallagher of the Maryland & Pennsylvania impersonating a model railroad:

James Gallagher Maryland & Pennsylvania trestle silhouette

Just what did Flanagan mean by stealing these images for his own purposes?  Don't they belong to us, the railfans; what railfan credentials did this guy have?  The text of the book seemed too dense, an odd mixture of soap opera and philosophy, and for almost a quarter-century I never read it all the way through.

Image source:

The year after Stations came out, I met a railfan named Matt Kierstead at trackside chasing an excursion running from the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton; Matt made a photo of me with two other photographers, Steve Barry and Gerry Futej, with among us a 35mm camera (Steve), a medium-format (me), and a 4x5 (Gerry), and a 4x6 print of us has lived in our family's photo album ever since.  Matt and I stayed in touch but never got out trackside together again until 2013 or so (for that matter, we did not lay eyes on each other in the intervening years); since then, we have spent time exploring the anthracite region near where I live, and we have chased and ridden trains on the Reading & Northern.  Educated as an art historian and industrial archaeologist, Matt looks at railroading with a depth and breadth matched by very few people I know -- how railroads shaped their regions' economies, how tracks interact with the landscapes they pass through, how barney cars pushed coal hoppers up inclined planes, and a million more obscure details -- and, to the point here, he tries to understand why people like him and me chase trains and take pictures of them.


Matt of course knew the Flanagan book (he had received it as a Christmas present too), and he initially found it as "cryptic" as I did, but he had recognized its value as a resource to understand himself: In an essay published on The Trackside Photographer, he says "the book . . . led me on my own journey, a personal exploration that rewarded me with a deeper understanding of my attraction to the railroad landscape."  At the October 2016 conference held in Connecticut by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, Matt reprised his presentation on the book that he had done at the Center's 2013 Conference in Illinois -- and his words struck me like lightning: We do this because of how it makes us feel.  Setting up for a photo, waiting for a train, seeing and hearing it roar by -- that makes us feel something (well, lots of things).  And I chase trains -- setting up, waiting, watching, getting the photo, jumping in the car and driving energetically so I can get ahead of the train, and doing it all over again -- so I can get those feelings again and again.


Many of Flanagan's painting in the book feel wistful and nostalgic -- most of them do not even have trains in them.  But they evoke the experiences of the railroad landscape that I have had almost my whole life.  Most of the photos I make do have trains in them, and/or the people who make the trains run, but every now and then I recognize that a scene in front of me tells a Flanaganesque story -- and no doubt I miss many more than I ever recognize, but when I bring one of these images home with me at the end of a day, I know exactly where the inspiration comes from.


Which brings us to the last Saturday of September of 2018 and the trains that ran for the occasion of the 30th annual Borough Day in Schuylkill Haven, Pa., a town just below the edge of the Southern Anthracite Coal Field and through which much of the Reading Company's coal flowed by the millions of tons in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.  Each year since 2013, Railway Restoration Project 113's restored Central of New Jersey 0-6-0 has visited Haven for Borough Day, sitting and boiling water (and giving people the opportunity to visit the cab and -- sometimes -- blow the whistle); the Reading & Northern brings their blue Pacific, #425, to town too, and this engine gets to run, on passenger trains that go from the Haven station (now R. & N.'s passenger department's headquarters) south through Port Clinton to near the Kernsville dam (on the Schuylkill River close to Hamburg).  This year, for the first time, the R. & N. agreed to let 113 travel to Mill Creek Junction, east of Pottsville, on the morning of Borough Day in order to turn on the wye there, so she would face south, setting up the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting of the two engines.  As of the Thursday before, the plan called for 113 leaving her home in Minersville at 7 a.m., so on Friday night I set my alarm for quarter past five; it would take me a half-hour to get out of the house (including making my PB&J sandwich for lunch) and most of an hour to travel the 35 miles over the river and across the mountains.


Of course, with a couple of lonely cats in the house (the second of our kids went off to college this fall) I rarely get to sleep through a night, not to mention that in something like middle age I almost always have to get up at least once anyway; at four o'clock in the morning on my way to the bathroom, I glanced out the window and saw fog, pretty thick -- ah, now that  would make a fine way to start the day with a steam locomotive!  When I dragged myself out of bed a little over a hour later, the streetlights outside seemed to show that the fog had cleared, but once I got on the road my hopes rose again: Although patchy, the fog did lie thick in places.  Even at the highest elevation on my route, as I crossed I-81 south of Lavelle, I could just barely make out the first light of dawn in the sky overhead through a gap in the few-hundred-foot-thick fog layer.  Down in Minersville, which I reached at about 6:35, the engine simmered on the house track; a few of the volunteers sat in the cozy cab, while others stood and talked on the station platform:

Minersville station Project 113

Ironically enough, it takes modern lightbulbs to show up in pleasing, "daylight" colors in a "timeless" photo; a few years ago, those streetlights past the station would have turned everything a sickly orange.

Even though the R. & N. crew had arrived, the engine did not move at 7:00 or for some time thereafter; that suited me just fine, because it did my heart and soul good just to stand on the platform and soak in the atmosphere: the inimitable hum of the engine's turbogenerator, the slowly rising light in the damp air, the camaraderie of the crew -- all of us cut off by the fog, with nothing in the early-morning quiet to disturb the illusion of isolation (not that the 4200 people in the borough would make such an uproar even at noon, let alone at dawn).

Five years after first making the acquaintance of the 113 crew, I would not presume to say I have really become one of them -- I do not work nearly hard enough when I put in a little bit of volunteer time (overseeing the Web site and Facebook page).  But by sharing photos (both on the Web and with actual prints) I have made myself useful, and I always receive a warm welcome when I come to Minersville, and by not making too much of a pain of myself  I can come and go from 113's cab (and on the tops of her boiler and tender tank, when the spirit moves me).  So while we waited for the action to start this morning I spent a few minutes aboard the engine.  The air pump had gotten long started before I arrived (possibly even the previous night), and the air gauges on the engineer's side showed full pressure:

Project 113 engineer's side controls Minersville

Elsewhere I have praised Project 113 for nurturing and mentoring a new generation of steam practitioners, and more than half of the volunteers who came out for Borough Day have not yet reached 25 years old; the apprentice fireman, Jake Pothering, has yet to graduate from high school.  I have photographed him at work before, and the dim foggy light on this day made for good conditions: When Jake opened the clamshell doors to rake the fire, the light from within stood out against the background.

Project 113 Jake Pothering Minersville
Project 113 Jake Pothering Minersville

At twenty after seven, once again earthbound, I glanced along the east side of the station; on the far side of Sunbury Street, not-quite-distinct trees and buildings and a line of stored tank cars hinted at the world beyond.  The distant fog had lightened, silhouetting the power and phone lines and poles, as well as the crossing signals -- and I had a Flanagan moment.  Only a water tower on the horizon would have made it more like one of his paintings.  As a character in the book says, "More poetic . . . to leave out the train."

Minersville station in fog, Project 113

Shortly thereafter, prompted by I know not what, Mike Fenstermaker, one of the longtime volunteers, got the engine's cylinders warmed and drained of liquid water, in preparation for Chris Bost, the Reading & Northern engineer, to move her off the house track and switch out the former-C.N.J. private car.  (Mike's experience with steam goes back to the 1970s and the Atlantic Central, a stillborn steam operation, and their locomotive, a former Canadian Pacific 4-6-4; at age ten, he got lowered head-first into the boiler to clean scale off the lower tubes -- because none of the men involved could fit [or so they told him].)  I have made many photos at the frog in the turnout where the house track meets the main; the geometry of converging and crossing lines never fails to intrigue -- and the fact that the R. & N. has failed to spray for weeds recently may actually help this image, since the green plants contrast with the rails and make them stand out more than they might have otherwise.  R. & N. conductor John Rizzo has thrown the switch for the main and locked it and now walks to the cab before the engine comes ahead:

Project 113 John Rizzo Minersville

As always, the private car got stashed on the siding on the north side of Sunbury Street, at the head end of the line of stored cars visible in the "Flanagan photo" above, and, as almost always, I did not have the company of any other photographers as the crew made the set-out.  The switch mechanism does not get used often -- pretty much only when 113 operates -- and the conductor had to put his weight into throwing it:

With the engineer silhouetted against the fog, the next photo illustrates the interaction between the members of the crew -- much more interesting to watch when they work the old-fashioned way, without the benefit of radios:

Project 113 John Rizzo Minersville
Project 113 John Rizzo Minersville

Moving hundreds of tons of rolling inertia on the basis of hand signals -- or even radio chatter, for that matter -- requires trust between crew members, and an engineer learns that different crewmen signal in slightly different ways: When his conductor circles his arm for a reverse move and then holds his hand steady above his head, does this mean ten feet remain on the move?  Six feet?  Two?  I mean no disrespect to this crew -- and as far as I know John and Chris hardly ever work together -- when I report that the private car hit the leading stored car just a little hard, causing the empty tank to boom like a monstrous drum.

With the passenger car secured, on John's signal Chris pulled ahead; John threw the switch back for the main and locked it, and Chris backed the engine towards the station, first passing between the stone piers of the long-gone Pennsylvania Railroad bridge.  (Until 1932, three railroads and a trolley line served Minersville; the trolley quit that year, and the Lehigh Valley abandoned its spur in 1942.  The Pennsy line held on until the mid-'60s.)

Project 113 at Pennsy bridge, Minersville

As 113 backed southwards, her condensed-steam exhaust mixed with the fog -- the human-made world and the natural world combining in a lovely way and, to me, symbolic of the elemental rightness of a steam locomotive and how it turns air, earth, water, and fire into practical transportation and an unmatched spectacle.

Project 113 Minersville

My good friend Ross Gochenaur had come up from Lancaster County to spend the day chasing the trains with me, and now the two of us got into my car and headed south on Route 901; I had bungeed the ladder to the roof rack to make room for Ross in the front seat.  (Much later in the day, in mid-afternoon, while waiting for 425 at the William Street crossing in Schuylkill Haven, I got into conversation with an older couple in a car who stopped at ask when they could expect the train.  "Oh, we know you," said the woman.  "The guy with the ladder.")  Rather than try to catch the engine everywhere possible, we decided to take our time and look for the "best" places, and after Westwood Junction I drove us almost down to West Cressona, where I had an idea that the fog would once again offer us a unique opportunity at an oft-used location.  I backed the car off the road at the edge of someone's driveway; Ross agreed that it probably would not hurt to knock on the door of the house and ask permission -- which I felt a little funny about at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning, but I went up on the porch and knocked.  It took a minute for a puzzled-looking woman to answer the door.  "My friend and I have come out to take pictures of the steam engine," I said, gesturing towards the car.  "May I park here?"  A bright smile appeared on her face.  "Oh, anytime!"  I guess she likes hearing the whistle too when the 113 goes by.

We chose our spots and made some "test shots".  In the distance in this one, just beyond the pedestrian bridge, to the right of the track you can see a new concrete retaining wall; the old stone one collapsed a year ago, and chasing the engine here last winter and spring meant white-knuckle driving on the short stretch of orange-coned one-lane road, hoping for no opposing traffic. The collapse and reconstruction eliminated one of the oldest pieces of remaining infrastructure along the railroad: Evidently the old wall dated back to the line's original construction, between 1840 and '44.

Pedestrian bridge Wilder Street West Cressona Reading & Northern

So we would not make the engineer nervous by standing too close to the gauge, Ross and I waited on the opposite side of the main track, in the "yard"; the middle track held lines of stored cars ahead of and behind us, while the far track, recently relaid but not fully ballasted, stood empty.  Some time passed before we heard the engine's whistle, blowing for the Beckville Road crossing half a mile away; we talked about trains, and photography, and how still pictures can do such a good job of telling the stories of all aspects of railroading (even better than videos in general, we agreed).


As she passed and backed away from us, 113 continued to mingle her plume with the low sky.

Project 113 pedestrian bridge Wilder Street West Cressona

As we drove through West Cressona, we could see that the trees along the far side of the railroad yard now entirely obscured any view of the former Alcoa Aluminum plant; I never did manage to make a good photo of a train with the half-mile-long building and its sawtooth roof, and that possibility has vanished for the foreseeable future.  We caught up to the engine right where Railroad Street comes abreast of the track and briefly paced alongside; even at 15 miles per hour, we could tell that the crew in the cab had to hold on pretty tightly just to keep their feet or even their seats, for while the R. & N. has done a lot of track work on the Minersville Branch in recent years they have not addressed every stretch.  For that matter, Railroad Street still has "Road Closed" signs on either side of the small landslide at the east end of the yard, and that earth movement happened at least two years ago.  The signs really ought to say "Travel At Your Own Risk" -- almost none of the pavement actually slid -- and I drove us right through.  The road -- now called Caldwell Street --  climbs up and over the end of the ridge that the tracks curve around, and on the downhill side I drove onto the gravel trail that leads to a small electric substation, which I parked next to.  Ross and I got out and walked over to the tracks; four stub-end sidings remain where once the yard here spanned at least ten tracks, plus the double-track main line and the Minersville Branch.  The R. & N. uses the yard for car storage, but that business must have taken a temporary downturn, because only two of the tracks held cars and not all the way to their ends.  We walked up the now-single-track main to the switch where the branch met it, a location now known as CP MINE (although not actually a "controlled point" -- centralized traffic control got torn out through here in the Conrail years) but still called by many Mine Hill Junction, for the Mine Hill & Schuylkill Haven that had built that ancient and now late and lamented retaining wall a mile and a half up the branch.  For an aerial view of Haven in 1938, courtesy of Penn Pilot, click here; for 1958, click here -- and note the massive changes to the landscape made when the aluminum plant went in during the Second World War (to make aircraft parts, far enough from the East Coast to stay safe from any potential Axis bombing): Not only did the old racetrack disappear, but the river itself got moved to make room.

By some stroke of luck, or just neglect, the pole line that carried the telegraph and signal codes along a couple of miles of the Reading main line through here has not disappeared; it runs from just north of the Schuylkill River bridge in Haven up towards Pottsville, and the poles and wires make excellent photo props; the bright orange plastic fencing that now separates the right-of-way from a newly-developed access road, not so much.

Project 113 CP Mine Schuylkill Haven
Project 113 CP Mine Schuylkill Haven

Although I once chased 425 on trips out of Pottsville, I had never followed the branch that goes past Palo Alto towards Port Carbon (and which once upon a time went all of the way to Tamaqua; to say that the Reading blanketed this region does not overstate anything).  So once again Ross and I skipped a few locations and drove well ahead of the engine to try to find our way.  The approach to Pottsville coming north on Route 61 always reminds me of the approach to Tamaqua coming north on 309: a winding four-lane highway up a narrowing valley, the Reading & Northern's former Reading track on the far side of a river from the road (the Schuylkill into Pottsville, the Little Schuylkill into Tamaqua), and an abandoned railroad right-of-way next to the road and slightly higher than it on the east side -- and both of them now converted at least in part into trails: south of Pottsville, the former Pennsy Schuylkill Division, once upon a time the route of a passenger train known affectionately as "the Skook" (arguably one of the longest commuter runs in the country, at 95 miles, to and from Philadelphia and pulled by G5 4-6-0s); south of Tamaqua, the westernmost extension of the Lehigh & New England.


The fog had largely cleared over the river between Haven and Mount Carbon (not Port Carbon; that sits two miles away -- who thought that it made sense to name two nearby localities so similarly?), but when we turned off 61 onto Bacon Street, following the directions Project 113's Bob Kimmel had given me, we found ourselves under another fog bank; it had lifted, so we had long-distance visibility at ground level, but it still blocked the sun.  Nineteenth-century houses lined the right side of the road, interspersed with a few businesses -- a couple of garages, the now-closed A S of I Club (American Sons of Italy); on the left, first light industry -- Walco Fabricating, JJ Tire Distributing, Costas Foods -- then a small park with play equipment and basketball courts, then newer houses.  Right behind them, the railroad ran, slightly lower than the street, but we could see no obvious access, certainly not without trespassing.  By the time we got as far as Coal Street, we knew we had passed the wye, and I turned around in the intersection and retraced our route.  At the park I stopped the car in a dirt lot and we hopped out and made our way down a backfilled bank, among desk-sized chunks of old concrete.  We had gotten here just in time, for out of the west came a locomotive.  The muddy puddle in the ditch along the track made a mirror-image reflection of 113, but not a good enough photo.


Now only a quarter-mile from the wye, we did not waste any time getting back on the road, although I did not know where we should go next.  Having done a little Google Maps research in the week before, I did know that Route 209, on the other side of the river, crossed the railroad on a bridge just north of the wye, so I headed there.  A few other cars had already parked on the side of the road, more or less in the southbound travel lane (no shoulder against the hillside), so I followed their example and put the four-ways on.  On the other side of the road, looking through the trees at the wye, Bob stood with Jim Garraway, another of 113's volunteers, and I could see a couple more of the engine's friends down on the tracks.  The steep and brushy bank offered no obvious path.  "How did they get down there?" I asked Jim.  He had no idea.  But the photographers below pointed me to the other end of the bridge, where the ground along the abutment sloped just shallowly enough to scramble down.


Mill Creek Junction has a unique layout: The former Schuylkill Valley Branch, on which 113 had come up from Pottsville Junction, runs more or less east-west along the south bank of the Schuylkill River; each leg of the wye, which leads to the remaining stub of the former Frackville Branch, crosses the Schuylkill on a curving concrete-arch bridge, and the two legs come together directly under the concrete-arch Route 209 bridge -- quite a concentration of early-20th-century infrastructure (one of the railroad bridges has the date 1912 cast into it); all of the concrete on all three bridges shows extensive signs of aging.  I always wonder, when looking at spalling concrete, how long until water infiltration and freeze-thaw cycles do really serious damage leading to failure?  (The New York, Susquehanna & Western had one of its ex-Lackawanna overpasses in Syracuse partially fail in the summer of 2018, on a sunny day, with no warning at all.)  And has anyone, at Mill Creek either the railroad or PennDot, put any money aside for the eventual repairs?

With chasers scattered around the vicinity, all of us potentially in each other's pictures, I lay low where I had  found a spot across the eastern bridge (having forgotten to pull any weeds on my way), only standing to make my own photo after the engine passed and came between me and the other photographers; a couple more fans had walked out on to the 209 bridge.

Project 113 Mill Creek Junction Port Carbon Schuylkill River

Chris stopped the engine short of the wye switch so John could swing down and line it for their move.  With only her front end fully out in the open and her fireman having kept on top of things, 113 reached 180 psi and her safety valve lifted; the condensed steam rolled across the arch overhead and then out into the open air -- humid cool air.  It made a spectacular cloud.

Project 113 Mill Creek Junction Port Carbon Schuylkill River
Project 113 Mill Creek Junction Port Carbon Schuylkill River

Once upon a time, a flood of anthracite poured out from under the Route 209 bridge; a mile north of it, the Reading's St. Clair yard held the title of world's largest anthracite marshalling facility.  For an aerial view of the yard in 1939, courtesy of Penn Pilot, click here.  At least as late as 1963, automatic block signals protected the line between Mill Creek Junction and Pottsville Junction, and two of the steam locomotives now at the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in Bucks County, Pa., had visited the Reading shops at St. Clair in the mid-1960s for refurbishment before moving to New Hope.  One of the shop buildings remains standing, converted for industrial use, but every other trace of the yard has vanished.  At the very south end of the site, D.G. Yuengling & Son, America's oldest brewery, built a new production facility in the early 2000s, expanding it in 2011.  The R. & N. rehabbed the Mill Creek wye, relaying track on one of the legs (Conrail had torn it out in the 1980s), and half a mile of track north of there to serve Yuengling, now a good railroad customer for incoming grain (all of the finished beer goes out by truck).

In a view from one bridge, looking at the other, 113 heads south and west: next stop, Schuylkill Haven.

Project 113 Mill Creek Junction Port Carbon Schuylkill River

Ross and I headed there ourselves; I hoped that we could find a spot on the mainline side of the aluminum plant where we could photograph it with the locomotive, but this too proved impossible, for the same reason as at its other end: The trees have grown like weeds.  On our reconnaissance, we drove behind the CVS and then bumped through a former industrial site now used as a staging area for powerline reconstruction; we passed piles of steel poles and a number of lineman's trucks -- all of them separated from the track by the impenetrable trees.  At the far end of the yard we had to turn around, passing a company pickup with its engine running (we could see the small cloud of exhaust at the tailpipe) and its passenger-side doors open; in front of one of the doors, his back to us, a worker stood, peeing, the sun through the thin fog backlighting a stream of yellow drops -- and I have to admit that Ross and I had the same instantaneous thought: That would make a much better video than still photo.


With no photo location calling to us, and very few options before the engine reached Haven, we decided to quit the chase of 113 and instead go look for 425 somewhere between Haven and Port Clinton; she would deadhead up with her train in time for a passenger run at 11:00.  Although the fog had largely disappeared in Haven, farther south along the river we found it again, and at the stone-arch bridge at Landingville it looked quite lovely.  I parked the car on the side of the road, and as we got out and stood up we heard 425's whistle down the valley -- the closest to perfect timing I can remember in fifty years of chasing trains: We knew we would find a train somewhere, but we had no idea of when; we went to look for it, and it appeared almost at our feet.  I hopped over the guardrail and framed the bridge between the trees; Ross slid down the bank to a vantage right at the water's edge.  He reached up to remove a branch that impinged on his view, and it broke off easily -- so easily that he had not had time to brace himself, and I heard the splash as he hit the river.  Fortunately, only one leg went in, and only up to the knee, and we had a 70-degree and sunny day ahead of us, so no damage done.


The engine passed us at 9:33 under a lovely white plume, with her bell already ringing for the Meadow Drive crossing at Landingville, less than half a mile ahead; eight wine-red coaches followed her, trailed by the GP30 that would lead the excursions southward (I confess that, having put the camera down to watch the train's passage, I completely forgot to take a picture of the diesel).

Reading & Northern 425 Schuylkill River Landingville

On our way back to Haven, we stopped along the side of Adamsdale Road to check out the railroad equipment we had noticed on the way out: five boxcars and a coach, all missing trucks, neatly arranged around a patch of dirt and grass and probably used at one time for storage.  The coach had a Long Island Railroad look to it, and at least two of the boxcars carried the last bits of recognizable Reading paint.  We could not understand why we had never noticed them on earlier trips here, but the site had probably gotten very overgrown; perhaps clearing the brush and cleaning the place up meant that the cars would shortly get scrapped.  Having circled through the place twice, we finally noticed the billboard-sized "no trespassing" sign and decided to leave without taking pictures.


Back in Schuylkill Haven, we parked a couple of blocks from Main Street -- considering the crowd in town, I felt lucky to find a place as close as that -- and we walked to the station.  At this point, we had in fact seen the last of the fog for the day; we had had a very productive morning photographically, and for the next six hours I took hardly any pictures at all.


Although 113 could have sat on the north side of the Main Street crossing and faced 425 between the latter's trips, the railroad wanted 113 on the siding across from the station, so with 425 and train in town 113 pretty much disappeared; the merch table sat under the station canopy, though, and our volunteers there did a fair business in t-shirts and calendars.  In the station, after admiring the various live steam and other models (collected by the railroad's owner, Andy Muller Jr.), Ross bought us tickets for the first train, and we got in line early so we could ensure seats in the first car, right behind the engine.  On the way south, 425 did none of the work, but her engineer, Chad Frederickson, did plenty of whistle-blowing.  (Chad has an enormous collection of whistles.  The engine wore one this day that I did not recognize, a particularly attractive deep multi-chime; someone later identified it as coming off the Frisco [St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, which, by the way, never came within 1200 miles of San Francisco].)  Ross and I kept our hands and arms inside the windows, as instructed, but kept a careful eye on the coach vestibule up against the engine's tender, since we wanted to make sure to stake out that spot as soon as we could for the northbound leg.  A some point, three young people in Winnie-the-Pooh clan costumes went out on the platform, with a middle-aged man who seemed to act as their handler; we took that as a sign that we could stand there too, although we waited until the characters came out and started passing candy to the child passengers (we did not get offered any).


A man we didn't know joined us on the platform; he had plenty of opinions and stories, but he also put out a small sound recorder, attaching it by magnet to the coach wall, and we figured he would not want our voices on his recording, so we did not talk to him.  All of the coaches on the train once served in Lackawanna commuter service from Hoboken into the New Jersey suburbs, and they never had Dutch doors, so we could not hang out like happy Labradors, but through the end doorway we had a full view of the back of the tender and the sky above -- and once we got moving, the engine's exhaust and the steam from the whistle.  Accelerating from our stop out in the woods between Port Clinton and Hamburg, the engine quickly made enough noise that any conversation would have required shouting.  I leaned against the vestibule jamb and simply soaked in the experience -- not quite this, but entirely satisfactory.  The doors on either side of our vestibule had scratched and dirty plexiglass in the non-operable windows, so we had only the narrowest of views of the passing countryside in the gap between the tender and our coach; nonetheless, we could tell our location by the whistles for crossings, and the occasional overhead landmark -- and coming through Port Clinton, only a mile into the run, by the sound and feel of bouncing over the switches in the yard.


All too soon, the engine relaxed, her exhaust grew much quieter, and we traveled most of the last mile back to the Schuylkill Haven station at ten miles per hour or so (due to a slow order on the track).  We had had our fun, but we lingered in the vestibule for a while after the train came to a stop and Chad blew one long whistle blast -- no point waiting in line to debark when we could stroll off a few minutes later.

To see the 1 o'clock train, we drove down Route 61 to Port Clinton, where we found a spot in the shade at the edge of the railroad's yard to eat our sandwiches; a handful of other fans had also come here, some on the station platform, others behind us at the junction of the lines from Pottsville/Schuylkill Haven and Jim Thorpe/Tamaqua.  When the southbound passenger train passed, the diesel pulling, we waved to Chuck Trusdell, the engineer; once again, I did not lift the camera.  And I did not intend to make any pictures of the train with the steam engine in the lead; I would simply watch.  Then it occurred to me that I could capture at least a little of the experience without missing it, and I went to the car to get my tripod.  I set up the camera next to one of the switchstands, with the lamp in one side of the frame, and made a few test exposures; I have only ever used the video feature of the camera a small handful of times, and I have to remind myself how it works on every occasion, but I think I got it more or less right: 

Notable in the video: the way the switch's handle bounces up and down with every axle banging over the points.


Back in Haven, we passed the next couple of hours talking with friends and others we bumped into.  On the station platform, Andy Muller himself stopped by to chat; my father and I had first met him more than 30 years earlier on the original Blue Mountain & Reading, Andy's first railroad.  (He bought the 13-mile stub of the Pennsy's Schuylkill Division, between Temple [just north of Reading] and Hamburg in 1983.)  On the August 1985 day that we met, he and a single mechanic had something approximating a steam locomotive in front of them in the yard in Hamburg -- 425's boiler, frame, and wheels, and as far as we could tell not a great deal else.  Not long into our conversation, it became apparent that the term "strong-willed" did not overstate Andy's personality; nonetheless, when he said he would have the engine running by Christmas we could not believe it, and we left shaking our heads.  Wouldn't you know, we chased the engine from Reading to Norristown that December.  Only five years later, the B. M. & R. had done well enough that when Conrail offered its Anthracite Cluster for sale (mostly ex-Reading trackage in Berks and Schuylkill Counties), Andy bought it, lock, stock, and 150+ miles, and the railroad has thrived ever since.  In the fall of 2014 or '15, I ran into Andy at Port Clinton after one of his excursion trains returned from Jim Thorpe, and at the time he described the railroad as "printing money"; in Haven now, to our small group of listeners, he called the business so good that "it's raining money" -- which of course raises the question: Would you rather have it rain money on you, or have the ability to print the stuff?  The previous week, Andy said, the railroad had had 21 crew starts on one day, a new record -- and a far cry, as he pointed out, from six per week on the B. M. & R. in 1983.  Strong-willed, and confident, at the very least, but we found Andy also entirely friendly and even courteous: A person who dropped in on the conversation briefly, one of the fans somewhere on the outer end of the Asperger's spectrum, told Andy about the new job he had gotten with the state, and Andy not only listened but asked after the location where he had gotten posted, and offered congratulations.


We watched the 3 o'clock train leave at the William Street crossing with friends Mike Huhn (a Norfolk Southern and NKP 765 engineer), Stephen McIntyre (an Amtrak engineer), and Dave Crosby (the Delaware-Lackawanna's new chief dispatcher in Scranton).  Among a group of storytellers such as this, I will not hazard a guess as to what percentage of what we said and heard qualifies as "true", but much of it made some or all of us laugh.  At the station earlier, Scott Herring had told us that the R. & N. had agreed to a photo op with the two engines, to mark this day as another celebration of the 250th anniversary of anthracite (a year-long series of many dozens of events that Scott arranged, with help from individuals and historical societies and whomever else he managed to wrangle).  This would take place after 425 returned, so Ross and I walked up to Main Street (stopping by the car so I could get the ladder); 113 now sat on the main track just north of the crossing, some of her volunteers fussing about the running gear.  We sat with the group of fans for a while, telling and listening to more stories, and then Scott said that we should find our location for the photo so that the 425 crew could move her into position as soon as they came into town.  Shadows from the trees had already started crossing the track, so we walked up a ways, past the river bridge, to find a good place.  Chris moved 113 at just about the same time as 425 arrived, and with some miscommunication, arm-waving (not only by the engine crews), and under-one's-breath cursing (only Scott), we got the engines spotted well enough.  Now we had clouds to contend with too, but at least the assembled multitude did not have to squint.  From left to right, Bob Kimmel, Mike Fenstermaker, Chris Hohman, Jim Garraway, and Nathan Kelly, Project 113; Chris Bost (holding up 250th placard), Reading & Northern; Tyler Fenderson, Brian Wowak, and Phil Kania, Project 113; and Ryan Frederickson and Chad Frederickson, R. & N.:

250th anniversary of Anthracite Schuylkill Haven Borough Day 2018 Project 113

The sun came out after the crowd had dispersed.

250th anniversary of Anthracite Schuylkill Haven Borough Day 2018 Project 113 Reading & Northern 425

In order that the engine would face the right way for the Santa trains in December, 113 had to retrace her route from the morning, out to Mill Creek Junction and then back to CP MINE before going home to Minersville, so Ross and I retraced our route too.  With so few possible locations between Haven and Pottsville (the track runs through the woods on the opposite side of the river from the highway, with no access), we went back to Mill Creek Junction, parking in the same illegal but convenient spot; on the way we made a brief detour so Ross could photograph the front of the abandoned Pottsville Bleaching and Dyeing building on Coal Street just east of the wye (the name caught his fancy; for the company name as the "Jeopardy!" answer, we came up with the question "Where do you go in Port Carbon to turn white and expire?").  With time before 113 showed up to explore the cut just beyond the Route 209 bridge, we admired the stonework woven into the natural rock where the railroad had pushed its way through the ridge more than 150 years ago: Finding faults in the unstable strata, and rather than keep blasting, the contractor filled the gaps with cut stones; the courses run horizontally, while the perimeter of the stonework follows the steep angles of the strata -- a more recent but less regular version of what one sees at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.


When the engine did arrive, the crew made the same moves as in the morning, coming in around the east leg of the wye and going out around the west; I had once again forgotten about trying to trim any of the weeds, and two in particular in the first photo here drive me crazy.

Project 113 Mill Creek Junction Port Carbon Schuylkill River
Project 113 Mill Creek Junction Port Carbon Schuylkill River

On our way out of town, we went by way of Pottsville Junction, where the engine passed under the gantry that the R. & N. hung a three-light signal on when they reinstalled a track up to the new "union station" in town; only a handful of passenger trains ever venture up the winding stub-end track, and the signal aspect does not seem to respond to track occupancy; it stayed red-over-red-over-yellow as 113 approached from behind it, passed underneath, and continued on.  Again in no hurry, Ross and I drove over to West Cressona, where we knew we would have full sun on the front of the engine.  Ross asked to borrow the ladder, and he set up at the edge of the pavement; I parked on the other side of the street, but the first car to go by seemed headed directly for Ross before barely turning aside, so I decided that it would make more sense to block a lane and protect my friend.  In the photo, made from the roof of the car, Ross's and the ladder's shadow appears at lower left.

Project 113 West Cressona Borough Day

After this I left the camera in the car.  At the crossing at Beckville, I put a dime down on the rail to bring home for my wife (I could not find any smaller denomination in the car, although I did not check under the seats); it stayed on the railhead for all seven wheels, but it did not get satisfactorily flatter, just smoother.  Farther along, we drove across the river at the nursery and watched the engine go by; a third of a mile up the track, a bright spot at the end of the shadowed straightaway looked like it might have had promise for photos, but we did not have anywhere near enough time to get there.  Back in Minersville, as the light started to fade, we watched the crew retrieve the private car and move the engine and car onto the house track.  After some back-and-forth maneuvering to get the siderods into position for greasing, the engineer blew one long whistle blast and centered the reverser; the crew went to work preparing the engine for her next nap -- house valves and air tank drain valves opened, class lights and marker lights taken down, coal pile tarped.  It had just about gotten dark when Ross said that he needed to hit the road for home; I suggested that we get some supper down at Palermo's, Project 113's official pizza place, and we did.  Something like two hours later, Ross again made the move to leave, and we only stood in the parking lot talking for another half-hour or so.  At 9:35 we went our separate ways.



We usually think of  places as existing on a plane, approachable from any direction.  On the other hand, time is supposed to flow along in a continuous line.  We can only look  back at time.  It's like the rear view from the last car of a moving train, where you watch the tracks slipping away under you, converging in the distance, and the space between the rails is uniform, and the ties are spaced evenly, like our days, helping to measure, and the telephone poles like months or weeks . . .

-- Russell McKay, quoted by Lucius Caton, in Michael Flanagan's Stations

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