in the First State
with an American
"Yo, you ever shoot steam with fireworks?" So read the Facebook message from Steve Jensen Jr., one of the Wilmington & Western's engineer's, in late June. The prior March, when Project 113's Easter trains ran from Minersville to Schuylkill Haven, Steve and his friend and fellow W. & W. volunteer Christian Bentley had come up to chase and photograph. At that point, for reasons that even I do not know, I had hardly visited the Wilmington & Western, making only three visits ever, but with a personal invitation I put it right onto the calendar.
As Steve explained it, "Every July 4th, we run to Hockessin for the fireworks in town. Two opportunities present themselves here. One, rare evening run where evening lighting is actually good for shooting this line. But second, we're going a quarter-mile further this year. Up until now, you had to shoot from the back of the locomotive to capture it with the fireworks. But this year, we'll be going just past where they shoot them off so you'll be able to shoot the front of the locomotive with the fireworks in the background." Back in the 1990s my father and I had photographed Black River & Western #60 under fireworks in Lambertville, N.J. -- on black & white film, of course; trying again with a vastly-more-sensitive digital camera sounded appealing.
The Wilmington & Western celebrated it 50th anniversary in 2016, operating on a former Baltimore & Ohio line that had its origins just after the Civil War. Once upon a time, the Landenberg Branch wound its way some 38 miles from just south of Wilmington, Del., to Pomeroy, Penna., west of Downingtown, and a connection with the Pennsy's main line; only nine miles survive in the 21st century, ending just shy of the state line. Two-thirds of the railroad lies in the valley of Red Clay Creek, the track crossing and recrossing it between Greenbank (location of the boarding station) and Yorklyn; nine bridges span the stream. Hurricane Agnes damaged the line in 1972, Floyd took out two bridges in 1999, and Tropical Storm Henri destroyed six more in 2003. None of the original wooden bridges still stand, but sturdier steel-girder ones have taken their places. Two serviceable steam locomotives call the W. & W. home: an ex-Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic 0-6-0 dating to 1907 and then undergoing its 1472-day rebuild (#58 came out of the shop in early 2018), and a beautiful classic 4-4-0, #98, built in 1909 for the Mississippi Central. Although 25,000 American types once polished American rails, only a handful escaped scrapping, and VERY few operate. Fortunately, #98 does. The railroad also runs two EMD SW-1 switchers, both built in 1940, one for the B. & O. and actually a native of the Landenberg Branch. So the four locomotives had among them 368 years of experience as of 2016. Add in the 87 years that the W. & W.'s ex-Pennsy diesel-electric doodlebug had accumulated and we approach half a millennium of railroading.
The fireworks train would not depart Greenbank until 7 p.m., so I did not have to leave home at the crack of dawn; I took the most direct but not necessarily fastest route to Wilmington, by way of Tamaqua and Reading. A clear blue sky slowly filled with clouds the farther south I drove. As usual, a PB&J sandwich accompanied me, but arriving in suburban Wilmington at lunchtime I decided to save it for supper -- who knows if I would have time to find something close to train time -- and I stopped at McDonald's. At Greenbank I parked in the station lot, went in and bought a ticket, then inhaled the food and put my seat back and closed my eyes for a few minutes . . . Steve had offered to arrange a ride for me in the steam locomotive cab from the shop, at Marshallton, about two-thirds of a mile south of Greenbank, to the depot, and to shuttle me from the station to the shop so I would have my car waiting for me to chase the train to Hockessin. Now when he found me in the parking lot he offered to take me for a complete tour of the line, to show me the best photo locations. How could I turn this down!
The doodlebug had come into the station from the north while I rested, on an extra run (I later found out) for a busload of tourists who showed up way too early for their scheduled ride. #4662 has remarkably loud horns at either end -- I certainly would not have slept through its arrival -- and the north (front) end has a single-bell horn of the same design and make as the Milwaukee Road's Little Joe electrics; Steve and I got to hear it as the car approached the Route 48 crossing just below the bridge where he took me first. Perhaps the spaghetti-bowl of roads in the area had dissuaded me from chasing this railroad more: Later in the day, I followed Christian to the same spot, and I still have no idea how we got from Greenbank to that crossing where Steve parked his truck. We walked across the bridge and I climbed a little way up the side of a cut to watch the doodlebug burble past under the now-solid overcast.
From there, the roads made more sense, and I only occasionally felt lost as Steve took us along the track, across it now and then, and eventually all the way to Hockessin. There we saw evidence of the preparations for the fireworks, most obviously the yellow tape surrounding the property alongside the right-of-way at the very end of track: Plainly these homeowners did not want hordes of spectators tearing up the lawn. However, since I intended to try photographing right there, I walked up to the house and knocked on the door. Inside, a collection of small dogs started barking madly, but the very pleasant woman who came out to talk (leaving the dogs indoors) welcomed me to use the lawn for a tripod base, and even to park around back, where her kids would direct the traffic -- lots of friends coming for the show. Always a pleasure to meet such a friendly person.
Back in Marshallton we found the day's student fireman, Donnell Allen, starting to get #98 hot; he and senior fireman Don Young and Steve worked around the engine for the next few hours, and I worked behind the camera. Although I find her tender slightly odd (not tall enough), otherwise #98 has classic proportions.
Donnell, who works as the environmental health and safety coordinator for an Alcoa plant in Lancaster, had lit the fire -- kindling wood and cotton waste -- and slowly added coal; now he raked the pile even.
The stubby Johnson bar did not come as original equipment -- no power reverse on a 4-4-0 in 1909:
With the fire hot and the steam pressure rising, Donnell took a break; Steve joined us in the cab. Nothing better than to spend time in a locomotive while the crew swap lies.
Knowing in advance that I would have the opportunity to climb aboard the locomotive, I had worn my okay-to-get-dirty clothes; for the photo below, I lay down in front of the engineer's seatbox with my feet against the front of the cab. Having missed the first chance at capturing this scene, I asked Donnell to pose for me.
Then he attended to other chores: checking the sand dome, lubricating the air pump --
-- and dragging out the air hose so Don could shoot Alemite grease into the running gear.
With the pinstriping on her drivers, #98 reminds me of another 4-4-0 that used to run not too far from Wilmington, ex-Pennsy #1223 that graced the rails at Strasburg from around the time of my birth until the late 1980s. A close-up of #98 --
-- and a view of 1223 at Groff's Grove in 1973 (a photo I made at age 8):
When the doodlebug came back to the yard after its third trip, John LaCosta came with it. The railroad's road foreman of engines (i.e. the one in charge of the engineers), he had served as the conductor on the doodlebug and would run #98 on her 18-mile round-trip to Hockessin later this evening. Meeting John for the first time, I talked about photography with him, and he said he likes portraits of railroaders. I had come to Wilmington with the very aim in mind of getting close to the crew, and portraits would fit the bill, so why not start with John himself.
-- then Steve and Don:
The Wilmington & Western has the great luxury of a shed long enough to keep their entire passenger-car roster indoors; it has served the railroad well for a long time, and consequently the equipment stays looking good long after a repainting. The sold-out fireworks run would need six cars -- a combine, four coaches, and a caboose -- and it required some switching to assemble this train from among the equipment in the shed. Steve fired up SW-1 #114 (ex B. & O. #8408 having some undiagnosed electrical issues at the time) and invited me aboard; I jumped at the chance, having had my earliest diesel cab experiences aboard an almost identical locomotive that the Black River & Western operated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although only in his early 20s, Steve has years of experience at the throttle already, and I enjoyed watching him play the controls like a musical instrument as much as I enjoyed capturing the action. Dating back three-quarters of a century, nothing in #114's cab showed any trace of "design" in the Raymond Loewy or Henry Dreyfuss mold, just pure function.
This next photo struck me as emblematic of the switching process, with the engineer at the beck and call of his trainmen on the ground, waiting to unleash the 600 horses under the hood:
The railroad's volunteer trainmaster/Webmaster, Andy Gwiazda, joined us in the cab and looked out for traffic as we crossed Old Capitol Trail just outside the yard's fence.
Trainman John McCloskey waited at the front of the combine as Steve brought the engine in for an oh-so-gentle hitch:
By now the clouds had gotten thicker and lower, and a few brief rain showers fell. With the switching completed and #98 ready to go, John LaCosta brought her off the backshop track.
-- with Donnell on the lefthand seatbox:
All of a sudden it began to rain. After one of the young volunteer brakemen threw the switch, John backed #98 towards the train.
By around 5:30, with the train air pumped up, the crew got ready to depart the yard for the station at Greenbank, 3500 feet distant. I took my place in the cab while the engineer and fireman made their last small talk.
Then John whistled off, Don standing behind him as we once again prepared to cross Old Capitol Trail:
With the engine finally starting to work hard, and the steam-exhaust-induced draft coming up through the brightly-burning fire, Donnell examined his bed of coals:
Between the yard and the station, the track curves through woods, and with the sun setting behind thick clouds it got very dark in the cab. Here and there, openings in the trees let in some light, and I timed my photos to those clearings. In one, I managed another homage to the long-ago-published picture in Trains Magazine that David P. Morgan had titled "Man in a Hurry". In the original, a Norfolk & Western engineer piloted a J-class 4-8-4 across Virginia; John La Costa did a fine impression of that man, albeit in a 4-4-0 weighing perhaps a quarter as much as the J and traveling at, well, a much more sedate velocity:
Once in the station I gave my thanks to the engine crew for their hospitality and headed for my car. Christian Bentley led the way in his Jeep as we wound around the suburban countryside in the rain, headed back to the bridge just north of Lancaster Pike. Under the cover of the trees, we did not get especially wet while we waited for the train; 98's whistle sounded quite lovely echoing through the woods as she approached.
With a long train, and rain, and a late return to Greenbank on the schedule, the railroad opted to provide a pusher, and Steve ran the #114 on the back end of the train. (To avoid switching in the dark at Hockessin, the diesel would lead the train back to Greenbank.) The grade does not get especially steep until a few miles out, so he passed us here at not much above idle.
On the earlier tour, Steve had shown me a spot where the track runs right alongside the creek at an old dam, and in the rain this location had the advantage of the Sharpless Road bridge crossing the creek parallel to the dam that I could take shelter under. As I waited, and as the sun fell and the rain fell harder, the light got dimmer and dimmer, so I make no claim for the photo other than as a record of a place I need to go back to someday.
Farther up the line, Christian and I parked at a crossing and just watched the train come and go; on the stiffest part of the grade now, the SW-1 passed us much more noisily. The coin that I put on the rail, to bring home as a souvenir for my wife, managed to stay put for the entire train's passage, all 36 wheels; the penny ended up an inch and a quarter in diameter.
Coming into Hockessin, the train passed the hulk of a privately-owned ex-Pennsy 0-6-0 that has sat on a siding for many years, then crossed Route 41; I cranked the ISO up and waited for it to cross Old Lancaster Pike --
-- and then Millcreek Road, which Christian flagged after putting out fusees to attract drivers' attention in the gloom; trains very rarely venture this far, and the lights and gates did not activate until after the engine and a couple of cars had passed.
Christian and I drove back to the house at the end of track; in the rain, the family's boys had abandoned their posts as traffic cops, but the husband of the woman I had spoken to earlier pointed us to parking behind the house. Among the visitors, a five-year-old girl made conversation with us -- a budding railfan, she watches the trains go past her house near Dover, Del.; her mother asked her how frequently they pass, and the girl said "Pretty, often, not very often." I showed her the super-sized penny; of course she wanted to keep it, but I had a spouse to bring it home to, so I had her ask her mother for some coins that we put down on the rail. Unfortunately, they never got flattened: The train had stopped alongside the soccer fields in Swift Park, the usual viewing area for the fireworks, still two hundred yards short of where we wanted to photograph the engine, but it never came any nearer: In the increasing darkness, with a lot of people walking along the track, the engineer decided to put safety first and remain there. Although disappointing, this development did not put a real damper on the day -- the rain had already gone a long way toward doing that. I had not brought an umbrella, so when I set up the tripod alongside #98 I covered the camera with a fleece sweater, adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and lens opening mostly by feel.
The fireworks went as planned, and quite impressively, too: more than a half hour of light, color, and sound, a show that any small town could feel proud of. A few other fans squelched around in the sodden turf next to me, capturing the spectacle in stills and video; you can see Jim Lipnitz's video here. I managed to get one good photo (it required cropping out the sweater draped over the right side of the lens) --
-- before I had had about as much of the rain as I could stand -- or, rather, what the camera could stand, as the front of the lens started to fill with water.
After getting the camera put away put away in the car, I went back outside for the rest of the show. When relative silence and darkness had returned to Hockessin, I bid adieu to Christian and the family in the house at the end of track and drove out of town -- slowly, in a vast dispersing mass of cars. The local constabulary had things well in hand, and they kept us moving and orderly; one of the officers gave me directions and in only a few minutes I found myself northbound on Route 41, headed for Pennsylvania. Coming into Coatesville, I passed the Arcelor Mittal steel plant, still making steel plate almost 225 years after the first iron works opened on the site; according to the company Web site:
"This strategic location in eastern Pennsylvania allows for good highway and railroad access. The plant produces steel from scrap in an electric arc furnace and is capable of producing approximately 900,000 tons of raw steel annually. The plant also operates ingot teeming facilities, a slab caster, two plate mills and heat-treating facilities. The Coatesville facility refines more than 450 different steel chemistries and, together with the Conshohocken facility, produces some of the widest, thickest and heaviest steel plates in the industry.
General manager: Ed Frey
Union representation: United Steelworkers Local 1165, Sheldon Gregg, President
Hourly employees: 629
Salaried employees: 141
Products made: Steel plate — carbon, high-strength low-alloy (HSLA), commercial alloy, military alloy, flame-cut products, ASTM grades
Markets served: Aircraft and aerospace, construction, distribution, energy, heavy equipment, military, mold and tool, shipbuilding
Principal production facilities: Electric arc furnace, bottom poured ingot, slab caster, two plate mills, heat treat facilities, quench and temper, flame-cut shape facilities"
Countless steam locomotives went to scrap here in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s; as far as I know, no commemorative plaque marks the site of their demise. No fires within the plant lit the night sky as I drove by, but the last few bursts of a local fireworks show just north of downtown did. I turned left, passed under the multi-arch stone bridge that carries the former Pennsy main line over the West Branch of Brandywine Creek, and found myself once again on a winding road through pitch-black countryside. I cranked up the volume on the Bluegrass CD, flying home.
Before leaving Independence Day behind, let us once more honor the immortal words that the Founders announced to the world on July 4th, 1776: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."