JOHN E. HELBOK
My father, mentor and inspiration
My father grew up loving airplanes, and he got his private pilot’s license at age 18. Not at all well off in that era, the mid-1950s, his family depended on income from his job at the A. & P. down the street from their apartment in the South Bronx, but his mother let him keep some money for himself so he could learn to fly, and he says that he feels more grateful to her for that than for anything else that she ever did for him.
Strasburg Rail Road, 1986
Whether or not he thought he would pass that passion for airplanes along to me, he became an almost instant railfan in his late 20s when he saw my interest in trains. This awakening coincided with a golden age for steam railroading in the Northeast, as Ross Rowland burst onto the scene, running fan trips and performing high-speed runbys with a series of ever-larger locomotives. At the same time, more and more tourist railroads opened, even within the New York City metropolitan area.
My father started taking pictures in the early 1960s, to document my mother and the places he and she went, and he made a darkroom out of the bathroom in the apartment that I came to grow up in. He worked in black & white, initially with a half-frame 35-millimeter Olympus Pen FT and a range of lenses. He used that camera to make these pictures, of a former New York Central P-motor at Spuyten Duyvil, in our neighborhood in the Bronx; Morris County Cental's ex-Southern Railway #385 at Whippany, N.J., both circa 1968; and one of his very favorites, of ex-Nickel Plate #759 blasting out of Oscawanna Tunnel on the former New York Central, in that same year.
This photograph won an honorable mention in the Center for Railroad Photography & Art's 2017 John E. Gruber Creative Photography Awards competition in the category "Visions from the Past"
By 1970, my father had graduated from the first camera, stepping up to a Mamiya twin-lens two-and-a-quarter with a waist-level viewfinder (and he never changed lenses ever again, even after moving on to a Bronica SLR two-and-a-quarter a few years later). Shortly after getting the Mamiya, he made my very favorite of his photos, of volunteer Steve Wickersham on 759 before an excursion in Elizabeth, New Jersey:
This photograph won third prize in the Center for Railroad Photography & Art's 2017 John E. Gruber Creative Photography Awards competition in the category "Visions from the Past"
My father befriended Mark Shapp, the operator at DV Tower at Spuyten Duyvil (a couple of hundred feet behind him as he photographed the P-motor), after Mark came out onto the top of the stairway one day to ask why the gentleman with the boy on his shoulders had decided to trespass on railroad property. We hung out with Mark in the tower from time to time for the next few years, until he moved to Chicago, also getting to visit the bridgetender’s shack atop the swing span on the West Side freight line, but neither of us ever exposed a frame of film to document them. Likewise with the signal maintainers based at DV, Eddie and Rudy, who by the 1980s had three-quarters of a century of seniority between them and stories to match.
Nonetheless, my father did make plenty of photographs of railroad people, and he made plenty of prints to give away to them, making friends aplenty during the years we traveled together. On the Black River & Western, we met Lloyd Arkinstall, a steam man going back to the 1940s when he fired and ran K4s and other steam engines on the Pennsy in the New York area. Here he ministers to ex-Florida East Coast #148, which ran at Black River from 1971 to '74:
In another of my very favorites of his photos, he perfectly captured the engineer's controls in Black River's ex-Great Western 2-8-0 #60 at night in the early 1970s:
On our first long-distance summertime trip together, my father and I visited the Arcade & Attica railroad in upstate New York, and he made this lovely portrait of their two locomotives in front of the ancient wooden enginehouse. We returned there in 1975, and he brought a print to the railroad -- and it hangs now, 40+ years later, in the Arcade station, alongside a host of other historical photos of the railroad!
In 1967, I saw my first living, breathing steam locomotive, 2-6-2 #250, then operating at Pennsylvania's Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern -- and I ran away when the whistle blew. By 1974, the engine had migrated to New Hampshire, where my father and I found her at the Wolfeborough Railroad, on Lake Winnipesaukee.
In December of 1975, a short-lived group called the Mainline Steam Foundation ran an excursion from Raritan to Bay Head, New Jersey, using a locomotive that my father and I had gotten to know at the Black River & Western. Although we ordinarily had very good senses of direction, we got almost hopelessly lost in the fog in Raritan that morning, but we did get there in time to see the engine pull past the Jersey Central Railroad's interlocking tower. Appalled by the ersatz "Blue Comet" sign on the engine's forehead, my father decided against chasing the trip beyond here; you can watch video of it, from Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" show on Youtube.
Briefly in the later 1970s, Black River volunteers worked on a former Long Island Railroad engine, 4-6-0 #35, which had sat in a park in East Meadow since her retirement. My father and I had a hand in removing all of her superheater tubes, and my father made this photo of Bob Michele cutting boiler tubes out.
The engine never made it to New Jersey, and forty years later still sits in pieces, now at Oyster Bay.
Through the 1980s and into the '90s, we got out to trackside fairly often together, but once I moved to Pennsylvania and then had children these trips got less and less frequent. On one of the last "classic-era" weekends, we chased Reading 2102 through the Anthracite Region on the new Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern as she pulled passenger and freight trains on the former Reading main line, in June 1991.
In another era entirely, my father and my son and I went up to Scranton in January 2009 to chase Steamtown's special to the Tobyhanna Ice Harvest on a day when the temperature measured 18 below zero on the lake at Tobyhanna at dawn and not a lot warmer in the city. By the time the train reached the top of the Pocono Plateau in late morning, the thermometer had reached positive numbers, but the crew still ran the engine back and forth a few times to keep everything limber while we sawed blocks of lake ice and poled them to the shoreline.
Three generations together chasing trains: Oren B. Helbok, Jeremy H. Baker, and John E. Helbok at Tamaqua, Pa., with Reading & Northern #425, December 2013:
In October of 2018, my father and I and our friend Richard Boylan celebrated 50 years of chasing trains together. (Richard met us as one of my father's middle-school students, and he came along on some of our epic trips in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including to the East Broad Top Winter Spectacular in February of 1972 when it snowed so much the crew could not move the Armstrong turntable in Orbisonia. You can read about some of the recent trips Richard and I have made, including to chase N. & W. 611, here.) My father made the photo below of #425 at the Lake Hauto Dam, a few miles west of Jim Thorpe, Pa.
In September 2019, I presented "Two Viewfinders . . . One Point of View", about my photography and my father's, at the annual conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art; you can watch the presentation here.