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Padora's Italian Bakery

October 2021

John Riley photo -- Padora's Italian Bakery, Tamaqua, Pa.; Oren B. Helbok photographs Larry Padora

I spend a fair amount of time photographing trains that I have seen before in places that I have gone before; someone who concentrates on steam trains and who does not travel extensively has a fairly limited range of choices, even living amidst the densest cluster of steam railroads in the U.S.

In order to keep the work fresh and interesting, I have to find new ways of looking at familiar things. Whether at the Everett Railroad or at the Strasburg or at the Black River & Western, say, I now focus largely on the people who keep the trains running; out on the line, at each of the locations that I have visited for years, I try to find new possibilities and new angles – generally stepping back, to put the train into a larger context, or getting right up close to some item of trackside “furniture” and framing the photo to make the train a small part of the composition, perhaps even blurred in the background.   Best of all, I’ll meet someone who serves as a good subject along with the train.  In any event, I often have nothing figured out before I jump out of the car just a few moments before the train arrives.


The photo discussed here represents a relative rarity, an image that formed whole in my head before I ever touched the camera.


On the day before Halloween, 2021, the Reading & Northern ran the fifth of the season’s steam-powered fall-foliage specials between Reading and Jim Thorpe, Pa.   I had already chased the first and the third, and I had made images that I found quite satisfactory – most of them of the engine crew and of the people who came to watch the train go by, both railfans and the “real people” who live nearby.  For one of them, made in Tamaqua, roughly halfway along the 55-mile route, I asked the men working at Padora’s Italian Bakery to come out onto the little porch in front of the building so I could photograph them with the R. & N.’s loud and smoky light Pacific, No. 425, as it blasted through – and a bunch of women and children who happened to have stopped by joined them; to fit this much larger group than I had expected into my frame, I backed a few feet away from the porch and stood on top of my car (a fairly common vantage point).   I tagged Padora’s when I posted the photo and the story of its creation on my Facebook page, and when Larry Padora, the bakery’s owner, shared it on the bakery’s page, his customers seemed to enjoy it.

Reading & Northern 425 northbound passing Padora's Italian Bakery, Tamaqua, Pa. -- Oren B Helbok photo

Reading & Northern No. 425 blasts upgrade through Tamaqua, Pa. -- 23 October 2021

(I have made all of our family's bread for more than 25 years, and bakeries always attract me, so while looking around in Tamaqua for photo locations on a Saturday morning in 2017, when I first noticed the Padora's sign, I knocked on the door.  The worker there that day did not have bread going, but he did have to feed the anthracite-fired oven -- a gigantic, hundred-plus-square-foot masonry structure built into the hillside behind the one-room bakery; in the back wall of the room, a single small door four feet off the floor opens into the oven, and smaller doors next to it open into the firebox.  They burn two tons of anthracite a month and make three hundred or so loaves six days a week, some for hoagies and others for restaurant tables.  The oven dates back to about 1913, as does the cement-mixer-twin dough mixer, built by the Peerless Bread Machine Company in Sidney, Ohio; Peerless still exists, in Sidney, and it still makes mixers -- and Larry told me that they asked him for this mixer, for their museum, but they did not offer a replacement, now costing tens of thousands of dollars, so the century-plus-year-old one continues to churn away in Tamaqua with a recently-installed and locally-made stainless-steel liner.  Larry's father bought the business in 1957 and worked there into his 90s [he died at 93 in 2020]; Larry started making bread as a kid and has never left.)

During the week after making the group photo at Padora's, I had occasion to return to Tamaqua, to take down the exhibition of my work that had hung since late September at the Arts Center there.  Before I left town, I went back to the bakery to sell Larry on another idea.   Inside, he and his helper had most of that Thursday’s loaves shaped, more than three hundred already rising on the wooden trays, separated from each other by sail-cloth canvas.  I told Larry that I would come back on Saturday, chasing the train again, and I asked if he wouldn’t mind standing on the porch for a portrait with the 425.   He plainly had no idea what to make of me, but he said that he would pose.  Before going home, I made a test shot outside, holding the camera up over my head and using the live-view to frame it; I would need to bring a stepstool.  (As many of you know, I often travel with an eight-foot ladder in the car; since I would have company with me on the upcoming chase, I decided on a stool: A ladder and my guests would not fit in the car.)

On Saturday morning, I left the house at a few minutes after 6 a.m., making it to the railroad’s headquarters at Port Clinton early enough to chase the 425 running light-engine to North Reading.  Once there, I met up with my co-chasers, Ross Gochenaur and John and Denise Riley; none of them had any particular spots that they wanted to go, and I had already clued them in about my plan for Tamaqua, e-mailing them the “cartoon” that I had assembled, using the photo I'd just made of the porch plus the photo of the 425 made the week before plus a body outline I borrowed from Google Images.

The "cartoon"

Oren B Helbok's cartoon for Padora's Italian Bakery

After the train departed at 9:00, we caught it at only one and a half locations before its intermediate stop, back at Port Clinton, to load more passengers: We made our first photos at Tuckerton Road, just a mile from the railroad’s Outer Station and where a slow order kept the 425 to a very sedate pace as she passed under the bridge that we stood on, and I drove fairly briskly the dozen miles up to Swamp Road in West Hamburg, but the train whipped by us there less than a minute after we got out of the car.  The R. & N. does not dawdle.

Reading & Northern 425 northbound approaching Tuckerton Road, North Reading -- Oren B Helbok photo

R. & N. No. 425 northbound approaching Tuckerton Road

During the Port Clinton station stop we collected ourselves, and we photographed the lively departure; I also put pennies on the near rail in the Broad Street crossing, and the 425 did a fine job of rolling them out flat and also applying a ground-in coating of powdered sand as she dug in accelerating the seventeen-car train and the two diesel “helpers”.   Then, instead of making any stops between there and Tamaqua (on some chases, I have made at least three) we headed directly to Padora’s, twenty-one miles away: Why take chances?

Unknown to me at the time, my friend Zac McGinniss made this photo of our little band as I set up for the photo of Larry Padora; at right, the Subaru that I stood atop when making the photo of Larry and his family the prior week.

(On the first trip of the month, John and I, traveling together that day too, rounded a curve on Route 309 south of Tamaqua to find traffic completely stopped; we had no particular plans to see the train in town, but we had to cut many miles off the chase and use the back-roads shortcut over the mountain to Nesquehoning.  It turned out that a house fire a couple of blocks from the bakery had just closed the highway, and luckily we had come upon the tie-up with the option of taking Owl Creek Road and not sitting in traffic for who knows how long.   We dearly hoped that nothing like this would happen now.)



The day had dawned with solid clouds, and rain fell intermittently; it fell especially hard as we pulled in next to the bakery, and I got out the stepstool as well as the umbrella (which Ross had already offered to hold above me).  The bakers had the top of the Dutch door open on the front of the building; I leaned in and said “Good morning!  Train time soon.   I’ll set up and you can come out when it gets close – probably ten minutes or so.”  I had barely climbed atop the stool and framed the shot when I learned that I had grossly overestimated the time available: Suddenly we saw the 425’s exhaust plume down the valley, not much more than a mile from us; my heart rate, already elevated, shot skyward. “Go tell Larry!” I shouted to no one in particular.

Zac McGinniss photo -- Oren B Helbok photographing Padora's Italian Bakery, Tamaqua Pa.

Larry came out onto the porch, dusting off his hands and saying something about getting photographed covered in flour.  “No worries!” I said, pointing at a spot in front of me.   “Stand right there!”   He came to the near edge of the porch and turned to look in the direction of the approaching train – which we plainly heard, that familiar continuous thunder, now punctuated by the wail of a Baltimore & Ohio three-chime whistle at Spruce Street and then Broad.  “I’d like you to look at me,” I said, trying to sound friendly and calm instead of panicked.  Larry turned, laughing, and I pressed the shutter.   “Excellent, keep looking here, and keep smiling!”   He tried, the man really tried – I give him immense credit for putting up with me.   As the 425 rocketed by under a canopy of coal-black smoke, her roar drowned out any possibility of further communication, and I squeezed off another half-dozen frames.

Reading & Northern 425 and Larry Padora, Padora's Italian Bakery, Tamaqua, Pa -- Oren B Helbok photo

When I lowered the camera, Larry visibly relaxed and turned towards the train, and I joined him in waving at the passengers in the coaches and at the crowd of adults and kids on the observation-car platform.   “Thank you, Larry,” I said, shaking his hand.  “I'll send you some prints soon.”  He went back to work making bread, and the four of us piled into the car, the stepstool stowed under the camera bags, the umbrella dripping on all of it.  Somewhere ahead, the blue Pacific shouted up the grade to Tamaqua Tunnel and East Mahanoy Junction.   Let’s go, Ross and John and Denise!  Let’s see where we can catch her!


P.S. To tie it all into a neat bow, I made fourteen loaves of bread of my own at home on the rainy Sunday that I wrote this story.

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