Peacock's Lock Bridge
Honoring a friend's memory, 7 October 2017
Why does a railfan photographer do what he does -- and why does he do it over and over and over again? Some American fans stalk the main lines, searching for every Norfolk Southern heritage unit, say, similar to the way British trainspotters try to inscribe every engine number in their notebooks -- but I have almost no interest in diesels: I have photographed a heritage unit just once, when it had the job of following a steam locomotive around as a "helper". Some fans photograph in the same locations again and again, whatever trains come by -- another type of trainspotting. (See Justin Franz's column on Trains.com.) Some, of more means than I have, travel the world to see steam in the most exotic places -- a charter trip in Romania, or to Victoria Falls in Africa, or at sugar centrals in Cuba.
Now, it turns out that I have photographed operating steam locomotives in ten states since late 2009, a total that surprised me, since it feels like I hardly ever leave Pennsylvania, and indeed I have done the vast majority of my recent steam photography in my adopted home state: In that time (mostly since 2013), I have spent one day each with steam in Michigan and Ohio; two each in Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia; two weekends in Virginia; 10 days in New Jersey -- and 90 (ninety) days in Pennsylvania. Just by dumb luck, I ended up living in a relative hot spot of steam, within three hours' drive of at least a dozen more-or-less-regularly operating locomotives, plus the occasional visitor. I can reach Project 113's giant 0-6-0 in less than an hour, Steamtown in about an hour, and the Reading & Northern's headquarters in 75 minutes; in two and a half hours or less, I can get to Strasburg, the Everett Railroad, Steam Into History, the Buxgahuda & Western, the Black River & Western, and soon, once their engine comes out from overhaul, the New Hope & Ivyland. (I can also reach Orbisonia in less than two and a half hours, so if the East Broad Top ever comes back to life . . .) Expand out to three hours and the radius includes the Wilmington & Western, the B. & O. Museum, and the Western Maryland Scenic; 3-1/2 hours puts me at the Arcade & Attica; and in a tad over 4, depending on traffic, I can reach the Connecticut Valley. In six hours' drive, I can reach Roanoke or (and I should make this drive more often) Cass.
But I rarely make long trips, almost always staying within the 3-hour radius. What keeps me coming back to the same railroads, the same engines, time after time after time? A year ago, while I photographed Reading & Northern engineer Shane Frederickson as he readied 4-6-2 #425 for a day on the road Shane asked me "Don't you ever get tired of taking pictures?" I asked him "Don't you ever get tired of running the engine?" and that seemed to make sense to him -- but does it really make any sense, even to me?
Well, when I can, I try to find something new; as I have gotten to know more of the railroaders, and they have given me access, I have photographed more and more different people, and this has become a more and more important part of what I do. Constrained by the narrow band of hours in which steam engines run -- very rarely at dawn, say, and hardly ever at night -- but enabled by the capacity of a modern digital camera to scoop up a tiny number of photons, I will happily awaken in the pitch dark to meet an engine crew long before the sun comes up, and I will stick around until almost everyone else goes home at the end of the day, when just about the only light comes from the firebox, as with Chris Moyer building the bank in B.R. & W. #60 in June of 2016.
And I always look for new locations along the tracks, hopefully places that not too many other photographers go. For this research, nothing beats Google Maps -- the 21st-century equivalent of poring over United States Geographic Survey paper maps, which I and so many others used to do. (My good friend and occasional trackside companion George Hiotis still has dozens if not hundreds -- perhaps thousands? -- of USGS 1:24,000 quads, marked with hi-lighters and ballpoint pens, keyed to the roughly bazillion photos he has made over the past sixty years; we lost the White Sulphur Springs quad out of the window of my car along U.S. 60 in West Virginia a few years ago as we chased a CSX coal train eastbound towards the Alleghany Tunnels, but a snappy u-turn led to its recovery.) Which brings us to the story at hand.When the Reading & Northern ran its fall foliage trips this year, for the first time they originated at the railroad's new "Outer Station" along Route 61 in Muhlenberg Township, a few miles north of downtown Reading (and less than two miles from the Blue Mountain & Reading's Temple station, where 425 used to run; the Reading Company's original Outer Station sat three miles south, at the junction of the railroad's Philadelphia-Pottsville main line with its Lebanon Valley Branch to Harrisburg, and had a vast triangular wooden platform to serve trains going in every direction, but it did not survive past the 1970s, a victim of fire even as preservationists worked to save it). I had last photographed a train between Port Clinton and Reading in 1991, when 4-8-4 #2102 ran trips on a brutally hot June weekend, some with passenger cars and some with coal hoppers; having long since forgotten the limited amount I knew at the time about the line, early this fall I fired up Google Maps and started tracing the track as it ran these 15 miles more or less paralleling the Schuylkill River. One location immediately caught my eye, where the now-single track crosses the Schuylkill less than two miles north of Outer Station; what did that bridge look like? It did not take long to find out, of course, because other photographers have gone there at least occasionally for at least a century and a half: The Peacock's Lock Bridge, named for the erstwhile location on the Schuylkill canal that the bridge spanned, dates from 1856, thirteen years after the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad first completed its double-track line to Pottsville; the bridge looked like this from the northwest circa 1908 (photo from the Library of Congress):
The LOC also makes available the Historic American Engineering Record information on the bridge, including this photo from the east by William Edmund Barrett from 1975:
The HAER data sheet says that Gustavus A. Nicolls, General Superintendent of the P. & R., designed the bridge as he upgraded dozens of wooden spans across the system, incredibly profitable from carrying millions of tons of anthracite to market and on the way to becoming, by 1871, the world's largest corporation, with a total capitalization in that year of $170,000,000 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_Company). Unique to the Reading and perhaps unique to the United States, according to the data sheet, he built here "the only masonry arch bridge in the U.S. with pierced spandrels. The circular openings between arches lighten the structure in both weight and appearance."
How could I not want to photograph this, and with a steam locomotive on it, no less?
How could I get access to photograph this?
After a little more Internet digging, and only a little more, I made a phone call to the business nearest the bridge, asking the woman on the other end if I could walk through their property to take a picture. She told me that she would have to put me in touch with someone in charge and took my number. I expected little. Imagine my surprise when my phone rang the next day and I had a remarkably friendly conversation with the owner; he said his wife photographed down there frequently and I should make myself and a friend welcome (I had assured him I would not bring a crowd in with me). He did not know if he or his wife would have time to meet me, he said, so I should just make my way down to the bridge, avoiding the parts of the property he sets aside for wildlife. After giving me his and his wife's cell numbers and e-mail addresses, he wished me the best. Wow.
The morning of 425's first October trip dawned bright and clear, but I had gotten up long before daybreak: The clock radio roused me at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday, the 7th of October, and I drove away from home a minute or two before 6, into the foggy darkness, with my eight-foot stepladder in the car beside me. (I would put it on the roof for the chase itself, for which I would have the company of another good friend, Ross Gochenaur, lifelong Strasburg Rail Road employee; we had arranged to meet somewhere in the neighborhood of Peacock's Lock and would keep in touch by phone as we both neared Reading.) My route east and south took me on I-80, Pa. 93, I-81, and Pa. 309; from Tamaqua south I traced the route that we would retrace while chasing, on 309, 443, 895, and 61. Going through Port Clinton at a few miles an hour faster than the posted 35 at 7:10, I kept an eye out for any sign of a steam locomotive readying for the trip or under way, and indeed as I passed the Port Clinton Hotel I could see a large cloud of smoke and steam through the trees on the far side of the river to my right -- whether in motion or not I could not tell, but at least I knew I would have plenty of time to get ahead of her.
The Little Schuylkill River, that I had paralleled since Tamaqua, joins the main stem of the Schuylkill in Port Clinton, with the confluence just a few yards from the junction of the former Reading's main line from Pottsville (officially the railroad's Schuylkill Valley Branch) and the line from Tamaqua (the Little Schuylkill Branch). The river carved the water gap through Blue Mountain that the railroad and Route 61 thread to go south, but the railroad follows the river on a meander to the east while 61 cuts straight southeast on a modern alignment that climbs up and over a foothill ridge before coasting back into the river valley. When my father and I first started chasing trains here in the mid-1980s, on the Blue Mountain & Reading, 61 intersected I-78 in farm country, with one gas station and a diner to serve travelers; since then, Cabela's built one of its giant sporting-goods stores here, and other development soon followed: Now the interchange hosts a Lowe's, a Wal-Mart, a Cigars International Superstore, a Dollar Tree, a state liquor store, a Murphy Jewelers, a Priority One Surplus, a Toyota dealership, a Hyundai dealership, a Boat 'n' RV Superstore, a Five Guys, a Cracker Barrel, a Red Robin, a Logan's Roadhouse, a Taco Bell, a Wendy's, a Dunkin' Donuts, a Burger King, a Starbucks, a McDonald's, a Pizza Hut, a Microtel, a state police barracks, a Wawa and a Shell station and another gas mart, a nail spa, a family-medicine office, a Great Clips, and a couple of transload warehouses. Over this despoiled landscape, the sunrise greeted me as I bucketed along, everything above the horizon auguring for a good day.
When I stepped out of the car near Peacock's Lock at twenty minutes before 8, the sun had not yet burned off the thin layer of fog that still clung to the ground; I had this view to the north, looking across the soybean field:
After making that picture, I turned around and headed south through the wet grass of a fallow field, paralleling a high-tension line. To my right I could see the small orchard that my host had asked me to avoid; I assume he lets the local deer enjoy the fruit. Down a hill, I came to another soybean field, and I followed the deer paths through it, passing under one of the high-tension towers; the power company plainly uses industrial-strength weedkiller, because the square of earth within the tower's legs looked utterly blasted. Down another small hill, I crossed a gravel road, then climbed up and over a small rise and came to the edge of the river. I had found the bridge.
To me, it felt like I had somehow passed through a wormhole and landed in England. The era of building stone bridges in this country lasted two-thirds of a century, more or less from the Carrolton Viaduct of 1829 to the Rockville Bridge of 1902, with most of them in the earlier half of that stretch; first steel and then concrete, combined with expense, rendered stone obsolete -- but what a glorious legacy remains. Waving away gnats, I stood in admiration in the early-morning cool, the wires overhead and the muffled din of Route 222 traffic on the other side of the river the only intrusions into the idyll.
The small patch of field I stood in, with a few vagrant corn stalks among the grass, ended at a drop of almost eight feet almost straight down to the water. I slid down the single sandy trough -- not really a path -- that gave access to the river, finding myself on a very narrow stony "beach"; at this time of very low water, I could hop, skip, and jump across to the gravel bar that stretched fifty yards or so downstream, and I walked carefully out on the smooth and muddy stones to find an appealing vantage point. Ross and I had already spoken on the phone, and he told me that at the Outer Station he had found the train of coaches with a diesel on the head end, but no sign of 425; she had not passed me here, so I knew I could get a photo of her running light towards her train. The gnats kept me company as I stood in a couple of inches of water at the edge of the river, watching fallen leaves float by on the glassy-smooth Schuylkill; a good-sized fish jumped once, and a kingfisher flew from bank to bank.
Presently, I heard a whistle in the distance, then the beat of exhaust, and then out onto the bridge rolled the engine, tenders first. The engineer blew a crossing signal, two long longs, a short, and another long long, as he passed; in the photo, that last long long has just started:
The condensed steam hung in the cool still air:
I heard the whistle again as the engine approached Outer Station, one long, long blast, and then nothing but the hum of traffic on the highway. I looked at the screen on the back of the camera and immediately knew that nothing else I captured of the engine for the rest of the weekend would compete with these very first images. Far from disappointing me, this had a liberating effect: While I always chase trains for fun, now I really could just play. Thank you, Helga and Andy Bensing, for your generosity in sharing your property with me.
After struggling up the riverbank to the field, I started my walk back to the car, meeting Ross halfway there. We would leave his car here for the day, so we went back to mine to get the ladder re-situated and transfer the things he would bring with him, most importantly lunch, then returned to the river to wait for the outbound excursion, which would take only a few minutes to reach us after the 9 o'clock departure. The sun rose higher and the temperature rose with it, dispersing the fog; much higher in the atmosphere, a thin layer of altostratus cloud played tag with a few cirrus above; the gnats played tag with us.
An hour's time made a lot of difference to the scene, and in the hazy sunshine my photo of the northbound train looked completely different from that of the light engine, the color largely washed away, and it worked better to process it as black & white:
Ross and I did not rush out, keeping to the deer paths and away from the orchard on the way through the fields; the train would stop at Port Clinton to take on more passengers, and we would have plenty of time to get ahead of it. In fact, we photographed the train at seven more locations before Jim Thorpe, which we reached exactly as the train did; we spent the layover watching the crew turn 425 and service her, then simply people-watching alongside the engine just north of the station. On this fall-foliage weekend, the R. & N. had four separate trains running to and from Jim Thorpe: the excursion we had chased; an RDC excursion from Pottsville to Jim Thorpe and return; the Gorge trains, running hourly; and two trips of the High Bridge train to Hometown Trestle and back -- a total of 22 scheduled train movements, plus switching, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Considering the rail traffic through town, no one seemed to mind the crowds of people walking on and across the tracks; as the afternoon wore on, more and more of them posed for pictures on 425's pilot, and quite a number visited the cab, including Amish boys in straw hats, a number of pretty young women, and whole South Asian families. Sitting on the parking lot guardrail, I fell into conversation with a woman who had come to town by car but found the steam train delightful; she told me that her grandfather worked for many years for the Lackawanna Railroad in Conklin, New York (just south of Binghamton), and during the Depression, as almost the only person in town with a steady job, he kept his neighbors clothed and fed.
For the homeward-bound leg of the day, Ross and I again photographed at seven locations between Jim Thorpe and the bridge, including pacing the train through Nesquehoning (which I just watched rather than try to photograph while driving); we took it easy, more or less, giving ourselves plenty of time to scope out vantage points on Hometown Hill, at the South Tamaqua coal pockets, in New Ringgold, and at Molino; from there we headed again for Peacock's Lock, wondering how low the sun would get before the train arrived. The sky had almost completely cleared, and the bridge shone like gold as the sun neared the horizon. At 6:08, half of the bridge still had sun:
By 6:16, the shadows of the trees along the riverbank behind us had reached the near arches --
-- and by the train passed at 6:26 we had pretty much lost the sun entirely, leaving the observation car to roll by in shadow:
A week later, the R. & N. ran a variant of the same trip, this one catering to the most hardcore railfans among us. The steam locomotive would pull the train unassisted by a diesel; she would not haul the auxiliary tender; and the railroad would put an open gondola directly behind the locomotive for the hardest of the hard core: They judged their market well: While coach seats on diesel-only Reading-Jim Thorpe trips sell for $39, and coach seats on the steam+diesel trips for $69, coach seats on the "Rail Fan Special" went for $99, and all of the gondola tickets sold out within a couple of weeks, at one hundred and twenty-five dollars apiece -- safety goggles included. While pleased to see the engine running without the aux tender and a diesel, I did not have much enthusiasm for photographing a gon full of foamers right behind her -- but I will stop my griping right there.
Some of you will remember my friend Glenn Brogan, who chased three 425 trips with me in 2015 and 2016; a professional photographer who grew up in Bloomsburg and lived in Las Vegas for 20 years, when I introduced him to it Glenn took to chasing trains with a childlike enthusiasm -- he got pure joy out of it. Due to a series of medical errors, he died this past spring during maltreatment for kidney stones, at age 46. Glenn's mother, Gina Whitenight, lives in Bloom and volunteers with The Exchange's Art Cart, and as early as the summer she had offered me the opportunity to honor Glenn's memory by spreading some of his ashes; could I, she asked, do this along the railroad where he and I had chased trains? With some help from my railroader friends, I told her, we could do it properly -- and early on the morning of Saturday, the 14th of October, I handed a small cardboard container to Reading & Northern engineer Christopher Bost as we stood by the engine at Outer Station. Thank you, Matthew Malkiewicz, for the photo:
Less than an hour later, as the engine cruised over the Schuylkill, Chris committed the container to the firebox.
Thank you, Chris, and tsetchem leshalom, Glenn --