Steaming Into History
Back in the autumn of 2015, when the Everett Railroad first started running its lovely little 2-6-0, #11, and I went out to Hollidaysburg to photograph her and her crew, I met Stephen Lane, at the time one of her regular firemen (and now a qualified engineer). Stephen grew up in Three Springs, Pa., along the long-dormant southern end of the East Broad Top Railroad, and he began volunteering on the active section of the EBT as a teenager; he also got involved with the Pennsy steam engine at Williams Grove, not far from Harrisburg, and has also volunteered at the Bucksgahuda & Western and with Project 113. After starting at the Everett on the track gang, he worked his way into engine service and then used that experience to get a job at Steam Into History, the newest steam tourist railroad in Pennsylvania, which opened in 2013 (the Everett had run diesel-powered passenger trains off and on since the mid-1990s).
Steam Into History began as one man's dream to recreate the experience of traveling as Abraham Lincoln did when the 16th president came through York County on his way to Gettysburg in November of 1863, bound to dedicate the national cemetery at the site of the turning-point battle in the Civil War. Lincoln rode north from Baltimore on the Northern Central Railroad, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line at New Freedom, Pa., and stopping at Hanover Junction, eight or nine miles on; a famous photograph purporting to show Lincoln there has gotten published widely:
After that initial foray, for whatever reason, I did not go back for four years, almost to the day. Stephen and I had talked now and again about me paying him a visit there, and it finally worked out on the very last day of the operating year in 2017; they would run five trips, only to Glen Rock and back (halfway to Hanover Junction), starting in late morning and continuing until after dark, and I would get to ride the cab on at least one of them -- more than making up for the lack of trackage covered.
Although I had gotten lucky the two weekends before, with snow falling at Strasburg and on the ground at Black River and the Everett, the week before Christmas brought warm weather and rain, with no snow forecast for Saturday the 23rd -- so at that point I hoped for pouring rain, conditions I had hardly ever tried making photos in. On my drive down, along the Susquehanna, ground fog and low clouds occasionally merged, and rain fell intermittently. Stephen had told me that I would probably not get access to the enginehouse at New Freedom, so I did not feel in an especial rush, and when I approached the Rockville Bridge just north of Harrisburg I knew I had to stop: From Route 322 I could barely see the bridge through the mist, and the clouds above had all sorts of attractive lights and darks swirling through them. I turned off the highway onto North Front Street, then into the boat-launch parking area at Fort Hunter, six-tenths of a mile north of the bridge. At the edge of the river, I exposed a few frames. It began to rain harder, so I got back in the car and drove down to the south end of the historic site, by the old church (from where my son and I had photographed NKP 765 when she crossed the bridge in 2012); I managed to park in a vast puddle, and the view from here did not look as interesting, so I continued south, passing under the bridge. Here Front Street lives up to its name, separated from the river by only a twenty-foot embankment, while on the inland side a typical commercial strip hosts auto mechanics, a Pizza Hut, and small office buildings. Looking over my shoulder, the view looked intriguing again, so I did a u-turn across the four lanes (before 9 a.m., the road did not have much traffic) and parked in the Susquehanna River Basin Commission office's lot. I tucked my camera under my coat and slid down the bank, through the brush, to close to the water's edge; in addition to reeds and weeds, the riverside held a disappointing amount of garbage, everything from a deflated basketball to pieces of plastic chairs, and scads of empty plastic bottles and aluminum cans. As I worked my way through the mud and the crud, what should I hear but the thrum of diesel locomotives, and an eastbound Norfolk Southern freight appeared out of the gloom, slowly crossing the 3820-foot-long, 48-arch bridge.
For my inspiration to make this image, visit Mike Froio's Web site; he never met a cloudy day he didn't like.
An hour later, in the pouring rain, I drove into the town of New Freedom and parked next to the converted feed mill that houses the railroad's offices, gift shop, machine shop, and one-stall enginehouse. Although the first train would not run for more than an hour, a handful of prospective passengers had already come in; by the storefront window a small boy happily played with the wooden Thomas® set, and an older child flipped through books in front of one of the racks. The door leading to the engine clearly said "employees only" on it, so I took a walk around, flipped through some books myself, and admired the model trains on the shelves -- unprotected from grasping hands, but up high enough to escape from curious children, anyway. Stephen came through and we chatted briefly, but he had to go to work behind the private door, so I went back outside and read a magazine in the car for a while. When I went back out, the engine crew had opened the overhead door to reveal #17 in her stall; walking up to the door would have meant entering the fenced-in area, and I did not want to make myself unwelcome, but the side wall of the enginehouse has a person-sized door, also wide open, so I stood in that doorway, both feet outside of it, and watched Stephen open the air pump's condensate drain and turn on the pump --
At a few minutes before 11, by which point the rain had largely let up, they brought the engine outside and onto the main line.
-- and the other crewman, whom I had not met yet, shut the drain:
Before backing all the way down to the train, they blew down the boiler; after making the hitch and hooking up the air and electrical lines (#17 has no turbogenerator, so the little Honda generator that sits on the front platform of the first coach powers the headlight, radio, and other appliances on the engine), Stephen oiled around. As he worked, the day's Santa arrived, on foot, and he posed with a couple of families.
At the far left of the second photo above, the throttle arm aims up, and the cylinder-cock lever aims down; when Stephen lifted the lever, a rod running through the running-board handrail turned, lifting the mechanical linkage by the smokebox that opened the cocks.
At all of the crossings, Steam Into History volunteers flagged the train through, two of them, in reflective vests, leapfrogging each other from one to the next; since most of the crossing lack lights, and none have gates, this safety measure may make sense, although it certainly does not not add any air of 19th-century verisimilitude.
The northbound trip took half an hour. Glen Rock, although a much smaller town than New Freedom, feels more dense, built in the narrow valley of the South Branch of the Codorus Creek; a classic Industrial Revolution town, it once had woolen mills, grist mills, iron foundries, and machine shops, as well as clothing factories. According to the borough's Web site, in 1881 the railroad sent 79 trains through town in 24 hours -- "a train every 18 minutes." Some handsome 19th-century buildings remain, one of which has become the Glen Rock Mill Inn, alongside which the train stops. We did not stay long; Stephen threw the Johnson bar into the front corner and on the conductor's highball got us briskly out of town, laying down sand for the climb. #17's cab walls only come up to the top of the enginemen's seats, so when he leans out to watch the track ahead on curves, Stephen needs to take care that he does not fall right out of the cab.
As the engine worked upgrade, the fireman, Ted Merriall, increased the flow of oil to the firebox and opened the dampers at the bottom, to increase the flow of air as well; additional air went in through the firebox door, and those holes gave a glimpse of the inferno within.
Remarkably, the Hanover Junction station still stands, although the branch to Hanover (to the left in the photo) got torn up during the Depression. The Northern Central (to the right) connected Baltimore, York, Harrisburg, and Sunbury, and after the Pennsylvania Railroad took it over it became a major secondary line, with double track and block signals. Due to the fairly steep grades on the route, passenger trains routinely rated double-headed K4s Pacifics, and even as late as 1955 six through trains ran in each direction daily, as the Pennsy ran the Washington sections of many of its long-distance trains via the Northern Central, connecting to the main line trains at Harrisburg. (The six northbound trains that year included the combined Metropolitan/Buffalo Day Express, the St. Louisan, the combined Liberty Limited/Red Arrow, the combined Indianapolis Limited/Spirit of St. Louis, the combined Admiral/Clevelander/Pennsylvania Limited/Penn Texas/Northern Express/Dominion Express, and the combined Statesman/Gotham Limited; only the very first of those stopped anywhere in the 56 miles between Baltimore and York, oddly enough at New Freedom and Glen Rock, only four miles apart.) In 1971, the Buffalo Day Express northbound and Baltimore Day Express southbound quit running the day before Amtrak took over what remained of the Penn Central's long-distance trains, and passenger service on the line ceased. The next year, Hurricane Agnes did significant damage to the line, and Penn Central applied to abandon it; the state of Maryland used the southernmost 14 miles to put in a light-rail system serving Baltimore, and turned the rest of the right-of-way to the state line into a rail-trail, while York County bought the remains from the state line up to York and leased the one remaining track to a freight operator (the Pennsy had pulled up one of the mains by the mid-'60s), using the other half of the right-of-way for its own rail-trail.
I visited Steam Into History in December of 2013, chasing the train for three trips over the length of the line, between New Freedom and Hanover Junction, on a cold and clear day. The almost-brand-new 4-4-0 (built by the Kloke Locomotive Works in Illinois, to the blueprints of the replicas that operate at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah) looked and sounded fine; sure, she has big knuckle couplers on the front and rear, instead of the historically-accurate -- and deadly -- link-and-pin, and air hoses (not to mention an air pump and air brakes), and modern injectors, and she burns oil rather than wood -- but doesn't she look lovely in the early-morning light?
And it seems churlish not to simply enjoy what the train looks like in the countryside between Glen Rock and Hanover Junction:
I spent enough time photographing the various activity around the engine that by train time I had not thought to go to the car and put on the wide-angle zoom lens that I would want in the cab, so I had to take my ride without the intended hardware. With no runaround anywhere except at New Freedom, Steam Into History trains run with the engine on the south end at all times, so #17 pushed the three coaches away from the station. It did not have to push for long: The track drops fairly precipitously all the way to Glen Rock, and Stephen hardly had to open the throttle to keep the train at the prescribed 15 miles per hour. The conductor rode the lead platform and made frequent calls on the radio to Stephen, who kept the mic in his lap so he would not have to continually hang it up and pick it up again: "Clear for 10." "Clear for 20." Even from the back of the train, Stephen blew the whistle for all of the crossings -- here, Taylor Hill Road and West Clearview Drive:
Ted likewise has to take care not to eject himself from the cab when leaning out:
As we rocked along, I kept thinking of the doubleheaded K4s that once would have tackled this grade with the Admiral/Clevelander/Pennsylvania Limited/Penn Texas/Northern Express/Dominion Express in tow, at three or four times the speed. I had no complaints about getting this cabride, but think of the exhilaration of riding one of those!
Approaching New Freedom, I tried a new photo angle, wrapping the camera strap tightly around my wrist, leaning as far out from the gangway as I safely could, holding on with one hand and aiming more or less blind with the other, trying to capture the motion of the wheels and rods. With the help of vibration compensation in the lens -- surely not due to a steady hand, even at 1/80th of a second -- one of the many images came out well:
When we got back to New Freedom, I thanked Stephen and Ted and climbed down from the engine; now I would have three trips to photograph out on the line before riding again in the dark on the last one, and I did not feel any urgency about chasing. I drove down the valley, the road twice crossing under the track through hard-to-photograph stone-arch bridges. At Seitzland, just north of yet another arch bridge (which crosses a creek and a secondary road), the track passes next to a 19th-century general store, now largely restored, complete with painted sign on the wall facing the track. Although ugly gates keep cars off the rail-trail here, the store still makes for an attractive backdrop, one which I would like to try photographing on a sunny day (or in the snow); for both the going and coming photos, I stood on my trusty ladder, spanning the trail fence.
After the train passed, I noticed the front door of the store open, and I looked inside, where a man stood at a workbench, surrounded by wooden window sash. Engaging him in conversation, I learned he, Dave Keller, owned the building and a few adjacent ones, as well as much of the surrounding land, and he had big plans for the area, wishing to turn it into a destination along the railroad and the trail; the room we stood in would become a restaurant or cafe, and he had already built the deck for people to sit outdoors and watch the trains go by, and the ramp leading down to where they could alight and board (all of it with hot-water tubing in the concrete to melt snow and ice). Mr. Keller has published a high-quality on-line prospectus detailing his vision for Seitzland, and I hope he can make something of it. Across the road from the store, he had built a small piece of a station-platform canopy, which bears a Pennsy-style nameboard, and I photographed the next southbound train approaching it.
In between photographing the 1:00 and 2:30 trains at Seitzland, I had gone back down to Glen Rock, to see a little more of the town -- and I didn't make it very far, finding too much to see in the public library, which occupies the site of a small factory that dated back more than a century; I cannot find an on-line resource to verify this, but the historical plaque on the front of the building said something to the effect that when the factory closed and it became the home of the library, one of the women from the family who had owned the factory became the librarian -- and served in that role for another fifty years. She has long since died and the building has gotten rebuilt, but quite a story. Inside, the front foyer and the hallway leading to the back of the building had tables packed with used books for sale, with more boxes of them on the floor; on the walls, a century's-worth of historic photos of the area had eccentric captions, written by some historical society member with a sense of humor and an ax to grind, full of snarky comments about the various colorful characters who had lived here, and the occasions photographed; unfortunately I did not write any of them down. Leaving aside the snark, the photos vividly showed the extent of industry that once thrived here, when those dozens of daily trains would have kept the crossing watchmen hopping 24 hours a day.
I chased the 2:30 train south from Seitzland, first to the Taylor Hill Road crossing, where both Stephen and Ted leaned out of the cab to have their pictures taken --
-- and to the Pleasant Avenue crossing, just north of which the New Freedom passing siding begins:
A thousand feet short of the end of the run, the train stopped by the original station, a wooden Pennsy-built structure now the New Freedom Rail Trail Cafe, and the crew pulled up the hose to refill the tender; the water would come from a semi-trailer tank parked at the edge of the right-of-way, with a pump powered by a lawnmower-sized gas engine. One of the mobile crossing guards helped hold it up so the low-pressure flow would not get pinched as the hose went over the tender side:
Even with this help, the water barely flowed: The pump engine revved and slowed, and after a while the crew guessed that the tank had basically run dry -- just as well, on the last day of the operating season, but a few hundred more gallons would not have hurt. The crew dragged the hose away, and Stephen moved the train across Franklin and Main Streets to the depot. I had put a couple of pennies down ahead of the engine during the stop (I bring at least one squashed penny home to my wife every day I chase trains), and when I retrieved them I found that one had stayed on the rail for every wheel; with a fairly lightweight train, it had not gotten paper thin, but gratifyingly large. The other one had not gotten as flattened, and one could still barely make out Lincoln on one side and the memorial on the other. A young family in front of the cafe had watched the train go by, and I brought the spare penny to them, handing it to the son, a boy of four or so. He and his parents admired it, his parents thanked me, and his baby sister, probably not yet two, reached aggressively for the penny; I walked away before I would have to watch the scene she might make.
For the 4 p.m. train, I started out a couple of miles down the line, in the borough of Railroad -- yes, its real name -- which has a park adjoining the track, one of the few spots along the line where one can stand back and photograph the train directly side-on. The sun would shortly sink unseen below the horizon, so a slow shutter speed would make sense; granted, I could just crank up the ISO more or less arbitrarily high, but panning made for a more interesting photo. Ted Merrill had the righthand seatbox for this trip, and SIH volunteer Joe Gusherowski, seen above handling the water hose, had gone along for the ride.
Under the cloudy sky, it got dark quickly; just north of Seitzland, as the track curved back into the woods, the engine's headlight brightened the rails and also the underside of the soft cloud that drifted out of the smokestack as the engine drifted down the grade.
Coming into Glen Rock, the track crosses the main street; the flashing lights added some interesting illumination to the scene as Barry the crossing guard waved the train through --
-- and as the train headed out of town again a few minutes later, Joe in the gangway:
Back in New Freedom, in the dark, the rain had picked up again, and as the passengers boarded the last train of the year, the conductor in his bright yellow slicker stood on the coach steps and greeted them.
Under my Gustbuster® umbrella, I worked around the engine, making a few images of the interplay of light and dark, rain and steel and steam. I really like the gold-leaf lettering in the tender: Surely we have not improved the world by using vinyl-adhesive lettering for everything nowadays.
Stephen did some oiling around, then climbed into the cab, where I joined him, this time properly outfitted with the 15-30mm lens. Whether aboard a Lima superpower 2-8-4 or a replica 4-4-0, nothing beats the cozy feeling of a locomotive cab at night, the gauge lights and a glow from the firebox the only illumination, the world outside feeling very far away indeed.
A few passengers with reservations showed up late, so we left the station more than ten minutes off the advertised. Crossing Main Street, the borough's Christmas-decoration lights shone into the cab. Seeing these photos, my friend Gary Hunter said "I hadn't thought to wonder what the cab windows of #17 look like from the inside. They're the windows of a Gothic cathedral. What a perfect place to worship steam!"
It rained all the way down the hill, and Stephen controlled the speed as he had on the first trip in the morning, with the throttle cracked and a couple-pound set on the air brakes. As before, we did not dawdle in Glen Rock: The Johnson bar went forward, the throttle came out, the sanding valve opened , the whistle blew, and off we went.
Running late, on the last train of the year, wanting to keep our momentum up on the wet rails, Stephen gave the engine her head, and while I will not say that he broke the speed limit, he did not go any slower either. A passel of railfans on Facebook recently shared their opinions of the best railroad writing, with a number of votes going to David Plowden's introduction to his 1987 book A Time of Trains, in which he tells the story of an overnight ride in December 1955 in the cab of a 4-8-2 on the Fast Mail -- what Plowden describes as the last time a steam locomotive powered a Great Northern passenger train. I cannot find a place on the Web where one can read his thrilling account of that experience, so I can only urge you to find a copy of the book wherever you can (here, say). I cannot claim that my five-mile ride up the old Northern Central on a rainy evening really compares to Plowden's dash across deep-frozen Minnesota at 90 miles per hour -- but I will never get to do that, so I absorbed what I could of the experience I had, Stephen and Ted intent on their tasks in the dim light, rain flying past the windows, the plume of oily steam laying over the top of the engine and the train, the wheels hitting the joints in the rails with the oh-so-familiar rhythm.
And the fire. When I had chased the 4 o'clock trip, I stopped at Taylor Hill Road, on the steepest part of the grade, to watch the train pass; in the darkness, I did not try to try to photograph it. The crossing guard, whom I had chatted with here and there during the day, greeted me amiably, and he suggested I watch for the glow of the fire on the ballast -- one of the attractions for him of watching this engine go by in the dark. And indeed, as #17 approached, whistle blowing for the crossing, that bright reflection under her quite clearly displayed the elemental power that propelled her towards us -- one of the appealing things about steam locomotives, that we can so clearly see what makes them go.
Now as we climbed the hill towards home, Ted had the oil valve and the damper opened wide, keeping the boiler pressure close to the peg even as the engine worked her hardest. Standing in the cab gangway in the darkness, I could barely see the wheels and rods rotating under me -- but through them, the glow from the fire danced a tarantella, the rush of ballast below looking like a high-speed movie of lava flowing. Wind and rain whipped past me, the bridge plate and tender bounced under my feet, the sounds of wheels on rails and the engine's exhaust wrapped around me. Joe, who had come along for the ride on this trip too, took hold of one of my belt loops as I leaned way out again, shooting even blinder than in the morning.
All too soon, we reached New Freedom. Stephen unplugged the electrical connection from the coach, and the cab and headlight went dark; Ted pulled the engine ahead, then backed her into the house, ending another year at Steam Into History.
By the time I reached the highway, the clouds had broken up, revealing a waxing crescent moon. As I passed Rockville after 8 o'clock, red signals showed on the bridge, but no trains.
Coda: A week later, on our way to visit friends for New Year's, my family and I drove through falling snow, highway speed down to 45, and my wife did not react happily when I suggested we stop so I could photograph at Rockville, but she relented. Again of a mid-morning I slogged through the boat-launch parking lot to make a last railroad-related photo of the year, one that mirrors the intro to this story.
See you at trackside in 2018.