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West Leesport

Two photographers, two approaches to making images

Reading & Northern 425 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography

In December 1990, the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad bought 150 miles of tracks in east-central Pennsylvania from Conrail, in the process of expanding from a 13-mile shortline (the Blue Mountain & Reading, on the remaining portion of the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s Schuylkill Valley branch) to a 300-mile regional.  The “Anthracite Cluster” included mostly ex-Reading Company routes – both main lines and branches – as well as bits and pieces of ex-Lehigh Valley and ex-Central of New Jersey trackage.

To celebrate the expansion, and the railroad’s heritage, the R. B. M. & N. operated a weekend of freight and passenger trains in early June of 1991, using Reading Technical & Historical Society diesels and their own ex-Reading T-1 #2102 – herself built in 1945 in the Reading Company’s shops in downtown Reading, Pa.  For a few unseasonably hot days, the tracks between Reading and Cressona once again felt the weight of a gigantic 4-8-4 pulling coal cars, almost like the old days.  (Unlike the old days, the engine wore Blue Mountain & Reading lettering on her tender, and all of the coal cars had Conrail markings – but I don’t think too many of the assembled fans minded much.)


My father and our friend Richard Boylan and I chased most of the trips and rode at least one; I had not yet moved to Pennsylvania (that came a year later) and did not know the territory very well; around Haven and neighboring Cressona, we consistently got lost, but elsewhere we did okay, although I have forgotten what we used for navigation – probably just an Exxon road map and dead reckoning.  Searching for a location to photograph one of the northbound hopper trains behind the steam engine, somehow we found West Leesport, seven miles north of Reading – not much more than three road crossings, a few houses, and an abandoned feed mill.  Across the track from the mill, a rock face made for a good background, and we set up alongside the mill, looking edge-on down its varied concrete, brick, concrete-block, and wood facade.  The one-time double-track main line had long since gotten reduced to single track, but Conrail had installed welded rail through here and kept the track in good repair.


Thus when 2102 came through town, she did so at more than 40 miles per hour, perhaps nudging 50 – one of the great steam shows we have ever gotten so close to.  My father’s photo here ranks as one of his favorites – at least in part because of the memory of what we heard and felt as well as saw, the boom of the exhaust and the shriek of the hooter whistle bouncing off that rock face and penetrating our very souls.

Reading 2102 at West Leesport, June 1991,John E. Helbok photo

(For movies of the whole weekend, see Richard’s Youtube channel for the video, transferred from the original videotape.  For the scenes at West Leesport, click here for the view from the passenger train and here for the view from the ground as 2102 pounded by.)


Although we did not know it at the time, 2102 would not run on these rails again, at least up to the present day (her flue time expired that summer and she has sat out of service ever since; the railroad has done some work on her starting in 2016, but steam-up remains at an unknown future date).  While the newly-styled Reading & Northern built, from scratch, a significant headquarters and shops complex at Port Clinton (twelve miles north of West Leesport), their other steam locomotive, 4-6-2 #425, also sat out of service for a number of years.  Then, for a decade after coming back to life, she did not often venture very far south of Port Clinton.  That all changed in 2017, when the R. & N. opened its new “Outer Station” in Muhlenberg Township just north of Reading (taking the name of the historic and long-gone Reading Company station within the city); now all of the railroad’s October foliage trips cover the 16 miles from Outer Station to Port Clinton (continuing on to Jim Thorpe), and in 2018 for the first time steam-powered Santa trains ran from Outer Station, to Port Clinton and return, on three December weekends.


In 2017, I chased all four of the October trips; south of Port Clinton I concentrated my efforts on the stone-arch bridge at Peacock’s Lock, just north of Outer Station.  In 2018, I chased two of the fall-foliage trains – in the company of my father and Richard, as it happened – and on the second day we went back to West Leesport, perhaps hoping to relive our experience of more than a quarter-century before.  Under cloudy skies, the scene did not have the same appeal as it had on a sunny June day – but remarkably enough, the abandoned mill looked almost exactly the same, down to the overhanging roof over one of the doorways.  A much different photographer now than half a lifetime ago, I did not want to photograph 425 from the same angle we had shot 2102 – because another aspect of the location drew me: A very short block of storefronts face the track, just south of the mill and just north of two of the crossings, a clearly identifiable and unique place of the sort that I have increasingly tried to include in my photographs.  I chose a spot in the street and fortunately no cars came to stop at the crossing when the train came:

Reading & Northern 425 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, October 2018, Oren Helbok Photography

Less than two months later, I returned to West Leesport, this time in the company of my friend Matthew Malkiewicz.  Matthew looks at the railroad landscape differently from most railfan photographers (on photo charters, one will frequently find him all by himself on the opposite side of the track from the rest of the photo line), and I find his perspective refreshing, energizing, and inspiring.  (See his Web site, Lost Tracks of Time.)  Again under solid gray skies, we did not feel compelled to run from one place to another in the frenetic, even frantic, fashion that I usually spend a day chasing 425.  We got to West Leesport after photographing the first northbound train at Peacock’s Lock, not actually chasing the train at all but looking for interesting locations.  First we walked up and back a couple of hundred yards, from the crossings to past the mill.  I showed Matthew the vantage from the street, and we looked at the trackside prospect next to the mill.  The brick wall spanning between the concrete silos and the concrete-block structure has lost the rest of its building – no roof or opposite wall; from trackside, through the doorless doorway one looks down to an asphalt parking lot.  Not one to go the long way around, I clambered down and turned to look back through the doorway.


The regular red bricks and steel beams surrounding the opening, and the dead vines clinging to them, made an interesting contrast to the dark rock face and dead leaves on the hillside beyond.  With a little elevation, I would see the rails – and of course I always carry an eight-foot stepladder with me when out railfanning.  I unstrapped it from the roof of the car and set it up aligned with the dead center of the doorway. The southbound train had a diesel leading and 425 trailing at the far end:

Reading & Northern GP30 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography
Reading & Northern Santa train at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography
Reading & Northern 425 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography

After the southbound passed, we had about two hours to wait for the next northbound, which would have 425 leading again.  Before we moved to a better location to photograph it, we scouted other possibilities here at the mill; I backed the car into position slightly to the right of where I had stood on the ladder and then put the ladder on top of the car: Yes, that would do nicely, looking through a glassless window.  Matthew likewise chose a spot, in his case where he would see the train in the distant background, through a narrow gap in the wall; a guy on a ladder on a car would take up the foreground and dominate the scene.

Once we had that figured out, we moved back “downtown”; Matthew and I sat on the low retaining wall at the edge of the hotel parking lot and ate our sandwiches and talked, and talked; eventually we realized that we should make ready for the train.  I set up my ladder at the top of the alley adjacent to the American House and climbed up and made a test shot with Matthew in it as he reconnoitered his own position.

Matthew Malkiewicz at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography

Standing on the right-of-way, at a minute or two after 1:30 we could see the great plume erupting from 425’s stack – more than four miles away, down the dead-straight track.  Another minute or two passed before we could see her headlight coming up over the slight rise north of Peacock’s Lock.  By now, other fans had driven up to the crossing, and we watched them disperse themselves to make their pictures.  When the train finally reached us, a car had indeed pulled up to the near side of the crossing – in Matthew’s way from where he stood on the ground, but not so bad from an aerial perspective.

Reading & Northern 425 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography

The engine passed us at about 30 miles per hour, the cab windows closed against the cold, the bell continuing to ring for the crossing less than a quarter-mile ahead but inaudible under the roar of the exhaust; 425 has the loudest exhaust of any locomotive I have ever heard, a deliberate choice by the railroad to make her comings and goings more memorable.  (The shop crew accomplished this by restricting the exhaust ports within the smokebox, under the smokestack.)  As I always do, I waved to all of the passengers, at least a few of whom looked surprised at seeing someone waving from a ladder.  When I climbed down, the man sitting in front of the American House said of the train “That was pretty cool.”  Matthew and I agreed.


Repositioning ourselves one more time, I parked the car again at the old mill, this time where Matthew had marked the spot (he had put down a stick where I should align the back tire), and lifted the ladder onto the roof.  When out chasing Christmas trains, I wear my multi-colored stocking cap – more seasonally appropriate than the usual fedora.  Nonetheless, I had brought the fedora along (just in case I needed to dress up, I guess), and Matthew got it out of the back of the car and put it on the dashboard as a prop; experienced with shooting live models, Matthew thinks of these details more than I do.


From my vantage point, the window and surrounding wall had a lot more going on than the doorway to its left: a profusion of the dead vines, and live weeds on the sill; the steel mullions; the small hole through the wall (with a door on the far side; what on Earth for?); the hanging conduit and switch box – all of this together telling a story about the long-ago activities within the mostly-demolished building, but a story that we could not decipher.


Almost an hour went by after the northbound passed before we heard the horn of the southbound diesel coming down the valley.  As I had done for the previous trip, I did not set the camera for continuous shutter firing, instead trying to push the button at just the right instant as each piece of the train went by that I wanted to capture – and side-on at 30 miles per hour, I would have about 1/20th of a second to get within a foot either direction of “just right”.  The average human reaction time for a visual stimulus measures a quarter of a second, so each of the clicks that made the images below came more from anticipating than reacting.  In the first one, I would have preferred an instant later; in the second, I caught the cab just about exactly right; in the last, I wish I had fired a ways earlier, probably as much as a tenth of a second.  (By comparison, in the first sequence, above, I shot too late in the first photo, just a tad early in the second, and pretty much right in the third.)

Reading & Northern GP30 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography
Reading & Northern 425 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography
Reading & Northern 425 at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography

Matthew nailed his.

Matthew Malkiewicz photo of Oren Helbok with Reading & Northern Santa train at West Leesport, Pennsylvania, December 2018

Although the photos at the American House would have benefitted from better weather (sun, or falling snow), the ones looking through the wall actually came out okay in the flat, shadowless light of the cloudy day.  But I do want to try again there in other weather – snow or driving rain especially.


For the last train of the day, Matthew and I went back to Peacock’s Lock Bridge, and again because of the weather the photos do not make our list of favorites by any stretch of the imagination.  But in knocking on a door to get access to private property from which we wanted to make our pictures, we met a gentleman who collects antique cars, and he gave us a brief tour of his Studebakers (a ’52 pickup and a ’53 coupe – the latter just as futuristic now as 65 years ago) and ’31 Ford hotrod, so we would not call that location a bust by any means.  As with West Leesport, one makes the best of what one finds.

Reading & Northern 425 on Peacock's Lock Bridge, Schuylkill River, Pennsylvania, December 2018, Oren Helbok Photography


This photo-essay first appeared on The Trackside Photographera Web site dedicated to the railroad landscape.  Find it here.

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