2011 Overnighter Outing to Cassandra, Pa.
All week the news reports had given ominous warnings of the destruction that Hurricane Irene was expected to cause on the East Coast over the weekend of August 27-28. With that in mind, I set out anyway on Friday morning for Cassandra, Pennsylvania, for the Akron Railroad Club’s annual overnight outing.
Less than a half-hour after leaving home, I began having serious second thoughts about making this trip. Although the forecast for northeast Ohio had called for mainly sunny skies, a heavy overcast sky hung over the region as I made my way southeastward on the Ohio Turnpike.
As if I didn’t need another reminder of what Irene was expected to do, a convoy of 13 ambulances out of Michigan passed me near Youngstown. I did not have to guess why they were headed east.
My mind raced with various scenarios of how long I would remain in central Pennsylvania if the weather was poor. Those thoughts began abating as the sun finally broke out near Pittsburgh. It was mostly sunny for the remainder of the drive and my outlook brightened with it. For one day, at least, I figured to do well on this photo safari.
My first photo stop was in Summerhill. There is an old Pennsylvania Railroad signal bridge there that has managed to escape the wrecker’s torch and installation of modern signals. I parked, walked up the bridge over the tracks and noted a clear signal for an eastbound movement. There was no headlight to the west, but when I turned around I was surprised to see a westbound train rounding a curve.
I managed to get a decent telephoto shot of that train coming through the signal bridge and a nice going away shot. The lighting at the time favored photographs of eastbound trains.
I went down to track level and photographed a westbound helper set of locomotives passing through the signal bridge. An eastbound train passed by just minutes after the helper set.
I moved on to Cassandra, which was where the ARRC members making this trip planned to meet on Saturday. I wasn’t aware of any club members who planned to arrive a day early and none did. Given that Irene was expected to hit the Mid-Atlantic states on Saturday, I wondered if any other ARRC members would show up at all.
I spent the next few hours at Cassandra. The weather was a mixture of sun and clouds with more of the latter than I would have liked. But traffic was brisk as perhaps the railroad was in hurricane preparation mode trying to get trains positioned before the storm hit. Most of the traffic was intermodals and coal trains.
My plan was to move on to Galitzin later in the afternoon to photograph the westbound Pennsylvanian coming out of Allegheny tunnel.
By the time I got to Galitzin, the railroad has turned pretty quiet. I looked around the railfan park, snapped a few photos of the exterior of the Tunnel Inn bed and breakfast and waited on the Jackson Street bridge. There are large portholes in the fence on the bridge to accommodate photographers.
As luck would have it, an NS supervisor was setting up warning signs on track No. 3. A crew was going to work inside the tunnel that evening. Three westbound trains called a supervisor on the radio for permission past the worksite, thus letting me know that trains were coming.
I photographed two westbound intermodal trains and a helper set running light before the arrival of the Pennsylvanian. With my mission accomplished, I headed westward, stopping in Cresson at the railfan park there.
The sun was on the other side of the tracks, making photography a challenge. I tried some special effect shots with backlighting with mixed results. A westbound auto rack train passed through town just as I was leaving, but I could not catch it down the road.
I stopped in Summerhill once more and got some going away shots of a short eastbound intermodal train. I moved on for a brief tour of South Fork, where I had tentative plans to meet ARRC Bulletin editor Marty Surdyk and his entourage on late Saturday afternoon.
After checking into the Super 8 motel in Johnstown, I had dinner at a nearby Eat‘nPark. Overall, the first day of this three-day expedition had gone well, despite a few missed trains.
Saturday morning dawned rather cloudy. After partaking of the motel’s continental breakfast, I was off to Cassandra. The Johnstown newspaper had a story saying that Irene was not expected to affect the area much other than some rain Saturday night and gusty winds on Sunday.
My thinking was that NS would be busy positioning trains before the hurricane hit Philadelphia and New York. That turned out to be wishful thinking. Traffic on Saturday was noticeably down all day compared with what I’d seen on Friday.
I planned to spend the morning at Cassandra and look for any other ARRC members who might show up. About mid-morning I recognized a familiar face in the parking area. It was Bill Kubas who had arrived with Tom Kendra. They had left Akron before dawn, stopping for breakfast along the way.
Tom was shooting video, so the cloudy skies did not bother him. But Bill still uses a film camera and had ISO 100 slide film. Around late morning, enough crevices had opened in the clouds to enable Bill to get some shots, but we would contend with clouds for the rest of the day. A high cloud layer that was filtering the sun, although there was some direct sunshine during cloud breaks.
The weather seemed to improve after we drove to Galitzin in early afternoon. Although we had talked about going to Horseshoe Curve, we ended up staying in Galitzin until late afternoon.
At Galitzin, we also caught up with the newest members of the ARRC, Ken Roby and Max Promersberger. Also with them was Max’s mother, Nancy Tozer.
On Friday, I had eyed some photo vantage points atop the hill through which the Allegheny Tunnel passes. Today I climbed atop that hill to find that there are a few vantage points to get good photographs that are not blocked by trees, shrubs and weeds.
I could see my fellow ARRC members on the bridge below, but they were all facing the tunnel. I heard on the radio of an approaching eastbound train that would go through the tunnel on Track No. 2, but when I tried to call Bill on his cell phone to alert him I got no answer.
So it was amusing to see them scramble to get into position when they finally spotted the train come around the curve. Fortunately for them, the train was moving slowly and came to a halt just before reaching the bridge.
It turned out the train was waiting for a westbound to come out on Track No. 3. There are two tracks through the tunnel, but I can only surmise that the eastbound train wanted some of the diesel fumes left by the westbound train to subside before plunging into the tunnel.
In the meantime, I had confirmed by cell phone with Richard Thompson that Marty’s group had left Akron at 2 p.m. They figured to get to South Fork about 5:15 p.m.
I alerted Bill and Ken to our plans and we drove in a caravan to South Fork. But Marty and company were nowhere to be seen. We later learned they had gone to a location just east of Summerhill to get what they thought would be a coal train movement. But that train never turned a wheel.
Back in South Fork, we saw the power removed from one end of the coal train that Marty’s group had stopped being ferried to the other end. We also witnessed the passage of the westbound Pennsylvanian, which would be the last time that this train operated until Tuesday due to Amtrak shutting down the Northeast Corridor in advance of Irene’s arrival.
The clouds were thickening and traffic remained sparse. Marty finally arrived and drove around the block a couple times before parking. With him in addition to Richard Thompson were Jim Mastromatteo, Richard Antibus and Cody Zamostny.
Some of us walked up a hill a short distance up the street to photograph trains from that vantage point. It afforded us a clear view of trains rounding a sweeping curve. This included an eastbound ethanol train with two BSNF locomotives trailing and an eastbound RoundRailer.
We also made plans to have dinner at Vito’s in Cresson. By the time we departed just after 7 p.m., the clouds had become quite dense. There was light rain in Cresson when we arrived. The fringes of Irene had arrived.
As expected, Sunday morning broke to overcast conditions. But it was dry, although rather cool. I was the first to arrive at Cassandra. En route there, I saw the eastbound trash train. A westbound manifest freight was passing through as I arrived. That was a good sign.
I had feared that NS would be virtually shut down on Sunday. Indeed, we had talked about moving toward Pittsburgh if the weather at Cassandra turned out to be poor.
By late morning, though, the weather outlook at Cassandra had vastly improved. The clouds showed were breaking up. Rail traffic remained light, but at least some trains were moving. With everyone present and no trains to watch or photograph, we gathered for the traditional group photo.
Marty and the junior members drove off to the Sheetz in Portage about noon to get lunch. In their absence, we saw a westbound intermodal train and a helper set.
At this point, nearly everyone decided to branch out. Ken, Max and Nancy headed for Altoona while Bill and Tom went to Horseshoe Curve. Marty, Cody, the two Richs and I piled into Marty’s SUV and headed for the Pennsylvania Route 53 overpass just east of Cresson.
At least that was our plan. Upon arriving in Cresson, we heard a westbound intermodal train talking on the radio about cutting off his helpers. We detoured over to the tracks to capture that train. Then an eastbound intermodal showed up.
Setting out again for the Route 53 bridge, our progress was interrupted a second time by a westbound ballast train. We had no chance to catch it in Cresson, so we headed for the hamlet of Jamestown. There is a bridge there that you can see in the distance to the west from the Cassandra railfan park.
As we arrived at the bridge, the head end of the ballast train was bearing down on it, so no one got a coming shot. But we knew there were helpers on the rear and there was just enough time to set up for a going away shot. As we were getting out of Marty’s vehicle, a local resident passed by and expressed his displeasure with us by yelling, “that’s not a good place to park!” Well, buddy, a very nice pleasant afternoon to you, too.
At this point, our afternoon plans were being driven by the rail traffic and where we were at the time. Much to our delight, most of the clouds had moved out, although we would battle shadows from passing clouds the rest of the day. And traffic seemed to pick up. Much of it was moving east, but there were trains to chase.
We finally got to the Route 53 bridge to photograph an eastbound manifest freight. We then moved to a location high atop the single track New Portage Tunnel at Galizin that is used primarily by eastbound movements.
There is an opening that overlooks “the slide,” the area where trains emerge from the east portal of the tunnel. It is a striking panaromic view and we would return here twice more during the afternoon. Of course, the shot works best when a train has helpers on the rear. That was the case two out of the three times we visited this vista.
We also captured another eastbound passing AR tower and beginning the descent into the tunnel, and caught an eastbound intermodal train passing through the signal bridge west of Lilly. This train had a Canadian Pacific locomotive as the third unit and we caught it going into the slide east of the New Portage Tunnel.
Rich Antibus had never been to Galitzin, so in late afternoon we camped out at the railfan park by the Allegheny Tunnel. Rich Thompson called a contact who provided a lineup of trains operating on the Pittsburgh Line, but the closest one was a good hour or more away.
We never would see a train pass out of or into the tunnel. At 5 p.m., Marty announced that we needed to leave. The junior members had school the next day and we needed to be heading west.
Jim had remained at Cassandra all afternoon so we needed to pick him up. I had left my car there, too. Shortly after we got back to Cassandra, Jim told us a westbound was coming. It must have passed through the tunnel at Galitzin a few minutes after we left.
This turned out to be the last train that I photographed. The sun was out, the weather was nice. It was fitting last image to record at the end of a busy three-day outing.
Also at Cassandra as we prepared to leave were Bill and Tom. We arranged to meet up at an Eat’nPark in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, just east of the ramp onto the Pennsylvania Turkpike.