Posts Tagged ‘Conrail abandoment’

On Photography: Nailing It

March 29, 2015

Nail it

David P. Morgan was feeling pensive. His friend and traveling companion Philip R. Hastings had died the year before.

Now he was thinking about all of the places he and Hastings had visited, including a stretch of the New York Central on the Illinois prairie.

It was there in 1954, while traveling to make images for their “Smoke Over the Prairies” series in Trains magazine, that they had encountered NYC Hudson No. 5403.

It was pulling a mail and express train westward out of Mattoon

As Morgan drove his Ford convertible, which he had purchased new earlier that year, Hastings crouched in the back seat.

The 5403 and its train came from behind, moving slowly at first and then accelerating as though it was a rocket blasting off into space.

When Morgan and Hastings broke off the chase, the train was going 85 mph and pulling away.

The image that Hastings captured merited a handwritten note of congratulations from Trains publisher and founder A.C. Kalmbach, something that Morgan said Kalmbach did not do often.

In writing about that image, again, 34 years later, Morgan quoted Lucius Beebe: “to know that one has it, cold turkey, is one of the great delights of the business of living.”

To use a contemporary phrase, Morgan meant that Hasting had “nailed it.”

It is a moment of triumph akin to the exhilaration of hitting a home run, executing a slam dunk, or putting the puck past the goalie.

It is a moment of pure emotion. All that you worked for has come together and you can proclaim to yourself, “I got it!”

But what is the “it” that you nailed or captured or whatever? And how do you know that you have “it” whatever “it” may be.

Often, recognizing that a photographer “nailed it” can be explained the way that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once attempted to define obscenity in a 1964 case. I know it when I see it.

Actually, Stewart was explaining why he was NOT attempting to give a tangible definition of obscenity, because, he wrote, “ . . . perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so . . .”

Stewart’s words became the butt of joking over the years among Supreme Court law clerks when reviewing materials that had been deemed to be obscene.

Yet Stewart had a point. When trying to use mere words to describe something that people feel, the words often come up short.

Maybe that is why the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” came to be.

If photographs are the medium of emotional reaction, words are the medium of explanation.

Consider the photograph shown above. It was made in May 1983 in approximately the same location where Morgan and Hasting chased NYC 5403 three decades earlier.

A Conrail rail train that is barely visible in the distance has lifted the rails from the former New York Central line that once extended to St. Louis.

Of all the images of that process that I created on this day, this one gives me that feeling of having “nailed it.”

The “it” of this image is a place. It is a story about the place. It is the essence of the story about the place.

Look at that ruler-straight right of way. Look at the open spaces surrounding it. Look at the blue sky . . . the parallel highway . . .  the small portion of the machine to the right . . . the spec of blue that is the bus to carry the Conrail workers . . . the ballast, the ties and the tie plates that the workers have temporarily left behind.

Do you feel the emotion? Do you feel how something that has lasted for more than a century is in the process of going away?

Do you feel the sense that you always had that “it will always be there” is now evaporating into that open space and blue sky?

Do you feel the disappointment that something that has been a part of you all of your life is being ripped away and there is nothing you can do about it except to record its passing?

If you do, then you know why I look at this photograph and know that I “nailed it.”

This is what it looks like when the railroad leaves town, never to return again.

Not everyone will see or feel what I did because they did not experience what I did.

Morgan visited this location on Dec. 1, 1988, and his story was published in the September 1989 issue of Trains.

I would like to think that Morgan knew that he was on short time and that he wanted to leave something for future generations of railroad enthusiasts.

So he used the story of his return to the site of a previous memorable experience as a cautionary tale. Enjoy it now because it won’t necessarily always be there.

Morgan had a way with words, a gift really, that few have. I don’t know if he was a photographer.  I do know that he was a superb wordsmith whose words often conveyed and invoked emotion.

And yet other than to explain what you are seeing in this image, are words necessary to describe it? If not, that means that the photographer has nailed it.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

One Day in May the Railroad Went Away

February 28, 2015
A former Pennsylvania Railroad cabin car bears witness to the removal of a former New York Central route. West of Terre Haute at least, the Pennsy won one. It was a different story east of there where the Central survived.

A former Pennsylvania Railroad cabin car bears witness to the removal of a former New York Central route. West of Terre Haute at least, the Pennsy won one. It was a different story east of there where the Central survived.

It was a mostly sunny spring day. My recollection is that it was late afternoon when I drove out on Illinois Route 16 west of Mattoon, Ill., to look for a Conrail rail train.

The line had been abandoned more than a year earlier, but by law Conrail had to wait at least 120 days in case someone wanted to buy it. There had been talk of that, but nothing materialized.

On this day the rails were being removed to be sent somewhere to be refurbished and, eventually, reused.

My mission was to make a few photographs to document the rail removal.

This day had been years in the making. It began when Penn Central decided it didn’t need two routes between Terre Haute and St. Louis.

PC had expected to abandon or dramatically downgrade the former New York Central route, but that didn’t happen.

Even with a mandate to rationalize the rail network that it inherited from PC, it took Conrail seven years to finish the job.

I didn’t spend much time at the site where the workers were pulling up the rails.

I didn’t have the documentary mindset that I have now. Back then, making photographs was a sometime thing.

How I wish today that I had done more to document the abandonment of a rail line that had played a significant role in my life.

It was over these rails that I made my first railroad journey in the 1950s aboard an NYC passenger train to St. Louis.

I saw these rails often as I went about my life activities while growing up and later working in Mattoon.

As a reporter for the Mattoon Journal Gazette I had written about the process that led to the ex-NYC being abandoned between Paris and Pana, Ill.

But when the rail train came through Mattoon to pick up the rail, I was at home. I made no effort to go see, let alone photograph, the rail removal operation in my hometown.

I must have figured that the photographs that I made the day before west of town were a good enough record.

Today you would hardly know there had been a railroad here. Farmers have claimed the right of way and extended their fields.

The only traces of the railroad are a few small concrete bridges left behind and linear empty space in the towns where the rails had been.

Shown are a few of the better images that I made on that 1983 day. They were scanned from the original color print film negatives.

For the most part, I consider these images to be nothing special. Most of them are not composed well.

And yet they are very special because they show something that happened once and won’t happen again. They have historical significance.

Regardless of the quality of these images, I’m very pleased that I made them.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

The lead locomotive of the last train to travel over the rails of the former New York Central mainline west of my hometown of Mattoon, Ill. For the record, the direction of travel was east.

The lead locomotive of the last train to travel over the rails of the former New York Central mainline west of my hometown of Mattoon, Ill. For the record, the direction of travel was east.

After getting fixed up, these rails will be put down again elsewhere on the  Conrail system.

After getting fixed up, these rails will be put down again elsewhere on the Conrail system.

Just another day of picking up rail on just another Conrail abandonment. A lot of those occurred during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Just another day of picking up rail on just another Conrail abandonment. A lot of those occurred during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A side portrait of No. 1921, the trailing unit in the rail train.

A side portrait of No. 1921, the trailing unit in the rail train.

It would have been appropriate had the lead locomotive been 1855, the year that these rails reached Mattoon from the east.

It would have been appropriate had the lead locomotive been 1855, the year that these rails reached Mattoon from the east.

All that was left behind was some ballast, ties and tie plates. Crews will be back later to pick that up. Today the ex-NYC right of way is part of a farm field and you might not know that a railroad once ran here that hosted the Central's finest passenger trains between New York and St. Louis.

All that was left behind was some ballast, ties and tie plates. Crews will be back later to pick that up. Today the ex-NYC right of way is part of a farm field and you might not know that a railroad once ran here that hosted the Central’s finest passenger trains between New York and St. Louis.

What Were They Thinking About?

February 21, 2015

Conrail MTO loco

Conrail MTO caboose

It’s early April 1982 in my hometown of Mattoon, Ill. I have just finished my work shift at the Journal Gazette.

I was a reporter there, but on this day I filled in as wire editor for a guy who had the day off. That meant having to start early, very early. It was around 5 a.m. or so when I walked in.

For reasons I no longer remember, after work I drove downtown. An unusual spring snow squall had descended upon east central Illinois as I left the office.

There had been a going away party for a guy in the advertising department who I had gotten to know.

We shared an interest in photography and had spent hours talking about making photographs.

I had taken my personal camera to work to make some color photographs of his last day at the newspaper. My work camera would have had black and white film loaded in it.

I don’t remember how I learned of this approaching train. I might have gotten out of my car to walk somewhere or maybe I saw the crossing gates go down.

But I heard a train horn blowing on the former New York Central mainline to St. Louis, which was owned by Conrail at the time.

At the time, seeing any train on this line was a rarity. The overhead traffic had been removed in summer 1980. A local worked on the line for a while.

Less than a month earlier, Conrail had received permission to abandon the ex-NYC between Paris and Pana, Ill.

Within a year, these rails would be ripped up. But for the next 120 days the rails must remain in place in the event that someone wanted to buy the line and operate it as a railroad.

I scrambled to get into position to get off the top photo, which is the best of the three frames I made of this train approaching the crossing at North 16th Street.

To the left is what is left of the passenger platform for the NYC station, which is out of sight to the left.

In the bottom photo the train is about to cross North 15th Street. I’ve often wondered why this train was out here.

Perhaps the crane had been out picking up things to be removed in preparation for removing the rails.

Or maybe the crane had been stored elsewhere and needed to be moved off the line now that it was no longer being used to haul freight and Conrail was in the process of walking away from it.

I also often have wondered what was going through the minds of the two railroaders on the back of the caboose.

Were they making the last trip they would ever make over these rails? If not, it was likely one of their last trips.

What are they thinking? Are they reflecting on their railroad careers?

It is a mystery for which I will never know the answer. More than three decades later, I’m glad that I was in the right place at the right time and had a camera with me.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders