Kempton, PA

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Kempton is about a half an hour from Bethlehem, and is the home of the Wannamaker, Kempton, and Southern RR. Its six miles of track run through some of the nicest PA Dutch cornfields around, and as far as touristy steamtrain operations go, it’s this or nothing for me.

A lot of old men who were there the first time, and folks my age who pretend they were, seem to go totally ape over steam trains. I’m not really that guy. That being said, going to Kempton has always turned me into an awestruck little kid, excited to sit in the open-air car behind the locomotive to get as covered in soot as possible.

The above photo is from this summer, along the Ontelaunee Creek, between Trexler and Steinsville.

Monon Farewell

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Smedley, IN

The Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville RR, a/k/a The Monon (since Monon, IN is where the railroad’s two mainlines crossed each other) stretched from the top of Indiana to the bottom. Through countless ownership changes, two world wars, and even the storm that severed its now two halves in 1993, the Monon saw trains pass through its Indiana towns daily for the better part of a century. Recently, thanks in large part to the demise of our nation’s ability to actually make any of the things it uses, train traffic declined to levels not seen in decades. What this meant to lesser-used lines like the southern half of the Monon, was that it went from a decently-used secondary mainline to Louisville, to a one-train-a-day relic, on its last legs, waiting for a stroke of the pen to turn it into a bike trail.But, before we get all boo-hoo about things, let’s take a step back, because there are some important facts about this line that make it unique, and worthy of all this adjective-ridden praise. The main draw of the Monon, to anyone who is as nerdy about trains as I am, is that the signaling system on the line is upwards of ninety years old, utilizing mechanical semaphores instead of the regular old lights you see on most anyone else’s signals. This is actually the last line east of the Mississippi using these signals, so, yeah, kind of a big deal. The other, more widely appealing reason for this rail line being so much fun, is that there are two stretches of track that run directly through the middle of an active city street. Street running is rarer and rarer these days, for obvious reasons, but yet, the Monon happily disrupted two cities on a daily basis – Bedford (J Street, which forms the west side of its town square), and New Albany (Fifteenth Street, which was the greatest place to see near fatal train-on-car collisions, if that’s your kind of thing). Combine these two awesome railroad features with the beauty of rural (no, like, reallyrural) southern Indiana, some fast back roads, and the fact that the trains never went fast enough that you’d lose them on a chase, and the Monon was my favorite place to spend the day shooting trains in the whole state. Didn’t hurt that it starts only thirty miles south of Bloomington!

Now, obviously, the charms of this line were not lost on the rest of the world (…of people who care about trains) so, when it became apparent that CSX was going to shut down the Hoosier Subdivision (their name for the Monon’s southern end), the masses descended on Bedford, or Mitchell, or Orleans for the twice-weekly southbound movement of the Indiana Railroad, to chase it south. CSX had long since moved their mainline freight off the Hoosier Sub (more on that later), so the only trains taking this route were INRD’s, between Jasonville and Louisville. The glory of their trains, was that they’d run like clockwork, so if you showed up in Mitchell at 9AM on a Tuesday, you’d know you were going to see a train. This level of certainty is rare when it comes to finding a train, and it also meant you were chasing the train on some days with fifteen of your closest brand-new slow-driving out-of-town friends. Not always perfect, since railfans are some of the most socially…interesting folks in the entire world, but hey, meeting new people is what life is all about, right?Well, CSX shut down the Monon in June. They moved the remaining traffic to another equally beat up stretch of track, the Louisville & Indiana Railroad, with the difference being that those tracks belonged to, indeed, the L&I, and not CSX. A chapter of railroading was now finished. People online boasted to any who would listen that they had shot the last movement, ever, on the Monon, that they’d seen history written, right in front of them, that nothing would ever grace the jointed rail of this historic section of track, and so on. Hyperbole is big on the internet, for sure, and train people are some of the best in the business. Of hyperbole. Which does not pay a penny. But I digress.

Fast forward to mid-July, 2009. CSX was doing trackwork on their mainline south from Vincennes to Evansville and into Kentucky, and had to re-route trains onto another rarely-used mainline, the former B&O between Vincennes and Seymour. The internet buzz was not nearly what it was over the Monon, because they do actually still run trains on the line, albeit very occasionally. Well, let’s face it, I’ll take any opportunity I can to hang out in southern Indiana and shoot trains, and for some detoured trains on a bit of track that rarely sees anything of any interest, hey, I’m all over it. The normal route is St. Louis to Vincennes (where they’d normally turn south onto the line being worked on), and then onto Louisville, but the detour took the L&I from Seymour. So, Vincennes to Seymour was the target. Thanks to some guy-who-knows-a-guy-who-works-for-CSX connections, a close friend of mine was able to get me a rough schedule for when I could expect the detoured train, so away we went for US 50.We caught the train just east of Shoals (where a lot of the midwest’s gypsum comes from, bet you didn’t know that!) and banged off a few shots between there and Mitchell (including a spot called Georgia, which seems awfully funny to me) where, much to everyone’s surprise, the train stopped. Seemed odd, wasn’t the plan to go to Seymour and head south there? Well, not so fast, there, chief! As it turned out, the fellas who assembled this particular train in St. Louis were unaware that the L&I was unwilling to handle another railroad’s hazardous material shipments without prior approval, approval CSX never got since they didn’t realize the train had hazmats on it until somewhere around Washington, IN! So, instead of following the detour route of every other train that week, this ONE train, the one that I was chasing, was to head south on the Hoosier Sub to Louisville. The crew was to arrive sometime around 3PM, reassemble its now-cut apart and tied down train, and start down from Mitchell at 4PM. It was taking the railroad a while to find a crew qualified to run on a line that, until a few hours earlier, was out of service, and this accounted for the delay. Delayed as things were, such good fortune is not to be squandered with impatience, so I sat in the parking lot of the Michell depot, read a book, and waited out the afternoon.

And so with all the other train shooters somewhere else, all the internet railroad geeks talking about something else, CSX ran its last through freight down the Monon. No fanfare. No caravan of rabid photographers talking about the epic event that they alone were documenting. Just me, my Pathfinder, and a train, under the same cloudy skies that had accompanied me on how many of these chases over the years. I shot the train at my favorite spots – Orleans, Leipsic (remember what I said about rural? Yeah.), Campbellsburg – all the best places to shoot the blades. As evening descended, and descend it did with all the cloudcover, I got to Smedley, IN, a “town” that consists of two farm supply stores and a church, and incidentally, a place I had never, even once, shot a train. I’d always driven past it, in order to get to the next spot down the tracks, but with the train moving at a turtle-like 10m.p.h., time was definitely on my side.I set up behind the feed store, well ahead of the train, and waited. Waiting is integral to chasing trains, so that was nothing. I must have been playing Brickbreaker or something, when a car rolled up, and parked next to mine, to which I naturally thought, “Oh, someone else must have heard this train was running and didn’t get ahead of it until this far south.” Fair enough, sure. Well, no, it was weirder than that – here came two rather dainty gentlemen, meandering across the same cornfield I was standing in, to “just stop and have a look” at the blades I was going to shoot when the train arrived. I nicely explained that, hey, this was probably the VERY LAST TRAIN that would run on this line for a very, very long time, and that I’d been chasing it for forty miles at this point. Maybe they’d like to chase it the rest of the way, given the importance of what was going on, I’d be glad to lead the way. No, the guy with the moustache said, they were just passing through and thought it might be neat to see a semaphore. “Neat.” Here I was, listening to the death rattles of a railroad lovingly nicknamed “The Hoosier Line,” and these two cats just happened upon a detoured freight, detoured again at the last minute down what amounted to an abandoned mainline – there aren’t words to describe that kind of luck. I should have asked them which lottery numbers to play that night. But so the train showed up, at long last, and I decided to do a bit of a shutter drag, give the impression that this train was speeding its way south, to a future with the promise of more trains on my favorite train tracks anywhere. 1/6th of a second at f/22 makes even the slowest of trains look like a Japanese bullet train, I think I definitely got the point across. I wished my two new friends safe travels, and sped off down 60 to Hitchcock, for my last shot of the day.

Hitchcock is down (not surprisingly) Hitchcock Rd., and is one of many railroad location names with no relation to any actual town. It’s at the top of the steepest grade on the line, well off the highway, on a dead-end farm road, so it’s as quiet as a tomb until the train shows up. Talk about the perfect place to bid adieu to the Monon. I stood around at the crossing, pretending that I wanted to take something of a different shot than I usually took, but really, I was just getting antsy. I wanted the train to come, but in actuality I didn’t, because that would be it. No more lazy chases on a spring day, no more semaphores making their metal-on-metal 90 degree dance moves after the train passed, no more pedestrians playing chicken with a southbound on 15th Street. Once these rails went silent after this approaching train, they’d be silent, at least to me, probably forever. As I heard the inevitable rumble of this train heading upgrade towards me, it was, honestly, pretty sad stuff. I’m not one to be too romantic about, among other things, trains, that whole the-world-isn’t-what-it-used-to-be noise is definitely not for me, but it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t affected. I took my pictures when the train arrived, and stood there until well after the train was gone, after the rails stopped announcing their purpose with the squeaks and clicks of their departed, temporary visitor, until all that was left was me, at a railroad crossing in the middle of nowhere, knowing I’d just said goodbye to something very real.

Texas at Night

 

Interstate 10

My brother and I drove eight thousand miles last July. He was originally slated to go out west with a friend of his. This friend seemingly thought that telling his employer of his plans to drive cross-country didn’t need to happen until three days before the proposed start date, so after he was inevitably laughed at, and told where to stick his plans for leaving in 72 hours, I became the man for the job. Not that I minded, I’m always game for a drive.Our first stop was Austin, since the UT Art Museum (I honestly have no idea what it’s called. Whatever, it was 110 degrees and there was no place to park.) had an exhibit of Jack Kerouac stuff, and what’s better on someone’s first big cross-country trip than some inspiration from Mr. On the Road himself? Of course, little did I know, the actual manuscript for the book was not in Austin, but a mere fifty miles from our starting point, in Indianapolis. Oops!

In case you’ve never been there, Texas is effing huge. To help you understand the sheer hugeness of the place, here’s an exercise in imagination – take the biggest state you’ve ever driven across, multiply it by three or four, remove any of the defining/interesting/compelling features about that state, flatten it out, tack up some vaguely offensive anti-immigration billboards, and give it a massive 80mph daytime speed limit on I-10. You’re now in Texas, my friend.The above photo was taken sometime in the middle of the night, on a more-desolate-than-most (we even saw a scary hitchhiker, followed shortly thereafter by cops searching the countryside with spotlights!) stretch of 10. We saw a train (how often do my stories start out with that?), since trains are plentiful and also very obvious in the middle of the desert at night, so of course trying to take a picture of it in the dark seemed like a good idea. We got ahead of it, pulled off on one of the many “Ranch Access” exits, discovered that we were about a half mile from the tracks without any road whatsoever leading to them, and made other plans. Namely, we both found bushes to pee behind while the train went by, barely visible from where we were standing, just a slight rumble in the dark.

Now, not being one to give up an opportunity to stand around in the middle of nowhere with my camera and not take a picture, I set up my tripod to get some time exposures of the highway, since how often does one find themselves in the middle of Texas, on a dead-end exit ramp, under the stars? This is a tractor trailer making the streaks, and the exposure is around thirty seconds, I think. Pretty wide aperture to get some stars in the shot. Then we got back in the car and drove to White Sands.

East Chicago, IN

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CP 502 – East Chicago, IN, originally uploaded by capwell.

 

It’s no secret that I am completely obsessed with trains. It’s also no secret that about 80% of the traveling I do, in some way, has something to do with trains, or train-related nerdery. Oh, and also, I take a lot of pictures of trains, too. Now you know something new about me!

For the uninitiated, most “railroad photography” has to do with the locomotive, and little else. The power that pulls the train, to most people, is the raison d’ĂȘtre for their train shooting. As I’ve gotten older, and more into taking pictures of other things, I’d like to think that this has stopped being my sole purpose for grabbing my camera and heading trackside. Take the photo above, f’rinstance.

This was on the same trip in April that yielded the 4×5 shot of Gary, and in fact, this shot was not very far from there – just past the porno store, the casino, and that one abandoned building. Alex and I were trying to cram like ten locations’ worth of Chicagoland train spots into one early-spring, early-dusk, colder-than-expected April afternoon/evening. Needless to say, on such a marathon day of sight-seeing, i think we saw all of one train, which is karmic retribution for such short attention spans, a punishment anyone who shoots trains understands all too well.

But that’s not the point of this bit of writing, at all. My point is, that many of my favorite train pictures, especially lately, are not of the train, necessarily, but of everything that surrounds it. CP 502, the name of the spot in this picture, is where, at one point in time, four railroads came together and interchanged with each other. Today, it’s one less, but still, the amount of tracks, signals, bridges, switches, everything really, makes for a really striking image. The sun was also at such an angle that it made the scene that much more, you know, dramatic. Yeah.

Oh, and the best part? This was taken from a pedestrian bridge between two sides of an active steel mill, but yet is on completely public property – a rarity in this day of post-9/11 paranoia!