Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Changing Pace: Other Attributes of the Main Line Project

As the main line tour progresses I have been doing a lot of thinking about the direction of my blog posts during my seemingly endless research on the physical plant of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. In the process of producing this tour I have been ignoring a large part of the project, the towns the railroad traveled through. These places large and small developed around natural resources and manufacturing, much of which revolved around iron and steel production. The landscape of Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West VA first began expanding because of natural and man-made waterways, which provided industry with a means of transportation to expand their markets. Though a major advancement, canals and rivers were subject to seasonal changes shutting down shipping with the winter freeze and summer droughts. It quickly became evident that a better mode of transportation was needed and the railroad was the answer. Politicians, lobbyists and industrial magnates fought for access to prime locations, rail lines were chartered, built and continually improved through the late 19th Century.  As a result towns along the railroad boomed, people were no longer in isolated communities but part of an industrial chain that drove the American economy. With the new ability to move large quantities of raw material and finished product across the country the steel industry expanded and so did the need for labor. Immigrants came by the thousands to places scattered across the region to work the mills, mines and for the railroads. The ethnic diversity was reflected in the various churches, neighborhoods and shops that brought the familiar comforts of the old country to this new place of work. Throughout the years there have been high times and lows in many of these towns, rocked by labor disputes, natural disasters and the eventual decline of the American steel industry.

The view from Singer Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania exemplifies the somber beauty of mill towns across Pennsylvania. Homes cling to the hillsides and business districts look toward the mill, once the focal point to the local economy. Today countless places like Johnstown are a quiet memorial to the era of steel and manufacturing across the region. 

The view from Singer Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania exemplifies the somber beauty of mill towns across Pennsylvania. Homes cling to the hillsides and business districts look toward the mill, once the focal point to the local economy. Today countless places like Johnstown are a quiet memorial to the era of steel and manufacturing across the region. 

Today many of these places serve as a monument to industry and a way of life that has disappeared. The villages, company towns and entire sections of cities often look onto the mill, celebrating the pride and prosperity these now abandoned places once provided for many hard working families. I have found myself completely entranced by places like Johnstown and Braddock, places that are a fraction of their former self, wondering what it was like when these places were in their prime. In residential areas there is little uniformity from house to house with the exceptions of clusters of company housing yet all of these places look oddly the same. Frame houses on hill sides, all slightly modified over the years or just plain neglected, empty streets and brown fields, virtually deserted town squares flanked with grand commercial buildings constructed of stone and terracotta, town by town the theme repeats.

East Conemaugh was situated across from the Franklin Works of Cambria Iron, later Bethlehem Steel. The mills are gone and the rail yards empty, the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad still enters town on the far side of the Conemaugh River, the final resting place of engineer John Hess who used his locomotive whistle to warn the townspeople of the impending destruction of the great flood of 1889. 

East Conemaugh was situated across from the Franklin Works of Cambria Iron, later Bethlehem Steel. The mills are gone and the rail yards empty, the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad still enters town on the far side of the Conemaugh River, the final resting place of engineer John Hess who used his locomotive whistle to warn the townspeople of the impending destruction of the great flood of 1889. 

Like much of my work, this imagery is an observation, part of connecting the dots to understand a particular place or landscape. To many its a bleak and depressing place, I am often asked why bother visiting let alone taking pictures, some locals even get mad that an outsider would objectify their struggling community. To me the typical mill town is a comforting and familiar place, one of repetition and rhythm. You can find something different in every visit, grand and ornate homes in a row of company buildings, five story apartment houses in a town that doesn’t even rate a gas station, and the rail line that once fed this industrial giant snaking along from town to town. This is where the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad once travelled, the towns it built, nurtured and its predecessors served until the industry dried up. The railroad still thrives but like many places, the trains don’t stop here anymore. The mill town is a place of beauty in its own right, and I am happy to have experienced every one of them and look forward to sharing a different viewpoint of the built landscape that came as result of the railroads and industry. Over the coming months you can expect images celebrating these places as work continues on understanding the late Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travelled. Enjoy!

In Retrospect

Summer break has certainly allowed for time to stop and think about the evolution of my creative work, in particular my documentation of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. Since January I have put together several public lectures that provided an opportunity to look at my own work from a perspective that is very different from the process of just making images. Writing these lectures, I began to articulate my process and approach which connects my photographic endeavors to a life long curiosity that inspires me explore the very subjects I have been enamored with since childhood.

A lone commuter detrains from a Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines train at the Gardens Station on the Ocean City Branch, October 1950. This facility was located between North Street and Battersea in the neighborhood along modern day Sindia Road and was abandoned in late 1958. It was photographs like this that captivated me at an early age and today   hangs in my office to remind me of my early curiosity of railroad history. Photograph by Robert L. Long, collection of the author.

A lone commuter detrains from a Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines train at the Gardens Station on the Ocean City Branch, October 1950. This facility was located between North Street and Battersea in the neighborhood along modern day Sindia Road and was abandoned in late 1958. It was photographs like this that captivated me at an early age and today hangs in my office to remind me of my early curiosity of railroad history. Photograph by Robert L. Long, collection of the author.

At an early age we all form some unhealthy obsession with inanimate objects, whether it be trains, trucks, legos or even dolls, but at some point most grow out of it. Not me! Since the age of three I've have had a fascination with railroads. I loved the models and of course enjoyed seeing freight or passenger trains pass by, but what really peaked my curiosity was the idea of where those trains were going and why. I grew up in Southern New Jersey, a place where regularly scheduled passenger trains whisked people to the shore resorts of Atlantic City, Ocean City, Wildwood and Cape May over 75 years ago. The region was home to the unique operations of the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines where bitter rivals the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading Railroad came together after a consolidation of operations in the 1930's. Providing through passenger service, Camden-Philadelphia ferry service, commuter and freight operations this system thrived in the summer months moving countless vacationers by rail to the resorts and offered scaled down operations after the peak summer season. By the time I was alive, the former PRSL network had become a part of Conrail, and the few remaining passenger runs would come to an end in 1982.

I remember the former PRSL RDC cars in Cape May and Lindenwold and occasional trips to Philadelphia with my father and grandfather recall seeing the inside of Reading Terminal's 1890's train shed and the countless trains that passed behind the Philadelphia Civic Center. Expressing an interest in trains, one summer our baby sitter took my brother and I to visit her uncle who worked at Pavonia  Yard in Camden the major terminal for former PRSL operations; We visited the hump yard, Brown interlocking tower in South Camden and even rode a locomotive on the industrial tracks near Bulson Street Yard. I was bit…even more curious, about why these lines existed, wanting to know about the stations and facilities that survived and the industries the railroad served. Many times I begged my father to take Atlantic Ave along the Clementon Branch just to follow the tracks in hopes to spot some old artifact or a view of one of the stations. I turned to books like By Rail to the Boardwalk, The Atlantic City Railroad, The Trail of the Blue Comet, and Trains to America's Playground, many of them books from members of the local West Jersey Chapter of the NRHS. These books were my gateway to feeding a curiosity that would never subside. Through subsequent travels with my father to Altoona including an infamous snowy hike up to MG tower near the famous Horseshoe Curve and road trips with friends once I was licensed to drive, I continued to explore both close to home and along the former PRR, using very basic photography to document what I saw.

East Broad Top steam line-up, Rockhill Furnace, October, 1999. One of the projects I successfully incorporated the railroad into my collegiate experience was a Advanced Documentary class. I spent 8 weekend in the fall of 1999 driving several hundred miles to photograph the fabled East Broad Top Railroad. Little did I know then, this would be the last year they had four locomotives under steam, let alone the railroad would be shuttered today. 

East Broad Top steam line-up, Rockhill Furnace, October, 1999. One of the projects I successfully incorporated the railroad into my collegiate experience was a Advanced Documentary class. I spent 8 weekend in the fall of 1999 driving several hundred miles to photograph the fabled East Broad Top Railroad. Little did I know then, this would be the last year they had four locomotives under steam, let alone the railroad would be shuttered today. 

This led to another unhealthy obsession, the need to understand and master the photographic process. A typical teenager trying to find their voice, I found the the whole medium fascinating - it was one that was both technical and creative. After a few courses in community college, I had decided to pursue photography enrolling in Drexel University's Photography Program in 1998. While attending Drexel in West Philadelphia I was surrounded by landmarks of the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s sprawling terminal facilities including 30th Street Station, the West Philadelphia Elevated Branch, Penn Coach Yard and Powelton Ave Yards. Though my interest in railroads had taken a back seat to other subjects, I had always found myself captivated by places and things that I had learned about through my research of railroad operations. On occasion I turned to railroads for subject matter in class projects but more often gravitated to the landscape, enjoying the sanctity of the open spaces of rural Southern New Jersey and the vernacular architecture of farming and agricultural communities. I spent considerable time exploring and photographing places along the Delaware River, trying to understand issues on land usage and how industry and recreational activities impacted the landscape. I took inspiration by a host of  photographers like William Clift, Frank Gholke, Art Sinsabaugh, Walker Evans and George Tice. Reading the book, They All Fall Down, I was taken by the tireless work of Richard Nickel to photograph and preserve the buildings of famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan in the 1960's and 70's which sparked my own interest to document landmark buildings that were once prominent structures in Philadelphia society. Eventually termed the Relic Project this work would be the first in which I realized that my work was more than just "fine art" but could serve as a means for preservation, something that Nickel had taken so serious it literally killed him. 

Erdner Warehouses, Woodstown, NJ. This image was from a series that started in college, photographing the agricultural regions of Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester Counties, what little is left of the Garden State of New Jersey. 

Erdner Warehouses, Woodstown, NJ. This image was from a series that started in college, photographing the agricultural regions of Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester Counties, what little is left of the Garden State of New Jersey. 

The diversity of my explorations contributed to building a visual toolbox that would guide my work after graduation. Free of worry about what others thought about my work, or what grade I would receive, photography was about what I wanted to do with the creative process. It took several years of experience and understanding that came from different projects but with time I gravitated back to the very subject that started it all: the railroad and not just the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines but the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. Where would the project go? What should the work look like? I really didn’t know, but if I didn’t take the chance in 2007, I wouldn’t be here sharing this with you today. The Main Line Project and the rest of my photographic endeavors are the culmination of life long interests, the intersection of a love affair of trains, history, architecture and geography.

This article is the first of a series of posts that explore the Main Line Project, its origins, methodologies and ideas that not only influence this project but the way I generally explore art and life.