Some time ago we left off on the Main Line tour in Christiana, Pennsylvania, crossing from Lancaster to Chester County, traversing the North Bend Cut along Zion Hill. What seems today like another unremarked view from the Main Line, the area around North Bend was a place essential to operations on one of the busiest transportation networks in the country. In the Brown era of the late 19th Century - early 20th Century, North Bend saw the realignment and expansion of the mainline, construction of the Atglen & Susquehanna Low Grade, the installation of the Atglen water pans, and later in 1938 the final phase of electrification. The endless parade of traffic during World War II was followed by a long, slow decline of the PRR system, visualized by the rationalization of the physical plant and facilities that continued well into the Penn Central, Amtrak and Conrail eras. The photographs here depict over 100 years of change on the ever-evolving railroad landscape.
Photographs & History
Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Edd Fuller, editor of The Trackside Photographer; a blog focused on the railroad landscape. I am excited to share this interview about my ongoing work and how it ties into a central theme inspired by history. The following is the interview in its entirety as it was posted last week on The Trackside Photographer. Enjoy!
Trackside Interview #3 - Michael Froio
Michael Froio is a photographer who focuses on the history of the industrial era and its relation to the modern landscape. His work has been published by the National Railway Historical Society, and he has presented lectures for the Center For Railroad Photography & Art, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and chapters of the National Railway Historical Society and Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society. Michael teaches photography at Drexel University and manages the school’s darkroom and photography facilities. Michael’s work may be seen on his website
Edd Fuller, Editor, The Trackside Photographer - Michael, I want to thank you for your generosity in sharing your work with our readers and for taking the time to talk with us. I usually start by asking about your interest in railroads, and we will get to that later, but first let’s talk about photography. You have chosen a career in photography. How did that come about?
Michael Froio - Thanks, Edd, It is a pleasure, and honor, to share my work with the Trackside Photographer, I have a tremendous amount of respect for what you are doing.
How did I get into photography? Hm. Well, I always had an interest in making photographs, at least since my young teenage years. At that time it very simply tied into my interest in trains. I wasn’t particularly good at making train photos, but while exploring the railroad (often with my father) I was always compelled to document what we found. When I started college, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Taking prerequisite classes like English lit and math classes bored me out of my mind. A friend and classmate mentioned he was taking a photo class, so I enrolled in Photo 110. My professor, Rachael Fermi (granddaughter of Enrico Fermi - the creator of the atomic bomb) was an incredible character. She did a terrific job teaching the foundations of photography while encouraging creativity, craft and an understanding of composition. After a few classes, I took a job as a lab monitor, mixing chemicals and managing the darkroom, typically during the evening hours. It was during this post that I fell in love with photography and the idea of teaching.
Moving on from Community College, I enrolled in Drexel University’s Photography Program. I found Drexel’s program was a perfect balance of technical and creative instruction; not an art school type program, but a curriculum focusing on how to visually communicate through photographs, and that they could function in both a commercial or fine art context. I think the course that had the most significant impact on me was the Large Format class. It was a challenging course technically (I still hold the record for reshoots of my exposure and development test for the zone system) but by far the most rewarding, producing these large, 4◊5î negatives. After graduating, I began work in the field as Assistant Facilities Manager at the Drexel Photo Program, and was then promoted to Facilities Manager. Working in an environment I’ve been invested in has been incredibly rewarding, including being part of bringing the 10,000sq. ft. facility into the 21st century, several lab re-designs and helping develop an evolving curriculum. I am also very fortunate to have the opportunity to teach in the Program, including foundation coursework for our majors, and an Advanced Black & White Printing course, among others. Drexel not only helps me to sustain my family and provides an opportunity to teach, but also affords me the ability to pursue my personal work, allowing me to find my purpose in photography.
Edd - Much of your photography has focused on the industrial landscape and architectural history. What sparked that interest?
Michael - As an artist, you go with your gut. I responded to these types of places without knowing why, but from the first time I composed an image of a building or landscape, the gears were turning. What is it about this site? Why am I compelled to make a photo here? It’s intuition at first, the eye sees something long before the mind connects the dots. I had to sort of go with it. It took time to understand that my interest in photographing a landscape or type of architecture comes from a fascination with our history, whether civic, industrial, or social. It took time to see the inter-relatedness of civic institutions, industry and architecture; to see that public buildings spoke to the wealth, power, progress and civic pride cities large and small shared, but that purpose-driven industrial architecture and landscapes were the working class spaces behind that civic pride. This notion still compels me to make photographs today, whether along the Main Line or anywhere else; our country’s history is a significant thread that continues to weave throughout my creative work.
Edd - On your website, I particularly enjoy the photography in The Watershed Project which is not about railroads. You write that it "is about the beauty of the benign and unremarked place, challenging our perception of the natural landscape..." This seems to apply to your railroad photography as well. Tell us a bit about this project, and how it fits with your overall vision of the landscape.
Michael - The watershed project was a logical progression of my senior thesis work, both of which largely took place in Southern New Jersey and the Delaware Valley. For thesis, I was looking at the open spaces of Salem and Cumberland Counties, mainly farmland, recognizing that such space has unfortunately become rare in the so-called Garden State. Through work on that project, I began taking notice of beautiful, unconstructed spaces of a wholly different type in the same region, mainly along the Delaware River and Bay. They were undefined areas, places that didn’t seem to have a purpose on their face, but where locals would hike, hunt, fish, etc. Were these preserved spaces? Did they belong to a more extensive network? What was the purpose of these places? How did these swaths come to exist? As I continued to examine these areas, I expanded my reach into less idyllic places, where these fringe, improvised landscapes abutted industry - airports, refineries, or dredging dumps. These were the places you might see from a highway, seemingly barren spaces. Yet, once you entered them and escaped the noise of the neighboring areas I found many were incredibly beautiful, seeming more pristine and isolated than any number of curated, patrolled, trafficked National or State Park areas. All these places made me think more and more about how we perceive the landscape around us. We understand farmland; it has a purpose, it produces a tangible result, as do industrial spaces. Parks are designed for recreation, cities and town centers are designed to serve the needs of their populations. But these unremarked tracts remain mostly undefined. The French term Terrain Vague highlights the idea that these spaces represent a diversion from our traditional understanding of the landscape and how we as a society identify with and interface with these areas. They are landscapes that may have once had a purpose but have become places void of definition - neither park, nor act of preservation nor productive, planned, commercial or social spaces. Yet they become places where only locals with intimate knowledge of the area have reason or standing to redefine the area with no need of a formal plan. The Watershed project and the previous works that lead to it, were an important part of learning how to understand and interpret the landscape.
Edd - Your work encompasses many different aspects of industrial and architectural history, but the railroad seems to hold pride of place. How did your interest in railroads come about?
Michael - While it is all interrelated, the railroad is at the beginning of it all, it was what compelled me to pick up a camera in the first place. The work featured on my website is organized in three succinct portfolios and speaks to an evolution of sorts in the way I work, the Main Line Project being the current capstone. It started with a desire to better understand the landscape, which came with the Watershed portfolio and all previous projects that led me there. The Relic portfolio helped to develop an understanding of how to weave history into creative works, and how photography can be a documentation tool while still being original. The Main Line Project was the culmination of those ideas, as well as countless other creative discoveries that have come as result of the ongoing work.
Edd - How did the Main Line Project come about?
Michael - The idea of the Main Line project was not a new one; in fact, I started it initially as my thesis work, and failed miserably because I didn’t understand what it was that I wanted to portray within the concept of the railroad itself. When I began the Main Line Project, in 2007, six years after that failure, the first year of photographs barely acknowledged the railroad at all, instead focusing on towns and industry along the line. It was my usual approach from work on the Watershed and Relic projects, but in a different environment. It wasn’t until I read an essay by John Stilgoe and his seminal book The Metropolitan Corridor that a light went off. Stilgoe’s concepts of breaking down and understanding constituent elements within the whole of the railroad landscape were right there in front of me, and I had been photographing these attributes without even realizing it. Remember that whole gut reaction first then the mind connects the dots? Well, here I was. Not long after that discovery, I began looking at ways to expand the reach of the project, ways to better connect the contemporary work within the historical framework of the subject. I found the research aspect of the project was generating as much excitement for me as being out in the field making photographs. As a result of my research, my imagery was more informed, my work process was more productive, and my viewpoint was evolving. As a result, the railroad itself began to play a more prominent role in the project since it takes, as you say, pride of place, the very thing that sparked this whole photography thing for me.
Edd - Your photographs in From the Main Line reflect the history of a railroad, but that history is interpreted in the context of the current landscape, which your black & white photographs capture beautifully. I sense though that your interest in the Pennsylvania Railroad extends beyond the railroad itself. What does the railroad tell us about the culture and history that lies along the tracks?
Michael - The railroad is the thematic tie that binds the project together (if you’ll pardon the pun), but for me, since the Pennsylvania Railroad ceased to exist well before my time, it’s the remaining contemporary landscape rather that reflects back to the railroad and its connections to neighboring towns and the landscape. For example, in the modern context, the railroad is often just passing through, void of any link to the town. In other places, there survives just a fragment from a more significant system or merely a scar in the landscape. I have always considered the railroad as a sort of linear history corridor, and along that tangent, one can learn how settlements were founded, thrived, withered, centralized and so on. This inhabited landscape repeats over and over again, showing the once significant relationship between the railroad and these cities and small towns, all through the back lots of America. It is also important to recognize that the railroad wasn’t always the first connection between these towns; early trade routes, canal systems, and other vital parts of early civilization and commerce all intertwined with the railroad corridor. All of these elements in the landscape create a dialogue, my job as a photographer is to interpret those connections, all the while making meaningful photographs.
Edd - You mention the work of William H. Rau as having influenced your work, How do Rau’s late 19th and early 20th century photographs of the Pennsylvania Railroad inform your 21st century understanding?
Michael - Every year, I give a lecture to one of our resident faculty member’s Photo History Classes, about the dialog between contemporary and historical works of art. The lecture is held at the Library Company of Philadelphia, where the Rau collection is on deposit. The visit gives students an opportunity to see how historical works can influence contemporary imagery, placing side by side Rau’s original prints commissioned by the PRR with my own. The discussion of dialog, in my case with Rau’s work, has been a multifaceted and informative relationship.
In 2003 I first discovered Rau’s work when visiting an exhibition at the Library Company titled "Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad." I wasn’t particularly captivated by 19th Century work at the time, but the press images looked great, and the subject certainly could not be rivaled. My knee-jerk reaction to this work was, "Wow! How could work made over 120 years ago feel so contemporary?" I loved that his work was about the railroad, but distinct from any work I had ever seen previously. In all books or publications I’d been exposed to, the train itself took a prominent role in the photograph. I found Rau’s work so compelling in its difference from this paradigm in that Rau’s work focused on the destination, the engineering marvel of the railroad itself and how it brought order and civility to the landscape. The train itself was secondary, it was more of a harmonious, machine in the garden if you will. Of course, I bought the book that accompanied the exhibition and studied the images. That show in 2003 planted the seed that led me back to the railroad when I applied for a grant with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists to begin the Main Line project in 2007.
Previously, I mentioned when I started the Main Line project my work focused more on the landscape, hardly acknowledging the railroad, something I had not quite figured out how to incorporate subtly. I turned to the Rau Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia for insight, contacting Prints and Photographs Curator Sarah Weatherwax, who was very gracious with her time, allowing me to study reference prints and then later Rau’s original mammoth plate albumen prints. Having Rau’s work in front of me, one on one, was pivotal, it was like a recharge of the creative battery in between photo trips. Rau’s work as a photographer was spectacular; they were crisp, sharp gorgeous prints, gleaming with information. More importantly, the content helped me understand a railroad that was becoming worthy of its self-proclaimed title, "The Standard Railroad of the World," with details of the railroad’s extensive system-wide improvements carefully tucked away in corners of these massive photographic prints.
I continue to take inspiration from Rau today, but I’ve also turned to his predecessors, like Purviance and Gutekunst who were also commissioned to photograph the PRR in earlier times. Outside of the PRR commissions, photographers like William Henry Jackson, AJ Russel, and Carleton Watkins who were being commissioned to document the opening of the west by rail also provide great insight on how the railroad changed our relationship with the landscape.
Edd - I know that a lot of research goes into a project like “From the Main Line.” Tell us about your working methods in the field. What do you look for? What draws you into a scene. Do you know where you are going to shoot in advance, or do you find your photographs while exploring the area?
Michael - I have found a synergy between what I like to call armchair scouting, historical research and my fieldwork. There is obviously a great deal of initial planning, especially since I often have limited time to travel. I do most of my scouting on Google Maps, saving and marking locations, based on previous visits, target locations, or intriguing names or landmarks within the landscape. I’ll note what time of day the light is right for a particular area, say a prayer to the cloud gods, and then start planning a trip. When I get out in the field, I do reference the maps, but the serendipity of discovery in the field is also very important. I can’t tell you how many times I have obsessed over a location only to get there and be disappointed, but on the way to that place find some incredible scene. Research indeed informs and helps to plan a trip, but I still rely on my intuition in the field while making photographs.
Its tough to say what draws me in to a particular scene; Sometimes it’s a subject, whether it be a relic or landmark of the railroad, town or a natural feature. There are however, with in those more spontaneous moments, the combination of light, feeling, and often a sense of scale or a dramatic play between the railroad and surrounding landscape that will make for a great image. There isn’t a specific formula that I can say goes into making an image like this, but there is nothing more exciting on a day shooting than being enroute to a location at dawn, and that morning light is playing in the clouds, or across the trees. That first photograph of the day is always critical, once it happens, its game on until the end of the day.
Outside of shooting or actively planning a trip, I am constantly analyzing my work, looking at prints or even on screen, conducting a mental audit of an area, looking to decide if I have enough work to convey a sense of place to a given area, before I move on to other locations. So far I haven’t been able to just turn my back on an area and say “I’m done here,” but the goal is to convey a story for each region or division within the project, touching on the character of the landscape, towns and the defining attributes of the railroad itself.
Edd - There is a consistency of vision in your black and white work that forms a strong unifying element in “From the Main Line." Most of this work is done in large format film. What prompted you to work in this way? What does large format black & white film bring to the project?
Michael - I don’t want to demystify the notion that large format has a great deal to do with the product, but to be honest, as I look back and begin to incorporate more and more digital capture I realize it was more my approach, composition, and style, that unify the work. Large format for me is a tool; at the time I started the project it was the main tool I used simply because digital wasn’t there yet, not for me. How can you justify trading a 5x7 negative for a 20-megapixel camera? You can’t; they aren’t even in the same ballpark. There are merits of the large format camera and I do love using it, as it provides a wonderful connection to the craft of making photographs. But once I started working with the advancing technology of digital capture in depth, during my commissioned work for Conrail I began to see how powerful this tool could be when used correctly.
When I commit myself to change like moving to digital, it’s after I have weighed all benefits and drawbacks of each tool. I have a few friends I will often confide in, who are not necessarily photographers, but people who will give me their honest opinion, whether I like it or not. One of these people, Anthony, a dear friend, who would often roll his eyes and harass me when the digital camera came out, sat down one evening with some work prints I made. He had never seen any of the digital work printed, just either on camera or on a laptop after a day of shooting. He sat there quietly thumbing through the prints, sighed and looked at me and said, “you’re right, the change to digital has not impacted your vision, your work, not in a negative anyway.” That was the confirmation that my transition into using digital capture was successful. A change in tool didn’t impact my vision. There are a lot of people who will argue the merits of film or digital, but after many years making pictures, the results are what matter to me. The tool you use to make pictures, whether it has a sheet of film loaded in it or a 50mp sensor, makes no difference to me, as long as you do it well.
Edd - Several years ago, you were commissioned by Conrail Shared Assets to document the reconstruction of the Delair Bridge in New Jersey. From black & white view cameras to color video production is quite a leap, but you bring it off beautifully. Tell us about how this project came about and how you decided on the best way to tell this story.
Michael - The commissioned work for Conrail Shared Assets came from a working relationship with, and mutual respect for, railroad engineering and history within the company’s engineering department. When I was first approached about the span replacement project at Delair, a video was being considered to document six 3-day, 72-hour outages, which were being planned over a 15-month period. 72 hours of video per outage meant 432 hours of raw footage. Who has the time to watch that, never mind the resources to archive, cull from, and edit such a massive collection? Did they want a feature film as a result? We proposed instead the use of time-lapse, essentially taking sequences of still photos at timed intervals, and then processing the stills into video clips. We could still convey the scope of work while touching upon all the needs of the client, and each outage could be distilled down to a three or six-minute edit.
There was, however, one minor hitch. At the time, I had not taken digital capture very seriously, not to mention that I’d never even worked in video at all. I knew I was approaching the deep end of the pool, but it is often opportunities like this that afford the ability to grow and learn. Another challenge for me as an image-maker was knowing that there was no possible way I could do this on my own. To rectify that, I contacted Samuel Markey, a former student who was now working with time-lapse and video in his own business. Our work ethic, ideas, and personalities synced perfectly. It was the right move. With each outage, we quickly learned what did and did not work and what we needed, in terms of both equipment and visuals. It was also very fortuitous to have a client who was open to ideas, suggestions and supporting whatever ridiculous request we may have thrown at them. Over three years Sam and I continued to push production levels as we worked on three major projects for Conrail - two at Delair, and one at Paulsboro, NJ. We forged relationships with the contractors and Conrail’s Bridge & Building and Engineering departments, delivering a product that was visually interesting while meeting the needs of the client for documentation. In the end, we got to be in places nobody from the outside would have access to, to make a meaningful and creative documentation of large-scale engineering projects in the railroad tradition. Overall, it was a fantastic and educational experience.
Edd - Creatively, what is your greatest challenge?
Michael - I think my biggest creative challenge is how to draw a diverse audience to my work, especially the Main Line Project. The success of this project so far has been the fact that it can function on multiple levels ñ historical, engineering, landscape studies, transportation, contemporary photography, etc. I am always looking for feedback, trying to edge out where the best responses to my work originate, be they blog publications, single images, portfolios, and exhibitions. Trying to keep my work fresh and relevant is my biggest priority. I often get asked, “When will the project be done?” I don’t know… I am still learning, still enjoying the discovery process and the dialog with the landscape and historical works. I feel like the project still has plenty of energy, the challenge is how to harness, and it keep it exciting, for me and for my audience.
Edd - What projects are you currently working on? Any new projects in the pipeline?
Michael - I wouldn’t necessarily say there are any new projects in the pipe, but rather evolutions of existing work. I continue to explore my native area of Southern New Jersey. The idea of making a long-standing body of work about a familiar landscape or place is fascinating to me. It is something that evolves alongside your life, while you take root and raise a family, a process that changes our views with age. These life experiences change how we perceive things, the landscape included. It’s exciting to me to have a back burner project to step in and out of occasionally, that I don’t have to think about too much, but can occasionally revisit. It allows time for the oft-viewed, rarely seen landscape to rest, and my vision to watch the change and evolution of photographs, slowly take place. It’s a familiar place to test out ideas, to keep the tools sharp if you will.
Edd - One of the concerns that is often voiced by organizations devoted to historic preservation is “Where are the young people who will carry on this work?” Since you teach young photographers who are just starting out, I am curious if any of your students display any interest in documenting and interpreting the past, or are they more tuned in to the trendier aspects of contemporary photography.
Michael – It’s interesting; photo students seem to come wired with an interest of all things old, maybe it’s the historical connection with photographic traditions, perhaps it’s nostalgia, or the modern urban exploration phenomenon, but students do indeed incorporate these notions into their work in various ways. Some students focus on documenting industrial and social landscapes, and when they do, of course, we all (faculty) encourage them to find their voice and how they can use it to make a living. Every student is different, and you have to leave your work out of the equation, to ensure they understand why they are drawn to a subject, and not just teaching them to emulate someone else’s work without understanding why. It is a delicate balance, as landscapes and history are not for everyone, but I do think there is a contingent of young adults that will carry the torch in preservation. I also think the next generation of preservationists and hobbyists are bringing a significant change in how we present and share ideas and organize and socialize with groups.
Making photographs can often be mainly a solitary exercise, especially for me, wandering the ruins of a vanished railroad or other forgotten spaces in-between. Beyond image capture, processing is also a solo act, alone in a darkroom, studio or office. But photography doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and sharing results is key to the undertaking. This is the advantage the next generation of preservationists and hobbyists will have, the enhanced ability to find and organize social groups to present and share ideas. It’s this difference I think will keep the goals of documentation and preservation alive and well moving forward.
Edd - The curriculum at Drexel requires photography majors to learn film photography and darkroom processing. What do students in this digital age, many of whom have never been exposed to “analog” photography, make of this? And why do you think that learning what is now seen by many as obsolete, is important to their education?
Michael - We don’t teach a lot of film-based technique, but what we do teach is incredibly important to the education of a photographer. The most important benefit of a student working in large or medium format film is that it teaches the student to slow down - how to look, think, and craft an image on the ground glass, how to meter and expose, develop and print the negative. Regardless of the tool, it’s important to learn that every step in the process is intertwined. It’s not that these skills can’t be learned in digital, but learning film technique forces the issue, because the results are absolute. If you go through all the steps, run the film, and the negative is less than optimal, you have to do it again, attempting to figure out what you did wrong in your process. If you have a RAW file that is poorly exposed, there are still options to recover something. In short, with film, the stakes are higher. You can’t teach “too much” of the “how” and “why”, the critical thinking part of the process. It’s this that’s too easy to lose in a photographic education absent of the analog process. After mastering those problem-solving skills, whatever tool a photographer chooses from the toolbox will be treated the same. Each format has its purpose, and today, there is nothing better or worse between them. Anyone arguing solely for the merit of film-based capture is romanticizing the process, and one asserting the supremacy of digital likely never understood or experienced what film is truly capable of. It’s a tool, just like the hammer. What matters, in the end, is how you use it.
Edd - You have a strong affinity for black & white in your own work, and of course you still work with film. How do you think your work would be different if you were working in digital color?
Michael - I learned color in the darkroom during my education and never really felt connected to it, the process was limiting, and the introduction of color to a photograph brought a whole new layer of subjectivity to an image. Now that I shoot a good bit of work digitally, I do see my work in color, albeit briefly, and so far, it’s done nothing for me, my mind just tunes it out. I certainly admire what others are doing in color, and of course, the big names like Richard Misrach, Edward Burtynsky, and Robert Polidori are awe-inspiring, but I’m just not feeling it for my work. Much of my work is focused on places outside their times, adding color would change this significantly. It would be too connected to reality and the present.
Edd - Railroads are an unusually visual subject. Railfans are photographers almost by definition. I can’t think of any special interest that has as strong a connection to photography as railroading. Why do you suppose this is?
Michael - I think there are a lot of hobby groups that make a natural fit with photography; of avid hikers many landscape photographers are made, and birding another one, but yes, photography is indeed a prevalent predilection in the railfan community. The connection appears to goes back to preservation again, be it of moments, places or things; and nostalgia for the railroad generally, since subjects loaded with nostalgia seem to be prime targets. Sometimes they seek to answer questions: What was that branch line’s purpose? How many passenger trains stopped at this now dilapidated depot? Or express a regional fandom. Countless fallen flag railroads each have their cult following; in many cases, their fans never even saw the original road in operation. Fortunately for all of us interested in this genre, preservation by photograph has been intertwined with the railroad itself since the dawn of photography, creating a visual anthology of railroading by both professional and amateur photographers alike. Still today, the only thing constant in the railroad industry is change, and photography seems to be the most common form of preservation.
Outside of the simple “preservation by photograph” approach, some railfans try to emulate the greats like Shaughnessy, Plowden, Hastings, Steinheimer, and Link. That is a beautiful thing; it reflects an intelligent and passionate response to the visual proficiency of these noted photographers, who left an undeniable mark on the entire industry and hobby. Technology has also played a significant role in the advancement of the genre. The flexibility of higher level ISO sensitivity in digital, the extended dynamic range, instant feedback, and being limited by only the space on their memory card, photographers have advanced their rail photography to levels that would make some of the greats envious. The point is, what drives a lot of these people is passion, whether they are good at making photographs, or it is a simple visual record to model a structure, you really can’t deny the important intersection of railroads and photography in our community.
Edd - Do you have a favorite among your own photographs, one that is particularly meaningful to you? Tell us about it.
Michael - I am always hesitant to answer questions like this, but if I had to single one out, I’d say, Franklin Boro, from East Conemaugh, PA is pretty damn close. I remember seeing it on the ground glass, it was an image I made while I was reading Stilgoe’s Metropolitan Corridor, and it reinforces the connection between the railroad and the landscape. Layers of history stacked up on the mountainside, having seen an evolution of transportation and industrial history from those lofty views. Some would see a place like this as sad or depressing; I find these types of locations intriguing and beautiful. It’s a key image in the project.
Edd - And one last question. If you could spend a day photographing alongside any photographer from any era in the history of photography, who would it be, and why?
Michael - That is easy, William H Rau, however, I would need a little more than a day! I’d love to be in the meetings with PRR officials planning Rau’s campaigns in the 1890’s. To see what the expectations were from the client, and understand what Rau brought to the table, how they came to select the locations and the logistics of access. Being in the field would be interesting to see how they handled his photographic train and moving that incredibly bulky camera (his smallest was a 18x22” glass plate camera) all around an active railroad. I can only imagine some dispatcher pounding out messages on the telegraph telling the crew to move him along so he could get back to running trains!
Edd - I look forward to seeing where your exploration of the railroad landscape takes you, and thanks for letting us come along for the ride!
Michael - As always Edd, thank you, it’s a pleasure to be able to present my work like this, you don’t always have the opportunity to reflect back on your projects and ideas. This interview has been a great way to analyze my perspectives and assess how my ideas in photography and preservation have developed over the years. I know my approach to the subject is different from a lot of photographers interested in railroading, I hope this shed a little light on how and why I make the images I do. Thanks again for the opportunity, and keep up the great work on The Trackside Photographer!
Previously, on the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline we left off in Lancaster County at Mine Ridge, the highest point on the PRR east of the Alleghenies. The route closely follows the original 1834 alignment of the PRR's predecessor, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, crossing through a gap in the ridge between Lancaster and Chester Counties and the divide between the Susquehanna and Deleware Watersheds. From the west, the line climbs the grade between Kinzer and Gap on a series of reverse curves in short succession following a brief tangent, attaining the summit at roughly milepost 50. The eastward descent starts into another 1-degree curve positioning the line into a long straight until reaching Christiana, the last station along the line in Lancaster County. In Christiana, the line again navigates another series of reverse curves flanking the town center followed by a sharp curve at North Bend where the line crosses into Chester County.
The area around Christiana took root in the 1690's after King Charles II granted William Penn 45,000 square miles of land west of the Delaware River. Originally part of Chester County, Sadsbury Township was part of a land transfer to establish Lancaster Country in 1729. As a result, Sadsbury Township spanned the new county line, and thus became two separate townships by the same name in each of the neighboring counties. By the dawn of the 19th Century, Christiana began to develop around the crossroads of the Lancaster and the Gap & Newport Turnpikes, both major eastern trade routes. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 would rival many of these roads taking away commerce and trade from the port city of Philadelphia, thus affecting developing towns along the way. The Commonwealth's answer was to build a state-owned system utilizing a railroad between Philadelphia and the Susquehanna River and a canal system west to Pittsburgh, including a series of inclined planes to cross the Alleghenies. The new rail line, called the Philadelphia & Columbia, brought great promise for developing communities like Christianna. The railroad and the larger Mainline of Public Works would allow people and industry to connect with markets outside their region, providing a potentially unlimited opportunity for commerce.
The P&C commenced operations in 1834, around the same time local businessman, William Noble constructed a foundry and blacksmith shop along the line in Sadsbury Township, Lancaster County. Ten years later Hugh McClarron opened a grain and produce business, and by 1846 Samuel L. Denney purchased the foundry from Noble, adding a machine shop to the operation. By 1847 the growing village became officially known as Christiana, named for Noble's first wife. Denny's endeavor followed suit, and the new Christiana Machine became a focal point of industrial commerce in the area.
By the 1880's the failed Mainline of Public Works had long since been sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad, putting Christiana alongside one of the most ambitious interstate rail transportation systems in the land. The town itself thrived, now a borough of 800 residents, complete with a new library association, bank, and town newspaper. Christiana was home to a diverse base of manufacturing with much of its output shipped by rail. Christiana Machine, once again under new ownership, evolved from making farming implements to the production of water turbine equipment and later other elements for power transmission systems for shipment all over the developing nation.
Growing with the ever-increasing traffic demands the PRR was amidst an era of improvements in the 1890's, addressing both capacity and infrastructure limitations. Symbolized by the PRR's impressive stone bridges and four-track system, the improvements program targeted issues that stemmed from the early construction of the right of way. In this particular region, the engineers and contractors building the P&C mainline encountered springs, and quicksand while excavating the pass over the Gap Summit. The compromise was less cutting to avoid the muck resulting in steeper grades. Cheif Engineer William H. Brown looked to finish what the P&C could not accomplish some fifty years before. As a result, measures were taken to re-grade and realign the railroad between Gap and North Bend.
In Christiana, the tracks were shifted from the old P&C right-of-way to a new alignment altogether, moving the tracks some 150' to reduce the curvature and accommodate the expansion of the right of way to four tracks. The realignment necessitated moving the large brick freight house some 40' east and the abandonment of the existing Bridge Street overpass. Construction of its replacement called for the use of a "new" Whipple style iron truss span, repurposed from improvements undertaken on the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore, where the mainline crossed White Clay Creek below Wilmington.
At North Bend, where the railroad arcs from a north-south to an east-west orientation through the gap in the North Valley Hills, a substantial cut was excavated at the base of Zion Hill, accommodating the wider right-of-way, reducing curvature from the previous P&C alignment. The 1895 annual report from the PRR notes the completion of this segment of four track line from Atglen to Gap, among other places. Not much else would change in Christiana except for the construction of a modest new passenger facility and pedestrian subway along the Gay Street underpass in 1912.
While Christiana lost passenger service in 1952, the station remained open as a Railway Express office until 1962. Though much of the region's manufacturing shifted away from smaller communities like Christiana, the landmark brick freight house and passenger station survive, the former becoming the home of the Lancaster Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society who restored the building to its original condition. The Lancaster Chapter, chartered in 1936 is the founding Chapter of NRHS and a very accomplished group in the field of preservation of railroad structures and equipment. The mainline today serves the Amtrak Keystone Corridor, hosting some thirty trains a day, still rolling through Christiana and the right of way improvements of the late 1800's.
Greetings! I hope everyone is having a great summer and taking some much deserved time off to enjoy the season with family and friends. Here is a quick list of some upcoming and ongoing events pertaining to the Main Line Project!
They All Fall Down | Lamenting the loss of a classic PRR Signal - The Position Light
I am very excited to have a new article featured on the blog, The Trackside Photographer this week. The piece focuses on the Pennsylvania Railroad's classic Position Light signals, many of which face an uncertain future as railroads push to implement Positive Train Control. It's a sizable article featuring a lot of imagery, several which have never been published. Please pay the Trackside Photographer a visit if you haven't already, they are doing a fantastic job featuring a diverse range of photographers and writers whose work focuses on the railroad landscape, it's an honor to have work published there!
Ongoing Exhibition: William H Rau: Urban, Rural, Rail
The current exhibition on display at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Altoona has more than a month remaining and is generating a lot of great feedback so far. The exhibition features a selection of Rau's Pennsylvania Railroad images from the Altoona Public Library collection, along with several images from the Main Line Project. If you are in the area, the exhibition at SAMA - Altoona is a must see!
Rau Symposium - SAMA - Altoona: August 16
In conjunction with the ongoing exhibition, I will be speaking at a symposium along with Penn State - Altoona history lecturer Julie Fether who curated the show. My talk will focus on Rau's imagery and how it continues to inspire my project, while Julie will discuss how the show evolved, tying in influences from Harvard Landscape Studies Professor, John Stilgoe's writings and ideas on the "art and practice of 'seeing' landscape."
The event is at the SAMA - Altoona location on Wednesday, August 16th from 11AM-1PM, lunch provided, and costs $15 ($14 for SAMA members). Reservations are required by calling the museum at (814) 946-4464 or emailing email@example.com.
Pop- Up Exhibition: The Study at University City - Philadelphia
On display through September 30th.
An excellent opportunity came up recently to showcase some work from the Main Line Project, at the Study, a beautiful new Hotel in University City, central to Drexel University's campus at 33rd and Chestnut Streets, in Philadelphia. The small show includes ten pieces from the project and is free and open to the public. If you're in the area, please stop in and have a look!
The Study at University City, 20 S 33rd St, Philadelphia, PA
The Pennsylvania Railroad | A Legacy in Images
Please join me Tuesday, May 9th for the rescheduled lecture for the Harrisburg NRHS chapter, exploring the important role historical imagery plays in my ongoing project, From the Main Line, A Contemporary Survey of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The lecture is part of the Harrisburg Chapter’s monthly meeting and is free and open to the public.
May 9th, 2017 | Meeting begins at 7 PM
National Railway Historical Society
Hoss’s Steak and Seahouse
743 Wertzville Road
The 2017 Mainline Art Center Spring Gala and Fundraiser Exhibition
Buy a Print, Support a Great Cause! This piece will be part of the Main Line Art Center's 2017 Spring Gala and Fund Raiser exhibition. The Gala is Saturday, April 29th, and the exhibition runs April 30th through June 3rd, 2017. Please visit the Main Line Art Center's Website for more information.
At the dawn of the industrial revolution, the American railroad became the vehicle at which life’s pace was set. Growing in the east and expanding across the western frontier the railroad was responsible for America’s success. Engineering such a system at such a rapid speed was no small task, the men who ran these companies understood the value of their accomplishments and wanted to share it with the world. To tout their new transportation systems, luring travelers to ride this modern marvel and experience the American landscape railroads turned to another new product of the industrial age: photography. Railroads employed some the most preeminent photographers of the time, outfitting darkroom cars, placed under the direction of senior passenger agents to see that their photographer had the best accommodations to illustrate their pride and joy.
While photography and the railroads redefined the 19th century’s perception of space and time, surviving imagery leaves us a rich visual legacy to derive tremendous amounts of information about the railway, the landscape and the energy of the industrial age. It’s this imagery that feeds my creativity and imagination, allowing me to visualize the prominent role the Pennsylvania Railroad played in developing the United States. These volumes of visual assets are the foundation of what inspires my work; the photographer’s technical and aesthetic ability, the conceptual ideas and the resulting images rich with information foster a dialogue with my image making, inspiring new works from pictures of the past.
Please join me Tuesday, March 14th for a lecture exploring the important role historical imagery plays in my ongoing project, From the Mainline, A Contemporary Survey of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The lecture is part of the Harrisburg Chapter’s meeting and is free and open to the public.
March 14th, 2017 | Meeting begins at 7 PM
National Railway Historical Society
Hoss’s Steak and Seahouse
743 Wertzville Road
Please join me Friday, February 17th at the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society's monthly meeting conveniently located on Drexel University's main campus. I will be presenting a lecture on my ongoing photographic project, From the Main Line: A Contemporary Survey of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The project explores the Pennsylvania Railroad, one of the most celebrated corporations in American history, operating the largest railroad in the United States for over 120 years. The PRR, as it was known, developed a unique high-capacity network that still carries trains throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. After the merger of the PRR with long-time rival New York Central in 1968, the network has changed considerably, separated by various successors into distinct corridors for both freight and passenger operations. What remains provides the visual clues of the PRR's monumental infrastructure and its contributions to developing the American way of life.
Inspired by the work of William H. Rau, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Road in the 1890’s to document the railroad and its destinations, "From the Main Line" is an exploration of the landscape along the former Pennsylvania Railroad. Examining both the inhabited landscape developed along the line while celebrating the grace of an engineering marvel undertaken over 150 years ago. Through a two-fold approach, photographs look at the context of the railroad in the landscape and also work to emulate the viewpoint of what the passenger might experience from a railcar window. The story of how this railroad influenced the development of United States is told by illustrating the transitioning landscape, uncovering the layers of growth, decline and rebirth of small towns, industrial areas and city terminals that were once served by this historic transportation system.
The lecture is Friday, February 17th, 2017, part of the NRHS Philadelphia Chapter’s monthly meeting. The program is free and open to the public and will begin at 7:30 PM in 121 Randell Hall (accessed though the Main Building), Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. Drexel University's campus is centrally located near 30th Street Station and is easily accessible by bus, rapid transit and regional rail. For more information please contact me directly at Michael@michaelfroio.com.
Running over 53 miles in length the PRR's Atglen & Susquehanna Branch was a shining example of modern railway construction, running across rolling countryside and up the Susquehanna River on a gentle gradient. Fittingly for such a contemporary piece of railroad engineering, another advancement of modern times accompanied the line; the telephone. By the time the A&S opened for business in 1906, the PRR was rapidly working towards constructing one of the world's largest private telephone networks, laying cable along its system for critical functions like dispatching trains in addition to providing an extensive "in-house" communication network. The PRR's interest in telephone technology dates back to 1877 when officials invited Thomas A. Watson, assistant to Alexander Graham Bell for a demonstration in Altoona. While the railroad made a modest investment for non-critical communication following this meeting, it wouldn't be until 1897 when the technology was employed to dispatch trains entirely by phone on the South Fork Branch of the Pittsburgh Division.
As technology was improved, the PRR began investing heavily in building a communication network, and by 1920 almost the entire system was dispatched by telephone. East of Paoli in the electrified territory, cable was laid in an underground duct system, west of Paoli the cable lines were often above ground on lineside poles and west of Harrisburg an extensive line side open wire system was employed. By 1955 the PRR boasted some impressive statistics in their company magazine, The Pennsy stating, "Today the PRR's network is generally accepted to be the largest private telephone system in the world. Its transmission lines stretch 41,000 miles. It's cost, together with that of the associated Teletype network, totals $35 million. On any typical day, PRR lines carry an estimated half-million calls."
With the start of operations, the A&S was dispatched by phone from Harrisburg, out on the line local control via eight block stations provided the means for changing tracks and relay orders to passing trains. These included Parkesburg (PG), Atglen (NI), Quarryville (Q), Shenks Ferry - (SF - later Smith), Cresswell (CO), Columbia (LG-42), Marietta (RQ) and Wago Junction (WJ). Additionally, the PRR constructed 11 watch boxes along the A&S that were staffed 24/7 due to the continuous risk of washouts and cave-ins with the numerous cuts, fills, culverts and bridges along the line. Track inspectors could reach dispatchers via the watch boxes or line side phone boxes spaced roughly every 1.25 miles for field access in the event a situation should arise.
Consolidation of block station and train order offices began during the Depression, with Quarryville placed out of service on August 11th, 1928. More change in operations came with the final phase of electrification completed in 1938. The project, which included the installation of automatic block signals and the implementation of established Current of Traffic Rule 251 eliminating the need for intermediate manned block stations. An additional benefit of the signal system was the integration of slide detector fences in areas prone to rockslides, eliminating the need for staffed watch boxes. Cola tower opened in Columbia sporting a 120 lever centralized traffic control machine, dispatching over 175 miles of freight only territory. Under its jurisdiction on the A&S were Cresswell, LG-42 and Marietta (Shocks) as well as trackage down the Port Road south to Holtwood. Parkesburg was also rebuilt, relocated to a one of a kind brick single story building, containing a 39-lever Union Switch & Signal Model P interlocking machine. The last block station of note proved to be a bit of mystery, NI at Atglen just a few miles west of Parkesburg closed sometime between 1928 and 1945 based on various employee resources, but at this time I have found little else to narrow the dates of its demise. By the time electrification was complete all but one remaining manned block station survived on the A&S between Parkesburg and Cola; Shenks Ferry (SF), later renamed Smith, was retained as a part-time facility due to its location approximately midway between Cress and Parkesburg. While Smith ultimately met its demise, Cola survived into the Conrail era, closing in March of 1987, followed by the A&S in 1988. On the opposite end of the line, Parkesburg survived well into the 21st Century under Amtrak. The closing of Parkesburg during the Keystone Corridor improvements was the first in a string of tower closures that mark the end of an era in technology and dispatching that lasted longer than the company that helped pioneer the technology.
Quarryville has always been a crossroad of activity in the fertile farmlands of Southern Lancaster County. Farmers purchased lumber, grain, and fertilizer here and reciprocally exchanged their bounties in town and beyond via the local county railroad, a lifeline to the outside world. Commonly known as the Quarryville Branch this rail line had an interesting early history that started with big hopes and ended with financial disaster. The Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad was chartered in 1871 to build a narrow gauge network between Safe Harbor and Reading via Lancaster including a branch to Quarryville, competing directly with the neighboring Reading Company subsidiary the Reading & Columbia. Before construction commenced it was decided to build the line to standard gauge instead, but the Panic of 1873 quickly stalled progress. Falling into financial distress, the Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad was ironically leased to the Reading Company becoming an extension of its Lancaster Branch, part of the R&C.
With the contract secured for the branch to Quarryville, the Reading looked to another opportunity, the potential of connecting with the B&O mainline by extending south from Quarryville to Elkton, MD, a move that would involve the financially strapped narrow gauge railroad the Lancaster, Oxford & Southern. When presented the idea of becoming a bridge route, the LO&S optimistically commenced plans to build new extensions on its existing route including a new line to Quarryville, with the intention of everything being converted to standard gauge. Once complete perhaps the small common carrier would see financial success or even be purchased at a profit by the Reading or the B&O. The plan, however, began to crumble when the Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad defaulted on their mortgage, rendering the Reading lease null and void, and the property went up for auction in 1900. At the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, a tense bidding war played out between extended representatives of the B&O, Reading Company and PRR. Charles H. Locher, a Lancaster businessman, minor shareholder of the L&RNGR and friend of the PRR attended the auction, outbidding the competition and thus protecting their coveted territory by eliminating the plan for the competitor's line once and for all. Regardless the LO&S completed the branch to Quarryville but the hopes for financial success or being converted to standard gauge were never realized, the railroad toiled in bankruptcy through 1910 scrapping its Quarryville Branch in 1917 with the rest of the railroad ceasing operation the following year.
While the drama of railroad barons and hopes of back-road competition unraveled, another chapter in railroad history was playing out in the small town. The PRR commenced construction of the new Low Grade route across Southern Lancaster County. Situated at the approximate center of the eastern segment of the new Atglen & Susquehanna Branch, Quarryville was the epicenter of construction and staging between 1903 and 1906. Despite the building of the new line, it was very evident that the PRR had no intention to tap the small agricultural market with any additional resources other than the branch it maintained from Lancaster. When construction was completed the A&S cut through the Borough on an elevated fill with little more than a water stop, a telephone box and overpasses over its branch and another on Church Street.
For the next half a century the railroads continued to operate separately from one another. As the PRR entered its final year's maintenance on marginally performing branches were often deferred, and the Quarryville Branch was certainly no exception. Entering the Penn Central era, with finances already tight, management looked to shed money-losing lines; the Quarryville Branch made the short list when the Penn Central petitioned the ICC for the abandonment of over 138 line segments in 1971. Making matters worse the branch suffered an even greater blow in 1972 when it sustained significant damage from Hurricane Agnes placing most of the branch out of service. Regardless, the shippers in Quarryville rallied, seeking a deal with Penn Central, who had estimated that a 1700’ line connection to the A&S would come with a price tag of $130,000 a burden the broken railroad could not afford. Shippers agreed to pay the cost of construction, and the PC withdrew 2.26 miles from the ICC petition, saving the most lucrative piece of the branch and rail service to local shippers. Finally, after 67 years of trains flying over the town, Quarryville had a connection to the A&S, but that too would only last another 15 years.
On May 30th, 1889 storms struck the Conemaugh Valley in Cambria County, dumping an estimated 6-10 inches of rain on the region. Tributaries and creeks flooded their banks, swelling the Conemaugh River with raging currents and miscellaneous debris. Fourteen miles east of the bustling city of Johnstown concerns were escalating at the elite South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club where a former reservoir for the Mainline of Public Works turned recreational lake, began to rise to dangerous levels. Lake Conemaugh had been stripped of its fail-safes after the Pubic Works system was abandoned and had no way of relieving the rising floodwaters. Various efforts to mitigate the high water were considered but were too little, too late, in a last ditch effort messengers were dispatched to South Fork to report the dangerous situation to neighboring towns via telegraph.
By the afternoon of May 31st, Johnstown was already experiencing flooding in various areas but at approximately 3:10PM the situation grew far beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. The dam holding back Lake Conemaugh collapsed, releasing some 20 million tons of water into the Conemaugh River valley. Taking approximately 40 minutes to drain the lake, flood waters raged through the valley taking less than an hour to reach the city of Johnstown, picking up houses, trees and even a railroad viaduct in its course. By the time it hit Johnstown the wall of floodwater was estimated to be 60’ high in places and traveling at 40 miles per hour. The flood entered town in the areas of East Conemaugh and Woodvale leveling rail yards, tossing passenger trains and causing major damage to the Gautier Iron Works, picking up even more debris including barbed wire manufactured at the mills. Flood waters tore through the center of Johnstown which is hemmed in by the Stoney Creek and Conemaugh Rivers on the the valley floor becoming the epicenter of disaster. Spreading across the city the floodwaters washed back and forth forcing debris against the PRR stone viaduct near the Cambria Iron Works creating further peril during the situation. The unintended dam became engulfed in flames creating a 70’ high wall that had to eventually be blasted away after waters receded.
Efforts were mobilized immediately to provide disaster relief and recovery. The Pennsylvania Railroad restored the railroad west to Pittsburgh and was running trains by June 2nd bringing in manpower and supplies. Clara Barton, a nurse and founder of the Red Cross arrived on June 5th, staying for more than five months to lead the group’s first major disaster relief effort. The flood, the result of the of the South Fork Hunting Club’s negligence to properly maintain the earthen dam ultimately took 2,209 lives, 16,000 homes and cost $17 million in property damage, making the Great Flood of 1889 one of the worst floods to hit the US in the 19th Century.
Donald T. Rittler: 1919 - 2016
It is with a heavy heart that I share the news of the passing of Donald T. Rittler, a former Pennsylvania Railroad train director who lived and worked in the Harrisburg area for most of his life. In 2012 I had the privilege to meet Mr. Rittler during a private tour of the Harris tower museum, arranged by NRHS Harrisburg Chapter members. When Don arrived he brought this already fantastic interactive site alive with first hand experiences of running one of the most important interlocking towers on the PRR Philadelphia Division. Since to that meeting I had several opportunities to talk with Don about his experiences on the railroad including a very special return visit to Harris that I was so lucky to share with my father and son.
Don Rittler started his career with the Pennsylvania Railroad on October 11th, 1937 as a messenger for the interlocking towers on the PRR Philadelphia Division. The first person to be hired since the 1927 furlough of employees as a result of the Great Depression, Don worked the introductory job spending his days relaying messages and paperwork from tower to tower as needed, gaining a familiarity to the basic operations and chain of command among the many towers on the system. On December 1st, 1940 Don posted his first position as a block operator and leverman, working the Philadelphia Division extra list, filling in at different towers over the years.
In 1944, like many other PRR employees Rittler was summoned to serve his country in World War II. Holding the title of Master Sergeant in the Army’s 775th Railway Grand Division and the 3rd Military Regiment, Don’s deployment centered in the Pacific Theater during the height of the war. Initially working in the Philippines operating the Manila Railway Don’s unit moved to Japan to secure a railhead for military transport inland in the event of land attacks. As a result of the infamous atomic bombs, their services were not needed for this purpose but they did continue to work keeping the Japanese rail systems functional. Returning to the US a short two years later almost exactly to the day, Rittler resumed his tenure with the PRR, holding tower positions as both leverman and eventually train director for State and Harris towers near the Harrisburg passenger station. Rittler, who’s father was a master machinist for the Pennsy in Enola was always fascinated with the railroad, as it was always apart of his life, with many friends, neighbors and family also employed by the PRR.
Don and his wife Mary built a house in New Cumberland near Lemoyne and lived a wonderful life with their daughter Donna, sharing the family like atmosphere and camaraderie of the many railroaders Don worked with on a daily basis. He continued to work in the Harrisburg area well into the Penn Central era eventually moving to Conrail after the 1976 consolidation. Amtrak was slowly taking over operations on the Keystone Corridor in the mid 1970’s and Don’s choices of where to work were becoming increasingly limited. Don ultimately worked first shift at Lemo tower in Lemoyne, which he described as a welcome break from the busy towers he was accustomed to like Harris, finishing out a spotless 42 year career in railroading in 1979. After retirement, Don was very gracious with his time and experience in the towers, helping the NRHS Harrisburg Chapter develop the interpretive exhibit for the Harris tower project. He would also on occasion visit with small groups at the museum to provide first hand working knowledge of his craft like I was so fortunate to experience. Don’s presence at Harris will be greatly missed but thanks to his generosity, his legacy and knowledge will live on with the Harrisburg Chapter and the Harris tower museum.
May your presence always be felt at Harris tower, rest in peace Don.
For more information about memorial services for Mr. Rittler, please click here
I am excited to share the details on my upcoming exhibition in Scranton, Pennsylvania featuring work from the ongoing project, From the Main Line. Scranton, though never served by the PRR could not be more of an appropriate venue to put together an exhibition exploring the relationship between railroads and the landscapes they travel. The Electric City is situated in the heart of Anthracite Coal Country and has a rich history largely associated with being at the crossroads of six railroad companies at its peak and home to the the sprawling Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad locomotive shops. The railroads played an important role in the city of Scranton, providing extensive access to the nation's rail network while providing a wealth of jobs to the regional economy, much like the many places I’ve photographed throughout my time on the PRR.
Today Scranton is home to several major universities, the Steamtown National Historical Site as well as several other interpretive museums that explore the role railroads and coal played in the regional economy. Plan a trip to see the exhibition and visit some area attractions; the city is very easy to navigate and there are several wonderful places to stay in town and of course, plenty of choices for lunch and dinner. The exhibition opens next Friday, March 4th and will run through April 30th at the Camera Work space, located in the Marquis Gallery, in the historic Laundry building in downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Hope to see some familiar faces at the opening!
As mentioned last week, here is the interview I did with photojournalist and educator Niko J Kalliantiotis for the project From America with Love a curated platform hosted by the organization Orama Photos, Greece. The interview discusses the Main Line Project as well as my overall approach to photography and will be part of a larger survey showcasing the current state of contemporary American photography. Enjoy!
NJK: You have been working on the Railroad project for approximately ten years. Can you please discuss the nature of the project from its inception to its current state
MFP: When I started the project From the Main Line, I was looking for something that connected a number of different personal interests, something big that I could dive into in phases and that would provide a sort of long-term return creatively. The railroad is what initially led me to pick up a camera, I wanted to get back to the subject but not in the sense of the trains themselves, I instead wanted to focus on the surviving infrastructure and landscape. I chose the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) because of its historical significance and the amount of surviving elements that would provide visual clues to juxtapose its past and current importance. My initial approach was pretty simple, go out and follow the railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh exploring the railroad right of way and the places the railroad served.
Between trips I took a lot of time to look at the work and figure out what was missing, what the project needed to convey the scale and significance of the PRR. I turned to the historical work of William H. Rau, a commercial photographer who was commissioned in the 1890s by the PRR to illustrate the railroad for marketing purposes. The work really struck me on both a technical and conceptual level. Here you had a photographer who was looking at the pinnacle of transportation and engineering utilizing a medium that was also coming into its own. Photographing a railroad that spanned the wilds of western PA, a corridor of modernity that was the lifeline for industry and people alike, an engineered landscape very different from its surroundings. It was Rau’s work and others like him that enlightened me to just how significant the railroad was, not just in the sense of the their engineering accomplishments but also how towns and industry flourished because of the railroad’s presence. In addition to Rau the writing of Harvard Landscape Studies professor John Stilgoe helped to better understand the physical, cultural and social impact the railroads had, and how to sort of recognize these attributes in my own work. From this research my approach became more informed, thus did the work. I was beginning to realize my photographs along with writing and historical resources could do a more effective job in telling the story of the railroad and the towns it served. It was the story of America’s rise in the industrial revolution, developing the east and concurring the west. My role is to illustrate and disseminate the layers of history along this engineered landscape. Utilizing both the exhibition format and a more in depth blog format allows the work to be both creative and historically informative, something that really appeals to my creative approach. Like the photographers before me who were hired to document the American scene, I continue a tradition in celebrating one of the most important transportation networks in the United States and how it remains a different but vital part of the American landscape.
NJK: There is a consistency in the aesthetic decisions and a timeless quality in the work. Can you talk briefly about your concept behind those aesthetic decisions?
MFP: Photography is great medium in that for me it is still part science, part creativity and make no mistake about it, the two are closely related. I typically work with a view camera, which lends itself to a slow methodical way of making pictures. The process, from lens selection, composition, exposure, development, scans and print is all very intuitive, very intentional. Recently I have introduced digital capture into the mix and even that is treated the same way. I have preferences in what light I like to work in, though sometimes beggars can’t be choosers, when you are 100 miles from home and railroad officials have committed to you for the day you have to make due with what you’re given. Being a good photographer means knowing the limits of your materials and how to manipulate what you have to get it to fit your visual aesthetic. I prefer black and white, I tend to print a little dark and a little flat, I like my work to be void of people, not because I don’t like them, but really because its about the timeless quality of these landscapes. The hand of industry and the railroads is implied, it doesn’t always need to be seen.
NJK: I find in the mood and testimony of the photographs a link to the current industrial situation in small town America. Is there a connection towards that territory or is the project strictly based on the documentation of the PRR?
MFP: Like many other photographers in this genre I am not trying to make a political statement I am simply conveying the information to the viewer (though that sounds a bit oversimplified). Yes the work is about the railroad, but if you don’t connect it to the landscape it travels and the industry it serves or once served you are missing the point. The landscape and the railroad developed for two reasons, need and opportunity, there is a very important relationship between the two, and when industry or the railroad left small towns, it brought despair, hardship and wave of social and economical issues.
I was in Mingo Junction, Ohio on a trip once, home to a massive Wheeling-Pitt steel plant and part of the PRR main line to St Louis. I stopped to ask a gas station attendant if I could use the property to make a photograph of the mill, his reply was, “take all the pictures you want, the mill just closed yesterday, over 500 people are without jobs now”. I haven’t been back since, but I bet its different, I bet its pretty sad, but you know what, I’ve been to the towns where the mill still works, its not much different these days, the culture has changed. The owners of these mills are often international corporations, they aren’t building communities to attract employees anymore, and they are barely treading water to stay alive in cutthroat markets. In the ten years I have been doing this I have seen whole neighborhoods disappear, mills close, even rail lines abandoned, its part of the life cycle and unfortunately some parts of the country suffer from it more while others are insulated from just how bad it gets when the jobs leave town. The railroad is literally the string that threads together modern economies and those of the past, its an essential part to understanding the importance and heritage of these places and one of biggest reasons I embarked on this project.
NKJ: From where do you derive inspiration for your work and what are some of the difficulties working on a project of such a large scale?
MFP: My inspiration comes from a number of sources. Photographically I can ramble off a dozen or more photographers: Walker Evans, Frank Gohlke, David Plowden, William Clift, William Rau, Carleton Watkins… the list goes on. But I also draw inspiration from the virtually nameless photographers, illustrators and graphic artists who worked for the railroads at various capacities. Graphic artists that captivated the fascination of potential travelers in brilliant full color adds, illustrators that sold albums of lithographs highlighting scenic vistas along the main line. Company photographers who were the day-to-day people chronicling the less than glamorous life of small towns and railroad construction and maintenance, anonymous photos of natural disasters and even the occasional train wreck. They captured the energy, excitement and details of life along the line; for this project it is often the historical imagery that feeds the creative imagination.
As far as working on a large-scale project, I don’t see any issues to it; it’s like a long-term investment. In this day and age people have such a short attention span I often wonder if I am shooting myself in the foot, but our quest in life is to do something you enjoy and be excited about right? Well, guess what… I still am after 10 years. When I am not excited anymore, I’ll stop and move on, but honestly with the depth of history of the PRR and the landscape it travels I don’t see myself loosing interest anytime soon. For me its not just about making art, it’s about preservation and that is not always something that happens overnight.
NJK: What are your intentions in communicating the work with the public and how do you promote and distinguish your work among a dense photographic community?
MFP: While I target the photographic community, most of my aim is toward a larger audience. I accomplish this through the usual mix of social media, email campaigns, and networking. Last year I had the opportunity to put together an exhibition for the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, NJ, a sort of a visual history of the last 100 years of railroading. It was great to put my work in the context of some the photographers in my top ten list of all time favorites, it was also fun to put together a show that had a level of visual sophistication that transcended a show of just a bunch of “train pictures” as some people would dismiss it as.
I try to distinguish my work as being creative but also historically minded. I haven’t seen too many people with the level of commitment to a subject like this who have the balance between a good photographic and historical aesthetic, but as you said this is very saturated market. I am certainly not the only one reinventing the wheel.
NJK: How is the work received among the preservation community, considering the historical component?
MFP: In the historical field abroad the work has been received with open arms, and I am forever grateful for that. These are people that have worked so hard to preserve so many facets of the late Pennsylvania Railroad and many others, some even worked from the railroads at one point or another. I was born 8 years after the company’s demise; I am just going on imagination and my visual ability to present historical facts and images along side my own perception of the railroad. To me the recognition from the historical community is more important and far more gratifying than making it big in the art world, it’s a diverse group of people who never cease to amaze me with their generosity, intellect and conversation.
NJK: What is your advice to students and emerging photographers?
MFP: Don’t let a rejection set you back, present yourself as a professional and work as such. Even if it’s an assignment that doesn’t peak your personal interest dive into it head on, you might learn something. If you want to work in the field or be successful stick to your passion and always look to different mediums to expand your outlook on a given subject.
NJK: What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography, and the work that is promoted by photography dedicated platforms and social media nowadays?
MFP: I think it’s the same as it was 100 years ago. There are a lot of talented photographers out there, some rise to the top, some stay in the middle and others go unknown. The difference today is technology has leveled the playing field to a certain degree, but in reality, if you want to be successful you need to be visually literate and able to convey an idea in your own creative and unique way. That goes for fine art or commercial work. Social media floods us with visual resources day in and day out, most of it is crap, a few get lucky, but you can always pick out the professionals in their imagery, composition and presentation.
A new year brings new opportunities and so far 2016 seems to be living up to that expectation! Here are the latest updates for the first quarter of 2016. There will be several opportunities to view work from the Main Line and Watershed projects and soon I will be sharing a recent interview and lecture that are in the works. Stay tuned for more in the coming months and as always, thank you for your continued support!
Upcoming Lecture: I am pleased to announce the first of several presentations of a new lecture I have been researching that explores the legacy the Pennsylvania Railroad left behind in photographs and how that imagery has influenced my own work. The presentation looks at several noted photographers commissioned to photograph the railroad while tying them to a visual dialogue with my own contemporary works exploring the former Pennsylvania Railroad.
Perkins Center for the Arts: Photography 35: I am happy to note that I have two pieces from the Watershed series in the Perkins Center annual juried photo exhibition, Photography 35 one of which received honors from juror Heather Campbell Coyle, Curator of American Art at the Delaware Art Museum. The exhibition runs from January 31st through February 26th, 2016 with an opening reception on Sunday, January 31st from 1-4 PM. This exhibition is free and open to the public, for more information visit the Perkins Center online.
Main Line Art Center | 2016 Meyer Family Award for Contemporary Art Finalist
The Main Line Art Center of Haverford, Pennsylvania selected the Main Line project as one of seven finalists for the 2016 Meyer Family Award for Contemporary Art. The competition featured over 200 applicants and awarded three solo shows to artists representing a diverse base of mediums while honoring an additional seven finalists with Professional Artist programming throughout 2016. For more information on programs and exhibitions at the Main Line Art Center visit their website.
Upcoming Interview: Photojournalist and Educator Niko J Kalliantiotis interviewed me for a new project titled From America with Love a curated platform hosted by the organization Orama Photos, Greece. The interview is part of a larger project showcasing the current state of contemporary American photography. Stay tuned for more, I will send out the interview when it goes live!
Upcoming Exhibition: From the Main Line: A Contemporary Survey of the Pennsylvania Railroad | Camera Work Gallery, Scranton, Pennsylvania
I am very excited to announce the first solo exhibition featuring the Main Line project in a town rich with railroad history. The show will feature some 20 images from the project in a gallery space located in the historic Laundry Building in downtown Scranton. The show runs from March 4th through the 29th, with an opening reception on March 4th from 6-8 PM. More details will follow in the coming weeks!
Passing through the pastoral Lancaster County landscape the eastbound ascent of Mine Ridge takes the PRR mainline around a series of reverse curves that carry the railroad over the 560’ summit dividing the Pequea and Chester Valleys. Gap, a quaint community whose history dates back to when William Penn visited the area late in the 1600’s is located at the crossroads of the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike and the Newport Turnpike. The small village of roughly 1900 residents is divided by the first pair of significant curves on the main line including the 4° Eby’s curve and the 4° Gap curve. To attain the summit the railroad climbs a .56% ruling grade and enters a cut on the Gap curve through Mine Ridge, limiting trains to a maximum of 50mph. Through William H. Brown's improvement years there were several attempts to reduce curvature of the route, but an ambitious project was proposed to eliminate the curves all together in the first quarter of the 20th century. With an estimated cost of $2.7 million, the realignment would require the removal of a large piece of Mine Ridge to eliminate a total of four curves with one large gentle arc, increasing speeds from 50 to 90 mph and reducing average travel time by 1.5 minutes. Alas the realignment was deemed too costly for the time and was never revisited, leaving the same basic arrangement that survives today now part of Amtrak's Keystone Line.
At 5:55 AM, Saturday, September 11th 1915 the first scheduled electric powered train departed Paoli for Philadelphia marking the beginning of one of the most famous railroad electrification projects in the United States.
At the close of 1910 the Pennsylvania Railroad had certainly accomplished some remarkable projects. The building of Penn Station and the Hudson and East River Tunnels was an engineering feat that put the railroad at a major advantage over many others, giving them direct access to New York City while establishing a through connection to New England markets. Out of necessity the new terminal utilized trains running on a proven direct current third rail system, as steam engines would literally suffocate passengers in the lengthy tunnels. The PRR had already begun utilizing DC propulsion on routes previous to the terminal as a way to economize operations and included subsidiaries Long Island Railroad and part of the West Jersey & Seashore. To the north the New Haven had just inaugurated heavy electrified main line service utilizing a new alternating current installation in 1907, but with little time to observe the New Haven’s technology the PRR’s conservative management instead chose the proven DC system.
Soon after the New York terminal project was completed, engineering forces turned their attention to a major traffic bottleneck in the PRR’s corporate home of Philadelphia. Broad Street Station, built by the Wilson Brothers in 1881 and expanded by Frank Furness in 1892-93 was a 16-track stub ended terminal that was situated in the city center directly across from city hall. Broad Street saw a host of trains including commuter and long distance trains that stopped, terminated or originated here; because of the nature of a stub end terminal and a lengthily and congested reverse move to the engine facilities west of the Schuylkill River, trains faced a host of delays limiting Broad Street’s capacity and efficiency. In order to ease congestion the PRR turned to engineering consultant Gibbs & Hill to develop a solution utilizing electric traction, but this time with AC propulsion. Now several years into the New Haven’s electrification the PRR could capitalize on their triumphs while incorporating technological advances to perfect the new installation. A simplified infrastructure and commercial power purchased from Philadelphia Electric made AC propulsion very economical over DC which required the railroad to construction dedicated power plants. With a supply agreement in place the PRR and Philadelphia Electric could easily expand the network over the next several years, sharing the power generation expansion cost with other commercial and industrial customers.
The initial phase of electrification would be a costly investment due to the complexities of the Philadelphia Terminal’s trackage. Once completed however, it could not only support electrified Paoli service but also main line service to Wilmington, Trenton, the West Chester Branch and Chestnut Hill branch freeing up valuable terminal space while maximizing the benefit of the initial cost. Power would be supplied by the Schuylkill River generating station and transmitted across the river to the Arsenal Bridge sub-station then on to the West Philly, Bryn Mawr and Paoli sub-stations. Here the 25 cycle 44,000 volt single phase power would be stepped down to 11,000 volts and fed to trains via overhead trolley lines supported by cable suspension supports strung between tubular steel trolley poles. The route to Paoli was 20 miles in length and electrification included wiring a coach yard and service facility in the West Philadelphia shops as well as a new facility in Paoli, a total of roughly 93 miles of track. Initially limited to just the Paoli commuter runs the electrification would power some 80 plus trains a day while affording an 8% overall increase in capacity at Broad Street. Though this seems like a small advantage for such a significant investment, the PRR looked to the future making this the first of several steps to dramatically increase capacity by expanding electric operations off the initial hub.
While planning, design and construction of the Paoli electrification was taking place, the PRR turned to the proven class P54 steel coach that was already in production. Though only a basic coach design the PRR had incorporated provisions in the plans to accommodate electrification and operating components when it was time to develop a fleet of self-propelled multiple unit (MU) cars. These motorcars would largely makeup the initial fleet of the PRR’s electric operations until suitable locomotives were developed to haul long distance trains. Classified as MP54's many were already in electrified service on the Long Island and WJ&S utilizing DC propulsion. The MP54 fleet eventually comprised of over 1400 cars; 480 ran on the PRR proper, 923 on the Long Island Railroad and 18 on the WJ&S /PRSL, some of which outlasted the PRR itself, remaining in operation through 1981.
With the first phase of electrification a success the railroad continued expansion from the Broad Street terminal, next on the Chestnut Hill branch in 1918 and the White Marsh branch in 1924. Concurrent to the expansion of the PRR’s electrified network other notable projects commenced, one of great importance was the Philadelphia Improvements. With heavy construction beginning in 1927 the PRR sought to replace Broad Street Station with a new subterranean station and office tower called Suburban Station and Penn center respectively. All north-south oriented main line trains would utilize a new through station on the west bank of the Schuylkill River called 30th Street Station. East-west trains utilized an upgraded facility out on the main line in North Philadelphia to eliminate the need to reverse out of the terminal to continue after stopping since 30th was actually off the New York-Pittsburgh Main Line. Commuter trains in and out of Suburban would also service 30th Street from a separate upper level reducing the concentration of travelers separating commuter operations from the long distance and regional trains.
Though the massive Philadelphia Improvements took years to complete electrification continued at a rapid rate extending south to Wilmington on the main line including the branch to West Chester in 1928 and north on the main line to Trenton and the Schuylkill Valley Branch to Norristown in 1930 completing the electrification of all Philadelphia region suburban lines. Further studies reiterated the economical advantage of electrification outside the commuter zones for regional and long distance trains between New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Harrisburg, prompting PRR president William Wallace Atterbury to close the gaps in electrification beginning late in 1928. Despite the Great Depression the electrification project continued through 1933, completing the retrofit of the New York Terminal for AC traction and finishing catenary work to complete the network to Wilmington and Paoli. Understanding that Wilmington would not be a suitable southern terminal for electrification, catenary was pushed south to Washington DC including Potomac Yard, financed by a $70 million loan secured from depression era federal recovery programs. Beginning in January of 1934, various reports say up to 20,000 men went to work, comprising of furloughed railroad employees and new hires in the electrical / construction trades to complete the electrification of the New York – Washington DC main line, which opened for business on February 10th 1935. As a result of the success on the north-south “corridor” the PRR sought to complete electrification from the eastern seaboard west to the Harrisburg terminal including all associated freight and passenger main lines. Work commenced on the Low Grade from Morrisville to Enola, the main line from Paoli to Harrisburg, the Columbia Branch and Port Road. Completed in 1938 the entire electrification created a powerful conduit that put the railroad in an excellent position to handle the impending pressure of wartime traffic demands.
The electrified infrastructure of the PRR Main Line has remained visibly the same over the ensuing decades despite modifications and renewal. Surviving the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central, Conrail and Amtrak the sub-stations, tubular catenary poles and surviving interlocking towers remain along with many original station buildings preserving the character of the Main Line, a name synonymous not only with the railroad but towns along the route to Paoli. As Amtrak continues to renew their electric traction system the original details of the 1915 electrification, now part of the successful Keystone Corridor could be on borrowed time. There are plans being developed that would call for a total replacement of the 1915 era catenary system. The construction of larger modern support towers similar to those found on the Northeast Corridor will allow Amtrak to move feeder and transmission lines to the railroad right of way much like later phases of electrification did. For now while you ride the Paoli Local or one of Amtrak’s Keystone Service trains take note of the historical infrastructure that survives, that infrastructure around you was part of the one the most ambitious and successful railroad electrification projects in the world!
Leaving the city of Lancaster behind, the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad snakes its way through small hamlets like Bird in Hand, Ronks, Gordonville, Leaman Place Junction and Kinzer arcing gently through the heart of central eastern Lancaster County. Known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country, this area is home to a large population of Amish and Mennonite farmers offering a unique contrast between modern living and the simple life these people traditionally live.
The Main Line, part of the original Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad was the site of several improvements including grade separation and curve realignments along the route. Often in winter while riding the south side of the train the bare trees reveal traces of abandoned alignments especially around Kinzer where an early stone arch bridge and small fill once crossed Vintage Road south of the “new” main line. Eastbound trains face a .56% ruling grade approaching the crossing of Mine Ridge on a typical stretch of right of way for the PRR; Several brick freight houses survive, all constructed in a similar style around 1860, W.H. Brown era overpasses and culverts and two notable stone masonry arch bridges that cross the Mill Creek near Smoketown and the Pequea Creek in Paradise, all under a veil of catenary from the final 1938 phase of electrification.
At Leaman Place Junction, connection was made with the Strasburg Railroad now a well known tourist operation that was originally chartered in 1832 to connect with the P&C. Operational by 1837 utilizing horse drawn coaches on rails the Strasburg purchased a locomotive constructed by the Norris Locomotive Works named the William Penn in 1851.
By the 20th Century the Strasburg had changed ownership several times and passenger ridership suffered from the competition of Conestoga Traction Company’s streetcar routes into the city of Lancaster. Ultimately the line was put up for abandonment in the late 1950’s when Henry K Long, an area railfan organized a non-profit to save the line. Commencing tourist operations in 1959 the Strasburg railroad has been a cornerstone of Lancaster County’s tourism trade offering steam powered train rides through the unspoiled PA Dutch countryside. The railroad has been unique in its mission, centered not only on operations but also working to preserve the historical landscape and feel of a turn of the century railroad while running a healthy freight business and a full service shop for Strasburg and contract restorations.
On Philadelphia Division, we take a diverging path from the Main Line and Low Grade as we leave the Lancaster area to explore the former Downingtown & Lancaster Railroad, an interesting branch line operation that may have been the result of early efforts to expand the PRR soon after its charter.
Early History: Surviving segment of Thomson’s Poker Game? No sooner than the completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh the fledging carrier looked to expand its empire by purchasing rights, property and franchises to gain entry to new markets and expand upon their existing system. Largely driven by third president, J. Edgar Thomson, one of the largest single objectives was to gain direct access to Philadelphia. This would require control of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, an 82-mile rail route that connected Philadelphia to the canal system at the P&C’s western terminus Columbia, all of which was part of the state-owned Main Line of Public Works. Though poorly engineered and in deplorable condition due to the mounting debt of the entire operation, the route had potential if the right funding could be secured and a staff of knowledgeable railroad men could be utilized to plan and execute improvements. This however would not be the problem for Thomson; it was more so the state who demanded a hefty sum for the Main Line of Public Works in its entirety with the clause that all parts of the system be improved and remain operational. Thompson's response? Build another railroad and marginalize the state system. Thus attention was focused on the recently incorporated Lancaster, Lebanon & Pine Grove Railroad, a start up enterprise looking to establish a connection between the Norristown Railroad and the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster Railroad which would essentially make the need for the P&C irrelevant. Founded in 1852, Christian Spangler a prominent Philadelphia businessman was named commissioner of the new line. Spangler, also a PRR board member would soon be named president of the railroad in 1853. In the spring of the same year survey crews worked between Lebanon and Cornwall doing just enough work to look like the Lancaster & Pine Grove would come to fruition.
In 1854, facing the reality of an investment that now accounted for almost all of the Commonwealth’s debt, fear of financial ruin motivated the state legislature to pass an act to sell the Main Line of Public Works in its entirety for the highest bidder above 10 Million dollars. The PRR wouldn’t budge; Thomson continued his bluff letting contracts to begin minimal construction with no intention of building an actual railroad but rather to force the hand of canal commissioners to sell on the PRR’s terms and price point. For the next three years Thomson continued to wage his bets, showing public support for the construction of the Lancaster & Pine Grove. In 1855 the state legislature authorized another sale complete with operational clauses for the State Works to be sold at a minimum bid of $7.5 million; still no takers. Finally in 1857 a third bill was authorized for sale at or above $7.5 million including all rolling stock and property. With no other offers the PRR took control of the Main Line of Public Works in its entirety on August 1st, 1857. Now that Thomson had the last piece of railroad to complete a wholly owned main line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh the Lancaster & Pine Grove Railroad would be dropped.
While the bidding war for the PRR to assumed control of P&C raged on, the East Brandywine Railroad had chartered in 1854, building an 18 mile line between the main line at Downingtown and Waynesburg (later Honebrook), Pennsylvania. Commencing operations in 1860 and reorganizing as the East Brandywine & Waynesburg Railroad Company the railroad extended another ten miles west to New Holland by 1876 operating in rich agricultural country. The line was operated by the PRR under leases until June of 1888, when the property was sold under foreclosure and the company reorganized as the Downingtown & Lancaster Railroad Company. The road would later be extended from New Holland to Conestoga Junction, a total of 9.8 miles, opening for traffic in September of 1890 with the PRR operating the entire line as agent. The Downingtown & Lancaster was never intended to operate as a primary route, with a ruling grade of 1.6% westward, but the rural line did service the agricultural region with connections to the main line at both ends. When comparing the proposed route of the Lancaster & Pine Grove on Herman Haupt’s 1855 map the uncanny similarity of the route with parts of the D&L makes one wonder if the alignment is surviving property that was pawn to Thompson’s high stakes poker game to gain control of the P&C.
The Downingtown & Lancaster in the 20th Century: In 1903 the 37.5 mile line, property and franchises were officially purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad and operation remained much the same as it had for some time. New Holland was one of the larger centers for traffic on the branch, originally home to New Holland Machine, Musselman Brother’s Feed and Lumber, EM Rutter & Co. among several others. One particular company stood out later becoming a major shipper on the branch; New Holland Machine. Founded in 1875 by Abraham Zimmerman a black smith and mechanical genius, Zimmerman began offering his services to area farmers in need of repair or fabrication of farming equipment. Zimmerman grew his business carefully watching the rising need for the internal combustion engines in the farming industry. Despite imperfect designs Zimmerman saw potential in these machines and sought to improve them by developing a new freeze proof water-cooled engine. By 1903 Zimmerman had incorporated the New Holland Machine Company hiring 40 employees to mass-produce the engines in a facility located on Franklin Street. Other items in Zimmerman’s product line included feed grinders, rock crushers and wood saws. By 1911 the company had grown to 150 employees and in 1927 the company employed 225. In 1947 the Sperry Corporation purchased New Holland Machine becoming Sperry-New Holland. Since the acquisition the company has changed hands several times and is now a brand of CNH Global which is majority owned by Fiat International. The New Holland, PA location remains the North American headquarters and is one of the largest plants for manufacturing hay tools in the world.
William L. Seigford hired with the PRR in December of 1959 and was later promoted and transferred from the West Coast territory of the PRR to the Harrisburg Division where he was assigned to the Lancaster Territory. Locally based in the Lancaster area, part of his territory included the New Holland Branch. Among other major shippers, Bill worked closely with Sperry – New Holland, who received both inbound steel from various mills and shipped finished product. At one particular time during the final years of the Penn Central era Sperry was experiencing a surge in production and the railroad had difficulty providing the necessary flat cars on a daily basis to move the finished product. Bill recalls, “Sperry’s traffic manager came up with the idea to charter a small plane to fly over the railroad in order to scout empty flat cars sitting in yards or sidings and insisted I go with them. We flew over Enola then on up the Middle Division to Lewistown where they (Sperry) loaded flatcars at the public delivery tracks with product from their Belleville Plant.” Through a stop off arrangement written in the PRR tariffs, these flat cars would be partially loaded in New Holland then shipped to either the Mountville plant or Lewistown to be completed depending on what dealers out west needed in their shipment. During the early Conrail era, Philadelphia’s marketing offices quickly realized they were loosing money on the additional stop off and sought to put an end to the unprofitable arrangement. Shipment of outbound loads tapered off ending in the early 1980's but the plant continued to received inbound steel for a few more years until Sperry had the necessary trucking companies to haul both.
The D&L faced several abandonments with the first major change in the 1950’s when 8 miles were abandoned severing the line’s end points. By the 1960’s the entire east end from Downingtown was gone and Honeybrook (formerly Waynesburg) was the far end of the branch from Lancaster. Conrail continued to cut the line back eventually making East Earl the end of the line. Today trackage ends on the far-east end of New Holland near New Holland Cement. The remainder of the extant line in service connects with the former PRR Main Line in Lancaster at Conestoga interlocking continuing 12.8 miles to the end of track. Though Sperry-New Holland doesn’t ship by rail the branch remains very profitable, being served today Monday through Friday by Norfolk Southern's locals H28 and H29 (afternoon relief crew) and is home to major shippers like Dart Container, L&S Sweeteners, RR Donnelley Printing and several others.
I would like to acknowledge both William L. Seigford and Mark Hoffman for taking the time to show me around the branch and share a wealth of information on the operations and local history of the New Holland branch through its later PRR, PC and Conrail operations.
I am happy to announce that I’ll be presenting a slide show and discussion on my ongoing photographic project, From the Main Line: A Contemporary Survey of the Pennsylvania Railroad for the Harrisburg Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. Inspired by the work of photographer William H. Rau, who was commissioned in the 1890’s to document the PRR and its destinations, the project explores the transitioning landscape along the former PRR Main Line from New York to Pittsburgh, highlighting the unique vernacular of facilities and infrastructure built by the PRR. Using large format film based images this project combines historical research and imagery to present a creative documentation of one of the most celebrated railroads in American history for both exhibition and web format. Attendees will also be treated to some of the recent commission work I have been doing for Conrail Shared Assets and some behind the scenes insight on the production of a long term video and time lapse documentation project.
The NRHS was founded in 1935 by a group of rail historians. It has since grown from 40 founding members to include over 13,000 men and women of all ages and professions in every state and many foreign countries, making it the nation's largest rail preservation and historical society. The Harrisburg Chapter is one of roughly 160 around the country, and widely recognized for its remarkable and innovative preservation efforts including the restoration of Harris Tower and the creation of a interactive installation combining the old interlocking machine with 21st Century technology to recreate the working environment of one of the PRR's busiest towers. For more information about the Harrisburg Chapter of the NRHS, their activities or to plan a trip to the Harris Tower museum visit their website.
The lecture, on March 10th, 2015, is part of the Harrisburg Chapter’s meeting is free and open to the public and will begin at 7PM at the Hoss’s Steak and Seahouse, 743 Wertzville Road, Enola, Pennsylvania
For more information please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Friends, As 2014 winds down and we are amidst the holiday season I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone for all the wonderful words and support. Between formally becoming a small business owner, commercial commissions, lectures, curating an exhibition, writing, research and making photographs for the Main Line Project it has been a truly amazing year. I look forward to taking the final days of 2014 to reflect on the year and spend some much-needed time with the family. Looking forward to 2015 there is a number of events on the horizon,more information will follow after the start of the New Year. I have taken a moment to assemble here some of my favorite holiday posts from years past, enjoy and happy holidays from my family to yours!
Holiday Traditions: Story of the Night before Christmas Paintings by PRR employee William W. Seigford Jr.
This time of year, family and friends come together to celebrate the holidays with traditions developed over generations. As a part of our family tradition I have the pleasure to read to my children on Christmas Eve as my father did before, the fabled poem, The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clark Moore. First published anonymously in December of 1823, it is now the tradition in many American families to read the poem on Christmas Eve.
The story and illustrations presented here were made in 1953 by Pennsylvania Railroad employee, William W. Seigford Jr. who maintained an office at the Harrisburg Passenger Station. They were displayed in the station during the Christmas season alternating with other decorations for several years until Seigford was transferred to Cincinnati in 1956. The paintings were never displayed in Cincinnati but remained in Seigford’s possession until he retired from Penn Central as General Foreman of Passenger Locomotives and Cars in July of 1974. After retirement he returned to the Lancaster area and subsequently donated the paintings to Amtrak’s Lancaster Passenger Station for display during the Christmas season. Surviving the Pennsylvania Railroad and Penn Central, all 12 original paintings hang proudly in the beautiful 1929 waiting room under the watchful eye of Amtrak employees Richard Peiffer and Donna Whitney, who facilitated the making of these reproductions for future preservation.
I would like to acknowledge Mr. William (Bill) L. Seigford for his help on this post as well as his continued support on the Main Line Project, his knowledge and generosity have been a invaluable resource.
The Lionel Corporation: Model Railroad Icon of the Holiday Season
With modest beginnings Joshua Lionel Cowen and Harry C. Grant founded the Lionel Corporation in 1900, building model trains for retail window displays to help draw consumers to their stores. In 1906 the company responded to the increasing demand for the electric trains in the consumer market and developed its trademark three-rail “standard gage” track to simplify wiring and use of accessories. By 1915 Lionel would supplement the large standard gage with the budget minded O scale which would later become the standard size of their product lines. Lionel’s use of sharp advertising was ultimately responsible for tying model trains to Christmas, making them popular presents during the holidays, establishing traditions that survive today. By WWI Lionel was one of three major US manufactures of toy trains, surpassing competitor Ives as the market leader by the 1920’s. Lionel’s growth and aggressive ad campaigns further led to Ives' bankruptcy in 1928.
Like many other companies, the Great Depression would be a severe detriment to Lionel’s business, as a result their 1927 operating profit of over $500,000 plummeted to $82,000 in 1930, and ultimately a loss in 1931 of over $200,000 putting Lionel into receivership by May of 1934. A product credited with saving Lionel during the Depression era was a wind up hand car featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse which Lionel sold well over 250,00 units providing the cash flow to keep the company from closing.
In 1942 Lionel ceased toy production to produce items for the United States Navy during World War II. Regardless of the lack of toy train production, the advertising department pushed heavily to urge American teenagers to start planning their post-war layouts. By late 1945 Lionel resumed production, replacing their original product lines with more realistic trains and accessories exclusively in O Scale. Considered by many aficionados as the golden years, 1946-1956 saw sales soaring with new items including the famous Santa Fe Warbonnet EMD F3 locomotives as well as the Pennsylvania Railroad GGI and experimental S2 steam turbine locomotive. During the 1950s Lionel would tout its short-lived title of largest toy manufacturer, out selling American Flyer almost 2:1. After 1955 sales declined steadily with the rising popularity of the smaller but more realistic HO Scale and to many the end of the true “Lionel era” was in 1959. Over the years Lionel was diversified unsuccessfully and the name survived in different ways including retail toy outlet Lionel Kiddy City. Today the Lionel name remains the most famous name in model trains, though not associated with the original corporation, Lionel LLC owns most of the product rights and trademarks continuing the legacy started by American businessmen Joshua Lionel and Harry Grant well over 100 years ago.
Holiday Travel: A vintage add from the Pennsylvania Railroad