Friday, May 26, 2006

Take Me to the River

April 1, 2006
I had seen a photo of hot steel cauldron cars in a scrap yard, so on Sunday I headed east to the Ohio River to see if I could photograph them before they disappeared. The thing about railfans, or train buffs, is that each has a niche of sorts, finding a certain something in the steel wheel that fascinates us. All of us like trains, my niche, among others, is freight cars. Very dorky in an already dorky crowd, but such is life. So to photograph cars that are normally well hidden in a dangerous steel mill is a good thing. Also, it would be a chance to wander the industrial crust of the Ohio River. You know what hangs out with industry. (trains)

I guess I read too much as a kid, but I have always been fascinated by big rivers. I don't need to stand on their banks, or dip my toes. I just feel a comfort of sorts when I see them, a glimpse through the trees, soaring over them on a bridge. Like seeing a vein through the thin skin of one's wrist. It is nice to know they are there, those integral parts of the entirety. History, industry, commerce flowing like mana just above the current of the waters. My wanderlust is allowed a moment to wander further, riding those currents where they will lead, just for a moment feeling like Huck. They represent all the places I could be.

So I headed over the hills, coming down into the Ohio River valley near Wheeling and heading north along the divided, but still winding, river road. The river, the road, the railroad tracks all on one ledge, it is always near sensory overload when I travel this road.

Near Stuebenville the steel mills appear, first at Mingo Junction, then Stuebenville itself. Enormous, filthy monuments to capitalism and expansion, rusting and fading around the edges, I love to look at them. Which leaves me a little conflicted. I hate to see people cut down trees, yet I love to gaze upon the massive, wretched polluting mills, soiling the air, by extention leaving gaping holes across the country to satisfy their need for raw materials. I guess if you are going to pollute and destroy, I am only satisfied when it is done on the grandest levels.

I slowed as I passed the mills, and then crossed the river on a suspension bridge, a cement suspension bridge. Within sight of the steel mills.

In Weirton, I immediately saw my quarry- in a scrap yard on the other side of a divided highway. So the only way to get their photo would be to pull over on the side of the highway and photograph them hit and run style. I am not so keen on attracting attention to myself at the best of times, so standing on the side of a divided highway was not something I was looking forward too. I imagined WVa state troopers giving me an earfull and carting me off to trooperville for endangering the driving public. So I drove around the area, through the mill and around town. A run down place, but at least the mill was still operating. I was going to stop and take some photos, but instead I headed back to the highway to see my cauldron cars. Up the on ramp, as I readied to pull over in a safe spot, I noticed Norfolk Southern had parked a train in front of the line of cars, leaving only a few visible, and those only from the on ramp. So I kept driving, and after turning south, I looked across the river and Stubenville and saw a northbound train racing along the river.

!!! I had wanted to chase a train along the river for ages, but I had not yet done it. So I took the next bridge to Stubyville and headed north. I zipped right along, because my impression of the train was that it was moving rather quickly. So I hustled along, peering into the towns and through the trees for some sight of the train. At Wellsville, I figured I was ahead of the train, or I had missed it, so I drove into town looking for the tracks. I couldn't find a way to them, so I gave up, rather quickly I admit, but as I was heading back on the highway I saw the familiar triangle of lights, and an orange locomotive through the trees a few miles downriver. Of course by then I was on the divided highway.

I tore down the road, and found a spot to do a U-turn. Not in the highway, I pulled of side road to do my u-turn, safety first, after all. There was a big railroad bridge over a creek by the highway. I could see the train through the trees, so I raced up the hill, parked the car and scrambled up a bank at the side of the road. I put my head down and charged through some bushes, I was rewarded with a thorny branch stuck to my cheek. I ripped it out and scrambled up the hill. I found a spot overlooking the tracks, the bridge, and the river, but I was fenced in my bushes. To the left was the knife-edge of the hill, a thin line of crumbling rock. I thought for a millisecond about climbing higher. The edge was at eye level, and I couldn't see what was on the other side. Had it not held, it could have been a long fall, a fall that ended on some railroad tracks on which shortly was to appear a train. Later, I thought about falling, and crumpling on the tracks and how my wife would get me back in two boxes.

So I stayed put and grabbed some branches to pull them out of the way. I did a hail-Mary, holding the camera in the gap I made in the branches, and fired off some shots as the train rolled through a gap in the trackside trees. As I scrambled back down the hill, I was surprised how well they turned out. There is a whole different aesthetic to railroad photography, so most wouldn't find this photo all that interesting. I don't either, for that matter, I wish the light was better, I wish some of the trees were there, I am not that pleased with the pole. But it was worth the climb, the late night thoughts about dying and risk, and the thorn in the face.

Back in the car, I headed north. At Wellsville (I think, I need to check the map) I pulled into town, hoping for something with town, river and train. I could see the river, and no tracks between me and it, so the tracks had to be along the river bank. I drove through down, and found a tiny memorial park, with the tracks along one edge. I worked the well-dressed flagpole and a bench into my shot. Again, I wish the light were nicer, but I feel like I am just getting warmed up on this line. I will be back. First you start easy, and as you get to know any location you get more in depth as you learn more about it, and have more opportunities to photograph it. It is much like my newspaper work, although I don't often get a second chance there. With this line, I can return as often as I am able. Looking at this photo, I can see more opportunities at this spot. I am excited to return.

The train was moving fairly well through town, and I thought briefly about giving up the chase. But instead I headed north, and at New Liverpool I saw the train had come to a stand. I wondered if it would meet another train, one I could chase south in the emerging sun. Instead I fumbled around in New Liverpool, and then found my way back on a smaller road. I rumbled through a fading industrial section of town, and emerged, in watery sunlight, in a residential neighborhood. The tracks curved through the area, with a backdrop of houses. It would do nicely, if I could frame it so the houses could be seen. The train blew for the crossing I was at, and as I balanced myself on some rail guarding the crossing flasher, I heard children yelling, and heard the train give two quick blasts to say hello. Through the trees I could see them wave.

The train notched it out as it rolled past, and since the road had turned into a two lane local road, I suspected my chase was over. Back to Weirton, to photograph the pot cars.

I rolled south down the river, peering again through the trees in hopes of catching a glimpse of another train. No dice, so I crossed the river and meandered back through Weirton, then back onto the highway to photograph the cauldron cars.

They were rusty and sad, and filled with water. So they had been there a while; even so I was glad to be able to get a photo of several. As I pulled back on the highway, I remember a nearby scrap yard that had even more old cars. So another loop, passing back south, and doing an interstate shuffle- up and exit, off, and back on, up and exit, etc. I ended up parked on the side of the highway again, and as I peered across the scrap yard of cars retired perhaps before I was born, I spotted a train creeping through the yard. The sun was out, pouring watery sunset light over the scene, and I opened the door to get out. An ambulance passed, and I wondered if they would call me in. I jumped out when the coast was clear, and got a few photographs of the train moving slowly down the once proud Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, which was truncated not far from where I was, past the Weirton Steel mill. Once it stretched from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.

Back south again after my roadside adventure, clear of any state troopers. I had no interest in begin detained, in this current atmosphere I was unsure about how people would react to me photographing a train full of tank cars. One can't be too paranoid, after all. I am less concerned about a ticket for parking on the side of the road then the well-meaning citizenry and their terrorist hunting permits, #91101.

At Mingo I pulled into the same school I had photographed the mill from before, for a daytime version I my shot from a few months ago. Further down the road, I photographed down a main street into town. More opportunities here, as well. My e-friend Kevin Scanlon has some wonderfull steel mill shots here.His railroading photos are pretty magical too.

South again, the light fading, and thinking that I am still on winter time. Instead, having not set my car clock properly, I was an hour later than I thought. So much for suprising my wife with an early arrival home.

Looking across a field from the highway at Rayland, I looked for a locomotive I had seen on the way north. It wasn't there. My heart skipped a tiny beat- this could mean it was in public, and could be photographed. As I left the exit ramp, I saw it coupled with a friend, about to move a string of a silver coal hoppers. Another more or less legal but safe U-turn, and I noticed the train backing away from me. I raced down the road, parked, and the first cars passed me at a surprising clip. The two locomotives approached, at full throttle, absolutely thundering, sand pouring from their sanders (to better grip the rails) and leaving a cloud. I could feel the roar of the engines in my chest, and the sand swirled around me as I squeezed off the last few files on my card.

The photo doesn't do justice to the tiny drama. But it was a hell of a nice way to end the day.

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