Friday, September 01, 2006

Locals of the Ohio River Valley

With a day off Thursday, I wondered where to go in this great state o' mine. Somewhere new? Somewhere once visited? Nowhere? I looked at the rail map of Ohio in a recent Trains magazine. My wife suggested Steubenville.

It was an intriguing idea. I had been there several times before, most recently in April, which was my first trip devoted only to trains. It was close, scenic, but not a lot of trains. The light would leave the valley early, but since I had to be home by 6 for Lemaz class, it would work out ok. If it didn't rain.

It was solid cloud cover when I woke up Thursday, so I didn't hurry out the door. I made my wife lunch, and saw her out the door before getting ready to go. Ended up leaving at around 7:30, well past sunrise, not that it was visible anyway.

By the time I was east of Cambridge, the sun was breaking through the clouds, but by the time I got to Bridgeville, it had settled behind some thin clouds that cast a soft yellowish light over the region. By the time I got to Steubenville, it had grayed somewhat, but it was still not too terrible.

The scanner was going on and on, with scarcely a pause for breath, and I didn't really understand any of it. Both the NS and WLE appeared to switching the yards in Mingo Junction, but I couldn't tell if any actual trains were out there anywhere. So I headed across the river to take a look at the steel mill in Wierton, Wva.

It is an impressive place, sprawling in every sense of the word, sitting on the edge of town like a benevolent monster, slowly enveloping the area.

And yet it was fragile, too. The backside, away from town, was silent and decaying. Bumpy alleys lead to more abandoned buildings, and weeds and trees covered empty lots. I got out and took a photo of an abandoned tire place with the mill in the background, and then dashed back to my car as a Mittal (the company that owns the mill) security van drove past at the bottom of the hill. With Lemaz class, I really didn't want to spend all day getting my balls busted for taking a picture of an abandoned building.

With nothing much stirring in the train department, I headed south along the West Virginia side of the river. I poked along through Follansbee without any real idea of where I was going or why. Turns out the town is celebrating it's centennial this year. I rolled south, into Wellsburg, where I crossed the tracks to see if I could see into Mingo Jct yard, across the river. The rails were rusty, although there were some hoppers by a cool looking factory in the distance. A weed cutter was at work, thus precluding any trains, I figured. I thought wistfully of locals on rusty branch lines, and turned back north.

Just south of Follansbee I saw that wonderful, magical triangle of lights, and my heart leaped. A train. On the rusty branch line.

I was in a near panic as I looked for a place to turn the car around. Then I realized that the train might not continue south, and if it did, it would be moving pretty damn slowly.

I raced back to a wide spot in the road, and walked across the four lane road to shoot the local coming under the massive Wheeling and Lake Erie bridge. Then I walked back to the car, since the train didn't seem to be coming. No sooner had I gotten back across the road than the headlight appeared, and the train trundled under the bridge.

Across the road again, I climbed up on the guard rail, and did my best to balance on the post holding the thing up. I wobbled a bit, and when I gained my balance, I did the crane pose from Karate Kid, for the entertainment of the crew. I don't know if they got it, but the brakie gave me the metal fingers when he passed.

I headed south again, back into Wellsburg, and drove around a little bit looking for my shot. The giant lawn mower headed south, stopped in the weeds at what I presume would be the end of the line. The train slowly eased it's way through town, and an employee of the factory came out on a little porch to watch the train for a minute.

The train eased to a stop, and the brakeman went to find someone in the factory. When he came back he got up on the front porch for the short ride to the switch, after a brief exchange with the engineer through the cab window. (I should have shot this from the other side, but I didn't want to run in front of the train) The brakie hit the ground in front of him, having to nimbly step over the ground throw, and as we both grimaced from the engineer's horns blasts, he told me he hates those horns, they are so loud. He then threw the switch and hopped aboard the last car before I could reply. My brain was still temporarily addled from the close proximity of the horn blast anyway.

The train backed into the siding, and set about dropping off it's single hopper car. I watched from the crossing, and then the power came back, and the brakie stepped off in front of me again. He asked if got a lot of photos, and I told him I had. Is this the end of the line? I asked, and he replied he didn't know how far the line continued. I asked if they come down here often, and he replied only about twice a week. I said that yea, they had to clear a path for him and pointed to the weed cutter, and he said they didn't do a very good job. I wished him a safe trip back, and he bade me farewell.

I left the two engines to make their way back to Weirton. It appeared they were heading back light, and I wanted to find out what the Wheeling was up to. Back north.

From just north of Wellsburg you can see the back side of the steel mill at Mingo Jct, and some of the yards to the south. A train was switching the wheeling yard, and I wondered if they were going to go somewhere. Pondering this, I headed over to Mingo to sit and wait for something to happen. I wandered around some more, trusting the same instincts that found me the local to find me something else, but then ignoring them and sitting restlessly in a parking spot, listening to both the scanner and the radio. Suddenly I realize that the track closest to me carried the Ohio Central, hit or miss for trains at best, and the NS was behind the mill, and the WLE south of it. So I headed south.

No sooner had I turned the corner past the mill than I saw a the WLE's Akron, Canton and Youngstown painted GP35 on a bridge over the tracks, coupled with a shiny WLE-painted partner. The bridge was part of the enormous former Pittsburgh and West Virginia bridge over the Ohio that I had photographed before. I turned around and headed back across the river.

The train had pulled out on the bridge when I arrived, and after a quick shot through the trees, I thought perhaps it would head toward Pittsburgh. I went to find a spot, did, and headed back to make sure it would indeed go to Pittsburgh. I felt my afternoon slipping away.

The train backed across the bridge and disappeared. So back across the river I went. Again.

This time I followed the river north, hoping to intercept a train to chase south, and then leave for home. The yard chatter on the scanner disappeared, replaced by the sounds of someone switching somewhere else. As I neared the power plant at Stratton, the voices got louder and clearer, and then I spotted another former Conrail engine across the parking lot power plant.

Huzzah! I turned around, and drove over to the tracks. There was an engine on the other end, too, and I lingered long enough to make sure the train was heading north, and then split. My last visit to the area around the plant had me being unceremoniously booted, as I wasn't allowed to take pictures of a nearby GE 25 tonner.

I headed to Wellsville (not Wellsburg, which is in Wva) and found the little park I had shot from before. It was cloudy again, like last time. I read my book until the train showed up a half hour later. I shot it passing the little memorial, and headed north again.

At East Liverpool, I tried to remember my way through town. The funny little down town was crowded, and then I crested the hill and went down to the tracks. The train was already there, switching out an asphalt tank car. I set about photographing them switch a few other industries there.

When the ageing geep eased past on the weedy siding, I noticed it's cab side was betrying it's southern roots, with the gold band and unique sublettering system (in this case an X) of the Southern Railway begining to show through it's Norfolk Southern black. The SOU under the number was a sad tribute to one of NS' predecessors, the peeling gold band just made it worse.

I bounced back and forth between a few crossings as the locomotives on each end of the train set about spotting cars at an industry. At one I met a trucker from Ontario who was a few yards shy of his destination when the train blocked the crossing. When I told him what I was doing, he asked if I had ever been to Berea. He was impressed with the number of railfans in the parking lot there, hundreds, he said, waiting for a special train. I wished him luck in his travels, and moved down a crossing, where the rear engine, a former Conrail engine with red eyes was moving down the weedy siding.

While the engine was out of site, the conductor/brakie ignored me and a fellow from the business who's driveway I was using came over to see what I was up to. It took a few tries to convince him I wasn't from the paper, and told him I just traveled around taking pictures of trains. He told me it seemed like a good hobby, better than mine, he said. I asked what his hobby was, wondering if I really wanted to know. He was into RC cars, and we talked about how expensive they are for a really good one. When the engine coupled back on the train, I said goodbye and told him I was going to head north with the train. He wished me luck.

And off I went. The train was ahead of me by the next crossing, only a few hundred feet down the line. They stopped again, switching a grain elevator. I got a shot, but not a very good one, and headed north, now east, following the curve of the river toward PA to find one last shot.

In what the Delorme calls East End I found the almost last shot of my previous trip, and moved down a bit to include the former PRR position light signals.

The local would be on the far track, and the near one had a clear signal, so I kept looking down the tracks behind me, hoping against hope another headlight would appear. It didn't, but the local charging through the gloom past the signals was a fine sight. The weather had certainly deteriorated since the morning.

With the local roaring back toward Pittsburgh, I headed home. I was later than I wanted to be, and the specter of a late arrival to Lemaz class was haunting. Near Wellsville I saw a coil train in the distance, which almost tempted me, but I resisted and pressed on.

Just past Brilliant everything went topsy turvey when I came up against stopped traffic. After sitting a while, I saw a fire truck zip up the nearby on ramp, and I knew I was in trouble. A pickup came the other way, and the guy had his arm out, pointing to the on-ramp. I took the hint, as did others, and went down the on ramp. I felt clever until I came to the next off ramp down the road, and found there was no on ramp. I had a past a lot of smoke, and a large crowd of people standing around, but I couldn't see what was afoot. A line of cars disappeared into the woods, and I followed them until there was a place to pull off to check a map.

The map was not reassuring. The narrow red line I was on went way north, and connected to another to go way south again and get on the highway. But at least I was moving, so I pressed on. A few miles later I came across a tanker truck trying to back into a driveway, and I hopped out to guide him. When I stopped him from backing into a ditch, he jumped out and asked me where the road went. I told him it looked like the road came to another one about the same size, and you had to make a sharp turn to head back to the highway. I asked if he wanted to see it, and he said no, that he would follow me. I turned around, and there was a line of cars behind me. I women rolled down her window and as she was about to say something I said I hoped that someone knew where we were going. She laughed and said 'we are following you.'

So off we went. The road got even worse, to dirt, and then we came upon a traffic jam, with a pair of big rigs clogging up the intersection. A bunch of cars found a way around, and we all traipsed back into the woods. I wondered about my tanker friend, but figured he would be able to find his way out. Finally I got back to Ohio 7, and no cars were coming my way. So I guess we beat the reopening of the highway, even if it did mean a 20 mile detour. The rest of the trip home was uneventful, apart from a little rain, and I still made it home in plenty of time to get to Lemaz class.

The trains today were the C17 to Wellsburg, and the C10 on the main line.

Here is a photo that didn't really fit into the narrative. A lonely Conrail 2-bay hopper siding in a siding. The local didn't pick it up, and it looked kind of forlorn alone in the siding, next to a door that would be of no use to unload the car.

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