Construction waits as a late running inbound crude train crosses the Delair Bridge into Southern New Jersey during the April Outage. This week marks the sixth and final shoot for Conrail documenting the Delair Improvements program.
I hope you all had an enjoyable summer! I know, I promised an in-depth series of posts on the evolution of the Lancaster area on the Pennsylvania Railroad and so far I have published one part. There is more to come I assure you! Recently with gracious assistance from friend William L. Seigford and accompanied by the knowledgeable Mark Hoffman I made a trip to sew up some loose ends on the Lancaster Terminal and the New Holland Branch. Much of this film has been processed but still needs scanning and editing to add to the series, rounding out the contemporary part of my survey. Adding to the backlog, this week marks the last of six shoots for Conrail documenting improvements to the former PRR Delair Bridge, a vital connection between the South Jersey cluster of Conrail Shared Assets and Norfolk Southern and CSX’s transportation networks. Once complete I’ll be shifting gears to finalize and begin promoting the upcoming exhibition I am curating at the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, NJ. I look forward to sharing this exciting Fall season for the blog and Mainline Project and as always thank you for your patience and support!
The city of Lancaster has a rich and diverse history that began in the late 1600’s as a part of the Penn’s Woods Charter, a 45,000 square mile land grant to establish an English Quaker Colony in the New World. The area of Lancaster would develop and flourish around rich agricultural land and the development of iron forges throughout the 1700’s. As iron production increased the need to develop road networks became necessary to bring in raw materials and transport finished product to market, the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike was one of the first, opening in 1795. Lancaster held the honor of being the state capitol from 1799-1812 and was incorporated as a city in 1818 developing at the crossroads of trade routes connecting Philadelphia with manufacturing centers like Columbia, York, Lebanon and Portsmouth (Middletown).
Early in the first quarter of the 19th Century construction of the Erie Canal put the state of New York at a great advantage over Philadelphia and the Comonwealth in trade and commerce. In an effort to compete, Pennsylvania would embark on a similar project known as the Mainline of Public Works, an ambitious network that utilized a multimodal system of railroads and canals. While the Erie Canal was in use by 1821, Pennsylvania did not break ground until 1828 and the network was not complete until 1834. What would determine success of these networks was ultimately the topography. The Commonwealth was far more challenging than the water level route of the Erie putting the Mainline of Public Works at a major disadvantage. The Mainline of Public Works network required multiple transfers to move cargo from train to boat in Columbia, back to train in Hollidaysburg, onto inclined planes to surmount the Alleghenies, and back to boat in Johnstown. Though the trip was a vast improvement over wagon travel, it was still hampered by logistics and weather. Though woefully under-engineered the only potential success of this network was found on the east end, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad which ran the 82 miles between its namesake towns with Lancaster along the way.
Detail of an 1855 map illustrating the Pennsylvania Railroad system and its connections. This map shows the proposed Lebanon, Lancaster & Pinegrove Railroad which was to bypass the Philadelphia & Columbia to gain access to Philadelphia prior to the Commonwealth and the PRR coming to an agreement on the sale price of the failing Mainline of Public Works in 1857. Map collection of the Library of Congress.
The potential success of this new railroad spurred private ventures to construct connecting lines like the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster Railroad (H&L for short) which completed its route in 1838 bypassing the train-boat transfer in Columbia and thus connecting local industry to an all rail route to Philadelphia. Recognizing the overall failure of the Mainline of Public Works the Commonwealth deemed that a private venture should be chartered to construct an all rail route from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh in order to preserve and improve trade and commerce, therefore in 1846 the Pennsylvania Railroad was born. Once the PRR route was complete to Pittsburgh, lines east of Harrisburg including the H&L and P&C became the object of desire for the young railroad striving to complete an exclusive rail network between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. An operating arrangement was established with the H&L in 1848 leaving one last lynch pin, the now cash starved P&C. The Commonwealth offered the entire Mainline of Public Works system for sale in 1854 but it wasn’t until 1857 that the PRR would agree to purchase the system for $7.5 million, almost a third of the original asking price. This purchase secured the final segment of a wholly owned rail route between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while also providing the surplus canal right of way that would be crucial to expanding and improving the mainline west of Harrisburg. With the potential for increased traffic the railroad began improvements to its mainline system, an endeavor that would continue on and off well into the 20th Century. Antiquated facilities in Lancaster were a continuing concern; construction commenced on a new station in 1860, several bridges were improved, the physical plant expanded and finally a by-pass route was built around the congested city center in 1883. By 1904 the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad from Philadelphia to the Conestoga River was four tracks wide. In Lancaster the complex terminal reduced down from four tracks to two on the east end, splitting twice, once between the old main and the 1883 Lancaster cut-off and again at Dillerville where the old main (former H&L) connected back to the cut-off and the former P&C diverged to Columbia. Though plagued by the two track bottleneck over the Conestoga for some time, completion of the Atglen & Susquehanna branch in 1906 diverted a considerable amount of freight traffic away from Lancaster to the east and the two track Conestoga Bridge would remain as is, adequate to handle the remaining traffic on the mainline.
One of many early improvements in the Lancaster terminal area was the stone bridge over the Conestoga River where the mainline from the east entered Lancaster. Designed by Chief Engineer William H. Brown and completed in 1887 the two track Conestoga Bridge is unique in its design as the south side was left with protruding stonework to allow for further expansion had the railroad required additional capacity. Though this bridge was an operational bottleneck when the mainline east was four-tracked subsequent construction of the Atglen and Susquehanna branch alleviated much of the through freight congestion in the Lancaster area. Image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Terminal improvements continued in the 1920’s including the abandonment of the old main and 1860 station in favor of a new passenger station on the cut-off providing expanded train service, the result of political pressure and some gentle encouragement from Armstrong Cork a major PRR customer in Lancaster. Around the same time electrification was sweeping the eastern mainline, preparations were being made to modernize area interlocking plants which were centralized to a single tower appropriately named Lancaster (renamed CORK a few years after its construction for the neighboring plant of Armstrong Cork). In 1938 electrification of the Paoli – Harrisburg mainline, Low Grade and Columbia branch were complete; Electric locomotives were now hauling the bulk of freight and passenger trains west to Harrisburg, leaving steam and later diesel propulsion to switch sprawling industries scattered about on the remaining sections of the old main, Dillerville area, Quarryville and New Holland branches.
Part of the last wave of Pennsylvania Railroad improvements in the Lancaster area was the 1927 abandonment of the old mainline and station through town and the opening of the new passenger station on what was formerly the Lancaster Cut-Off, now essentially the new mainline. Further improvements came in 1938 with the completion of the final phase of electrification including the mainline from Paoli to Harrisburg, the Low Grade and Columbia branch. Illustrated here in a view looking east is the new station facility and Cork interlocking tower which consolidated control of several interlockings in the Lancaster area. Image collection of the author.
Lancaster and the railroad thrived during the surge of World War II traffic but as peacetime settled in, the PRR began to show its age, left with mounting debts and a worn out physical plant. With a decrease in traffic and increasing competition from trucking the rationing of their physical plant began in the early 1960’s removing two of the main tracks east of the Conestoga Bridge to Parkesburg. Traffic continued to diminish and the ill-fated merger of the NYC and PRR drained cash away from much needed infrastructure improvements. In 1971 Amtrak was created to preserve national passenger train service, on the Harrisburg Line the new company slowly began carving away at money loosing local, regional and long distance services the PRR once provided. In 1976 Conrail assumed control of freight operations in the Lancaster/Dillerville area which continues to generating traffic from a number of large industrial plants and new distribution warehouses. In the late 1990’s the future of Lancaster’s railroads faced more changes. Conrail was split up by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corporation, the later which assumed control of Lancaster freight operations. Amtrak’s Keystone Line was designated a high-speed corridor and work slowly began to rebuild the Harrisburg – Philadelphia mainline for hourly electrified service once again. In 2008 Franklin & Marshall College and Lancaster General Hospital struck an agreement with NS to develop the land along the former old main that was retained for yard and bulk transfer facilites for the railroad. NS commenced a long-term project to move, reconfigure and expand Dillerville Yard all of which was completed at the close of 2013. Today contractors are removing the remaining traces of the old main changing the local landscape forever. Amtrak’s rebuilding of the former PRR mainline is largely complete including the tumultuous rehab of Lancaster’s 1929 depot, the streamlining of the physical plant and the closing of Cork tower, one of a few left on the former PRR system. Though the PRR has been absent from the Lancaster area for over 45 years its legacy remains a vital infrastructure to the local economy. Over the next few months we will spend some time exploring the various lines and history of the Lancaster area including current and historic facilities.
Though I have spent some seven years documenting the former Pennsylvania Railroad I can count on one hand how many times I have actually rode the original mainline between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. This past weekend I graduated to three fingers making the round trip to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia. This one however was no ordinary trip; in fact it was quite special, for it was made on two privately owned historic rail cars; Bennett and Eric Levin’s lovingly restored Warrior Ridge and the Pennsylvania 120 a former PRR business car. As an invited guest myself and several others were lucky enough to see the landscape that that PRR has traveled since its completion in 1852, traveling through places I was all to familiar with but not always from the perspective of the passenger.
“Storm lifting in the Packsaddle”, William H. Rau photograph. The Packsaddle is one of several locations that were used during various illustration and photographic campaigns on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 19th Century. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
It got me thinking as several of us discussed various facets of the PRR including illustrative and photographic campaigns undertaken over the years by the company. These campaigns were geared around flaunting the scenic vistas along this prolific engineered corridor; some are revisited several times, in particular during the second half of the 19th Century. Riding in a car that served PRR President Walter Franklin among other officials, I could imagine the conversations and acknowledgment of these beautiful locations that seemed to captivate railroad men whether it was because they conquered a particularly difficult pass there or because the beauty was just that breathtaking.
For over 160 years the PRR has traversed this natural landscape following the majestic Susquehanna, Juniata, Conemaugh and Allegheny Rivers among others. Throughout that time countless passengers gazed out the window at areas commanding names like Warrior Ridge, The Packsaddle, Mineral Point and Jacks Narrows. Let us not forget how many experience the westbound ascent of Horseshoe curve out of Altoona, entering the famous engineering landmark high above Burgoon Run one quickly gets a sense of the curve’s purpose, watching an eastbound descend the mountain across the valley at a noticeably higher elevation. Places like this were engineered by brilliant and driven men on the backs of cheap labor wielding pick axes and shovels, they are a testament of what was possible in the by gone era of industrialization. But yet they still survive, moving countless trains on a given day, a refined version of J. Edgar Thomson’s engineering genius. Besides the trains themselves little has changed from when Frederick Gutekunst or William Rau left footprints in the cinders making the large format images that preserved this rugged beauty. I have always been fascinated by the undefined spaces the railroad travels, the areas in-between the towns, cities and villages that create a sort of rhythm that illustrates the growth and progress the railroads fostered along the line, watching the ever changing landscape from the window of train who’s predecessors we owe our Nation’s existence to.
“The Horse Shoe Curve, Pennsylvania Railroad” Illustration of the engineering landmark envisioned by J. Edgar Thomson from an 1895 travel book which illustrates the scenic highlights of the Pennsylvania Railroad mainline. Collection of the author.
Yes this weekend was a welcome distraction, a reminder of why I embarked on this project, to document and share a railroad so historic and massive that its reputation and design lasted longer the company itself. To spend time on the railroad with like minded folks on a pair of beautifully restored private cars was exactly what I needed to put into perspective the past, present and future of railroading on the Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travels. In regard to preservation, I take off my hat to people like the Levin’s who share the legacy of railroad travel in style and take every opportunity to see to it their guests are comfortable and having a good time. And to my fellow travel mates, I made some new friends and shared some great stories about the very railroad that bought us all together. Though the Pennsylvania Railroad has been gone for quite some time it is experiences like this that reinforce that the spirit and pride of the former Standard Railroad of the World is still very much alive through so many people and their work to preserve our railroad heritage. This is a trip that will stick with me for quite a long time!
Often times as an artist inspiration comes from many sources, mine takes root from a fascination of railroads, geography, architecture and history. With consideration of the Mainline Project there came another major source of inspiration: the photographic work of William H. Rau.
No. 6 Bridge from Deep Cut, Pittsburgh Division. Image from Rau’s 1891 commission showing the fresh re-construction of the mainline through the Conemaugh River Valley that was decimated by tragic floods just three years before. William H. Rau photograph, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
Born in 1855, Rau was a Philadelphia based commercial photographer whose relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad spanned his career in the business. Though he had numerous assignments with the railroad over the years, it would be two commissions that brought Rau to our attention in the 20th Century. The first assignment was from June to September 1891, the second, April to July of 1893. The commission employed the relatively new concept of advertising photography to entice the leisure traveler to explore the American landscape by way of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Illustrating the terrain and destinations along the system, Rau worked with a mammoth plate view camera in the field, traveling in a customized passenger coach complete with living quarters and darkroom.
(L) William H. Rau portrait circa 1908. (R) Rau and his assistants setting up his camera along the Conemaugh River at the Packsaddle near present day Torrance, Pennsylvania, circa 1891. Both images collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
In 2002 the Library Company of Philadelphia mounted an exhibition of original prints by Rau from the 1890’s commissions in conjunction with the release of a companion book titled “Travelling the Pennsylvania Railroad” published by University of Penn Press. The exhibition hit home with me for many reasons, providing not only a view of the Pennsylvania Railroad over 100 years ago but by also appealing to my photographic sensibility. Like Rau I was using the view camera to craft thoughtful, creative and technically resolved images that can function on both a documentary and artistic level. Rau’s mammoth plate images provided insight for an approach to photographing not just the trains but also the infrastructure of a railroad and the landscape it traversed. This exhibition and subsequent book was the seed that would germinate into the Mainline Project some five years later.
View southeast from the Rankin Bridge of the Mon Line and Union Railroad interchange, Kennywood, Pennsylvania. One of many images made during the initial development of the Mainline Project draws from Rau’s use of the landscape for context and the often wide and elevated views common in his imagery.
In 2006, having been out college more than five years, I was making work and exhibiting as much as possible. I had finished a two-year Career Development Fellowship with the Philadelphia based Center for Emerging Visual Artists and was teaching at Drexel University. My projects focused on the Delaware River Watershed and later documenting historic but obsolete structures in and around the Philadelphia area. Though I was having a fair amount of success with the work, I couldn’t help but think more about Rau’s PRR commissions. Using his work as a starting point could provide insight on how to revisit the very subject that led me to pick up a camera in the first place – the railroad. In the spring of 2007 I applied for and received an Alumni Travel Grant with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists to photograph the surviving railroad and landscape along the former PRR between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the segment I was most familiar with. With the Rau book always by my side I made several trips building the conceptual framework of the project. Drawing from approaches utilized in past work, I photographed everything along the route, compiling an assortment of over a hundred images that ran the gamut, some good, some bad; others that became the cornerstones of how the project would evolve.
Between trips I contacted the Library Company to inquire about viewing the Rau Collection for further inspiration. Knowing that the book reproduced 50 plates from a larger collection of 463 individual images I could tell just by the published inventory list that I needed to see more. With the help of the Library Company’s prints and photographs curator Sarah Weatherwax, I began reviewing small reference prints and later original 18×22” contact prints. There was something magical about looking at this work in person, to be able to hold and interact with it minus the glass and polish of an exhibition. Seeing the sheen of vintage albumen prints and the endless amounts of detail from an image made from a negative of the same size was a true sensory experience. It was a first hand view of a historical photographic process, a cohesive collection of how one photographer viewed the world and the landscape that was in front of his lens.
Though this project was never meant to be a re-photographic survey sometimes the opportunity presents itself to study the 120+ years of change on the Pennsylvania Railroad like here at Jacks Narrows on the Middle Division. Left image by the author, right image by William H. Rau, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
Though Rau’s work was playing a big part in molding my project I did not want this to become a re-photographic survey, getting mired down in finding the exact locations and times Rau made pictures. Instead my relationship with Rau was an open dialogue, one that takes influence from the imagery while considering the modern landscape and rail corridor. Recognizing that Rau was commissioned to make this work, for me it was much bigger than just an assignment. I was working to discover the history tied to a railroad corridor that has largely shaped the landscape throughout the Northeast and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – about using Rau’s work to inspire and inform me of a past time in the landscape and on the railroad. The act of gleaning information from Rau’s images added yet another layer of depth in my relationship to his work.
Different views made by Rau throughout his commissions with the PRR show the great systemwide improvements that were taking place while also acknowledging previous modes of transportation that gave way to the railroads. (L) Trimmers Rock (looking east) showing both the Juniata River and relics of Mainline of Public Works canal. (R) McKeesport and Bessemer Railroad Bridge reveals fresh masonry work and construction debris of this new bridge constructed to connect with mills in McKeesport from the West Mifflin / Duquesne area. William H. Rau photographs, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
Around this time I began working with Amtrak’s engineering department and historic architect John Bowie Associates who were in the midst of documenting various historical facilities along the Northeast Corridor. It was the relationships that developed during this phase (which continue today) that helped me better understand more of the physical and economic history of the PRR and appreciate just how pivotal this era was to the company. Rau’s images reveal an evolution: a railroad building a physical plant that would be worthy of the claim of being the Standard Railroad of the World. In the 1890’s massive system wide improvements were well underway that would include construction of the countless stone bridges that remain today among other large scale engineering projects. At the same time the photos give a nod to antiquity, the relics of street running and canals that were giving way to a grade separated four track mainline that stretched from New York City to Pittsburgh.
Rau’s imagery provided a comprehensive study of a railroad about to hit its prime and a landscape that would see continual transformation because of its presence. The ability to gain such a clear perspective of the PRR in one cohesive body of work afforded the visual “before” to my after. Understanding the history of this great railroad in conjunction with the aesthetical response to Rau’s photos provide a sort of spiritual guidance in making images for the Mainline Project. Inspired in different ways by his work I consider channeling my inner Rau every time I pick up a camera and look to a subject like the former Pennsylvania Railroad.
On a damp morning smoke and steam rise from the Edgar Thompson Works in this view from Woodlawn Street in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Much of the commercial and residential infrastructure of this section is in disrepair leaving the remaining residents among relics of a once thriving community that looked to mill for life.
Since the first heat of molten steel was tapped in 1875 The Edgar Thomson Works has produced steel continuously along the banks of the Monongahela River in North Braddock, Pennsylvania. Constructed by Andrew Carnegie the plant was named in honor of his friend and president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, J. Edgar Thomson. Carnegie’s mill would be the prototype for many modern facilities to come, making use of the Bessemer process, an innovative way to economically mass produce steel by forcing air through molten iron to remove impurities by oxidation. The mill occupies the site of the historic battle where French and Indian Troops defeated the expedition of General Edward Braddock on July 9, 1755. Flanked by Turtle Creek and the Monongahela River the locale offers waterfront access to receive raw materials and ship finished product on the Ohio and Mississippi River networks.
In 1892 the Edgar Thomson Works would be part of one most violent labor strikes in American history, the Homestead strike. In an attempt to disband the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in Carnegie’s Homestead Works, Henry Clay Frick and Carnegie locked out workers when negotiations for the union organization went sour. Employees at the Homestead works picketed for roughly five days, with plant workers at both the Thomson and Duquesne Works joining in sympathy. Picketing turned violent when plant owners brought in the Pinkerton Guards instigating a full-scale riot that resulted in ten deaths and thousands of injuries. State Governor Robert Pattison sent two brigades of the State Militia to disperse the chaos and resume operations with temporary strike breakers. Mill owners continued fighting the efforts to unionize steel labor for years, causing other violent outbreaks until 1942 when the AA finally merged with others to create the United Steel Workers Union, gaining momentum to unionize major steel mills all together.
East end view of the Edgar Thompson Works reveals one of the remaining blast furnaces which produce the raw steel to feed the Mon Valley Works which includes finish mills in Irvin and Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. The complex rail infrastucture required to feed the mils is illustrated here: In the foreground there are staging yards for gondolas of scrap steel, the ram bridge that connects the ET Works to the Union Railroad mainline, the Union RR right of way left center (note signal gantry) all of which are on the bank of the Turtle Creek.
In 1901 Carnegie Steel was merged with the Federal and National Steel Companies under the direction of J.P. Morgan among other partners creating US Steel. Once the largest steel producer in the world, US Steel still produces roughly 25 percent of America’s domestic steel at several major facilities in the United States. Operations at the Edgar Thomson Plant continue and now employ a basic oxygen furnace and continuous caster in addition to the remaining blast furnaces. Operated under the auspices of the Mon Valley Works this operation is the last integrated steel mill in the Pittsburgh area with coke produced at the Clairton Works to the south, raw steel produced at the ET plant and finishing into coil and galvanized products takes place at the Irvin Works.
Though the Edgar Thompson plant was served by numerous railroads most of it was done through interchange with the Union Railroad a wholly owned subsidiary of US Steel that was established in 1894 prior to Carnegie’s sale of the ET works. The Union Railroad grew into an expansive system connecting Carnegie’s Bessemer & Lake Erie with the industrial Mon Valley moving raw materials from Lake Erie and finished product to market. The Pennsylvania’s primary source of interchange was at Kenny Yard on the Monongahela Branch across from the works in Kennywood, Pennsylvania. Other companies interchanged with the Union Railroad including the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, Baltimore and Ohio and the Western Maryland most via the P&LE gateway at Connellsville.
Every time I step foot out in the field to photograph I am fully prepared to handle a barrage of questions pertaining to my camera of choice, mainly because in this day and age its… well almost completely obsolete. I have for over 15 years had a love/ hate relationship with the view camera. A cumbersome, slow, maybe even archaic box like design. The basic principal and design of a view camera derives from the camera obscura a device used by artists and scientists alike through out early history, and ultimately the basis of early camera designs.
An example of a large format negative from a 5×7 view camera. When properly exposed and developed the negative produce a wide dynamic range in a single negative which can be either scanned or printed traditionally in the darkroom. (Below Left) View Camera film is cut into sheets and loaded into holders like this allowing for two exposures, one on each side. (Bottom Right) My camera of choice is a 5×7 wood field camera, a compact and precise design that affords the benefits of large format without the bulk of a rail design camera. Cassandra, Pennsylvania
Why use film and a View Camera? In the days of digital capture and Photoshop this is a very valid question. My mind is a process oriented one, I am fascinated by things that require a balance between artistry and technical proficiency, activities like cooking, beer making, and of course photography. Akin to a craft like woodworking, photographers have various tools available and over time you develop a preference to which tool you work with. The view camera for me is a technical tool that provides an interactive experience where you are fully and physically involved in the picture making process.
I exaggerated in describing the view camera as a primitive box, perhaps some people use it that way, but in reality the view camera is a complex device that allows an incredible amount of control in the picture making process. Constructed with two standards – front and rear they are connected by a light tight bellows creating a highly flexible camera body that is capable of use in most genres of photography. These standards operate independent of one another; the front providing the mount for lenses that are on rigid boards allowing for quick changing, the rear has a frosted ground glass the image is projected on which allows the photographer to compose and focus the camera. One of the most common comments I get when one looks through the camera is that image on the ground glass is “upside and backwards” this is because of the lack of reflex mirrors we are accustomed to in SLR type camera designs, its something you get used to, I don’t even notice it anymore until someone else points it out.
The standards move on multiple axes including rise, fall, shift, tilt and swing which allow the user to manipulate shape and focus of the object you are photographing and areessential to perspective control, one of the primary reasons I prefer this camera. Through use of the various movements the vertical and horizontal axis of the lens and film can be brought parallel to the subject eliminating convergence, keeping the subject straight in the resultant photo. In addition to this, one can also manipulate the plane of critical focus attaining sharpness and depth of field a standard fixed lens camera would have difficulty doing in certain situations.
Another benefit is the resultant negative. Though several view cameras are still produced to work with expensive digital capture backs, a properly exposed and developed piece of film, especially black and white which affords full processing control, will yield all the information you need whether you print in the darkroom or scan and print digitally (which I prefer). This is perhaps the biggest barrier to entry for new view camera users: Its expensive, slow and takes lot of patience (plus a few errors) to really learn how to utilize film intuitively, but once you become proficient there are limitless possibilities.
I choose to work with this slow meditative process because it works for my focus on the landscape, architecture, and infrastructure but not necessarily moving trains (only on a few occasions under the right conditions) and it satisfies my need for a technical and interactive experience. Over the years I have come to prefer using a ‘compact’ wood field camera, it produces 5×7” negatives and is also equipped with a reducing back to shoot 4×5″ as well. On occasion I will use an 8×10” field camera though lately while working on the railroad it sees a lot less use because of accessibility to locations and the bulk/ weight of the camera and film holders.
I am not the only one either; there is a list of others that utilize the large format camera to document the railroads, some taking the approach of focusing on the environment or people. Others have pushed the limits of what a large format camera can be used for in this genre. Over the next few months we will explore several different photographer’s work to understand why the large format camera was essential to their creative process and contribution to this unique genre in photography.
As the mainline tour progresses I have been doing a lot of thinking about the direction of my blog posts during my seemingly endless research on the physical plant of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. In the process of producing this tour I have been ignoring a large part of the project, the towns the railroad traveled through. These places large and small developed around natural resources and manufacturing, much of which revolved around iron and steel production. The landscape of Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West VA first began expanding because of natural and man-made waterways, which provided industry with a means of transportation to expand their markets. Though a major advancement, canals and rivers were subject to seasonal changes shutting down shipping with the winter freeze and summer droughts. It quickly became evident that a better mode of transportation was needed and the railroad was the answer. Politicians, lobbyists and industrial magnates fought for access to prime locations, rail lines were chartered, built and continually improved through the late 19th Century. As a result towns along the railroad boomed, people were no longer in isolated communities but part of an industrial chain that drove the American economy. With the new ability to move large quantities of raw material and finished product across the country the steel industry expanded and so did the need for labor. Immigrants came by the thousands to places scattered across the region to work the mills, mines and for the railroads. The ethnic diversity was reflected in the various churches, neighborhoods and shops that brought the familiar comforts of the old country to this new place of work. Throughout the years there have been high times and lows in many of these towns, rocked by labor disputes, natural disasters and the eventual decline of the American steel industry.
The view from Singer Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania exemplifies the somber beauty of mill towns across Pennsylvania. Homes cling to the hillsides and business districts look toward the mill, once the focal point to the local economy. Today countless places like Johnstown are a quiet memorial to the era of steel and manufacturing across the region.
Today many of these places serve as a monument to industry and a way of life that has disappeared. The villages, company towns and entire sections of cities often look onto the mill, celebrating the pride and prosperity these now abandoned places once provided for many hard working families. I have found myself completely entranced by places like Johnstown and Braddock, places that are a fraction of their former self, wondering what it was like when these places were in their prime. In residential areas there is little uniformity from house to house with the exceptions of clusters of company housing yet all of these places look oddly the same. Frame houses on hill sides, all slightly modified over the years or just plain neglected, empty streets and brown fields, virtually deserted town squares flanked with grand commercial buildings constructed of stone and terracotta, town by town the theme repeats.
East Conemaugh was situated across from the Franklin Works of Cambria Iron, later Bethlehem Steel. The mills are gone and the rail yards empty, the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad still enters town on the far side of the Conemaugh River, the final resting place of engineer John Hess who used his locomotive whistle to warn the townspeople of the impending destruction of the great flood of 1889.
Like much of my work, this imagery is an observation, part of connecting the dots to understand a particular place or landscape. To many its a bleak and depressing place, I am often asked why bother visiting let alone taking pictures, some locals even get mad that an outsider would objectify their struggling community. To me the typical mill town is a comforting and familiar place, one of repetition and rhythm. You can find something different in every visit, grand and ornate homes in a row of company buildings, five story apartment houses in a town that doesn’t even rate a gas station, and the rail line that once fed this industrial giant snaking along from town to town. This is where the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad once travelled, the towns it built, nurtured and its predecessors served until the industry dried up. The railroad still thrives but like many places, the trains don’t stop here anymore. The mill town is a place of beauty in its own right, and I am happy to have experienced every one of them and look forward to sharing a different viewpoint of the built landscape that came as result of the railroads and industry. Over the coming months you can expect images celebrating these places as work continues on understanding the late Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travelled. Enjoy!