Thursday, September 08, 2005

Last Mountain Dance

With apologies to Chuck Kinder for stealing the title. Read his book. You'll laugh and cry.

With a heavy heart and a churning mind I drove east from Clarksburg, WV on U.S. 50 toward Grafton on Sunday afternoon. I can't begin to count the number of trips I've made to Grafton in search of coal trains over the past five years. Grafton sprang to life as a key railroad town on the Baltimore & Ohio mainline linking Baltimore with the Ohio River Valley and eventually St. Louis and the great American west. In the early 20th century, with several dozen coal-burning steam locomotives making their homes in Grafton's roundhouse and the fires of the backshop furnaces blazing day and night, Grafton held claim to the infamous title of the country's smokiest city. Today the air is cleaner, the steam locomotives long gone, the roundhouse demolished and the St. Louis mainline abandoned to the west. It's still a railroad town, though.

Drop down the hill from U.S. 50 to Main Street where the stately 7-story brick railroad hotel dominates the business district. Behind it, there's still a very active engine terminal where several pairs of 4400 h.p. diesel-electric locomotives layover and get serviced between runs. Step out of the car and the low, quiet drone of their idling mixes with noise of traffic on the streets. You don't have to watch that street traffic for very long before a dark minivan with a white "D&L Limousine" logo on the door passes, taking another crew of railroaders out to their train.

The currents of rail traffic through Grafton ebb and flow with the tides of the coal market, and right now is high tide. Across the country, demand for coal is up, but just as big of a reason lies in the country where I'm going later this month. China's economy is growing faster than its own resources can feed it, and the hunger of the emerging Asian superpower has created a worldwide spike in the demand for coal. Across the globe, countries with coal are loading it into railroad cars and taking it to deepwater ports for ocean shipment to China's heavily industrialized east coast. The mines of Appalachia are humming and export coal is flowing through the docks of Curtis Bay, Maryland and Newport News, Virginia as it hasn't for two decades. And the trains are rolling.

I met Kevin Scanlon for the first time in the spring of 2001 while we both happened to be photographing the same train in southern West Virginia. I knew his name and a little of his photography from a website and we had exchanged a couple of emails, but we hadn't planned this encounter. It was a pleasent surprise to put a face with the name. After that, we began to correspond a bit more frequently.

Initially, Kevin's work impressed me because he seemed willing to get off the beaten path and track down elusive branchline trains in the most remote "hollers" of Appalachia. I enjoyed seeing his images from railroads and places few other people had ever photographed. As I came to know his photography a little better, I began to see something else in it, too. Kevin also ventures well beyond the beaten path with his photography. Trains weren't always the focus of his railroad images, and those images were made in all kinds of weather and lighting conditions. Some of his photos made me a little uncomfortable at first because they were so different from my own, yet I found myself coming back to them time and again.

There was something in his images that spoke to me of my home, of the trains and places I had grown up loving and longing for as a boy. Despite a more than 20 year age difference and living in the long-time rival cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, we forged a friendship. Kevin and his wife Dory are two of my favorite people, and they have encouraged growth in my own photography, in my writing, and in way of looking at the world. Kevin paid me one of the highest compliments I have ever received as a photographer when he asked me to collaborate with him on a book project. Some day we’ll finish that, but I don’t think either of us are in hurry. We both enjoy taking photos so much that it’s hard to make time to do much with them.

We took a few more during my last 24 hours in the Mountain State. It was nearing 3pm when I found Kevin in Grafton, and he had been there photographing for most of the day.

“How was your morning?” I asked.

“Busy! I lost count after the ninth train.”

I’ve spent a few Sundays in Grafton when there were only three or four movements all day.

We set off after the last of those trains, an eastbound V619 coal drag that had departed shortly before my arrival. I don’t know that I could ever tire of watching heavy coal trains slug it out with the steep grades of CSX’s Mountain Subdivision, particularly in the crisp light of a clear, low-humidity September afternoon with a promise of fall in the air. We followed the train almost to the stateline at Terra Alta, where it met the second of two westbounds, which we followed back down the hill to Rowlesburg.

Rowlesburg is one of those magical places that just exudes ambiance. It has one of the last manned signal towers in the state, trains face stiff climbs in both directions, and it still serves as base for the helper locomotives that shove the heavy eastbounds over the Mountain Sub’s steep grades. The railroad crosses the Cheat River in Rowlesburg on a single track, deck girder bridge. That bridge is only 20 years old, having replaced the two-track structure that was carried 200 feet downriver in the fury of the 1985 flood.

Rowlesburg lost a little of its ambiance when a new, modern highway bridge replaced the rickety, old one crossing the railroad yard. Suddenly a trip through town wasn’t quite so life-threatening. While the concrete span lacks the charm of its wooden forebearer, it was a much-needed upgrade and still makes a wonderful photography platform. Our westbound empty hopper train paused briefly in the small, now sleepy yard before continuing onward to Grafton. Throttling up for Cheat River grade, the engines sent a cloud of exhaust into the late afternoon sky, backlit by the low sun. Kevin and I burned megapixels profusely.

“Just a silly little after-thought shot and it’s going to be the best one of the day!” Kevin exclaimed.

He was wrong about that, though.

On the way back to Grafton, the radio scanner alerted us to another approaching eastbound. We turned off U.S. 50 and headed over the mountain in search of it. Cruising along the high meadows in the golden, late-day light, I remarked, “This is when it’s tough to be a mountain photographer in the east. This light is gorgeous, but it sure is hard to find any of it at track level.”

“I like the challenge, though,” Kevin replied. “Every now and then, you find that last shaft of the setting sun. And if you get a train then….”

His voice trailed off. A few minutes later, we found both at a little place called West End.

“Might as well go home.” Kevin said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

We had no intentions of going home, though. In fact, we had no intentions of leaving this train just yet. We caught it again in the setting sun at the top of Newburg Grade, then rolled back to Grafton where we took twilight shots at the engine terminal and enjoyed a late dinner at an all-night restaurant just across the creek.

Up in town at the Crislip Motor Inn, we got one of the last two remaining rooms. There was a large, loud gathering in front of the room next to ours. That didn’t seem to bother Kevin, though.

“It looks like the thing to do here is sit outside,” he said, then produced a bottle of Red Truck wine from his overnight bag.

“Yet another reason I like railfanning with you!”

I found two plastic cups by the sink, and we sat outside our door while the voices of the gathering next to us mingled with the crickets in the cool night air. The party dispersed by 10:00, but we donned jackets and let the conversation and the wine flow together for another hour.

We were up early on Labor Day morning, hoping for some interesting combination of fog, sunrise and train. CSX is no longer the only railroad in Grafton. This spring, they sold their Cowen Subdivision, a coal branch extending 117 miles southwest, to the shortline operator Watco. The new owner operates the line under the name “Appalachian and Ohio,” and they had just brought two trains into town. I rather lamented the changing of the guard, as I had grown fond of CSX locomotives and railroaders on the Cowen Sub. I had put off going back to photograph A&O operations, but this seemed like as good a time as any to start.

I ran into an old friend, Chris Strogen – now an A&O conductor, getting off the second train following a long night’s run. He seemed happy, though. I don’t know if I could handle the lack of a schedule and constantly being on call. The first A&O train was picking up a cut of empty hoppers to take back to the mines, so Kevin and I headed south on U.S. 119 in search of photo spots. The fog was thick at Pleasant Creek, where a high trestle spans the broad valley. The rising sun was cutting through it, though, and we waited there for the train to tiptoe across the bridge.

We continued the chase to Buckhannon, where another westbound empty train joined the fray, but both Kevin and I needed to start heading north. Back in Grafton, Q316, the daily mixed freight, was getting ready to depart. We watched the crew change with a surly local railfan who defiantly rebuffed Kevin’s every attempt at making friendly conversation.

“So, you from around here?”

“Yup.” He offered no more.

He left, the train left, and so did we. We drove a bit east of town to a peaceful spot by the creek and watched the train roll off towards Cumberland. Kevin tried a shot in the midday sun, but I put my camera down and watched. I waved to the conductor a little longer than necessary, but I had to hold on to this one. It’s going to be a little while before I see another train in my homestate.

Back in town, we found Kevin’s car and prepared to leave. There was a lot I wanted to say, but Kevin prefers short goodbyes. He offered me his hand, wished me a good trip, and turned to go.

“You’ll have to take a picture of a steel mill for me if you find one.” They are his other photographic love.

“I’ll do that.”

I’ve left Grafton many times on Sunday afternoons and evenings, always feeling like I was driving home after a good trip. That wasn’t the case on Monday, though. Cleveland, without Mo, with my mess of an apartment and mostly packed-up life, hardly feels like home any more. No, on this drive, I was leaving home. It’s going to be too long before I get back.

Going up I-79 north of Morgantown, I was quickly running out of miles in my homestate.

"Good bye, West Virginia."

How to say goodbye to the one place that will always call me back? Just before the Pennsylvania line, I found it.

"I hope you don’t change too much while I’m gone."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you should happen to get this I just wanted to say I enjoyed reading about your visit and train chasing with Kevin. However, I'm very interested in modeling the Laurel Subdivision and wanted to ask if you have any old pictures of the mines in that area. If not, how can I contact Kevin. I believe I've seen a couple of pictures on but would like to see more to model the local mines around the Elk River and Bergoo area. Thanks for any help, Marty. Please email at