Monday, June 06, 2016

BTCA Redivivus

Birmingham, Alabama is a railroad town.  Not because it has railroads, as do many other cities; but rather it exists because of railroads.  After the Civil War, the area that would be Birmingham was mountains, forest, and streams.  But when two railroads were built that intersected in that spot, giving access to the one place on earth where all the ingredients for making steel (iron ore, coke, and limestone) occur together, a city erupted with unprecedented suddenness. 
The heyday of the railroads was past when I moved there as a boy.  The beautiful passenger station had been demolished, and the decline of industry was mirrored by the decline in freight rail.  But people remembered!   And there was a movement to keep steam engines rolling to remind a new generation of the marvel of machinery that amazed and enchanted previous generations.
Because Birmingham had one of the few locomotive works that could still service the beasts, many of the locomotives found their way there, and while in town, they pulled excursion trains.  So for about a dozen years coinciding perfectly with my age and interest, there was a series of opportunities to ride behind beautiful, powerful steam locomotives that had been removed from every other type of service.  
The 4501, a (freight) 2-8-2 Mikado that had been painted in Southern Railway livery to resemble a passenger locomotive; the 4449, a Pacific Daylight that in 1976 pulled the commemorative "Freedom Train" to Birmingham; the Royal Canadian Pacific that came south; and the elegant Norfolk and Western J-Class 611 were the highlights of that series.

A photo I took of the Royal Canadian Pacific pulling an excursion train
near Leeds, AL, in November 1981.
Increasing maintenance costs and resurgent traffic for freight on the dwindling rail network ended that era, and most of these glorious machines went into mothballs and museums.  But recently, the Virginia Transportation Museum and the Norfolk and Southern, a conglomerate of two great railways of the past, with the help of many an eager rail fan, refurbished and reactivated the 611.

A painting of the Norfolk & Western J-Class 611, rendered from one of the photographs I took in the early 1980's.  She is crossing a trestle just outside Chattanooga, TN.
Now, I had last seen this shining beauty in the early 1980's, by which time I had replaced riding the excursion trains with "chasing" them with my friends Mary, Allan, and Lisa.  We were all interested in photography at a time when that involved film and darkrooms with chemicals, and freshly equipped with drivers licenses and well as forbearing parents.  It was our ideal way of having fun together to pile into a car and tear across the Alabama countryside hoping to catch the Perfect Photo of a galloping steam locomotive.  The Birmingham Train Chasing Association was born!  We even printed up shirts.
So, when the restored N&W 611 was out on excursion in Northern Virginia recently, I finished the Masses here, braved weekend beltway traffic, and used modern GPS technology and a camera phone to set out into the countryside and chase me some train.
At the first remote crossing, I found a small, cordial group waiting with cameras and tripods, and I knew I was in the right place.  The pleasant conversation yielded to analysis as we first heard the distant steam whistle, then ceased altogether when one spotter announced "Headlight!"  Because the new video technology records sound, these thoughtful fellows didn't want to spoil anyone's recording.  Alternatively, we may have all just fallen speechless, as the passing beauty was a marvel to behold:

The surge of excitement and delight that followed as we all rushed back to our vehicles and set off in happy pursuit of the quarry brought me back to those days with Mary, Allan, and Lisa.  I missed having their help "spotting" -- though I often caught glimpses of the plumes of smoke and steam above the trees.  Once I was ahead of her again, my second site to wait by the tracks was mobbed with folks less serious -- and less considerate -- than my first fellows.

I was luckier on my third stop.  After a few failed attempts to find a photogenic and accessible setting, I stumbled into one where I was less then a hundred yards from a small group of rail fans, but when the train came through, there was nobody else in view.

Just like old times!  Satisfied, I headed back toward home and more mundane traffic frustrations.  I stopped at a roadside stand to pick up some rhubarb for a pie, refilled my tank, and tuned into the end of the (maddening) Nats game.  I had dinner at the home of some Virginia friends, and shared my pictures.  They nodded and smiled.  I discerned that it would be better to wait for some other time to tell them about the Birmingham Train Chasing Association.
Monsignor Smith

P. S.  Nowhere else but Crudup!

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