Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Timing - Steaming on through History

On our way from the downtown Huntingdon library to the grocery store, I noticed a well-equipped photographer standing patiently by the well-worn double train tracks as we headed out of town. We had finished checking our e-mails on the Internet in the library in Huntingdon late that Monday morning and wanted to buy groceries before heading back to our travel trailer, parked the Seven Points Campground at nearby Raystown Lake.  For a brief, fleeting moment, I was curious why he would pick this particular time to take photographs of a train. I wondered aloud if he was waiting for something special or if he was just a railroad fan who liked trains. My easily distracted attention turned to finding a grocery store and I forgot about the photographer.

The following morning at a vendor's display at the Seven Points Campground Visitor Center, I found out why the photographer patiently waited by the tracks when a beautiful, hours old, full color photograph of Ol' 765 was displayed by the Huntingdon Historical Society. The photographer we saw had caught a moment in history that few get to see, and mounted it proudly at the Society's display table. A beautiful photograph of a Berkshire 2-8-4 steam locomotive, number 765, retired from service in 1958, one of the few operating steam locomotives left in the country, the former Nickle Plate Road locomotive built in 1944, had steamed through town and I missed her. I missed her by minutes.

I didn't even know she existed the first time she rolled through, but I spent the week researching the locomotive and its schedule so I wouldn't miss seeing her on the return trip. But ol' 765 did it again. She rolled once again through Huntingdon and once again I missed her by mere minutes. She was deadheading from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, back to Pittsburgh when she steamed through a little after nine o'clock Monday on a beautiful July morning. 

I couldn't believe we missed her again. We arrived at the silent railroad crossing as the oily, smoky smells gently descended on the silent shiney steel rails and perfectly manicured stone roadbed. I smelled her as we pulled up next to the tracks and my wife stared at me in disbelief. “How could you smell a train?” she asked. Easy. I had a lot of practice. My grandfather, Lou, was a railroad man, and so was his brother, Carl, who worked as a yardmaster for the New York Central in Detroit. I don't remember much from those early childhood years, but I remember the trains!

Grandpa Lou often took me by the hand after dinner and we walked the many, many blocks to the local New York Central railroad overpass in Lincoln Park, Michigan, just south of Detroit. We climbed the gravel hill and stood by the railroad tracks waiting for one special passenger train that whistled past at the same time every night. Grandpa Lou would take out his pocket-watch and check every few minutes, patiently waiting for the event of the evening. You could see the headlight of the oncoming locomotive way off in the distance on the absolutely straight track as it came roaring up from Toledo. It barreled down on top of us and Grandpa Lou picked me up and told me to wave at the engineer as the thundering, smoke billowing locomotive roared by. I'm still fascinated by the old steam locomotives. They were incredibly loud and dirty. The smoke would sting your eyes hang in your clothes and hair all night. But boy were they impressive. Especially when you were four years old standing just a few feet from the barreling trains. It was always dark by the time we walked home.

Ol' 765 is a big girl, standing over fifteen feet tall and weighing in at 404 tons. She's one of the largest operating steam locomotives in the United States, and every once in awhile, somebody takes her out for a ride. Built in 1944 at the Lima Locomotive Works, she's been lovingly restored by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, and this year, she hauled a passenger train just for the folks at Pennsylvania Railroad from Fort Wayne, Indiana, through the famous horseshoe curve at Altoona to Harrisburg. It was the staff at the railroad museum at Altoona who told us not to be later than noon on the following Monday, August 20th, if we wanted to see her at the famous Horseshoe Curve National Historical Landmark. 

They even scheduled a photo-stop at the famous curve just for the Museum. She was making her return trip from Harrisburg the following Monday, but apparently, the Transportation Security Administration, the TSA of airport fame, decided it was a security risk to publish the train schedule in advance, so only rough “guesstimates” were given as to when ol' 765 would arrive. At least that was what we were told by the Museum staff. They were charging twenty dollars a head to witness the special event at the Curve. I decided to be early at the Huntingdon crossing, where we saw the photographer, that next Monday morning as it was forty miles closer to our campground than Altoona, and I'd save forty dollars to boot. Besides, I would have unrestricted visibility, and with a little luck, plenty of elbow room. All I had to do was correctly deduce her arrival time at Huntingdon if she was to be in Altoona by noon. Then I gave myself an extra hour and and half lead time as a cushion.
By joneau261 - Own work,
Public Domain,

I walked over to a young man working on an electrical box and asked if the steam locomotive had gone through yet on the off chance the familiar steam and smoke smells that floated across the quiet railroad were just a coincidence. He dropped his arms and said, “You just missed her. She went through ten minutes ago.” It has been over 65 years since I last smelled a steam locomotive, but the memories came flooding back. Yep, Ol' 765 did it again, and I didn't even get to see her.

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