On the Property

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, July 15, 2019


Back in the “good old days” of mythological memory (of whatever prior era suits you), it was often possible for non-employees to enter onto railroad property in pursuit of their interests and hobbies, and in many cases, to return to the “outside world” sans being accosted, ejected and/or threatened with arrest.  Of course, there were instances where these untoward events occurred, but by and large, they weren’t in the majority.

In the process of doing this, it also was possible to encounter employees that at least tolerated your presence, if not actively aiding and abetting it.  Knowledge and information would change hands, generally to the benefit of the visiting railfan; a welcome commodity in the pre-internet world.  

A location favored by many for these activities was any sort of engine terminal, and often this also included photography; an outgrowth of this aspect of the railroad hobby produced the “international Engine Picture Club”, which fostered trading of this variety of souvenir d’visit.  Prior to World War II, there was even official tolerance of this in the form of the issuance of photo permits, in some cases on an annual basis. 

The United States’ “mother of railroads”, the Baltimore & Ohio, was known as a relatively friendly road concerning these matters, and while annual photo passes were effectively a thing of the (fondly-remembered) past by the 1960s, when I began to photograph railroads with other than “beginner” type equipment, this reputation persisted to some degree. 

The B&O was also viewed as a relatively ‘traditional’ road, much of which probably came from the carrier’s lack of robust financial success by this time, which resulted in more than a modest degree of retention for older equipment, operating practices, etc.  This was a road that, for example, acquired a total of only eight streamlined, lightweight full coaches in the postwar era directly from the manufacturer (these were for the pair of Columbian trainsets purchased from Pullman-Standard), although passengers on the rebuilt heavyweights used on the Cincinnatian could be forgiven for not recognizing that their equipment didn’t fit in this category. 

There were evocative locations on the B&O that continued to show evidence of traditional ways even into the 1980s, one of which was Grafton, West Virginia.  Sure, steam and passenger service were gone by then but it wasn’t hard to imagine them when viewing the no longer-needed, but classic, passenger station edifice. 

There were essentially no impediments to taking a closer look; park your car on St. John Street, and walk across the tracks to the engine terminal, as seen in the photo above.  Even though this August 28, 1985 shot is deep into the Chessie System era, the royal blue/capitol dome paint scheme is on prominent display, along with a lone representative of the now-gone Western Maryland. 

In addition to simply being friendly, the B&O people I encountered there were quite willing to offer their assistance.  Yes, there was going to be an eastbound coal drag dispatched soon that would add helpers east of town at Q tower, at Hardman.  Don’t know how to get there?  The roads needed to reach this location were specified, along with the admonition to turn onto the service "road" leading to the tower at the Taylor/Preston County line.  Had she provided a description of the quality of the “Hardman Expressway” in advance, we might have abandoned the idea, but fortunately she didn’t. 

I heard a number of stories of fans being invited to ride along with the helper crews, which originated right at the station in Grafton.  The closest I got to this was in July 1987, when I was posing my young children alongside an SD50 helper set.  When the crew came out to board, they inquired where we were staying that evening; unfortunately, we were heading for Pittsburgh, and about to depart Grafton.  The response?  “That’s too bad”. 

Prior to entire railroads being dispatched from a single location, Grafton was also a place where you could walk into the dispatcher’s office, and get an idea of what was going on, when, and where.  Yes, there would be a set of empties heading down the Cowen Sub in the late afternoon, and they would be crossing the Pleasant Creek viaduct around five PM.  He was right about the time, within five minutes, of course.  And it was a good thing, also, because in about another ten minutes the sun would have set behind a hill to the west, throwing the structure into deep shadow.  

After getting the shot, and being very pleased about it, I stopped by to thank him, but he’d finished his shift.  Encountering a number of other employees in the office, I decided to see if they might be willing to part with an old employee timetable, since a new one would go into effect that weekend with the fall time change. 

The gentleman in charge seemed puzzled at my request, and asked, “Wouldn’t you rather have a new one?”  The answer was “yes” and it was in my hand promptly.  Later that evening, when I reached my destination, and had a chance to peruse the document, I recalled the name embroidered on his jacket; I’d been speaking with M.F. LeMaster, the Terminal Manager.  In lieu of the initials on the jacket the name “Buddy” was utilized; no argument here!  There are reasons why hard-core B&O fans refer to it as the “best and only”.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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