Out here, everyone is a railroad photographer

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Friday, November 19, 2010

By Matt Van Hattem, Senior Editor

How many tourist attractions can you name that owe their existence to the art of railroad photography?

I can think of only one: Morant’s Curve, three miles east of Lake Louise, on Canadian Pacific’s main line through the Canadian Rockies. Every tourist map and guidebook to these breathtaking mountains makes note of Morant’s Curve and urges travelers to see it themselves.

Sure, you can list any number of great railroad locations that are well-known within the community of folks who like to photograph trains.

And there is no shortage of railroad landmarks that have become familiar points of interest for the general public based on engineering accomplishments: Horseshoe Curve comes to mind, as does Canadian Pacific’s spiral tunnels, less than 20 miles west of Morant’s Curve.

But this sweeping S-curve along the Bow River, framed by jagged mountain peaks, is a must-see location for practically anyone who visits the Canadian Rockies, thanks to the railroad photographs made there by Nicholas Morant, who held the title of special photographer for the Canadian Pacific for 50 years.

At a plaque tucked along the shoulder of secondary Highway 1A (the busier Trans-Canada is out of sight across the river), visitors learn the story of Morant and the Canadian Pacific. His job was to make railroading in general, and CP’s style of railroading in particular, beautiful.

Morant’s timeless views of Canadian Pacific streamliners dodging and weaving among towering mountains evoke so many different feelings — the allure of the wilderness, the urge to explore, the sheer wonder at the might of a railroad that opened up an entire nation.

Such is the power of railroad photography. Few other types of photographs can convey so much meaning in one frame. 

The best railroad images can inspire, seduce, delight, touch the heart, or provide a glimpse into a different world, often underpinned with the subtle message “you could be here, too.”

Canadian Pacific opened up the Rockies to tourists, and Morant’s photographs played a key role in keeping that call of the mountains fresh and alive. (Of course, the railroad’s palatial hotels helped as well, assuring visitors that a journey into the wilderness would not be without its refinements…)

And now, long after the last regularly scheduled streamliner shifted its route away from CP’s main line, travelers still come to the curve, some curious to know what’s so special about a bend in the railroad, others awed by a scene they can still recall from timetables, travel brochures, and countless publicity photos.

I cannot think of another place that not only celebrates the art of railroad photography, but fashions it into a pastime that members of the public eagerly want to participate in.

Photographing a train on this curve is a big deal. It’s something on par with seeing the Mona Lisa in Paris or gazing down on Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building.

Even the most pragmatic of visitors feels compelled to emerge from the car, camera in hand, and begin that familiar wait for a train. Not everyone has the patience for this exercise, of course. Some leave with images of little more than an empty set of rails, twisting along the bank of a gentle river.

But when a freight train appears, the excitement is electric. Children jump up and down in glee. Adults dart and scurry along the roadside, vying for that perfect angle. Tour buses pull to the shoulder, and every eye from inside gazes at the moving tapestry of locomotives and freight cars. More than a few cameras are pressed to the window pane.

And suddenly, for one brief moment, everyone around becomes a railroad photographer. It’s an amazing sight to behold.

You can only hope these fleeting visitors will remember the elation they felt watching a train roll around the curve and cherish the picture they came away with.

A westbound Canadian Pacific potash train snakes through Morant’s Curve in western Alberta, one of the most famous railroad photography locations in the world. That single locomotive bringing up the rear of the train is remotely controlled by a locomotive engineer at the front. Matt Van Hattem photo

When a train appears on Morant’s Curve, visitors leap out of their car, eager to watch or photograph it. Filming a train on this curve is a big deal, even among members of the general public. Matt Van Hattem photo

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