Learning Curve

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, August 16, 2022

My first 35mm camera (as opposed to pure-plastic Brownie “Holiday” and “Starmite” Kodaks), an Argus C-3, arrived in 1964.  While it was a definite improvement over the Brownies, attempting to take multiple/sequence photos of moving trains could be maddening.  To set up the next frame after a shot required pushing a lever to one side, followed by rotation of the film advance wheel.  Nothing happened quickly using this process; if the train being photographed was operating at over “restricted speed”, the first shot probably was half-frame or less, and often, the “near” shot failed to include the complete locomotive/train.

The acquisition of my Nikon FTN in the fall of 1971 was a material improvement in this department; it had what was called a “rapid advance” lever.  After pressing the shutter for an initial shot my right thumb could quickly advance the lever, cocking the shutter (done without lowering the camera from eye level) and being ready immediately for the subsequent shot.  Not up to motor drive standards (that would come in 1981 with the acquisition of a Nikon FM), but lots better than the C-3.

Although a vast improvement, there still was a learning curve in succeeding at getting multiple shots of moving trains.  This was particularly true when using my 135mm telephoto lens: sometimes, it was difficult to anticipate just the right moment to press the shutter.  With time, I got better at this but there were a few more “bumps in the road” on the journey there.

Which brings us to April 23, 1972, and the photo shown above.  The site is the base of the (then) Southern Railway’s climb out of the Ohio River valley after departing the railroad’s Gest Street yard in Cincinnati, on the north bank of the river.   Ludlow is on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River; from there to Erlanger, Kentucky, about 10 miles south of Cincinnati, the railroad climbs from an elevation (according to Google Earth) of 535 feet to 905 feet at the site of the Erlanger depot, via a twisting path featuring several large trestles. 

Even though this is part of the Cincinnati Southern/Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific, which was leased then by the Southern, but is owned by the City of Cincinnati, Ludlow previously was the site of the Southern’s passenger car and locomotive servicing facilities, rather than the “Queen City” across the river; today it is yet another proverbial “wide spot on the (rail)road”.

My friends and I were situated a modest distance up the Erlanger Hill grade, awaiting a southbound manifest led by SD45 3145, assisted by an SD24 and SD35, with a GP9/GP7 pair as the obligatory pushers.  I’d taken a longer shot with the 135mm, with the City of Cincinnati, including the iconic Union Terminal, in the background, and was planning to take another view with the locomotives and front of the train essentially filling the frame.

During the slow slog up the hill, right about the time I intended to press the shutter, suddenly a individual appeared on the steps of the 3145 (likely an employee riding the southbound from Cincinnati back to Ludlow, in lieu of traversing the walkway on the bridge).  This wasn’t in my game plan, and I hesitated; finally, realizing that the unrequested actor was going to be in the shot in any case, I pressed the shutter, and you can see, and judge, the result.  

My original feeling, when I got the yellow box with the processed slides, was, to use today’s terminology, a “fail”.  Well, at least I didn’t crop out the right number board…  However this one subsequently has grown on me; it shows real, gritty, smashmouth railroading, with a modest side of working railroader doing something that likely is prohibited today. 

A year or so before, musician Carole King had released her “Tapestry” album, which included the hit song “I Feel the Earth Move”; well, so could we.  I wonder if she ever had occasion to visit Erlanger Hill?  In any case, I’m glad that I kept the slide!

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