Scenes frozen in time: Penn Central in the Midwest

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, August 19, 2010

Railroad operating officials are not the book-writing sort. Rarer still is the Class I general manager or vice president of operations who spends his vacations taking photographs that are subsequently published as a tutorial of the property he manages. That’s what makes A Sampling of Penn Central so enlightening.
Jerry Taylor was general manager of New York Central’s Southern Region, headquartered in Indianapolis. Upon the merger of NYC and the Pennsylvania Railroad in early 1968, he assumed the same job in Penn Central’s new Southern Region. He embarked about then on an ambitious project: to amass a photographic collection that would “portray the essence” of that 4,900-mile quadrant of the railroad.
Taylor left PC in 1969 and became VP-operations of the Long Island Rail Road. But he spent 31 vacation days over the next three years visiting every nook and cranny of the Southern Region to finish what he had started. First published in 1973, A Sampling of Penn Central was redone by Indiana University Press in 2000 and remains in print.
The format of this landscape-oriented, 424-page book is a black-and-white photograph on the right-hand page and an essay explaining the scene on the left-hand page. The Southern Region was composed primarily of trackage west of Pittsburgh and south of the former Pennsylvania Railroad Pittsburgh-Chicago main line, with hubs in Indianapolis, Columbus, and Cincinnati.
By the time PC successor Conrail was absorbed by CSX and Norfolk Southern in May 1999, the majority of the old Southern Region was long gone, some of it (1,082 route miles) spun off to other railroads and the rest (2,360 miles) abandoned. But in 1968-1972, the region was a deteriorating maze of trackage as Penn Central valiantly sought to rationalize by concentrating traffic on fewer routes.
Taylor explains it all, scene by scene, some of it quite amusing, such as this essay accompanying a striking photo of piggyback train TV-6 peeling off of Erie Lackawanna-dispatched track jointly owned by EL and PC, at Burt tower in Galion, Ohio, near Marion: “After merger, the PC became its own worst enemy … since its deteriorating service resulted in a substantial loss of business to competitor EL, which in turn overburdened the latter’s limited classification facilities at Marion. Delays to PC westbounds held at Burt for their EL counterparts (a common practice despite the first-come first-served language in the governing contract) were then compounded when the EL trains were held out at Marion, sometimes for more than an hour. This treatment abated in time by means of PC histrionics ranging from telegrams to EL vice-presidents to wiretaps on their dispatchers’ circuits. The climax was a recording session right in Burt tower which so provoked the EL people that they succeeded in landing the PC chief of police in the Galion jail.”
Open the book anywhere and graze. That’s what I do, and one reason I keep A Sampling of Penn Central close at hand. You’ll learn how the terminals in those three major cities functioned (or failed to function), how chemical and coal traffic was gathered in the Charleston, W.Va., area and sent northwest to Columbus, and what life was like on the branches to such places as Evansville, Ind., and Cairo, Ill. You’ll also see the hopeless condition of many branch lines (and not a few main lines). It seems as if every mile of the Southern Region gets a moment of attention from Taylor.
As a photographer, Taylor was no J. Parker Lamb. His photos have grittiness to them, but that works to his advantage. Penn Central was a gritty railroad in that era, struggling to survive but sinking ever deeper into the ground from the pounding given the undermaintained track. It’s all here, preserved for us nearly 40 years later. I hope you enjoy A Sampling of Penn Central as much as I do. — Fred W. Frailey 

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