Sunday, February 19, 2017

On coal-smoke memories, a one, and three zeros

...from a photographer's notebook
'Mountain Thunder' on Helmstetter's Curve, Cumberland, Maryland ©Steve Ember

I just realized a few days ago that the next photograph I publish to my FotoCommunity pages will be the one-thousandth since joining the site back in 2009.

Perhaps not a huge amount in eight years, considering how long I’ve been shooting, but 1,000 is kind of a special number, no matter what one is counting.

So, I got to chasing my tail in ever widening circles on the topic of which of thousands of images, whether digital or film, should be my one thousandth on F-C.

Something from Tribeca or elsewhere in NYC? A not-yet-published scene from London or the Scottish Highlands? A favorite Alpine moment? Perhaps a portrait of a lovely woman? Or my handsome little gray and white furry side-kick and editing assistant, Mewer the WonderCat?

Then, it snuck up and grabbed me…an image that took me all the way back to childhood in Baltimore…even before my folks gave me my first camera which got the whole thing started – this looking through viewfinders, turning dials, pressing buttons, and light-painting upside down images of stuff I liked on sprocketed strips of celluloid and, much later, digital sensors.

Even before I fell in love with photography, I was into…trains! When I was very young, my parents’ furniture business, originally a furniture factory, was located on East Monument Street in an interesting (if not exactly "glamorous") part of east-central Baltimore. Its neighbors were the busy Fallsway, various warehouses, The Baltimore City Jail, the Maryland Penitentiary, and a funky little blue collar carryout that made great hotdogs called  AJ’s Dog House, with its Baltimore-direct slogan "If it ain't good, we don't sell it" emblazoned on the outside wall.

Ah, but I digress…

The “neighboring attraction” that applies here was the street-running tracks of the Western Maryland Railway that ran past “the factory,” across Monument Street, parallel to Fallsway. The tracks connected the WMR’s Hillen Street Station with Baltimore Pennsylvania Station to the north. These tracks saw shunting of freight cars among the warehouses as well (by diesel locomotives), but the real attraction was the afternoon passenger train to Hagerstown and Cumberland in distant western Maryland, pulled by a gleaming black huffing, chuffing…steam locomotive.

The train originated at Hillen Street, did the aforementioned street running, protected by a man in a little house next to Monument Street, who would come out with a Stop sign to ensure no motorists came out second best in an encounter with the huffing, chuffing black beast, and would continue (the train, not the man) up to Penn Station where it would pick up additional passengers. Then, after passing through the tunnel the PRR trains used in heading toward Washington and points south, it would veer off toward northwest Baltimore to begin its journey to the far-western reaches of Maryland.

There was something very special about viewing (and hearing and smelling) a steam train from above. Mom and Dad’s showroom was on the second floor of that old brick building, and that would be my after-school perch for watching the train. As the tracks were immediately next to the building, it was very “up close and personal,” including hearing the throaty “chuff-chuff-chuff,” seeing the exhaust belching from the locomotive’s stack, and smelling the sweet aroma of the coal-smoke.

It took probably less than a minute for the handsome beast to huff and chuff past, but the sight, sound, and smell imprinted me for life. Yes, I like the smell of diesel exhaust, too…and the aroma of warm electric traction motors, but that first impression of a steam-powered passenger train approaching, rumbling past, and disappearing to the north was seminal to a life-long love of trains.

Indeed, some of the first photos I took with that first box camera were, predictably, of trains, as my Dad would take me to some great spots to watch the activities of both the Pennsylvania  and the Baltimore and Ohio railroads. But, by this time, the old Western Maryland service to Cumberland, was pulled by an Alco RS-3 diesel road switcher locomotive.

So, no pictures to share of a smoke-belching Western Maryland Railway steam locomotive, its tender emblazoned with the big gold Western Maryland letters and the gold and red “Fireball” logo of the railroad (long ago absorbed into the CSX) chuffing its way past that old red brick “factory” in east Baltimore (It’s not there any more either)…

But a part of the experience…and a generous helping of coal-smoke…came back in a pleasant rush, about fifty years later on a sun-bathed early autumn afternoon in Cumberland, where I had journeyed to shoot the “Mountain Thunder” Steam Train of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, along its route from Cumberland to Frostburg.

The setting was along the famous Helmstetter’s Curve. As you look at the photo, you’ll just have to imagine the belching exhaust. Locomotive No. 734, a 2-8-0, built in 1916, was doing plenty of blastful chuffing in as it climbed out of the canyon of the Cumberland Narrows up to Helmstetter’s Farm, for which the curve is named, and it will resume its chuffing and blasting in a moment or two as it continues toward Brush Tunnel, but, for the moment, the engineer has eased off the throttle and the fireman is taking a breather from stoking coal into the firebox. Ah, but the coal-smoke fragrance was certainly there for the sniffing.

The photo was taken on Fujichrome-100 slide film – pushed to E.I. 400 – through an EF 100-300mm F/4.5-5.6 USM lens, wearing a polarizing filter on my Canon EOS-1.

You may view it in higher quality here.

I had just the other day posted to my new Photography bySteve Ember Facebook page, a photo of another steam locomotive, shot some years earlier at Cumberland’s majestic old station. That loco did not sport Western Maryland livery, as the tourist line from Cumberland to Frostburg was then called the Allegheny Central…but photographers know how a late night editing session can entail searches through the image bank of “related” motifs.

It was thus that I turned up this image, which I’d actually scanned from the slide, probably close to the time I became an F-C member, when I purchased my Nikon film scanner in 2009. It is making its first appearance now, after all those years in “hibernation,” both in slide box and computer hard drive.

And speaking of joining F-C, well that was at the repeated suggestions (I was a reluctant internet user in terms of photos at the time) from my German photographer friend Tom Reitzel around the time we were shooting steam trains in eastern Germany’s Erzgebirge region in winter 2008.

And, as Tom is a fellow steam train enthusiast (including of American steam) and photographer, and as I would probably not have discovered the Europe-based F-C without his recommending it, I raise a glass of Proseco to Tom as I finish writing this recollection and upload the image to Foto-Community…as my 1000th.

Cheers and Prosit!

©2017 Steve Ember

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