The Railroad Photos of Jack Delano

These days almost everyone has a camera – whether it be a point and shoot, an SLR, or just the stock camera that came with your cell phone. Despite all the criticism of people these days and what they’re photographing, part of me thinks that the people of the future who consume all their nutrients in pill form might find today’s photos of food taken by hipsters rather quaint. The fact remains that what is commonplace today may be noteworthy and historic tomorrow. Time has only proven this true – Boris Klapwald’s snapshots of Grand Central Terminal were boxed up and forgotten for nearly fifty years, until discovered by his daughter. She brought them to the MTA, and they were exhibited in the Terminal through Arts for Transit. Street photographer Vivian Maier was practically unknown until her largely undeveloped film was put up for auction after her death. Her discovered photos have since been exhibited around the world, and is the subject of a documentary. Although the good majority of the photos captured these days aren’t much to write home about, it is undeniable that we are well-documenting our world, and the things future generations will most likely interpret as just plain weird.

Though cameras were far less common in the past, there were many photographers that froze glimpses of what was then normal life. I’ve posted about the Depression-era photographers of the Farm Security Administration before – despite the name, the project yielded thousands of photos that had nothing to do with farms, but instead featured normal Americans living life – including two of the most iconic photographs of Grand Central Terminal. A similarly iconic photo of Chicago’s Union Station also came out of the project, captured by photographer Jack Delano. Delano’s railroad-specific work in the Chicago area is currently on display at the Chicago History Museum, which I recently got the chance to check out.

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Winter on the Harlem Line, 1888 and 2014

Right about now I am really looking forward to summer. I’m never a fan of the cold (despite sleeping in an ice hotel, and visiting Alaska in winter…) and this winter feels exceptionally so. The winter we’ve thus endured, however, pales in comparison to the winter of 1888. The Great Blizzard of 1888 is one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded in the US, with 22 inches of snow in New York City and 48 inches of snow in Albany. It took the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad eight days to clear the snow from their main line to New Haven. The New York and Harlem Railroad’s attempts were less successful, recorded as a small blip in the annals of history.

Meet Old Eli. This comical looking contraption was one of the first snowplows built for the New York Central Railroad in 1864. The plow was mounted on a six-wheeled truck, and connected to an engine with an old-fashioned push bar. The plow usually required several steam locomotives to push it, and for the 1888 blizzard the plow was being pushed by a total of five. It is worth mentioning that this plow was hardly an ingenious innovation, instead of pushing snow to the side, it often pushed the snow up and above the engine – a grievous issue when traversing an extremely narrow rock cut.


Scene from the wreck at Coleman’s during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Heading north from White Plains, Old Eli was to clear the snow from the Harlem all the way to Chatham, but instead met doom at Coleman’s. The narrow rock cut there was plugged with snow, and the aforementioned deficiency of the plow ensured that the lead locomotive was thoroughly buried in the snow. All five locomotives derailed, Old Eli was destroyed beyond repair, and five crew members lost their lives, three of which were boiled alive by the lead steam locomotive.

 
New York City in the Great Blizzard of 1888, a subject that was heavily covered by the news of the day

Thankfully, most of our winters have been far less eventful, except maybe for the random guy running around wearing a horse mask. I’ve wandered around the Harlem Line during the past few snowstorms, capturing the trains and the people that make them run… so let’s take a little tour of the Harlem Line in the snow…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

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Working on the Railroad – the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad

Hopefully the previously posted video of the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad has gotten you in the mood to learn a little bit more about this interesting little narrow gauge, steam railroad, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The appropriately named railroad is a part of Cedar Point amusement park, the second-oldest continuously operated amusement park in the United States. Despite being around since 1870, the park has few truly long operating rides. Part of that is likely due to the geography of the park. Unlike America’s oldest amusement park, Lake Compounce, land is a finite resource for Cedar Point. The luxury of acquiring more land and expanding outward (and even moving town roads!) is not an option for Cedar Point – located on a thin peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. As such, land is at a premium – many of the park’s recent noteworthy attractions have required the demolition of a previous attraction. Despite all that, the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad has survived half a century, and is one of the park’s staples.

Early view of Cedar Point
Early 1900s view of the Lake Erie peninsula where you’ll find Cedar Point, America’s second-oldest amusement park. Today this peninsula is covered with 16 roller coasters.

Decades before the railroad
From the 1910s and beyond… decades of Cedar Point brochures before the railroad. All items from the collection of Jason Hammond.

Cedar Point Brochures
At left: 1965 Cedar Point park brochure from the collection of Jason Hammond. At right: Early 1960’s Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad brochure

Over the railroad’s fifty year lifespan, it has hardly been static; as the park has changed, the railroad has as well. From tracks being moved to acquiring and rebuilding new locomotives, the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad has watched as other attractions have come and gone. Since the railroad’s inaugural season the park’s eponymous Cedar trees have slowly disappeared, with other attractions appearing in their stead.

Construction of the CP&LE Construction of the CP&LE Construction of the CP&LE Construction of the CP&LE Adjusting the route of the tracks in the late 1960s Construction photos from the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad from cplerr.com.

Some of the park’s early endeavors to grow its boundaries was Frontier Town, originally accessible only by the railroad. The popular Shoot the Rapids ride (not to be confused with the current ride with the same name), built in 1967 in Frontier Town, led to heavy use of the railroad. It was not until 1971 when some of Cedar Point’s biggest changes came to fruition when the Frontier Trail was built, finally providing a walking link between Frontier Town and the rest of the park. Construction of the Frontier Trail led to several adjustments of the railroad’s tracks, and the addition of a new railroad station.

Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad

As one of Cedar Point’s most long lived attractions, I felt that creating a map of the railroad displaying both geography and time would be a really fun endeavor. I got a chance to highlight the park’s roller coasters, which besides being Cedar Point’s claim to fame, share the fundamental track-running concept with railroads. Although at first glance it might be a jumble of colors, the map above depicts Cedar Point’s most noteworthy attractions, both past and present, along with some of the railroad’s changes. It is interesting to note that one of the park’s most coveted ride locations is in the far back, first home to the original Shoot the Rapids ride, which was later replaced by White Water Landing, which itself was subsequently replaced by the roller coaster Maverick.

Union station The lynching scene
Changes on the CP&LE: at left is the Funway Station when it went by the name of Union Station. At right: A scene that wouldn’t quite fly today – a cattle rustler is lynched along the railroad’s route. Photos from cplerr.com.

Our focus today, however, is not necessarily the Cedar Point and Lake Erie railroad itself, but the people that make it run. I spent three days this summer photographing the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad, and perhaps one could say relentlessly stalking the train crews with my camera lens. Without a doubt the folks working at the CP&LE are some of the most wonderful and hard-working people you’ll find at Cedar Point, period. Running a steam railroad is not clean, and it sure isn’t easy. While one might romance the idea of working on the trains of yesteryear, most likely forget the grunt-work that happens every day to get that beast of a machine running – from cleaning the locomotive to shoveling coal, or even working around a hot fire on a scorching summer day (or in a torrential downpour).

While the park usually opens at 10 AM for the general public during the summer, work for the rail crew begins at 7 AM or earlier. The locomotives (two are usually operated on busy days like the weekends, and one during the week) need to be readied, which includes starting the fire and letting it burn for at least an hour to achieve the necessary pressure to operate. Keeping this railroad running is superintendant Randy Catri, who has been a fixture on the CP&LE for nearly 40 years. Catri is a kind fellow that took time out of his busy schedule to give me a nice tour of the locomotive shops, and talk about the CP&LE. Although Randy strikes me as modest, the crew that work under him use words like “one of steam railroading’s most unsung heroes” and “the best boss I’ve ever had” – undoubtedly he is an important part of the railroad’s fifty years.

Today’s set of photos show the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad from the perspective of the hardworking crew that make it run daily. Next week we’ll take a look at the railroad as a whole, and delve a little bit more into its 50 year history!

 
  
 
   
   
   
 
   
  
 
  
   
  

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