Monday, October 30, 2017

Three days in Panama (2004)

In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers compiled a list of Seven Wonders of the Modern World, paying tribute to the "greatest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century". The Panama Canal was number seven.

France began work on the canal in 1881 but stopped due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. Yellow fever played a big part in this. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan.

Map of the Canal (notice anything strange about the relationship of the oceans?)
The canal had always been on my list of things that I wanted to see some day, so I was ready for what happened in October 2003. I was on a rail trip between Cordele and Savannah, GA (I wrote about that trip as a part of a post I made earlier this year.) There were lots of my fellow train riders aboard and at one point the conversation turned to a group of boat fans and a travel agency that had organized a trip to the Panama Canal. The trip involved a transcontinental rail trip (only 40 or so miles in Panama, on the Panama Canal Railway!) plus a trip through the canal. It appealed to many of the riders aboard the train besides me. Here is the information about the trip as it appeared on a flyer that one of the riders had:

Panama Canal Zone Tour
4 Night 3 Day Canal Tour
Wednesday, January 14 through Sunday, January 18, 2004

Schedule Subject to Change:
Wednesday: get to Panama City on your own. Transfer to Country Inn & Suites
Thursday: Roundtrip on the Panama Railway to Colon
Friday: Oneway by boat from Balboa Harbor to Colon. Return to hotel via
the boat line bus.
Saturday: land tour of all three locks and the canal dredging base. Lunch
at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.
Sunday: leave Panama City for home.

$765 per person double occupancy. Single at extra cost. You must
have a passport.

(The actual trip was somewhat different as described below.)

After some discussion, I signed up for the trip and paid a single supplement of $170 (because I like my friends, but don't always want to hear their snoring.) The travel agency secured me a flight on American with a group 10% discount. The roundtrip fare was $454.62 and I quickly upgraded it to first class using miles.

I spent the months leading up to the trip reading David McCullough's terrific book, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal so that I would have a greater appreciation of what I was seeing.

The trip started on Wednesday, January 14. It was very cold in Pittsburgh and it had snowed the night before. To make my 7am flight to Miami I had to leave the house at 5am or thereabouts. (That was overly conservative but I no longer knew how to estimate properly.) My itinerary was AA to Miami and then on to Panama (PTY). The flight time had gotten switched to leave 11 minutes later than when I booked my reservation and the connection ("oh it's a great connection") was reduced to about 50 minutes.

If you're ever in the neighborhood, Eat at Joe's
Of the 50 minute connection time, 10 to 20 minutes were used fixing (or not fixing but leaving anyway) a malfunctioning APU, and 10 additional minutes were used to de-ice the plane. The result is that I had about 20 minutes to get from gate D4 in Miami to gate E35. Unfortunately, this is a heart attack inducing plane change, even if you have a full hour to do it in. It involves leaving security, riding a train, etc. Nevertheless I was at E35 1 minute before departure time only to find (you knew this, right?) that they had closed the door 5 minutes early...even though they knew about my delay and that I was rushing to make the flight. I guess they never expected that someone could make that connection in the first place. When I am safely ensconced in my seat on the aircraft I am happy with a 5-10 minute early pushback. Not so much when I am trying to catch the flight. Regardless, the airline has a duty to connecting passengers, especially when accommodating them will not result in a significant flight delay. Right? Right?

So I missed my plane at 10:40am and the next flight wasn't due to depart until 5:30pm. What to do? I damn well wasn't going to wait around the airport for seven hours.

The Roney Plaza -- Long gone, but I learned to swim here in the 1950s
Miami was not foreign to me--my Mother split her time between Chicago and Miami Beach through high school and we would visit my Grandparents there virtually every winter. One of the highlights of those trips, to me, was our yearly sojourn to Joe's Stone Crab in the South Beach area. We would feast, family style, on stone crabs, steak, hash browns, salads of various forms, and their marvelous key lime pie.

Our train at Colon
With a stone crab lunch in mind, I ended up talking the nice lady behind the Hertz counter into renting me a car for about four hours fairly cheaply. $25 plus taxes came to right around $30 (a round trip taxi would have been much more). I then went to Joe's and had a great lunch consisting of stone crabs, a wedge salad with real roquefort dressing, maybe potatoes, and a piece of key lime pie.

On the first day in Panama we visited the historic town of Portobello
In the 1950s through the 1970s when I would visit, South Beach, and particularly the art decco portion of South Beach was full of run down small apartment hotels, mainly catering to the elderly Jewish community. For a good look at the beach during this period go watch the 1959 film A Hole in the Head with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson.

At the Gatun Locks
By the time of this visit South Beach had been transformed into a land of fancy botique hotels and restaurants and even fancier people. It was the place to be seen for a certain kind of person. Needless to say, after lunch I waddled back to my car and got the hell away from there. (Though it was fun to see how the area had been transformed.)

Someone's having a great time
As I said, I knew the area pretty well, so I drove around visiting old hunting grounds and then turned the car in, probably around 3pm, went through airport security and spent some time in the Admiral's lounge before going to the gate.

A motley crew
At the gate, I ran into Neil Lang (who I knew would be on the flight), Carol and Thom Sulanke (who I suspected would be), and Judy Decker. That flight left about 5 minutes late but we arrived in Panama on time. Customs was easy and before long we had hooked up with the person who was to take us to the hotel and about 30 minutes after that we were at the hotel (the Country Inn and Suites.)

The Country Inn was a decent enough hotel once I got moved from the floor which had a sewage odor. That notwithstanding it had two things going for it: an adjoining TGI Fridays (which was only important because the short nights and long days meant that we were too tired to go exploring) and it was right at the west entrance to the we could watch canal traffic.

A "mule" from the Islamorada
Thursday: Another short night as I had to be ready for a 6:30am departure from the hotel. I was surprised at the number of my railroad riding friends there. In addition to those already mentioned Al Butler, Tom Glover, Brad Phillips, Dwight Long, Steve Miller, Dave Arthur, Stan Hunter. If I missed anyone I apologize.

The bus took us to the Panama Canal Railway's train station. As it did so, I noticed something which continued to amaze me all trip. If you'll look on a map of Panama, you'll notice that the Atlantic Ocean is northwest of the Pacific and the net effect of this is that the sun rises over the Pacific and sets over the Atlantic. As a result of this I was geographically disoriented for most of the trip.

The gates, nearly 100 years old, open
We boarded our reserved dome car (ex-SP I am told) for the quick 1 hour trip to Colon on the Atlantic. A very nice ride in a comfortable car...for about 42 miles over heavy welded rail on concrete ties...much along the canal.

A Panamax ship
The original railroad had been torn up a number of years ago because it was not used. The Kansas City Southern rebuilt the line and it is now used predominately to transport containers from one coast to the other...useful for ships that are too big to transit the canal. With the opening of the new, larger locks in mid-2016 I am sure the traffic patterns for the railroad have changed, but given the cost of using those locks ranges up to $1,000,000 for a single transit I am sure that the railroad continues to do very well.

After we got off the train we boarded the tour bus (which was driven across after dropping us off...we had to wait about 20 minutes) and were taken on a tour of the historic town of Portobello. Then we had lunch, and made a visit to the Gatun locks. These are the three locks on the Atlantic side that raise or lower the ships a total of 81 feet up to Gatun Lake. There is an observation platform and a narrator there and most of use felt that this was a great way to spend an hour or two. Among other things we learned that, the locks at each end of the canal are oneway inbound in the morning and oneway outbound in the afternoon. If your ship misses its slot it may have to wait at anchor for a day or more to get through. We also learned that the Canal Authority demands a cash toll be paid before a ship is allowed to transit. Given the high tolls and the fact that some of the freight carriers are sail-by-night operations, there were a fair number of elderly looking freighters sitting at anchor outside the canal entrance waiting for the funds to arrive. (Aside: I have been told that it costs a near-Panamax size cruise ship nearly $500,000 to transit the canal -- on a reservation basis. I have no idea if this is true.)

The ships were amazing and appeared to fill the locks in all directions. These were the Panamax class ships. Newer, much bigger ships, designed to fill the new locks are called NeoPanamax. For the old locks the ships are guided through the locks and kept from hitting the sides by 50 (55?) ton electric locomotives made by Mitsibushi. As the locomotives go from lock to lock they have to climb nearly a 45 degree angle...cog drive. (Not sure what the equivalent is in the new locks.)
More pictures from the Islamorada
From Gatun we went back to the train and rode it back to the Panama City end of the line.  We arrived back at the hotel about 6:30pm and had dinner at the connected TGI Friday's...too tired for anything else.

Friday: this was it...the day we sailed through the canal. Departing the hotel at 6am the buses took us to Colon on the Atlantic side where we board the Islamorada, a 1912 day boat that was quite comfortable for our group of 50. Then another bus turned up and it appears that they double booked the ship by "mistake" so we were forced to cram in another 40 or so people. I imagine this happens all the time...but it sucked. It would have been nice to have room to really move around the boat.

The research ship that tied up alongside of us
The trip through the canal was breath taking. We started through the Gatun Locks and they were really a wonder to behold. Here we were in this tiny little boat crammed into a lock behind this tremendous grain ship (I think) with an even bigger PANAMAX container ship in the lock along side us. And the gates (original, from 1914) closed and the water rose and 10 minutes later we were 27 feet higher. The the other gates open and we repeated this two more times. Finally we emerged into Gatun Lake, created when they dammed the Chagres River. We sailed across this big lake (2nd biggest man made lake... Lake Mead is the first) and through the Gaillard cut (one of the true engineering marvels of the canal but not obviously so) and to the Pedro-Miguel lock -- this is a single lock. Apparently the rule is that the small boats go up behind larger ships, but they go down in front of we ended up in front of the grain ship...which gave us a whole different view of things. Once we were all tucked safely in we went down 27 feet and exited to Mira Flores lake...which is a small lake that took us to the Mira Flores locks (two in a row) which took us down to sea level. In these locks we had a sailing yacht tied up next to us...with a young crew who are doing research into something or another that escapes me at the moment. They were on a long trip that started in Newport, Rhode Island and was going to the Galapagos among other places. What I do remember is the young female line handlers bending over to grab our lines to tie up to us. Behind us in these last two locks was the cruise ship Minerva II. Again, it's a bit unnerving to see one of these ships bearing down on you!

After we got out of the last lock (by the way, if you've been through 2-3 of these, the rest seem somewhat superfluous) we took about 20 minutes to reach port and perhaps another 10 to reach the hotel...which we arrived at about 7:30 or so. Again dinner at TGIF...too tired to go anywhere else.

One of the murals in the Canal Administration Building
Saturday: ah, we slept in. We left on a bus tour at 8:30am and went to the Canal Administration building where we saw some incredible murals...very much like the old Cincinnati Union Terminal murals. This was really the high point of the day. We also visited the Mira Flores locks from the ground side, and had lunch at a restaurant in the rain forest near Gamboa (where the Chagres River ... that fills Gatun Lake ... meets the canal), and those who wanted spent 45 minutes at a handicraft mall. At some point the bus took us across the Bridge of the Americas. This marks the only time I've been in South America! Neil and I had dinner at a nice restaurant about a 20 minute walk from the hotel...and then back to the hotel.

A view in the rain forest
Sunday: I was scheduled out on the 2:40pm flight to Miami with a 1 hour and 45 minute connection. This probably would have been fine, but I had to clear customs in that time and mindful of the forced march on Wednesday, and the fact that a 105 minute connection is at best a 100 minute connection, I decided to try to get on the 8:20am flight instead. (I would have been scheduled on the 8:20am flight in the first place, but there was no published connecting flight on AA so it could not be booked.) Phone calls before had not succeeded, but I took a chance and went to the airport with the group...and was able to get on. We arrived on time, and cleared customs almost instantaneously (but it would have been a CF in the afternoon I am sure!) I went to a AA manager and got him to endorse the ticket over to USAir (try that today) in the event that I could get on that flight...but it went out full without me...I retreated to the Admiral's club.

My flight out of MIA left about 20 minutes late--full of people fresh off cruise ships. The flight kept showing later and later and the only person around kept saying "they have to clean the plane". It doesn't take that long unless you are short staffed, which American apparently was.

Anyway, we left late, got in on time, my taxi was there for me and I was home by about 10:45...after having gotten out of bed at 5am in Panama.

As it happens I've since been through parts of the canal twice since this trip. Once was enroute from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco in April 2006 aboard the Celebrity Infinity, and the other was on the Carnival Miracle in April 2008. It just went in to Gatun Lake, cruised around for a while and then went back the way it came in. Vieweing the canal from a cruise ship is an entirely different experience. I think I enjoyed the day boat much better.

I was motivated to remember all of this because an organization that I belong to, the Lexington Group in Transportation History, had their annual meeting in Panama this past week and did some of the same activities. Had I not had other travel plans in a few weeks I would have joined them...if only to see the new locks. They did a half transit of the canal from Balboa to Gamboa through the Mira Flores and Pedro-Miguel locks and down the Gaillard far the most interesting part of the canal. With a bus return, their trip took about 6 hours.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Riding and Chasing Amtrak's 2017 Autumn Express

In the 1880s the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired a railroad built along the west shore of the Hudson river so it could compete with the New York Central on its own turf. In turn, the New York Central began building the South Pennsylvania Railroad to compete against the Pennsy on its turf. On July 10, 1885, J. P. Morgan brought William Vanderbilt and Chauncy Depew of the New York Central and George Roberts and Frank Thomson of the Pennsyvania together aboard his yacht, Corsair, and negotiated the "Corsair Compact" to end the wasteful competition. As a result the New York Central ended up with the West Shore line (and the Pennsylvania got the South Pennsylvania ... which was never completed and became part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike many years later.)

Most New York Central, and all Amtrak service between Albany and New York City traversed the Hudson line (along the east shore of the Hudson), and I had ridden that route several times. But, over the years I had missed several opportunities to ride the line along the west shore. So it was with great interest that I read an email in August of 2017 that contained a rumor of a probable Amtrak Autumn Express to cover the West Shore Railroad each of the two days of the weekend of October 14. In anticipation of the trip I immediately booked a room at the Hilton Newark Penn Station for the nights of October 13th and 14th and sat back to await an official announcement.

The Autumn Express approaching Peekskill, October 15, 2017
Said announcement came on September 1, with tickets to go on sale on September 12. On the morning of September 12 I booked a ticket on the October 14th trip, and also purchased tickets for traveling companions Rick Moser and Neil Lang. I then started watching air fares for flights between Pittsburgh and Newark. I had a credit from a canceled trip to Winnipeg in July (to ride to Churchill, a line that got flooded out) so given that sunk cost, I was only out of pocket about an additional $80.

At some point before purchasing the airline tickets I decided to join Rick on an outing to photograph the Sunday train in two or three locations. By the time I made this decision the rates at the Hilton had gone up and I ended up booking the night of the 15th at the Hilton Newark Airport.

On October 13, Barb dropped me at the bus to take me to Pittsburgh International Airport for my 12:30pm flight. The flight left the gate a full 12 minutes early and was at the end of the runway ready to take off by 12:30 when Newark instituted a ground stop. We sat in place, just off the runway, for 55 minutes and then had a smooth flight (though air traffic control continued to slow us down.) Still we were less than 30 minutes late arriving in Newark, around 2:30pm. (You should have heard the very old lady behind me saying she would never fly United again because of this...she was saying this to her mother!) Upon arrival I boarded the airport's Air Train and found friend Greg Molloy from Seattle and Cincinnati in the same car. We got off at the hotel shuttle staging area and 25 minutes later we were on our way to the hotel, where we checked in at 3:45pm.

Amtrak's Autumn Express at Rhinecliff, October 14, 2017
Neil had arrived the day before and was off with friend Greg Sommers exploring parts of the Long Island Railroad, the ferry from Port Jefferson to Bridgeport, and Metro North.

Rick arrived (late for the same reason as I) on his Southwest flight from Chicago Midway, and took the Air Train to the New Jersey Transit train which took him to Newark Penn Station (connected to the hotel), arriving about at the hotel about 30 minutes after I did. Rick and I met briefly for a drink in the executive lounge of the Hilton and then I was off to New York City by train to Pennsylvania Station. I stopped at the only Garrett's Popcorn shop in New York to see if I could get special edition gift tin (Japanese pop art) for Lizzy (I couldn't) and then made the short walk to Keen's Chophouse, where I met up with friends Patti Beadles and Steve Eisenstein for an excellent dinner (I had a wonderful Dover Sole) and even better conversation. Then a train back to my hotel and to bed before 11pm.

Haverstraw Depot, October 15, 2017
After too little sleep, the alarm woke me at 5:20am so that I would be ready to catch the 6:10am train to back to Pennsylvania Station where we were boarding the Autumn Express (there was also 6:15am train and then nothing soon enough for the 8am departure.) The line for the train started forming at Gate 10 at 7am and boarding started at 7:30am. Rick and I ended up in Car 2 (numbered from the south end). Neil and his friend Greg ended up in Car 5. From front to rear the train consisted of P42 locomotive #145, the "Veterans" themed Siemens ALS64 electric locomotive #642, the Amtrak conference car #9800, a food car, four coaches, another food car, four coaches, a cab car #9641, and another P42 locomotive #156 (pointed north).

The train left at 8:02am bound for Newark where it picked up additional passengers at 8:30am (we could have boarded there but we wanted to be sure of getting good seats.) A bit south of the Newark station, it reversed direction and began to slowly wind its way around the yard trackage of New Jersey until it found its way to the West Shore line at Weehawken about an hour later. The line is now owed by CSX and they have, in recent years, been unfriendly to passenger trains, but they handled this train really well and we made it to our northern most point (just south of Albany) almost exactly on time at around 1:50pm.

A southbound CSX freight at Iona Island
Enroute Amtrak handed out custom lapel pins and box lunches in an insulated souvenir tote. (The lunch was a huge turkey sandwich, chips, Milano cookies, and a bottle of water.) I took some opportunity to walk the train and chat with the various other friends aboard (I won't name all of them, but I estimate there were about 25 aboard...with at least an equal number on Sunday's train.)

Ok, so I'll try (sorry if I forgot you!): Me, Rick, Neil, Stan Hunter (who sat across from Rick and I), John Friedmann (who I never actually talked with), Greg Molloy, Dave Brown, Bob Douglas, Al Butler, Richard Maund, Phil Bush, Sheila Dorr, Rick Davidson, Jeff Mora, Judy Decker, Sy Reich, Robert Lawrence, John and Gloria Ehrlich, Nigel Eacock, Walter Zullig, Steve Cordwell, Hubert Horan, Brian Cutter, Scott Spencer, Phil Kondzelia, Dave Smetko, Gregg Sommers, Craig Willet and Matt Van Hattem. Several of these folks rode both days.

The Autumn Express at Iona Island
At location CP SK I thought my new mileage ended (but see below). The train reversed direction again, and headed across the Hudson to the line along the east shore. At about 3pm we pulled in to Rhinecliff, where the train paused for nearly an hour for photos. The train then went back to Pennsylvania Station where it arrived just before 6pm, over 10 minutes early. Along the way I realized that not only had I not been over the West Shore line, but I also had not been over the "new" connection from the Hudson River line to Pennsylvania Station before. (This new connection is probably about 20 years old.)

Five of us, me, Rick, Neil, Greg, and Stan Hunter, had decided to grab a meal before heading back to Newark. Upon arrival we ran into Steve Miller who joined us. We walked several blocks (boy those cross-town blocks are long) to the Heartland Brewpub in the Empire State Building and enjoyed a very nice dinner and conversation. We were back in Newark before 9pm and all exhausted. I watched the Cubs game until the Dodgers tied it up and then went to sleep.

Front (north end) and rear (south end) of the Autumn Express passing Newburgh
On Sunday, I was up at 6:45 and down to breakfast at about 7:15 where I met up with Rick, Otto Dobnick, and Nancy Anderson. Neil showed up a bit later. Rick, Neil, and I caught the 8:15 shuttle to the airport to pick up Rick's rental car and then headed to Haverstraw for a quick photo of the depot. From there we went to Iona Island near Stony Point where we caught our first shot of the special under overcast skies...but not before a southbound CSX freight came through. From there we drove to Newburgh were we caught the special again ... this time under mostly cloudy skies.

All of this time I sensed that something was not right with Neil. He was coughing and seemed (to us in the front seat) extremely uncomfortable. As we drove into Hudson, NY, Neil announced that he had to use a bathroom somewhat urgently (but not that urgently). We drove down Hudson's main street looking for a likely restaurant to stop for lunch (and for Neil) but nothing looked suitable. Instead I did a bit of googling using the doofarber and found a promising restaurant north of the city on NY 9. Bob's Restaurant turned out to be a real find. It had a nice diner-like menu, a great waitress, and a very clean bathroom with a window that was cracked open (though Neil has since assured me that the open window wasn't relevant!) I had a turkey club, Rick had a blt, and Neil, in spite of his problems, had a "deli-wrap" which came with soup (he substituted coleslaw), fries, and dessert. After lunch we went to the Hudson Amtrak station and found a place to shoot both a regular Amtrak train and the special.

The Autumn Express at Hudson
We had decided early on not to actually "chase" the train, but merely to catch it occasionally throughout the day. With that in mind Rick had planned for our last stop to be in Peekskill where the day before we had noticed a long sweeping curve along the river that could be shot from a pier. It seemed from the train that the sun would be exactly in the right spot for this shot. It turned out not to be in any the heavy overcast returned. As we were approaching the spot (and the time for the special to arrive was getting close) Neil announced that he, again, had urgent need for a bathroom. We quickly found a place for him and still had plenty of time to get to the location where we shot a number of trains including several Amtrak Empire State trains, the Lake Shore Limited, and a Metro North train before the special arrived.
The Lake Shore Limited just after leaving Peekskill
From Peekskill we went back to Newark. The plan had been for Rick and I to check into our new hotel, for the three of us to go to dinner, to drop Neil off at his hotel, and to return the rental car and catch a shuttle back to our hotel. By this time Neil was feeling so awful that he elected to be dropped off as soon as we got into the area. From there Rick and I went to Tops Diner, which was highly rated...though I thought overly so. I had roasted chicken and did not like the gravy they used at all. Rick had the roast turkey dinner which he appeared to like a lot. We both took a slice of cake back to the hotel for later.
Full view of the Autumn Express approaching Peekskill

We then drove to the hotel to check in and discovered that the front area was full of well dressed people and their cars and other vehicles to the point where it wasn't obvious where we should leave the car while we registered. I looked around for the valet or doorman and saw a person helping another person with their car...or so it seemed. You can see where this is going, right? I asked him if he worked at the hotel and as soon as I asked I realized that he did not. In my defense he was dressed almost exactly like the doorman when I found him. It turns out that the Nation of Islam was holding a fancy event (I think Louis Farrakhan was present) and that explained the fancy dress. (The gentleman was most gracious and friendly even though I was completely mortified.) When I walked into the lobby I saw what appeared to be a line of about 12 or so waiting to check in, so Rick and I decided to turn in the car first and register later. Other than "Julie" giving us directions to the wrong place for rental car return (user error) this was accomplished with no problem. We had to take the Air Train from the rental return area across the airport to the hotel shuttle area and surprisingly the shuttle (driven by a friendly driver named Percy) was there within about five minutes. Check in was easy and I was in my room before 10pm...where I watched the Cubs lose to the Dodgers while I ate my cake.

Neil spent most of Monday, the day he had planned to be out riding New Jersey Transit trains in his hotel room guzzling Robitussin instead. He returned to SFO the next day without any significant problem.

Rick and I headed home. We had agreed to text each other when we were ready for breakfast, but not to expect a reply if the other person was still sleeping or in the shower or ... I texted Rick about 8:15 and he answered so we met in the lobby and went to the hotel buffet...which was ok, but not great (it was better at the other Hilton.) Since our flights were at about the same time (both left around noon) we caught the 10am shuttle to the airport together, and both of us were through security by 10:30am, but in different terminals. Since I had over an hour to kill I used one of my soon-to-expire United Club passes. The plane boarded as scheduled and left early and we were early into Pittsburgh, but the flight was very bumpy and had no beverage service as a result. Rick reported that his flight was quite smooth at about the same time. The difference: I was on a regional jet, Rick was on a 737. It didn't matter that the flight was early because if it had been on time I would have caught the same bus home. I walked in the door at 3:15pm after a great fall getaway.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Booze and Politics and my Vietnam War Protest

I grew up in Lake County, Illinois, specifically in District 10. At the time I lived there the district was firmly Republican in politics (though the area I lived in was Democratic). During the period of the Vietnam War the district was represented in Congress by Robert McClory, a Republican. He was fully supportive of both the war and, initially, Richard Nixon.

In 1970 I was a grad student in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. A number of my fellow grad students were not US-citizens. I learned that some of them had to go to Washington to handle visa or other similar issues and I volunteered to drive them on a one day road trip.

I cannot recall the exact dates, but I do know that we left Pittsburgh in my 1968 Pontiac GTO early in the morning for the four-plus hour drive. The first thing we did upon crossing into the District of Columbia was to stop at a liquor store so that my friends could stock up on cheap(er) liquor. Stopping going into the District seemed safer than doing so immediately prior to leaving the District. Then I drove them to where they had to go for their business. We agreed to meet in the mid-afternoon and I had a good part of the day to kill, so I parked the car near the Mall and started walking around.

On the spur of the moment I decided to visit Robert McClory's office to register my displeasure with the war and the way Nixon was pursuing it. I had no real idea of changing Mr. McClory's mind, but I figured having a constituent stop by his office rather than writing or calling might count for something. So I walked to the appropriate Congressional office building and up to his office. To my ever-lasting surprise the Congressman actually agreed to spend a few minutes talking to me. I was not intimidated in the least by his "august" position, but rather had a cordial conversation with him that lasted perhaps as much as fifteen minutes. Actually, I say I was surprised, but it wasn't until upon reflection later that I realized that it was probably an unusual occurrence to get face-to-face time. I left the office knowing that I would never vote for him, that he would always support positions counter to mine, but that I had tried. (So you can imagine my surprise when McClory ended up having a large behind-the-scenes role in getting Nixon to resign just a few years later.)

A few hours later I met up with my friends and we piled into my car to begin the drive back to Pittsburgh. Some years earlier I had been taken to a restaurant called the Peter Pan Inn in Urbana, Maryland about 40 miles along Interstate 270 from Washington. My friends and I decided to stop for dinner there along the way. I started to decelerate from 65 mph as I approached the Urbana exit, but it wasn't until I was actually in the too-short exit lane that I saw the caution sign that said 10 mph. I probably took the curve on the ramp doing more than 30. Thankfully the GTO had excellent handling and we were never in danger of going off the road. However the cargo in the trunk complained noisily. After we stopped at the restaurant we opened the trunk and found no broken bottles, but for a few minutes we were all pretty worried.

Dinner was (no doubt, because it always was there) excellent and we made it home that evening with no further issues. I have no idea what happened to the contents of the trunk, but before I knew it, it was empty.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Independence Limited 1974

In 1966 I enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) to begin an undergraduate program in Mathematics. When I arrived in Pittsburgh that fall I noticed the trolleys that went right by the school and even rode them to and from downtown Pittsburgh a few times, but I was busy getting acclimated to college and did not spend much time thinking about them. Alas, just four short months later, in late-January 1967, all of the lines that went past Carnegie Tech and a lot of others were shutdown in favor of buses. All that remained were lines that served the South Hills, and at the time the South Hills might just as well have been Mars (a Northern suburb of Pittsburgh, though I didn't know it at the time) to me.

By 1974 I was a graduate student in the Computer Science Department. One day, probably in April, I was reading the May issue of Trains Magazine and came across this advertisement:
May 25-26, 1974: Pittsburgh Traction Weekend will be sponsored by Central Electric Railfans' Association. ... Sunday: Entire rail system of Port Authority of Allegheny County will be covered in a day-long trip using three differently painted PCC cars in sequence. Photo opportunities will include work equipment.
I decided that this would be a great way to learn about the trolley system that I had so far ignored and signed up. (There was a Saturday trip to the Arden Trolley Museum, but since I had been there I did not participate.)
Mod Desire at South Hills Junction
May 26 came around and I took a bus to downtown Pittsburgh and boarded the first of their chartered trolleys. It was a beautiful day, and we had a lot of photo opportunities throughout the system. During a lunch break downtown, I walked a few blocks to Bill & Walt's Hobby Shop at the corner of the Blvd. of the Allies and (I believe) Smithfield St. After looking at the merchandise I went outside and noticed a flyer in the window advertising the 1974 Independence Limited, a steam train excursion that would take place over the 4th of July. Up until this point I had never ridden any sort of rail excursion, but this one piqued my interest and I wrote for more information. The posted flyer is lost to history, but here is an ad that ran for that same trip in Trains:
July 4-7, 1974: The Independence Limited runs again! Southern steam locomotive 4501 will head special through Ohio, W. Va and Va. July 4: Cincinnati to Williamson via N&W mainline. July 5: Williamson to Roanoke via former Virginian trackage. July 6: roundtrip between Roanoke and Buena Vista on N&W Shenandoah Division. July 7: Roanoke to Alexandria via Southern mainline. Intermediate stops. Overnight accommodations. Return transportation from most points. For information write Roanoke Chapter, NRHS.
I ended up buying a ticket that included:
  • All of the above mentioned train travel
  • One night in one of the finest hotels in Williamson, W. Va.
  • Two nights in the Hotel Roanoke (a historic hotel that was--and still is--indeed the finest hotel in Roanoke)
all for the price of $120 inclusive (about $600 today).

Of course I had to get from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati on July 3. Flying was an option as was, I suppose, a long bus ride, but it turned out that a fellow grad-student, Paul Knueven, grew up in Cincinnati and he and his wife were going to be driving there for the holiday weekend. They invited me to hitch a ride, and Paul's parents even put me up for the night in a guest bedroom. We all went out for my first taste of Cincinnati-style chili that night and they gave me a grand tour of the area. (Not a fan of Cincinnati-style chili though.) The next morning Paul and his dad drove me to the train and I had my first glimpse of 4501, a locomotive I would see many times over into the 21st century. The first sniff of coal smoke from the old Mikado brought me immediately back to being four years old and picking my Dad up at the Chicago & North Western's Ravinia station as he got off his Pacific-pulled commuter train.

As a through passenger (that is, riding all the way from Cincinnati to Alexandria) I was entitled to ride in the air conditioned combine "Man O' War". A combine is a half baggage - half coach and this one, a staple on Southern steam excursions, was named after a train of the same name that ran on the Central of Georgia and still lettered for CofG, which in turn was named after one of the greatest thoroughbred horses of all time. The Man O' War ran at the front of the train (behind the gondola they used to transport coal for the locomotive, and the Norfolk and Western business car 500, Claytor Lake). The doors in the baggage portion of the car made for a great place to take pictures. (These sorts of pictures are becoming increasingly harder to get because of railroad policies prohibiting open vestibule windows, etc.) , The Man O' War was also the place to make (audio) recordings of the 4501 in action. I also had access to the rest of the train, and could have ridden anywhere else I wanted.

The Man O' War
As the trip began I settled into my seat and took note of the other passengers in the car. I remember most, an old man (probably younger than I am now) named Lex who was from the Cincinnati area and pretty much an "expert" on everything. One of the things he was an expert on was beer, and he was raving about Hudepohl beer and how he planned to have some during the lunch stop in Portsmouth. He was a real character. Another was the late Bob Bixler from Orrville, Ohio, who became a friend. He was an ex-Pennsy fireman and was traveling with his very young daughter and her friend. Bob and I kept in touch over the years, and I would occasionally see him in Pittsburgh when he would come to town on an Orrville Railroad Historical Society excursion that he had organized. Once when he ran two back to back excursions to Pittsburgh he let me ride the trip in reverse (from Pittsburgh to Brewster, Ohio one train, and returning on the next day's train), he even lent me a car for the evening I was in the Brewster area. Then there was a pretty young woman, Aleatha Brock, daughter of Paul Brock, who was working in the cab of 4501. Finally, I remember that this is where I met Bruce Heard, another person who became a good friend. Bruce worked for Amtrak in various capacities, at corporate headquarters in DC when I met him, but retiring as Senior Director of Special Projects (read--interfaced with Hollywood I believe) in California. My good friends Dave and Carol Ingles were aboard, but I was not to meet them until the following year.

This was really near the beginning of when I started to get serious about railroad photography. In those days I traveled with two Canon FTb 35mm SLRs. One held black and white Tri-X (usually) and the other color slide film Kodachrome 64 (usually). I spent a lot of time in the baggage section of the Man O' War taking pictures. It wasn't until much later that I realized that I (mostly) did not like the pictures that resulted from shooting the train in this manner. One really has to be pretty far back in a long train for this to be worthwhile. Another thing I learned about this first day of the trip was cinders, and how they enjoyed finding your eyes. Luckily the concession car (Carol E. Jensen) in the middle of the train had safety glasses for sale along with ample amounts of food. The car, by the way, was named for the wife of Carl Jensen who was a leader of the Roanoke Railroad Historical Society. I met both of them on this trip along with other members of the group who I would come to know better over the years including David Helmer and Dorr Tucker.

Continuing on with photography, this trip also introduced me to the photo runby. The trolley trip a few months earlier had provided photo opportunities in which we could all get off the trolley and take pictures of it in various locations and with various sign boards showing. For a main line train excursion a photo runby is much the same...only more so. The train stops, the passengers who are interested (most everyone) get off the train and find a good position for taking pictures, the train backs up out of sight and then comes forward at high speed with lots of smoke and whistling. It may do this again (a double runby) or it may just back up and pick up the passengers and continue on its merry way. The pictures obtainable at a runby are generally vastly superior to those obtained out a vestibule window. We had several runbys each day of this four day excursion.

Because the train was pulled by a steam engine, there were lengthy mid-day stops each day of the trip. This was for watering the locomotive, adding coal to its tender, lubrication, etc. It allowed passengers an extended time off the train. The first day this happened in Portsmouth, and used the time to look around, get a bite to eat, and have a Hudepohl. (It was ok.)

Note the Claytor Lake ahead of the Man O' War
Late in the day we crossed into West Virginia at Kenova and the territory became more rugged. People came through the train and passed out hotel room assignments and keys, and told us that dinner options would be limited in Williamson but that a restaurant, The Lock Stock and Barrel, would remain open for us and serve a special buffet. The restaurant was founded by some anti-poverty activists and was part of a rehabilitation effort in Williamson. But in order to eat there, we first had to get to Williamson. We were chugging along nicely until all of a sudden the train came to a complete stop. It seems that the 4501 had developed a clinker. This was the first I had ever heard of a clinker -- a hard deposit that occurs when ash and sulfur fuse together. This happens when the firebox is at a lower temperature than normal. In order to proceed the clinker had to be broken up (using a tool called a clinker hook). In due course it was, and we eventually pulled into Williamson.

According to Wikipedia: When dignitaries such as President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford and celebrities such as Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams came to the area, they stayed at the Mountaineer Hotel. Oh, and me too! This was (and is now even more so) an OLD hotel with smallish rooms, but reasonably clean.  The first thing I did was to take a shower, whereupon I learned the reason that railfans often wear hats -- to avoid cinders in their hair. I hardly ever wear a hat because usually they are too small for me, and besides, I had (and have) a good head of hair. It must have taken me a good 10 minutes to wash all the cinders out of my hair. (I bought and wore a hat the next day.) Oh, and riding behind a coal powered locomotive and hanging out the window is dirty work. I used up a lot of water. So did everyone else in the hotel. I heard that latecomers had a real problem with both hot water and water pressure by the time they got to the shower.

Another Runby
After changing, it was off to the Lock Stock and Barrel for dinner. The only thing I really remember about the dinner is that most of us felt that we had been taken lock stock and barrel by eating there. It turned out that there were other options that proved more satisfying to those who partook of them. On the way back to the hotel some of us stopped to admire the Coal House a building made entirely of coal that housed the chamber of commerce.

Bright and early the next day I arose, walked to the train and resumed my seat in the Man O' War. Today was the highlight of the trip for many, though for me it was no more or less special than any other day of the trip. That's because I wasn't into collecting "rare mileage" at the time and did not realize that our route, using the ex-Virginian line was extremely "rare" (in the sense that, unless you were operating a train over the line, you were unlikely to be able to ride it.)

1776 Leading us to Mullens
The scenery became even more rugged and we were helped along by Norfolk and Western SD45 diesel locomotive 1776, all painted up for the US's bicentennial two years hence. As we approached Elmore Yard and Mullens, W. Va. someone on the train mentioned that the Regency Room at the Hotel Roanoke was the place to dine well in Roanoke, especially to savor their famous peanut soup--but only if you wore a jacket and tie. I have no idea why I had a jacket along (I wouldn't these days), but I did not have a tie. So I used part of the time we were in Mullens walking around the downtown area and bought myself a cheap ($5 as I recall) tie at the Mullens G.C. Murphy.

We pulled into Roanoke at an early hour. As they had the afternoon before, the Roanoke Chapter people had distributed hotel room keys on the train, so it was simply a matter of getting of the train, walking by the Raymond Lowey designed passenger station and up the hill to the Hotel Roanoke and finding my room. Again an old hotel, but an elegant one. After a shower (with much fewer cinders because of my nice and shiny new hat) it was time for dinner in the Regency Room. It was as elegant as promised with white jacketed waiters and great food -- particularly the peanut soup.

The next day I could leave my stuff in my room, because the the train was doing a round trip to Buena Vista on the Shenandoah line. This was a pleasant journey punctuated by a picnic on said vista looking down upon the city and the train below.

The last day of the trip was a shot up the N&W to Lynchburg and then up the Southern all the way to Alexandria, Va. As usual there were runbys and lots of high speed running and it was a grand old time. Throughout the trip I had been eyeing the Claytor Lake, the business car running ahead of the Man O' War. At some point I mentioned my interest to Bob Bixler who pointed to another gentleman who was spending time in the Man O' War, Jim Bistline, and said that he'd probably be willing to take me up to look around. Jim, it turned out, was the General Counsel for the Southern Railway and also one of the leaders of the Southern Steam program. He was delighted to give me a tour and we became good friends in the ensuring years as we got to know each other better. It was a sad day when he passed away.

Eventually the train pulled into Alexandria, and I had to get back to Pittsburgh. Again, I could have flown, or waited a day and taken the train, but I had a better idea. It turned out that several fellow grad students including my Norwegian friend Amund Lunde (who we used to call a "damn Swede" because it annoyed him so and who was one of my few non-native English speaking friends who could pun in English) wanted to visit DC over the holiday. I gave them the use of my Volvo as long as they agreed to pick me up in Alexandria. They did, and I was home that same evening, a confirmed train-riding railfan.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Saga of Roll 99

In the April 1988 edition of Trains Magazine (The Magazine of Railroading), this excursion, to be run by the 470 Railroad Club, was advertised:

May 28-29, 1988: Excursion on Bangor & Aroostook Railroad from Bangor, Me to Fort Kent, Madawaska, and Van Buren with possible side trip to B&A yard in Canada. First generation diesel power with three ex-DL&W coaches. Fare is $170 which includes rail trip, lodging, two box lunches, and breakfast.

Simple enough, right? Get yourself to Bangor by plane or car and ride the excursion and return home? Well not for us. In the words of Daniel Burnham, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood". Nor, might I add, those of little boys who still like to play with trains. The "us" in question for this trip were myself and friends Rick and Phil Moser from the Chicago area and Dave Ingles from Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Looking at a map of Maine, you'll notice that Madawaska is right at the tip. In fact you can't go any further north and still be in the US. Right across the river is Edmundston, New Brunswick. Also, looking at the map you'll notice that the trip was basically a round trip from Bangor to Van Buren. This meant that if "getting the mileage" was your main goal, riding one way would be sufficient -- either boarding or "escaping" at Van Buren. A few calls to the trip operator ascertained that this would not be possible because of border issues at Van Buren, but boarding or leaving the train in Madawaska was a distinct possibility. Riding one way gave us the flexibility to do "other things" -- the other things involving riding other trains.

Eastbound Atlantic (our train) at Saint John
Eastbound Atlantic at Saint John
How to get to or from Madawaska? Well it turns out that Edmundston had rail service at the time. It was also where the passengers on the trip would be spending the night of May 28. Traveling with the group to the hotel and leaving from there the next morning was one possibility. Getting to Edmundston on our own, riding from Madawaska to Van Buren and return on the 28th and then riding from Madawaska to Bangor on the 29th was the other. Our decision was made for us when we discovered that an overnight stay in Moncton was necessary to get from Edmundston to Montreal, but not when getting from Montreal to Edmundston.
Eastbound Atlantic (our train) after leaving Moncton

Since the train from Moncton to Edmundston only ran on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, that meant we needed to get to Moncton in time to catch the train to Edmundston the evening of the 27th. There were two trains from Montreal to Moncton in 1988. One was the Ocean (still in service today) which ran on the Canadian National route. The other was the Atlantic (annulled in service cuts in the mid-1990s) which ran on the Canadian Pacific.

While awaiting the Atlantic we caught a CN freight at Amherst

Westbound Atlantic in Amherst, Nova Scotia
I flew to Montreal on May 26 (in those days you could do nonstop from Pittsburgh) and met up with Rick, Phil (who had flown in from Chicago) and Dave (who had flown in from Milwaukee via Detroit). The Atlantic left Montreal at 1840 that same day. The route crossed Maine in the middle of the night, bisecting our route on the BAR at Brownsville Junction at 0245 on the 27th (assuming we were on time). By the time I awoke we were safely back in Canada and were probably approaching Fredericton Jct. at 0745. We went through Saint John, New Brunswick at 0900 (Dave's sister and brother-in-law lived there at the time), and we arrived in Moncton at 1100.

In Amherst, Nova Scotia
A CN freight with a strange rear car
The train to Edmundston left at 1815 (arriving at 2255) giving us about nine hours to kill around Moncton. We, what else?, rented a car so that we could do some railfanning in the area. We headed off to Amherst Nova Scotia, taking pictures enroute including the westbound Atlantic. We drove back to Moncton, turned in our car, and had dinner prior to the departure of our train to Edmundston and eventual transfer to our hotel.

A Via Rail Canada RDC set similar to our train to Edmundston (at Marsh Jct)
On Saturday, May 28 we had most of the day to kill before the BAR train reached Madawaska. We, what else?, rented a car and did some railfanning in New Brunswick. Coming into town the previous day we crossed a really high and long trestle east of the city (actually east of Great Falls). We dubbed this the BFB (or Big Bridge). That was one of our destinations for photography. One thing I particularly remember besides the impressiveness of the BFB was a swarm of bees nearby. I have since learned that this is the Salmon River Trestle and it is the second longest bridge of its type in Canada (the first is on the Canadian Pacific at Lethbridge--I've also ridden across it).
On the BFB

Entering the BFB

On the BFB

We then drove back to Edmundston and photographed trains all around the area, crossing back and forth across the border multiple times. We had lunch on the US side of the border. By the time we had crossed the border to catch the BAR train to Van Buren the border control people on both sides just waved us through.

The 470 Excursion Train in Madawaska
In due time the BAR train arrived, and we found seats in one of the coaches for the ride to Van Buren where the train was turned and backed out across the bridge, crossing the border. Although we couldn't get off the train on the Canadian side, we were allowed off on the US side for photo opportunities. After this the train ran back to Madawaska and the passengers were transferred to the hotel we had been staying at in Edmundston. We, having a rental car, made the trip on our own.

The 470 Excursion Train on the Van Buren bridge
We had just crossed back into Canada when Dave announced that he had lost a roll of exposed film. This was the (now) infamous roll 99. We retraced our path back to the train and spent some time looking around the car we had been riding in, without luck. So we went back across the border into Canada in our rental car one last time, turned it in, and had dinner with other friends from the train. (I believe this was the first time I encountered seafood pizza.)

Short consist means more photos!
The next morning we transferred to the train along with the rest of the passengers going back to Bangor. It wasn't long after we sat down that Rick found roll 99 on the floor near his seat. He handed it to Dave who, to this day, still believes that we had hidden it from him overnight. (His words when shown an early draft of this article were "And yes, I still think you guys hid Roll 99 from me!") (We hadn't.)

At Eagle Lake
One of the joys of traveling with the 470 Railroad Club was that the trains were small (three cars in this case) and the passengers were reasonably knowledgable. This means that it was easy for the club to set up a large number of photo runbys on the way down to Bangor giving us ample opportunity to photograph the train.

At Twin Lake
We arrived in Bangor (actually Northern Maine Junction) at 1623 and started for home. Dave was making a presentation to the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts in the Boston area and drove down there. I believe Phil flew home from Bangor, while Rick and I arranged to ride to Portland with another passenger, had a New England shore dinner, and flew to our respective homes the next morning.