My town is rich with history, as most are I suppose. It has been known for more than a Century as Junction City. There are a few other nicks that may be less complimentary but that is for another story. I am a SoCal expatriate for almost 40 years now and whereas we have some railroad history down where I am from, it is only a post script when compared to the epic story that is the building of the Transcontinental Railroad culminating with a golden spike and a bit too much libation just a few miles Northwest of here. More about this to follow.
The San Diego and Arizona Railway was a short line railroad founded by entrepreneur John D. Spreckels, and dubbed “The Impossible Railroad” by engineers of its day due to the immense logistical challenges involved. Established in part to provide San Diego with a direct transcontinental rail link to the east by connecting with the Southern Pacific Railroad (which secretly provided the funding for the endeavor) lines in El Centro, California, the 148-mile (238 km) route of the SD&A originated in San Diego, California and terminated in El Centro, California. By 1951, passenger service was halted. Then in December 1985, the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum revives the historic San Diego & Arizona Railway name(reporting mark SDAX), inaugurating it’s Golden State demonstration passenger trains over the railway out of Campo, CA east to Miller Creek and west to Division and tunnel four at the international border. These trips continue to this day. I missed out on both phases of my home town line, either too young or absent.
Here in the Crossroads of the West, I was smitten by our railroads from my first year in town. Newer mile long trains come and go through the scenic canyon East of town that is the very track bed for the Union Pacific’s portion of the Transcontinental Railroad lain in the late 1860’s. We are even treated occasionally to one of UP’s historic old steam locomotives pulling a special train through town and those events became the best reason I had to skip work and grab my camera. I often lamented that I was born 25 years too late, and in the wrong place. I knew that I was a railroad man deep inside. Turns out that my mother lived in my town as a 10 year old just 2 blocks from my home back in the very era that I go Walter Mitty for often. That must be the connection right there.
So now we have a brand new public passenger train service called FrontRunner that operates up and down the valley right next to the Union Pacific road. In our rail yard, a new bridge had to be built to enable FrontRunner to cross over the many UP tracks in the yard in order to arrive at the hub without freight service interruptions. Now for the rest of the story.
Above is my dream image that I finally was able to capture in 2011 at that very bridge. It was a crisp and cloudless November day which enabled maximum steam output. I had been chasing this moment for the last 3 or 4 years, setting up on a seldom used spur to a local railroad salvage company. Every other year the timing or the sky was bad. Seems FrontRunner keeps an exact schedule, and UP Steam gets side tracked by freight sometimes. It just did not come together.
I knew this year would be different from the outset. Never before had I been chased off by the yard cops. This day I was approached, scolded and asked me to retreat to Pacific Avenue by a UP Security guy packing a pistol. I was deflated as I took down the tripod and packed up. I wanted an old track bed in the foreground, not a city street! Much to my delight, he departed in a hurry after a radio call. I decided to stay. I was going to make this happen or else. There is the rub. I have some former journalists friends here at Word Press, and I fear that they will also scold me now as I come clean about this.
The scheduled FrontRunner arrival time was at hand, and it was going to be very close to the estimated time that UP 844 was due in the yard. I was ready and excited at the setup. As the mid morning Front Runner came into view, I shot a series of photos on the overpass. Everything was perfect to tell this story in a composite image. Yeah, that’s right. A composite Photoshopped image was acceptable to me if the meet didn’t happen in the perfect spot. I was shooting for me, not a publication, and this was an image with a great story to tell . . . . the old and the new! My skill at the set up and in the photo editor was still going to be tested after all.
I was careful not to move the tripod as I waited. The cloudless sky meant easy stitching. Eight minutes passed and I heard 844’s unmistakable whistle quill coming out of the West. No UP cops in sight! I released 7 or 8 captures while marveling at the sight. I skipped the arrival at Union Station to hurry home to the studio to see what I had in hand.
The steam plume hid the back of FrontRunner perfectly. The stitching along track and concrete was not too hard at all. No cloud movement to deal with. It was all I had hoped it would be at last! It happened, right? Sure, I tossed out 8 minutes, but I witnessed this bit of history happen right in front of me. This was my day and I was very pleased with the quality and sharpness of the large finished image.
Over the last 30 years I had been interviewed or had articles published in our local paper. Some were about noxious weeds and some were about steam locomotives. The editors had come and gone, but I had some contacts there. The prior steam arrivals into town were, in my lay opinion, poorly covered. Old hat after 150 years I suppose. So I thought I would submit my image to the city desk to include with any article about 844’s arrival this year. No contract or money involved. I just thought it would enhance any print story in section B. Well, it was on the front page, section A with a by line. Wow!
Now I did not set out to fool anyone. I was not asked about the image nor did I mention that it was a composite. It did not matter to me because it happened just a few minutes apart right before my Pentax. The following week, I had some emails from the editor asking me how I managed to be so fortunate in being at the right place at the right time. I read suspicion between the lines and made a phone call and a full disclosure of my quest and resulting composite. I was mildly chastised and asked to submit the 2 original images that I captured. The editor felt an obligation to his readers to publish a “Story Behind The Headlines” article the following Sunday explaining the oversights by both parties in publishing the photograph. I agreed to come clean, absent malice as it was.
The new headline was “Photoshopped train image leaves cautionary tale for media” and the article was very fair as it assigned fault to both of us. The paragraph that I winced at was this: “The iconic image, submitted by a trusted contributor, captured the past and present of the evolution of the locomotive in American society. The photo generated a number of comments from readers who were impressed with the ability of the photographer to capture such a moment in time with a single shot. Well, the image was actually two seperate photos taken minutes apart and combined into one shot.”
Yes I was trusted over 3 decades, however it didn’t occur to me that I had done anything untrustworthy. I also never dreamed of a front page 6″ by 9″ photo and it did play very well. The editor went on to explain my inexperience with journalistic principles and that I did not set out to deceive the paper. He wrote: “He had read a column of mine where I explained that photojournalists try to tell a story with their images. To him (me), combing the photos was just a way of telling the story. If we had known, we might have run it as a photo illustration anyway and clearly identified it as such, explaining in the caption how it was created.”
Obviously, I retired from a very short photojournalism stint with my home town paper. I was absent malice but also absent the education on protocols of the biz. I was just a story teller and a steam locomotive chaser. I have good memories of the entire week and a few copies of both editions filed away. Ya can’t buy that kind of publicity, my friends.