Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Frozen Tundra of the South

As a recently elected to the Board of Directors of the National Railway Historical Society, I ventured south to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend a board meeting on January 9-10, 2010. While I briefly considered flying, I decided that I wanted to see a few things along the way, so I loaded up my iPod with some great tunes, downloaded a few trainwatching guides, programmed the scanner and headed south on the evening of January 7. The night was cold, and I encountered some snow showers below Baltimore. I met up with my brother Bruce at a motel in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where we'd begin the next day's photography.

Day 1: January 8, 2010 -- Ashland Interlude
See the photos in Photo Line

Virginia Railway Express provides commuter rail between Fredericksburg and the nation's capitol, but only one train would head north after daybreak. With the sun attempting to pop out after the previous night's snow showers, we had trouble finding a location that might provide nose lighting on the locomotive (which pushes from the south end of the train) and was out of the shadows of the trees that closely hug the track. We weren't sure if Amtrak's Auto Train had gone north yet (Julie at Amtrak's toll-free number said it hadn't arrived yet at Lorton, about 30 miles up the track). We finally found a place in the woods and snapped the northbound VRE train pushing northward.

After that the sky clouded up again and snow -- heavy snow (and not in the forecast) began falling. We went to VRE's Leeland Road station about four miles above Fredericksburg and in fairly short order we got a northbound CSX coal train and a southbound Amtrak train. We then moved to the nearby overpass for a view of a northbound Amtrak.

The ultimate goal for the day was to get to Ashland, a quaint town where the tracks roll through the middle of the main street downtown on a private median. But on the way to Ashland is the town of Doswell where the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac (the line we were following) crosses the former Chesapeake & Ohio. the C&O is now operated by the Buckingham Branch Railroad, and they had a local train working Doswell. We also got a northbound train rattling the diamond on the former RF&P. Meanwhile, a solid line of crystal clear sky was working its way in from the west, so we beat feet down to Ashland.

We started off in Ashland with a badly-lit northbound train. Talk on the radio, however, indicated that a bad switch several miles north at Milford had southbound trains blocked. Once the switch was fixed, a parade of two Amtrak trains and two CSX freights came through. Nice.

Next up was a very poorly lit northbound, but we could hear him talking to a southbound up the line. I had never gotten the shot of a train passing the church at Gwathmey, two miles below Ashland, so while Bruce stayed in town to get a shot near the Ashland station, I headed to Gwathmey for the southbound. Just below Gwathmey the freight met a northbound (and once again poorly lit) Amtrak train.

The day was winding down, and long shadows were creeping it at Ashland. With one more Amtrak southbound on the schedule, we headed back to Doswell, which was more open. Before Amtrak arrived, a northbound local freight appeared and stopped to work the Buckingham Branch interchange. Then in was time for Amtrak, and then it was time to hit the road. Bruce headed north back to New Jersey, and I headed non-stop south to Charleston. Okay, I made one stop -- I had to get a taco at South of the Border!

Day 2: January 11, 2010 -- Empty Palmetto Rails
See the photos in Photo Lines

Ah, the warm south -- not! The fountains in front of the Charleston Place Hotel had ice clinging to its horses. After two days of meetings, it was time to head north and I was anxious to explore what is known as the Lowcountry in South Carolina. I had several stops I wanted to make along CSX's ex-Atlantic Coast Line trackage. Since this was the I-95 of the rail world, I figured getting trains at most of the locations would be a snap.

It was sunny and pleasantly warm(er) as I stopped next to a signal bridge just south of the Charleston Amtrak station in North Charleston. I hoped to get one freight going south before I had to relocate to find better lighting for Amtrak's northbound Palmetto. Sadly, all that came was a light engine move (with the engine running backwards) and a local freight (with the engine running backwards). Amtrak was nearly on time, however, so I pushed north hoping to find a wide open spot to shoot a broadside of the train.

Driving north, I passed the dragging defect detector at Goose Creek along U.S. 52. This would start talking on the radio once a train passed over it, so I made note of the mileage. Before I got to Monck's Corner, the detector, now about ten miles behind me, went off. I had a ten-mile lead on Amtrak. Crossing the tracks on a bridge at Monck's Corner I noticed a depot to the north -- that would be where I would make my stand. I snaked through town and down to the depot, only to discover the angle that looked so promising from the bridge (a quarter mile away) was quite cluttered. What to do . . . Amtrak was closing fast.

I decided that I would press my luck and try to make Macbeth ahead of the train. I snaked back out through town, drove north on 52 and made the left turn for the one-mile trek into Macbeth. It wasn't as open as I would have liked, but when I opened the car door I could hear horns to the south. This would be the shot, like it or not. It didn't frame up half bad, and I snagged it. Without any freights in the immediate forecast, I decided not to wait at Macbeth and pushed on to the next target on my list.

The next place I wanted to reach was Etta, just north of St. Stephen (and called the best train watching location in South Carolina). The town of St. Stephen looked like it might have a depot, so I swung onto the main drag off U.S. 52, wandered to the tracks and -- yup -- there was a depot. After snapping that, I headed into Etta where the tracks cross the Santee River on a long bridge. This would be worth a wait, so I turned the scanner up (I'd hear trains calling signals miles away) and eased back for a nap. Taking a nap proved to be too easy, as the radio stayed quiet. After about an hour, the sun had pretty much moved out of position for a good shot, so I headed back north.

Lane had good potential for shooting, and I could hear a maintenance crew talking on the radio north of town. I wandered up and found a work train sitting waiting for a signal to go north. I continued on, stopping at Kingstree to shoot the Amtrak depot. By now the work train was on the move, but it was coming directly out of the sun. With no light on the nose and practically no light on either side, I settled for a shot of the train passing the Railroad Auction.

Lake City looked big enough to have a depot, so I followed the old highway into town and found a station, along with an Atlantic Coast Line caboose and observation car on display. Still no trains. The small town of Scranton had good possibilities, but still no trains. A decaying depot was still standing in Effingham a few years ago (according to reports), but investigation showed that all that was left was a concrete platform.

Finally I arrived at Florence, the end of my planned itinerary. I had been following the railroad for 80 miles and six hours, and other than Amtrak and the work train I hadn't seen much else. So much for it being a busy railroad. At Florence I found the old ACL depot and headquarters building (now used by a hospital), and the new Amtrak station next to that.  I had about twelve hours of driving left to do, so I prepared to head north. As I left Florence, the first southbound freight left town heading into the territory I had just fruitlessly followed. Some days you're the windshield, and some days you're the bug.

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