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Edition #144, February 15, 2011

Mountain State Stories Ė Satori

Photographer: Kevin Scanlon

                                                                            Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Mountain State Stories Ė Satori

As a young photographer with a fascination with railroads, my approach was gluttonous. I wanted to capture every railroad, every locomotive and every good location. A rudderless railfan. When I wasnít out taking train pictures, I was working on a model railroad and reading about trains. During summer break from high school one year I had the opportunity to attend an NMRA regional convention in Louisville, KY with my friend Jim Ruffing. His father, James Sr. was willing to drive there us from Pittsburgh.

We left very early on a Friday morning and headed south on Interstate 79. After about four hours of driving we turned off onto US60 and drove west. Near Ansted, WV we stopped to stretch our legs at Hawks Nest State Park. I remember walking out the stone path to the overlook. The view changed me. It was just past sunrise and there was still a little fog hanging over the river. Spread out below was the Chesapeake and Ohio mainline wrapping around a mountain along the bank of the New River. To the right was a dam, to the left one track of the railroad crossed the river on a steel arch bridge.

The unmistakable roar of a train working upgrade filled the morning air. After several minutes a coal train crawled around the bend past the dam, curved around the mountain and followed the south bank of the river eastbound. Five old blue and yellow GP7ís and GP9ís pulled what seemed to be an endless string of coal hoppers past MA Cabin and the distinctive steel cantilever signal bridges.

This was it. Iíd never seen anything like this before and it was only a couple hundred miles from home. I had to find a way to explore this area. If this one view was so astounding, what else was waiting to be discovered in West Virginia? I realized that I needed to narrow my focus. Cajon Pass, Sherman Hill, Chicago, Horseshoe Curve, Marias Pass, the Rathole. . . they will be there for other railfans to haunt. The more I looked at the Mountain State, the better it got.

In the years since Iíve made hundreds of visits to West Virginia. I came back from some trips with dozens of photographs Iím happy with. On other trips I hadnít taken a photograph at all, but I never had a visit without some reward. My analogy for travelling through West Virginia is that it is like reading a good book. The story is revealed one page at a time. The deep mountain valleys and heavy tree growth obstruct long vistas. Photography is frequently limited to a narrow view surrounded by a green backdrop.

Railroad tracks stitch the state together like a binding. Many of the little towns have fascinating histories waiting to be discovered. Often Iíve learned some of it in unexpected ways: the old man you meet walking along the tracks tells a story about working in the coal mines and coke ovens. You kick something on a pathway and realize it is a carbide coal minerís lamp from the early days of the industry. The railroad branchline youíre following turns out to be the site of the largest armed insurrection in the United States outside of the Civil War. You photograph a coal train and consider that those same tracks have been carrying away the actual state for 150 years, one carload at a time.

So West Virginia has become a foundation and an inspiration for my photography since that first visit. And Iím happy for the sudden realization that occurred those 37 years ago, looking into the sunrise at Hawks Nest, that I needed to narrow my viewpoint in order to see more.

Kevin Scanlon

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