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Edition #217  March 1, 2014

Decades

Photographer: Kevin Scanlon

                                                                                         Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Decades

This edition of The Photographersí Railroad Page marks the beginning of the 10th year of the site. Although weíve branched out into a wider variety of subject matter, railroads are still where the cameras are aimed in the majority of the features. When we post the page twice a month we are looking to feature some writing and a photograph that work together. Sometimes the images may not be particularly strong by themselves, but we liked the story. Other photographs stand well on their own and only need a few words from the photographer to make it even better.

Take this editionís photograph. Not anything special creatively, suffers from some technical flaws, certainly not very pretty, the lighting is flat and itís only mildly interesting for the subject matter. All photographers have a bunch of photographs that they really like because of their memories behind them, even though another viewer sees only a not-so-good picture. This photo is one of them.

In 1973 a driving compulsion made me spend my free time photographing anything having to do with railroads. I was 16 years old with a new driverís license in my pocket. My Dad was glad to be rid of me for a while, so he loaned me his Argus C-20 rangefinder camera, an alleged light meter and his car. He was not a sentimental man and Iím sure he thought about the possible outcomes of sending a crazed kid out onto the highways. I didnít find out until many years later that heíd also taken out a $1000 life insurance policy on me. He told me that he was pretty sure I was going to be killed by a train somewhere and he wanted enough cash to bury me with a little left over for himself. He wasnít joking; he was being practical.

I explored the places in the Pittsburgh area where roads intersected tracks. Somewhere Iíd heard a rumor that there were still steam locomotives operating at an obscure, hidden industrial facility. I didnít believe it could possibly be true since steam engines were already dead when I was born. It was something worth checking out, though.

At West Homestead, PA I parked along the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad mainline and walked the tracks, entering an area where kids werenít welcome. To the left of the tracks US Steelís massive Homestead Works spread for miles along the Monongahela River. On the right was the large Mesta Machine Co. plant. This was the land of Big Steel. The Homestead Works was Andrew Carnegieís flagship mill. One of their specialties was armor plate. The 160Ē rolling mill produced the plate for battleships in WWII. This one plant was probably the most important industrial resource for the United States in wartime. The 160Ē mill was built by Mesta Machine, a company which may have been equal in importance. It was the biggest machine plant in existence, the scale of what it could build was only limited by what a railroad car could carry. Mesta made the 155 mm Long Tom cannons that could shoot a 100 pound shell 15 miles and 15 inch naval guns. They also made the biggest forging press ever, a 50,000 ton press for Alcoa in Cleveland. It is six stories tall and has produced parts for every manned military aircraft flying as well as every aircraft made by Boeing and Airbus. The bolts alone that hold it to the floor are 40Ē in diameter.

The Mesta plant was my goal. There were no public roads here so I had to stealthily sneak along the tracks and watch for the mill guards. A half-mile in and there they were, two live steam locomotives switching gondola cars of material up on the wall at the Mesta buildings. These were fireless steam engines, obtaining a charge of pressurized steam from the plantís boilers and chuffing around until they needed refilling. #6 and #7 both were working steadily and although Iím sure they were well maintained by the machine shop, they looked like they werenít seeing any loving. The gold painted Mesta Machine Co. name on the side was barely visible through the grime.

I took the meter out of my pocket and pushed the button. The needle moved and I matched an arrow on the metal dial, then slid another dial to point to the ASA 64 of the Kodachrome X I had in the camera. Now I followed the numbers printed on the two dials to find the shutter speed and f-stop combination I wanted to use. The Argus was hanging under my coat, I used an old hi-top tennis shoe lace as the strap since I didnít want to just carry it like a jerk. I set the f-stop and shutter speed, 1/100 at f4. Take a look through the left hand viewing eyepiece and turn the focus ring on the camera until the two images were lined up. Now look through the right hand viewing eyepiece, frame the shot and press the button. Nothing. Advance the film and cock the shutter this time, dummy. Now frame it up again and press, tick. Got it. Real men donít bracket.

Dial ahead 40 years and Iím parking my truck a few feet from where I shot this photograph. The Homestead Works is long gone, replaced by a retail area called the Waterfront. A few artifacts from the steel mill days are sprinkled among the stores and restaurants for some atmosphere. The west end of the property, the Open Hearth end of the works, is where the business I manage is located. Mesta Machine is now Whemco and the buildings are still there, but theyíre sheathed in nice pastel sheet metal and a lot of those factory windows are covered up. They donít make battleship guns anymore and those steam locomotives are long gone.

I have the above picture tacked to a bulletin board by my desk. Iíve asked employees if they know where that picture was taken. They donít have a clue.

ďWell if you werenít so busy checking Facebook on your phone when you came in you might have noticed that this is right outside the fíing door.Ē

ďOh, did you take that picture when you were working at the stone quarry with Dino the dinosaur?Ē

ďGet back to work!Ē

In 1973 I was also guilty of having a narrow field of view. That Mesta Machine plant was of no concern to me, only a background for a locomotive picture. And the great Homestead Works at my back? I didnít give it a look, didnít consider that it was at the apex of the industrial revolution in the United States, didnít know that my dad had worked there as part of war production, didnít care about the six thousand employees who punched in every day. I would only notice the Homestead Works ten years later when it was beginning to close down and lay off all of those workers.

I do have a story, though, that adds a little color to a dull photograph.

Kevin Scanlon

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