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Edition #128, June 15, 2010

A Little Luck

Photographer: Jim B. Davis

                                                                                   Photo by Jim B. Davis

A Little Luck

The St. Maries River Railroad is a timber industry short line that operates a former Milwaukee Road branch and a short segment of the Milwaukee’s mainline in northern Idaho, and I’ve been photographing it for about 15 years along with a number of my friends. Two of my most frequent companions are Marc Entze and Camron Settlemier. Both have made a considerable effort to document this great little railroad, and in so doing Marc has made friends with the train crew and other employees.   Our experience with the railroad has been much richer because of our interaction with these fine people, and visiting the STMA has practically become a way of life.

This is not a story about the St. Maries’ employees though, but rather one about a handsaw, an afternoon of hazy skies, and serendipity. A few years ago I saw a nice photo of a westbound Milwaukee Road freight crossing the Benewah Lake trestle west of St. Maries, Idaho taken on a late, summer afternoon. The standard photo of the trestle is usually taken from the south side, but this time the photographer, Rob Leachman, shot from the northwest side of the bridge to best utilize the late afternoon light. Late departures by the STMA Plummer Turn have occasionally resulted in my encountering less than ideal lighting on the traditionally shot south side of the bridge, but the angle that Mr. Leachman used had become somewhat obscured by over 30 years of tree growth. One narrow opening remained on the hillside below the highway, but it was scarred by two tall trunks of a dead Rocky Mountain maple bush. Of course by the time the lighting had gone south, well actually north in this case, I never had enough time before the train arrived to do anything about the offending maple. 

After several years of ignoring this shot, Camron suggested it on a recent trip as a possibility if the Plummer Turn had a late enough departure from St. Maries. This rekindled my interest in it, and after finding the dead maple still resolutely in place, I decided that I’d just scramble down the slope and cut it down. The scramble turned into more of a dirt ski through the underbrush, but I arrived 60 feet or so below the highway unscathed only to find the trunks a bit larger than I expected and still quite solid in spite of having been dead for years. Oh well, I was there, and I had saw, albeit a little saw. After I had cut about halfway through the first trunk and with the rhythm of the saw slowing and the frequency of my breathing and my rest breaks increasing, Marc decided to ascend into the abyss and give me a hand. The two of us were able to remove the offending tree trunks and open up the shot while Camron offered words of encouragement from above. (I now suspect that Camron might have cleverly engineered the entire scenario…)

With the shot clear, we drove into St. Maries to check on the crew. They’d just finished the morning’s switching, and were about ready to depart. We chatted for a short time and photographed them boarding the train and departing a bit earlier in the day than we’d hoped. We drove back to our newly available angle to find that the sun was not even close to where we needed it. Oh well, we decided to save it for another day drove off to another shot. Later in the afternoon, our plans for a panoramic shot of the return trip were foiled by increasing haze, so we cast about for another possibility. Nothing panned out, so we decided to call it a day and head towards home, only about an hour away for Marc and me, but a long 8-hour drive for Camron. As we were paralleling the St Maries-Plummer line on our exit, we noticed that the light on our original shot was looking good, but of course we didn’t have a train to photograph. Then about a half-mile or so up the road, Marc spotted the returning Plummer Turn through the trees. Could we salvage the afternoon with a going away shot? A quick u-turn put us back at the nearby pull-off, and a short jog had us in place just as the train passed below. As luck would have it, the crew had picked up some flat cars that had been used for maintenance work on the line, giving us a clear view of the nose of the trailing locomotive. I can’t think of a better way to have spent the day.

Jim B. Davis

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