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Edition #260  December 15, 2015

Train for Hire

Photographer: Tom Gildersleeve

                                                                                  Photo by  Tom Gildersleeve


Train for Hire

Back in the early 1960s I was serving in the Air Force stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio. It was a time in my life when I was young and adventurous, making many long distance trips in search of steam.  Mainline steam had pretty much ended in the United States and Canada in 1960, but Mexico had not as yet reached that milestone. It thus became a big lure for railfans, with hundreds of locomotives in daily service throughout the country.

In March of 1961 I and my Air Force buddy Paul Orlow flew down there to avail ourselves of the photographic opportunities. Merida, Yucatan became our first stop on that trip. Unlike some railroads I've seen that were operating museums without the formal title as such, the United Railways of Yucatan went one step further and was literally an operating junk yard! Some of their locomotives still operating in regular service dated back to the 1880s, and all the rolling stock was ancient! It was amazing to see a Civil War era style passenger train out the window of our jet as we came in for a landing! The price of things in Mexico at that time was incredibly low, and while we were in Merida we chartered our own private train for a few hours on March 7 to take us from Merida to Acanceh and back. It was a 35 mile round trip and the price was the princely sum of $35, which included the train and five man crew!! The attached photo shows the train at Acanceh, prior to being turned for its return trip to Merida. Note the ancient coach we rode in on the back of the train and note also the link and pin coupler on the locomotive. We were the only passengers. The locomotive was fairly modern for that railroad, having been built in 1928.

Most of the tourists who visited Yucatan at that time were in search of Mayan pyramids, not trains, and the locals were still not aware of the influx of railfans coming their way. The resort of Cancun did not even exist yet. There was a Pyramid at Acanceh, and the crew probably thought it was our objective. We were never able to make them understand we were there for the train, and this ended up as one of only two photos we were able to get of it. Still, it was a unique once in a lifetime experience to have our own private train to ourselves.

Tom Gildersleeve

Photographer's footnote:

It really became a struggle to find a useable image for this story. I shot several exposures of the scene on ISO 10 Kodachrome with a Leica IIIf. Kodachrome 10 was a very unforgiving film where exposure was concerned, and with portions of the scene being in full sunlight while portions of a very black and dark locomotive were in deep shade, I only ended up with one exposure that was light enough on the locomotive to show adequate detail in the shadow areas. When I went to digitize that image, I discovered to my chagrin that the film had buckled in the camera and the locomotive wasn't sharp, although other elements of the scene were. That is where the progress of the scan sat for quite a while until I remembered that my Leica was not the only camera that went to Mexico with me on that trip. I was transitioning from stereo to full format 35mm at the time, and my Stereo Realist was along too. I checked, and sure enough I had shot the scene from the same spot with that camera as well. The exposure on the locomotive was better than with the Leica, and furthermore there had been no buckled film in the camera. The stereo format was 24x23mm versus 24x36 for standard size slides, and the lenses of the Stereo Realist were 35mm focal length to fill that format, as opposed to 50mm for the Leica. The stereo lenses were vastly inferior optically to the Leica lens and the left side of the image in particular was pretty soft, but the locomotive itself was adequately sharp, and much better than the Leica image. I finally hit on the idea of reducing the pixel count on the full 35mm scan to match the pixel count of the stereo scan to make the scanned images the same size, and pasting the locomotive from the stereo scan into the 35mm scan such that most of the background still has the benefit of the Leica lens.

One other thing I should mention is that the Kodachrome I took to Mexico on that trip was defective and had dribble lines of water marks across the sky. That's not too hard to fix with digital photography these days, so I took it out. It's the only time in over 60 years of color photography that I ever saw a problem like that.

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Revised: 12/15/15 12:10:34 -0500