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Edition #33, July 1, 2006

The End of an Era

Photographer: John Fasulo

                                                                                                               Photo by John Fasulo

The End of an Era

While visiting relatives on my first trip to Germany in 1974, I was told by an uncle that I should visit and photograph the rail terminal at Hof, West Germany near the Czech border. My uncle, who had recently retired from German Railways, knew of my interest in trains. He explained that Hof is the division terminal for what was the last division of German Railways to still be all-steam; and that it was soon to be dieselized.

The next morning, I was on the train from Düsseldorf to Hof, an all day journey. Late in the evening, with a light rain falling, my train snaked through the yard at Hof. Before my eyes was a dream come true. Here, in the 20th Century, were some of the last working steam locomotives in Western Europe. As my train moved through the yard, the rails glistened in the darkness.   Light from yard towers illuminated the scene. Train whistles shrieked in the background and a smell of coal and steam permeated the air. All around, engines from another era were wrapped in a blanket of steam. My train pulled into the station. I found a small pension to stay at. I didn’t sleep much that evening, all through the night, I was awakened by the sounds of the yard. The next morning, I dressed and ate quickly. The proprietor of the pension asked if I wanted a taxi, but I decided to walk as it was not far. Walking down to the train station, I passed under the main line. On the track above, a long freight pulled by steam passed over me.

At the station, I asked to be directed to the division superintendent’s office. It was only a short walk away. I climbed the steps and entered the office. A sullen, humorless clerk was at a desk near the door. I tried to explain that I wanted to get permission to photograph the engines in the yard. I was told, rather curtly, that it was ‘Verboten’, and I couldn’t photograph in the yard. That seemed to be the end of the conversation as far as he was concerned. I retreated to the station to think about my next move; after all, I didn’t come this far to be turned away by a railroad clerk.

As I was pondering my plan, a railway police officer came over and asked about my camera gear. He said that he had seen me enter the superintendent’s office. I explained my confrontation with the clerk. He frowned and told me to follow him. With the policeman at my side, we entered the building. Without stopping at the clerk’s desk, and undoubtedly to his astonishment, we continued upstairs to the office of the division superintendent. He was quite friendly and pleased that someone had an interest in his steam engines. He called for his chief machinist. We had coffee and cake, and talked about the New York Central Railroad and the 20th Century Limited. He was interested to know that my grandfather had emigrated from Germany in 1923 and was a machinist for the New York Central RR. My grandfather worked on the engines that pulled the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago. After saying goodbye, I was escorted by the head machinist to the roundhouse and given a tour. About 20 minutes later, he excused himself and said that I could go where I pleased and take all the photos that I wanted. “Just be careful”, he told me, “this is a working railroad remember”.

I spent the day photographing the twilight of steam in Germany. I photographed the roundhouse, inside and out, the coaling station, ash pits, watering tower and the crews that worked the yard. It was a day that I would not forget. I seemed to be standing in a time warp. All around me, steam prevailed. I could have been in the Germany of the 1930’s. Not long after my visit, the facility was raised and steam for the most part, except for tourist railways, disappeared forever from the German landscape.

In 1995, I was again in Germany not far from Hof. I decided to take a look at what had become of the Hof  facility. The yard was unrecognizable to me. The roundhouse was gone. So was the turntable, the coaling station, watering towers and ash pit. In its place was a square, modern diesel shed. I left without taking a photograph. Returning had been a mistake. I was comforted however with the knowledge that I had captured images more than twenty years earlier that would endure. Many of those photographs are now in the archives of the German Railway Museum in Nuremberg. In 1998, after months of correspondence with the museum director, a series of photographs was purchased by the museum. Those photographs were some of the last images taken that portray the twilight of steam power in Germany. I was in the right place at the right time. Like my friend and ‘mentor’ American photographer David Plowden, I was, ‘one step ahead of the wrecking ball’.

I continue to photograph railroads. Now that I am retired from the television industry, I have more time to devote to still photography. I traveled across Canada by rail on the Canadian Pacific as well as much of the US on Amtrak. This past summer, I took Amtrak to Montana to visit a friend. I have purchased a digital camera, but still prefer to shoot Black and White film and work in a traditional darkroom.

John Fasulo

Beacon, NY

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