Edition #217 March 1, 2014
Good photos usually have good stories to go with them.
Our appreciation and enjoyment of fine photography can grow when we learn a little more about the background.
The goal of The Photographers’ Railroad Page is to provide an outlet for top quality photographs and their story.
Photographer: Kevin Scanlon
Photo by Kevin Scanlon
This edition of The Photographers’ Railroad Page marks the beginning of the 10th year of the site. Although we’ve 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 edition’s photograph. Not anything special creatively, suffers from some technical flaws, certainly not very pretty, the lighting is flat and it’s 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 driver’s 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 I’m sure he thought about the possible outcomes of sending a crazed kid out onto the highways. I didn’t find out until many years later that he’d 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 wasn’t joking; he was being practical.
I explored the places in the Pittsburgh area where roads intersected tracks. Somewhere I’d heard a rumor that there were still steam locomotives operating at an obscure, hidden industrial facility. I didn’t 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 weren’t welcome. To the left of the tracks US Steel’s 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 Carnegie’s flagship mill. One of their specialties was armor plate. The 160” 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 160” 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 40” 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 plant’s boilers and chuffing around until they needed refilling. #6 and #7 both were working steadily and although I’m sure they were well maintained by the machine shop, they looked like they weren’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t bracket.
Dial ahead 40 years and I’m 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 they’re sheathed in nice pastel sheet metal and a lot of those factory windows are covered up. They don’t make battleship guns anymore and those steam locomotives are long gone.
I have the above picture tacked to a bulletin board by my desk. I’ve asked employees if they know where that picture was taken. They don’t have a clue.
“Well if you weren’t so busy checking Facebook on your phone when you came in you might have noticed that this is right outside the f’ing door.”
“Oh, did you take that picture when you were working at the stone quarry with Dino the dinosaur?”
“Get back to work!”
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 didn’t give it a look, didn’t consider that it was at the apex of the industrial revolution in the United States, didn’t know that my dad had worked there as part of war production, didn’t 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.
The next edition will be posted on March 15, 2014
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Revised: 03/01/14 07:13:33 -0500