Of Memories, Experience and Vision

Having visited the East Broad Top Railroad in Orbisonia several times in the past months, it rekindled memories of earlier visits when the railroad still operated as a for-profit tourist operation. During these visits in the 1980’s, while I did shoot images from a railfan perspective, I was really there to watch and absorb the experience of an operating steam railroad.

More than 20 years have elapsed since I witnessed (and photographed) an operating railroad at Orbisonia. My memories are vague at best, but like most people, get awakened when I look at photographs. Not only do I specifically remember the experience of taking the image, but it reignites dormant memories of the event. So it was with a bit of mixed excitement and trepidation that I went looking for my old contact sheets and prints from those earlier visits.

Excitement for what I might discover…previously missed photographic gems and rekindled memories. Trepidation for amateurish photographic mistakes and blown opportunities. Either way it would show my evolution as a photographer and artist.

A "freight" train crosses the long fill heading towards Orbisonia.

A “freight” train crosses the long fill heading towards Orbisonia. 

When I shot in the pre-digital age, I didn’t expose many frames as film and processing was expensive. Black and white negative film was my choice as it best supported my vision and dream of someday having a fully equipped darkroom in which I could masterfully print my images. Well, this dream never happened and I printed relatively few images and only by purchasing darkroom time at a local high-school when it was available.

The truth is that by not shooting and printing much and with a lack of an immediate feedback loop, my skills stayed pretty amateurish.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”― Henri Cartier-Bresson

As I went through my images, the first thing that jumped out at me was how poor my equipment and skills were. While I’m not an equipment geek, I now know that having good glass is a pre-requisite for a sharp image with sufficient contrast. The meter on my Minolta SLR camera hit the mark consistently on a straight forward image with the sun behind me, but going against the light, the meter let me down with equal consistently. Maybe if I took and printed more images, I would have come to understand and and been able to work the meter more skillfully, but the reality is that many images were greatly over or under exposed and lack a full range of tones to work with.

Getting past all the technical glitches and misses, the images brought back a lot of memories and show just how active the railroad was in it’s heyday as a tourist operation. Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, their annual Fall Spectacular was just that…spectacular! Four locomotives under steam, with a full slate of passenger, freight and mixed trains to choose from over a weekend. Add the M1 doodlebug, speeders and an open roundhouse and shop and it was a unique experience whose only comparison is the Charma facility on the former Rio Grange railroad.

A Fall Spectacular double header on the EBT finds #14 burning clean and #15 less so. Shot at the overpass bridge at McMullins Summit

A Fall Spectacular double header on the EBT finds #14 burning clean and #15 less so. Shot at the overpass bridge at McMullins Summit


The same passenger going away.

The same passenger train going away. I love how the crew are hanging outside the loco windows and so is the fan in the first seat of the passenger car with a vintage movie camera.

Memories muddy an objective decision making process and as I looked through my contact sheets for worthy images, I had to be brutal with my choices. Many images made me cringe, do to poor composition choices or basic technical flaws. Others left me heart broken by a flubbed or missed opportunity that I now know I will never get a chance to re-do.

But, maybe someday I will…

I recently re-read David P. Morgan’s short piece from 1955 entitled Holiday near Hollidaysburg, helplessness on Horse Shoe, oblivion at Orbisonia (In Search of Steam. Volume III, 1955: the final quest for the last great locomotives) in which he thought he was writing the obituary of the EBT after they announced they would soon shut down. Little did he know that the railroad would reopen 5 years later as a tourist operation. That operation lasted just over 50 years, but once again the engines are in a long deep sleep. Let’s hope that we too can be surprised, the way David was when the railroad reopened.

Then I can reshoot the railroad with my current abilities and create new memories.


  1. Eric,

    The East Broad Top is an excellent case-in-point; but it can be said of any of the current day rail operations, both steam and diesel. Get out there; explore the area, enjoy the experiences, make new acquaintances and memories, create photographs. Things can and do change very quickly, doors get locked for the last time. But hopefully we have not seen the last of EBT action – if and when it restarts you can bet I’ll be one of the first back in town.


    1. Eric Williams


      I should mention that your invitation to shoot at the EBT roundhouse a few months back got me reacquainted with the road and made me realize how much I miss the seeing it run. Also, thanks to the Friends of the EBT for keeping it preserved.


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