Overcoming the Elements at Orbisonia

The forecast was for heavy rain as I left my home bound for Altoona that Saturday. I had a free weekend and was going to make the best of it in spite of the weather. My plan was to be in Altoona by late afternoon as the easterly storm was clearing and hopefully catch some nice light for an ongoing photo project. With an early start on my drive, I planned to swing by the East Broad Top shops in Orbisonia along the way and see if there was anything interesting that could coax me to photograph in the rain.

Driving through central Pennsylvania, I noted that the Autumn colors were just starting to turn and that the heavy rain and clouds were producing some nice atmospheric conditions, but the rain was so heavy that I wasn’t moved to stop as I drove through the beautiful rural landscape. Arriving in Orbisonia before noon, I turned left at the only stoplight in town towards the EBT shop complex, excited to be at my initial destination.

With the EBT station in view, a roadside sign labeled FEBT pointed towards the elementary school near the complex. I knew that the sign meant that the Friends of the East Broad Top were gathering for a meet and it indicated to me that there may be some activity that I could photograph. I drove past the school, past the long string of rusting EBT hopper cars and turned into the shop complex parking lot. As I did, my attention was caught by a red speeder on the tracks. Apparently, it had just come out of its protective shed and was being prepped for rides within the yard limits. Not having seen anything on these tracks in years, I rushed out of my car with camera bag in tow and instantly realized just how hard the rain was coming down. I took a few photos and then retreated back into my car to better prepare myself for the elements. In the 10 minutes or so that I had been out, my camera bag had become completely soaked and I had been distracted from my compositional thoughts by constantly wiping water off my lens and camera body. The only upside to the rain is that there was almost no one out and I had the un-cluttered, atmospheric scene all to myself.

Having just backed the M-3 speeder out of its shed, a crewman prepares to accept riders during the Friends of the East Broad Top Fall Reunion.

Having just backed the M-3 speeder out of its shed, a crewman prepares to accept riders during the Friends of the East Broad Top Fall Reunion.

Leaving the camera bag in the car, I ventured out again with a single camera and a wade of paper towels stuffed into my coat pocket to dry my camera with. Literally focused on the red M-3 speeder, I heard a small engine start up behind me and turned to see that the M-1 Brill motorcar was being moved onto the turntable and was obviously going into the yard for a spin. Torn between the two subjects, I elected to shoot the M-1 motorcar as it seemed like the rarer movement in this long dormant period on the EBT. Photographing was a challenge as my camera was drenched with water and the viewfinder was more like a leveling bubble, than a composition aid. Tucked away in my car was a rain-cover for the camera, but with action happening so quickly and not likely to be repeated for a while, I elected to stay with the motorcar and hoped the camera was up to the task. It didn’t take long for the rain to prove me wrong as the camera functions started glitching-out within a few minutes and I lost control of the exposure and shutter settings. The camera was obviously overwhelmed by the volume of water hitting it and I was left standing in the rain, in disbelief at my predicament of not being able to take photos. I took a deep breath to calm myself and recalled that I had an older camera body stored in my car and ran back. Soaking wet, I dried off my disabled camera and hoped that my captured shots would be retrievable later.

Before activities get under way, the M-1 crew take a brief rest.

Before activities get under way, the M-1 crew take a brief rest.

With a change of camera bodies and clothing, I ventured back out and was happy to feel that the rain had softened to a drizzle that I and my camera could cope with better. Getting my bearings on the present situation, I saw that the motorcar had moved to the station and that several other speeders were now in the yard. With the slowing of the rain, the yard was suddenly full of people and one told me that this event was the FEBT annual fall reunion and that the member surprise would be the Brill motorcar providing rides up to the well known overpass north of town.

Awaiting departure time, the crew of M-1 engage in some small talk.

Awaiting departure time, the crew of M-1 engage in some small talk.

Nearing the end of the ride, the motorcar slows to a stop.

Nearing the end of the ride, the motorcar slows to a stop prior to heading back.

Once again I went back into my car, not for shelter from the elements, but to chase a train. As I pulled out of the lot, I realized that my plans had changed without making a conscious decision to do so. Not an hour had passed since I first pulled into the parking lot, yet a lot of action had transpired and kept me fully engaged trying to capture it all. While the shops were meant to be a brief layover en route to Altoona, I made the mental affirmation that I was staying here and would follow the activity for as long as it lasted. You never know when you’ll get another chance at the EBT!

While much was going on at various areas, I decided to concentrate on shooting the M-1 during its multiple runs up the line and back. With the rain becoming more of a mist, the elements had less of an impact on both the camera and my photographic vision. Over the next few hours, I followed the action and photographed the M-3 as it finished its last run and was guided onto the turntable and into the roundhouse. The speeders followed suit and I stayed there shooting until the last door was shuttered on the roundhouse.

By now, the sky was starting to clear and I was ecstatic over my good fortune to be at the right place, at the right time. I had overcome the rain which gave me early technical problems and challenged my photographic skills.  As I pulled out of the lot, I could drive on to Altoona knowing that I made the best of what was handed me on this day.

A group of FEBT supports enjoy a rare ride on one of EBT's speeders.

A group of FEBT supports enjoy a rare ride on one of the unique narrow gauge speeders.

Sevral lines of hopper cars rust away in the elements.

Several lines of hopper cars rust away in the elements.

A FEBT crewman aligns the turntable for another speeder to roll into the roundhouse.

A FEBT crewman aligns the turntable for another speeder to roll into the roundhouse.

The crew walks the last speeder into the roundhouse to close out activities for this reunion.

The crew walks the last speeder into the roundhouse to close out activities for the 2016 FEBT Fall Reunion.

In retrospect, this was the first time that I ever had to rely on my backup camera and was I ever grateful that I had one. If I didn’t have it as an option, I would have explored the possibilities of my iPhone and worked within its limitations. My disabled camera did dry out and I was able to use it the next day. All my images were retrieved and some are posted here and on my website for viewing.

2 Comments

  1. Eric,

    Fantastic!

    Fantastic in that you were able to make it out to the FEBT Reunion Weekend, that you able to catch the M-1, M-3, and speeders out on the line in operation, that you had a back-up camera in the car, that your primary camera is ok after drying out, and most importantly that you were at the right place at the right time to share all of this with us.

    Love the muted tones in your images, matches the subject matter perfectly!

    I also looked at your entire gallery of EBT photos on your website; you’ve amassed an evocative (CPRA reference) collection from my favorite railroad, no matter what its current-day state is.

    Sometime in November I’m going to make a day trip out to Robertsdale, and to all four of the tunnel portals. Interested in teaming up?

    Matthew

    1. Eric Williams

      Thanks for your comments! The EBT is such a magical place and while I always find something interesting to shoot there, it was nice to see some steel wheels on the rails. Thanks to the FEBT for keeping the lights on…there is hope for the future. And yes, count me in on some tunnel exploration!

      Eric

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