Sometimes things just work out. Call it luck, fate, good timing, or just maybe everything happens for a reason.
On a Sunday afternoon drive home from Altoona, I decided to break up the nearly five-hour long trip and head over to the Norfolk Southern Reading Line between Reading and Allentown and follow the tracks homeward. Maybe I would see something interesting or maybe not…. I didn’t have a plan, as I was on the home stretch from a good weekend shooting at the East Broad Top and Horseshoe Curve.
East of Hamburg, I decided to exit off I-78 and slowly make my way over to Lyons, PA situated on the Norfolk Southern line. Knowing that I just needed to head south to find the valley and eventually the tracks, I didn’t engage my GPS and took roads and turns that seemed interesting as I made my way. With plenty of train related images behind me, I was content just exploring and looking for subject matter in my other interests of old barns, bridges and industrial structures. I found a few places to stop and took my time as there was still plenty of light to work with and didn’t feel any pressure to find anything. Before I knew it, I was it Kutztown, the end of a former Reading branch line and the home of a beautifully restored depot. I spent about 15 minutes in town and then decided to follow the tracks towards Topton as I knew that’s where this branch connected with the former Reading mainline that NS now owns and operates.
This branch has always interested me as it is an anomaly on this line of efficient modern railroading. As part of a competing railroad, it was chartered in 1853 but came under the Reading’s control by 1860. They operated it until Conrail and eventually sold the line in 1983 to a shortline operator. With more than a few ownership changes in the past few decades, it has seen marginal revenue use and the last freight operated in 2013. This was about the time I discovered the branch as there is a small engine house a half mile west of Topton that perked my interest as I explored the area. On my first visit, I couldn’t see into the engine house, but what was parked outside was the normal yard sale of a short-line….old cabooses, freight cars of various classes and even a former Santa Fe streamlined business car. When I came upon this small facility, it appeared that nothing had moved in years and after looking up the history on the web, it seemed like a line without a future.
As I followed the tracks, I came upon an interesting scene about a mile out of Kutztown and slowed to look it over for photographic possibilities. Engaged in visualizing, I was startled to hear a sound that I knew could only be a locomotive horn. It sounded too close to be the NS Reading Line which was at least 2 miles west, so I waited a minute and then heard the sound closer. Not knowing what to expect, I pulled the car to the road shoulder and waiting. Much to my surprise, along came a flatcar with a load being pushed by a beautiful little SW-1 in a dark green paint. Surprised by the suddenness of the train, I wasn’t fully prepared for a proper composed shot and grabbed a few quick images that will only serve as documents of the event. As the little train went into a tree tunnel, I scrambled to my car and turned towards Kutztown to race to the next grade crossing and hopefully better access the situation.
Since the little train was traveling about 10 miles per hour, I quickly beat the train and saw a man with a flag at the crossing. Expressing interest in the railroad, he reached into his car and pulled out a brochure with the name of the railroad…. the Allentown and Auburn. He told me that they were bringing the load into town as the first positing move of the flatcar which would be pulled to a farmer’s field as he was going to remove the load, an office trailer, for use on his farm. This little unexpected operation with a beautifully painted and running SW-1 would have been enough in itself to satisfy me, but then he had magical words….”If you want to see a doodlebug, then stick around!”
Up to now, I was merely excited, but with those words my heart started racing. I knew by now this was a special operation that I had stumbled upon and the doodlebug would satisfy my fantasies of this little branch line that served a picturesque farming community. Furthermore, the sun was low with beautiful light and and the track limited the train to a slow speed so that I would have plenty of time to pre-plan my shots and make the most of the light.
I chased the SW-1 into Kutztown and shot the special movement there and as it made its way back to Topton. When I arrived at the short lines terminus, there was a small group of railroad crewman, friends, and railfans all looking down a track which was obscured from me by a row of old equipment. I parked the car and made my way to the group, looked down the track and there it was…. a red doodlebug. Inside was an engineer, the motor was softly gurgling, and the unit was definitely getting set to run. Not sure how long before they would run to Kutztown, I jumped in the car and wanted to get ahead of them to have plenty of time to scout locations and light to shoot it. I knew that I may be leaving some interesting photos behind, but my mind was set on getting away from the crowd and shooting the doodlebug in a scene that more aligned with my preconceived notions of where a doodlebug ran…rural America.
As I traveled down the line and made mental notes of possible photo locations, it occurred to me that this branchline was only 4-1/2 miles long and that I might run out of railroad if I didn’t start to be more creative with my composition thoughts and worry less about finding that perfect idyllic preconceived scene. With that thought, I settled in and decided to make the most of what was there and made some good shots of the train heading towards Kutztown and back.
My favorite shot was the one I least expected. As I arrived back at the Allentown and Auburn’s yard area well ahead of the train, I walked down the line a ways and found my idyllic scene just as the sun was setting. A few minutes later the doodlebug came around the bend and entered the scene and my visualization was realized.
If you're interested in learning more about the history of this former Reading RR branchlike, here is a good source.