Amtrak: Rise And Fall Of The Allegheny Empire
by Bob LeBras I slept like a brick last night. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep for the previous two nights, the country air or all the walking, talking and browsing I did at the TCA Eastern Division train meet in York, PA, but I snoozed soundly in Ted’s quaint little guest room. I awoke to the smell of fresh brewed coffee, the sounds of his children starting their day and a dense fog thicker than I have ever seen in my life. The fog acted like an insulation blanket on the world deadening all sound with an eerie silence.
My day began with a quick shower followed by a brief repast of coffee and a bagel. We sat and chatted with the children prior to departing for Harrisburg. Ted felt there was plenty of time and that I would even have the opportunity to take photos. We left his house around 7:45 a.m. for what he thought would be a half hour drive at 80 m.p.h. Ted did not count on the fog.
The fog was so dense that it formed as water on the windshield while we were driving. I said, “This is the kind of weather that causes huge pileups in California.”
Well, here were were, less than an hour and counting from departure and driving at 40 not 80. Finally, we arrived at the train station with 7 minutes to spare. I am a timely person and was on the verge of myocardial infarction at this point. This arrival was the antithesis of my Pittsburgh departure.
The westbound #43, again the famous Pennsylvanian, pulled up just as I was descending the stairs to the platform. What timing, or so I thought. I happily boarded the Single Level Coach, placed my bags in the overhead rack, got out my digital camera, sat back, waved goodbye to Ted and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, the Conductor announced that anyone wishing to step out for a smoke could do so. So I detrained and noticed that Joe, the Friday night, eastbound Café Car attendant, was also riding back on this trip. I was happy to see a familiar face. I asked him where he was headed and he replied, “Home to Pittsburgh.”
I took a few photos on the platform including the GG-1 and its caboose. I was impressed by the fact that the pantograph on the GG-1 was raised to the overhead catenary. I wondered if the lit headlights on the locomotive were supplied by the overhead or if it was just an illusion. Also impressive was the intricate construction of the Harrisburg station; a delicate yet sturdy latticework of iron. The interior of the station is an amazing floor to ceiling treatment in solid wood. The Pennsy knew how to build them and I was gratified that the city of Harrisburg has maintained this fine landmark.
I finished my cigarette and hopped back on. A group of folks that, judging from their accents, I guessed to be from south of the Mason-Dixon line were gathering in the seats around me. A very nice woman said, “Gee, we thought from the way you jumped up when we came on board that we scared you off.” I replied that it would take more than a few Confederates to ruffle my feathers. Virtually immediately the good old southern hospitality came out when they gave me crackers, candy bars and cashews. My favorite 3 C’s. I offered them the fourth C; homemade peanut butter cookies given to me by my weekend hosts just prior to departure. This began a grand trip in the excellent company of some fine folks. Turns out that Sam, a railfan with a hand scanner, was traveling with five women on a wild circuit around the northeast up from their home near Atlanta. Apparently, in addition to riding their BMW motorcycles, they did this type of traveling quite often and I thought it was a marvelous way to spend the Golden Years.
Slowly, we pulled out of the station approximately a half hour behind schedule. The fog was just incredibly dense. I was abit dismayed because I wanted to take photos of the peaking fall color and all the trains as well. Instead, for most of the trip until about 11:30 a.m., I shot trains, trackside accessories and towns in fog.
Finally, as we rose out of the Susie Q valley into to the mighty Alleghenies, the pea soup began to lift and we were treated to the spectacular natural fireworks display that is Fall in Pennsylvania. Absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking mountains blossoming in the sunlight awaited us around every bend. Having traveled across the state by plane, car and bus, I was convinced that this was the ultimate way to see my native land.
I had never given much consideration to scanners as they relate to rail traffic finding the communications rather boring. Being on a train and listening to our engineer’s interaction with controllers and fault detectors gave me a whole new perspective on these receivers. Fortunately, Sam had moved to a seat in front of me so that I could listen to the little squawk box and I was intrigued by the fault detectors. I had heard of these devices but had never actually heard one in action. I thought it amazing how they counted off the number of axles, our speed and let us know there were no “no faults.” I was equally amused listening to the engineer reply to these automated gizmos.
We plowed on through red, orange and yellow mountains and lush green valleys finally arriving at the industrial train mecca of central Pennsylvania, Altoona; home of the Pennsy’s legendary Juniata shops, home of the even more legendary Horshoe Bend and home to a really cool train museum. If you love trains, and I do love trains, this is definitely the place for you.
Unfortunately, we spent no time in Altoona and I did not get to see the inside of the city’s new Amtrak station (much nicer than Pittsburgh’s; I’m going to have to write Amtrak about that one someday) so it was off for the assault of the big curve. With my ears popping away, we climbed rapidly out of Altoona rounding the massive bend of iron. People were waving at us as I used my Nikon 35mm (instead of the digital camera) to rapid fire photos from every conceivable angle. It was a glorious experience but I decided that, for the railfan, the view is far more spectacular from the outside but it is great to have experienced both sides of the picture.
All along, our little group ate, drank and yapped endlessly much to the chagrin, I am sure, of those trying to sleep around us. I did not sleep one wink during the entire trip as I might have missed a flicker of locomotive light or a gentle stream winding it’s way through the brilliant Fall canopy. I rarely sleep on trips as I am too much of a gawking tourist firing away with my film guns.
Johnstown was another incredible sight with the great hillside that contained all that water during the devastating flood covered in a spectacular Fall bouquet. Having visited the city a couple times in the past, I determined that the train is the ideal vantage point aside from taking the incline up the mountain.
After the Conemaugh valley, I knew it was the last hurrah for the rise and fall of the Allegheny empire. Passing through the stations at Ligonier, home of Rolling Rock beer, and Greensburg, home of something worthwhile to somebody, we slid down into, first, the Turtle Creek valley passing under the magnificent George Westinghouse bridge then, finally, the convergence of the Mon, the Al and the O, the Golden Triangle, Pittsburgh.
We pulled into the Amtrak station just as we left… late. But, the upside was that it wasn’t that late and, finding a cab as soon as I descended the steps from the upper platform, I made my way home greeted by my ever present feline buddies and those damned Fall leaves all over my front yard.