Column: Kel Aiken documents railroads few have discovered

"Give me a man that is capable of devotion to anything, rather than a cold, calculating average of all the virtues."

Bret Harte

The prospect of reconstructing the Virginia & Truckee Railroad has stirred devotion in the hearts of countless people. In some cases, the contributions of these devotees are overt and well publicized. In other instances, their efforts are quiet and unheralded.

Since March of 1997, Kel Aiken, author of the Rephotographic Study of the V&T Railroad, has generously volunteered the use of his photographic comparisons for publication in this column. Who is the man behind these pictures and what motivates his interest in railroads?

Making Tracks contributor, Jim Sasso, recently interviewed Kel, who, despite an initial reluctance, finally agreed to share with our readers some of his many and varied experiences:

Kel's preoccupation with trains is widespread. "I don't know how I got interested in trains," he confesses. "None of my relatives, past or present, have been associated with railroading. No one ever gave me a set of model trains to begin with.

"But, somehow, I got hooked and I've been following trains ever since I was a kid. As a child, I would entertain myself by walking about half a mile from my grandmother's home in Southern California to watch the freight and passenger trains pass by. By the time I was 8 years old, I was selling Christmas cards to buy and build my first model train engine. As I grew older, I became totally involved in building model trains and I had my first pretty good sized HO layout by the time I was in high school.'

"Today I am working on the fifth and largest layout. It's state-of-the-art, digitally controlled and in a dedicated wing in our house. It fills almost 800 square feet with a small shop area for building new models and repairing old ones.

"Believe it or not, I still have the models I first started with. There is a setup in our motor home to work on models when we are traveling. I use the air tanks for the motor home brakes to power an airbrush for finish painting. I'm convinced that whatever I do, my layout will never be complete."

Kel jokingly refers to himself as an amateur "ferroquinologis." In his personal glossary of railroad terms this means "chaser of the iron horse." A looser translation of this term might be "railroad nut."

"As I look back, one mistake I made initially was not taking pictures of the trains I saw as a kid and later. Now that I'm completely immersed, it's different. I take pictures of every train I lay my eyes on. As time has progressed, my interests have expanded to embrace modern railroading.

"While the class one railroads are now reduced to four-five and somewhat redundant, there is a whole new world of shortlines, industrial railroads, which have been created.'

"Now I have a fairly large photo collection from railroads around the world and it is continuing to grow. To keep track of the pictures and their locations, I created a database to list the operating railroads. My original list had over 700 railroads on it, and I was really proud of my effort.

"But wherever we went, I kept running into other railroads that weren't on the list. What I learned was there was another world out there -industrial railroads - that no one had ever explored. And beyond that there were the tourist railroads which had to be added.'

"This discovery began a rather large and complex research project. I looked at all the magazines I could find, I visited railroad museums and I began to classify all the railroads I could locate. Today that database has grown to over 11,000 entries and I expect it will continue to get larger.

"As a result of this research and the travel involved, I've become somewhat of an expert on short line and industrial railroads. My work prompted the people at The Railroad Press to approach me about writing a column entitled, 'The Vintage Generation,' which lists rare operating locomotives (and their locations) for use by other people who may want to search them out.

"As you might expect, the data is continually changing and has led me on some interesting adventures. It was this assignment which generated my interest in the V&T some years ago."

Last year Kel gave a presentation at the Nevada State Railroad Museum where he spoke about railroads within four hours of Carson City. He surprised both himself and the audience when he disclosed the actual number.

He will be giving his "V&T Then and Now" presentation at the Nevada State Museum's Evening Program again on Oct. 11.

Next week: Part two of our conversation with Kel Aiken

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