Making Tracks: Railroad buff crisscrosses the nation

More than 47,000 miles of track crisscross our nation, transporting passengers and cargo through small rural towns and large metropolitan areas on more than 650 shortline and regional railroads. Collectively, the number of miles of track they traverse exceeds the total length of roadways within the Interstate Highway System. So although it may astound us, given these statistics, it is not surprising to learn that there are over 100 different railroads within a four-hour drive of Carson City.

As Jim Sasso resumes his conversation with railroad photographer Kel Aiken, he learns the secret to being a good "ferroquinologist" (a mythical euphemism for "railroad nut") - have an inexhaustible travel budget, limitless quantities of film and a penchant for adventure.

"I work on our inventory of photographs about three months during the year and we try to get on the road to visit and verify operating equipment. Whenever we go on a driving trip, we get off the interstate highways and literally crisscross a state to stop in and visit railroads still in operation. I'm always looking for something to see. I think my wife and I have been on every tourist railroad west of the Mississippi, but I wouldn't bet on it. We've also been on many of the other railroads around this country and some in other countries throughout the world.

"One particular trip comes to mind. Many years ago, on a business trip, I drove from Los Angeles up to Oakdale, Calif. There I came across the old West Side Lumber Company. Although the company was no longer in business, many of its old Shays were still parked where they had been left on the day operations shut down. I jumped the fence and proceeded to take as many photos as I had film for. Now I carry my own hard hat with me at all times. I never know what I'm going to encounter.

"Creating 'The Rephotographic Study of the V&T Railroad' has been an exciting adventure for me. The study includes over 400 photos of the original railroad's operations. I've acquired copies of these vintage photos from private collections and museums along with permission to use them. Finding the correct location to take a comparable 'contemporary photo' offers many interesting challenges. To ensure accuracy, it is important that the current picture be taken from the same place as the original. Considering the changes that have taken place since the railroad began operating in 1870 and ceased operating in 1950, it is sometimes impossible to duplicate a shot exactly.

"For example, take the trestle in Gold Hill. To duplicate many original photos would require digging down almost 100 feet below present ground level. The original conditions just don't exist today, nor can they be recreated without considerable difficulty. This is one of many instances in which the area has changed so completely that past conditions cannot be duplicated. Other than contending with the impossible, the next most significant obstacle to taking photos from the proper vantage point is the change to buildings, trees, landscaping and roadways. Sometimes it's only the outline of a distant hill that offers an opportunity for comparison.

"In the future, I'd like to compile 125-150 of the best comparison photos into a book for use with the 'new V&T.' This will be a fascinating undertaking. It's a project we've only just begun.

"Being a railroad nut has its advantages. My wife and I travel to many interesting locations around the world. In addition to touring this country, we've also traveled to places like Mexico, Chile and Ecuador. In February of this year, about 55 of us were able to lease our own private train for a trip through the eastern provinces of Canada. We set our own schedule, sometimes traveling on track that hadn't seen a passenger train in years. In 14 days we went north from Montreal to the upper reaches of Quebec, visited towns whose French names I still can't pronounce, and traveled on to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Some nights we slept on the train, on other nights we stayed in historic railroad hotels along the way.

"Later on this year, in August, in our obsessive pursuit of iron horses, we are taking a British Rails trip to visit many of the vintage steam and historic industrial narrow gauge railroads of England and Wales. Many of the trains in Wales were established to service slate mining operations. Some are still being used in that industry while others have been transformed into tourist operations. We are looking forward to seeing and riding on many different and unique rail lines. Some of them include: the Snowden Mountain Railway, the only steam cog railway in Britain, which travels to the top of Snowden Mountain, the highest point in Wales; the Llanberis Lake Railway which is a 2-foot narrow gauge railroad; the Welshpool and Llanfair Railway, a nine-mile line once known as the Farmer's Railway; the Llangollen Railway, a standard gauge steam line ride that can be combined with a canal cruise on an ancient Roman aqueduct; and the most famous of the 'little railways of Wales,' the Ffestiniog Railway where standards and narrow gauge share the same station."

We are hopeful that Kel will chronicle his experiences abroad and share the details of his adventures with our readers during future interviews with Making Tracks.


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