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Capturing Steam

Railroad Photographer J.J. Young

By Bob Withers

Photographs by J.J. Young

Down 14th Street, up Eoff Street, through the Yellow Cab lot to Chapline Street, past the post office, over 10th Street, and across Main Street. Pedestrians, stand aside! A young man is tearing through downtown Wheeling, camera dangling from his neck, swinging wildly from side to side. What could provoke this mad dash through midday traffic? This risk to life and limb?
B&O locomotive
A Baltimore & Ohio locomotive steams through McMechan, Marshall County, in the summer of 1957.

Why, a train whistle, of course. And not just any train whistle. A "hooter" - a low, mournful tone unique to the grandest Baltimore & Ohio steam locomotive of them all, the mighty EM-1. These articulateds - massive, roller-bearing war babies - were among the largest railroad engines ever made.

A long, heavy coal train - in local parlance, a "humper" - has just departed B&O's nearby Benwood yard for a Lake Erie dock, and the "one long and three shorts" has notified the man with the camera that the engineer has "whistled out the flag" so that he can take water at Bridgeport, just across the river in Ohio. That provides the man with a chance to do a little humping of his own, catch up with the train, and take a picture of it.

Listen. Another blast. Two longs, a short, and a long. He's whistling for Lincoln Avenue. The engine crew has slaked the iron horse's ravenous thirst and is ready to get back on their train.

"Got to keep moving," the man puffs to himself as he reaches the Suspension Bridge to Wheeling Island. The marathon already has extended for more than two miles; now it's only a couple more blocks. Finally, he reaches a friend's house. A friend with a car - an "ancient, old wreck" of a red Chevy convertible, cranked up and ready to go. These pals don't waste time with telephones; when a hooter calls, they head out. The result is always the same - a fun day of chasing trains and capturing dozens of priceless, nostalgic images.

Meet J.J. Young, Jr., a 72-year-old Wheeling native whose best friends from the start have always been steam locomotives and the trains they pulled. The race that he and fellow railfan Jack Norton ran across Wheeling back in the mid-'50's is long passed. But, since Young taught himself how to handle cameras at an early age, his thousands of stunning images resurrect for 21st century eyes the symmetrical dances of these fire-breathing, smoke-belching beasts, far beyond their fatal appointments with the scrap yard.

You can read the rest of this article in the Summer 2001 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.