Scenes from an old Smith-Victor box

Smith-Victor's "Made in Griffith, Ind., U.S.A." time machine. Who knew?

Smith-Victor's "Made in Griffith, Ind., U.S.A." time machine. Who knew?

When I was young, even younger than I am now, I used to dream of having a time machine. I long ago gave up on such fantasy, but it turns out that, to paraphrase a favourite Monty Python line, I've already got one. Not Mr. Peabody's WABAC machine, or Doc Emmett Brown's DeLorean, but the simple steel "Made in Griffith, Ind., U.S.A." Smith-Victor slide box. 

I came to the realization the other evening while searching out old photographs of the three CN FP9s that would ultimately find their way to Ontario Southland. The search took me into stacks of steel boxes stocked with a life's worth of 2x2 Kodachrome slides. It was routine exercise and I plucked the slides I needed in a matter of minutes. Then curiosity got the best of me, and instead of quietly closing the box, I grabbed a random group just to see what I might see. Before I knew it, I was whisked back in time, back to September 5, 1971. 

I was 16, barely old enough to drive a car, let alone a time machine. But my friend Mike had a license and a car (a 1969 MGB), and we were off on a day trip to Buffalo.

For a couple small-town Ontario kids, a day trip to Buffalo was a thrilling hour-and-a-half ride straight into the heart of big time American railroading. Penn Central (in pre-merger New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad incarnations), Erie Lackawanna, Norfolk & Western, Lehigh Valley, Baltimore & Ohio, and Chesapeake & Ohio all converged on Buffalo in a mind-numbing maze of multiple-track mains, yards, shops, roundhouses, and towers. There were tracks and trains everywhere. And if the Class Is weren't enough, there were terminal and industrial operations, from Buffalo Creek and South Buffalo to Donner-Hanna Coke, Republic Steel, and Bethlehem Steel. Every Buffalo trip was an adventure.

September 5, 1971 was no exception. By Buffalo day-trip standards, it was an average outing. Nothing extraordinary, but as usual, the day held a few surprises. Having just purchased a fresh supply of Kodachrome ($3.99 per processing-paid 36 exposure roll at Honest Ed's in Toronto) the day before, I was feeling flush enough to spend a frame or two on the regulars, from the collection of CN S3s at Fort Erie to the EL GP7/DRS6-6-1500 sets that switched Bison Yard.

There were cab units galore: multiple lashups of Canadian-built, ex-Wabash F7s at CN Fort Erie; chicken-wire EL F3As, F3Bs and F7As of Lackawanna and Erie heritage at Bison Yard; a B&O A-GP7-B-B-A departing with southbound coal empties on the BR&P, and somber-looking solid-black PC E8s working the remnants of the Great Steel Fleet in the employ of newly minted Amtrak.

We packed a lot into the day, even a steam fix courtesy of a side trip to the Arcade & Attica in Arcade, N.Y. We followed 4-6-0 No. 14 working to Curriers and back with a respectable 7-car train made up of a gondola and a half-dozen open-platform coaches of Lackawanna origin.

There were no scanners then, and we didn't have so much as a map to guide us. It was seat-of-the-pants, learn-as-you-go railroading. We learned a little more with every Buffalo visit, and were either incredibly good, or incredibly lucky by 1971. You can pretty much call it the latter.

More than 40 years on, it's still a thrill to head to Buffalo, whether in real time, or back in time. I don't need no WABAC or DeLorean, Doc, I've got Smith-Victor's "Made in Griffith, Ind., U.S.A." time machine and that's good enough for me.

A stop at CN Fort Erie before crossing the Peace Bridge was a ritual of almost every Buffalo trip. Our first photo of the day was Extra 4594 East arriving on the Dunnville Sub with only an open tri-level, a boxcar and gon separating the engines and van.

Flush with a fresh stock of $3.99 per-roll, processing-paid Kodachrome, I took the luxury of photographing the usual assortment of S3s on the Fort Erie shop tracks. Like CN 8453 decked out with steam-era class lights and a rare rotating rooftop beacon.

N&W's London-built ex-Wabash F7As were among the attractions that made stopping at Fort Erie a worthwhile effort.

In addition to its fleet of Canadian-built F7As, Wabash purchased a single GP7, No. 453, from GMD. That's it (as N&W 3453) sandwiched between Fs 3659 and 3657. The two-storey Fort Erie yard office and one of the resident 8000-series S4s are in the background.

Just a GP7 (and a torpedo GP7 at that) away from an A-B-B-B-A, a B&O southbound doubles its train of coal empties together before departing for Salamanca on the BR&P.

Something about the road number of the trailing unit seemed familiar: B&O 4557 lives on today, enjoying the good life in Norfolk Southern's executive fleet as NS 4271.

The brakeman is out to get the yard switch as a westbound Lehigh Valley freight arrives with a trio of yellow jacket C420s.

Viewed from the Tifft Street bridge, a quartet of Penn Central GP40s accelerate a westbound Flexi-van train out of town. The first three units, PC 3264, 3266 and 3271 were turned out of La Grange as solid-black EMD loaners numbered 15, 17 and 23. Trailing unit 3003 is a New York Central original.

Lehigh Valley's Tifft Street yard and enginehouse was a mandatory stop. And never a disappointment. LV RS11s 402 and 400 and C628 641 idle on shop track.

Valley's big white C628s were the first LV diesels I ever saw: on a family trip in 1966.

Power to the shop. The inbound crew spots their trio of C420s on the service track.

EL Geeps at work in Bison Yard, including No. 1210 in Erie-inspired black-and-yellow.

Bison's Baldwins. The west end of Bison Yard was generally worked by a pair of EL GP7/DRS6-6-1500 sets. Dragging a heavy cut, EL 1203 and 1155 are doing the honours on September 5, 1971.

If transparencies only had sound! What I'd give for a recording of that incredible 567-608SC symphony.

The shop tracks at Bison — where no one seemed to mind youthful photographers — were crowded with EL Fs, Geeps, SD45s, SDP45s, and GEs; N&W Fs, RS11s and high-nose U-boats, and C&O GP30s and GP35s. Just out of sight, there's a visiting D&H Alco, C620 No. 601.

EL 6621, a chicken wire F3A built as Delaware, Lackawanna & Western 662A, seemed to be a Buffalo regular, and was a favourite for obvious reasons. Forming an all-Lackawanna A-A, EL 6621 eases down the lead with sister F7A No. 6114. This would be the last time I'd see EL 6621. The 1948-vintage cab was retired and traded-in before the end of the year.

Flanked by Geeps and high-nose N&W GEs, SDP45 3665 and U33C 3308 await the call to duty. Check out the Buffalo Creek 40-footer in the background.

EL 1202 and 1264 smoke it up as they wrestle with a long cut that includes a trio of MLW-built MX624EAs bound for East African Railways.

Garratt killers. Wearing protective coats of white for their overseas voyage, East African Railways MX624EAs 9205, 9207 and 9206 ride CN flats for the first leg of their journey from MLW to the African continent. The metre-gauge MLWs will help put EAR's famed Garratts out of work. Seeing EAR Garratts and the MLWs at work on home turf remains an unrealized fantasy.

A full crew and nothing but smiles for the photographers as GP7 1243 races past a load of new Oldsmobiles at Bison. That's just the way it was in Buffalo.

The Buffalo wrecker, complete with ex-Erie steam crane 03133 heads east behind GP7 No. 1209.

Under steam and ready to work, the Buffalo wrecker was our first, but not only steam encounter of the day.

Arcade & Attica 14, a Baldwin 4-6-0 of Escanaba & Lake Superior pedigree, gets underway with a 7-car train for Curriers. I first saw A&A on a family trip in 1966. The orange paint took some getting used to, but steam is steam ...

... and I'll take open-platform Lackawanna coaches with plain-bearing trucks and walk-over wicker seats in any hue.

Timeless shortline railroading. No. 14 runs around its train at Curriers.

We followed the former Pennsy back to Buffalo, encountering a fast-running GP38-powered local at Wales in the process. PC 7909 was just a few months out of La Grange.

Perfect punctuation: Pennsy cabin car, N5 47728, brings up the markers.

Back in Buffalo, we stopped in at Frontier, where a shopman tended to former NYC RS3 5237 and ex-Pennsy RSD5 6805 assigned to a transfer job.

Penn Central Fs were Buffalo regulars; an A-A-A set led by patch-painted 1734 idles at the shop.

Buffalo was a McIntosh & Seymour stronghold from the days of dieselization through the early Conrail years. Longtime Buffalo residents, ex-Pennsy RS1 9937, an S1 and an S4 take a break at Frontier. In the background, a trio of TH&B Geeps prepare for their overnight run to Toronto on PC/TH&B/CP run-through FT-1.

Still in fresh PC paint, former Pennsy U25C 6502, nosed onto a U25B and U33B, has taken a hit.

We closed out the day exploring the nearly empty concourse and platforms of Central Terminal.

Resting amid PC-painted E8s and stainless-steel coaches, some still lettered New York Central, heater car XH-7 piqued my curiosity. Looking part steam tender and part box-cab I wondered — and wonder still — just what Central used to cobble together these things.