Scenes from an old Smith-Victor box
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.