While generations of boys and girls have been delighted by the sight of model trains running around the Christmas tree, the seasonal exposure to toy railroads wasn’t enough for the late John J. “J.J.” Young Jr. of Wheeling. His passion was seeing, riding and documenting the real thing.
In his 75 years, Young took photographs of countless trains, amassing a personal collection of more than 10,000 images, with many depicting engines and cars from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
Young, who died in 2004, bequeathed 6,328 images of trains in Wheeling and Charleston from the late 1940s through 2001 to the West Virginia State Archives. Currently, 51 of Young’s photos – 30 from Wheeling and 21 from Charleston – are on display at the Culture Center at the State Capitol Complex in Charleston through the end of January.
“Hands down, it’s the best collection of railroad photographs we’ve got,” said Debra Basham, assistant director of the West Virginia State Archives.
Citing the importance of Young’s photos, Nick Fry, curator of the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library in St. Louis, commented, “They are probably one of the finest collections in the United States, if not the world. J.J. had a great artist’s eye for an image.
“His access to the railroads in Wheeling was phenomenal,” Fry said of Young. “He had an actual pass to travel on the B&O Railroad. He knew the people in the yards. All those factors came together for a wonderful opportunity for someone with his skills to document those railroads in the city from 1930s until his passing. It’s a 70-year chronicle of railroads in Wheeling.”
In seeing Young’s images, “you get this great view of railroads in Appalachia,” from the 1930s through the 1960s, Fry said.
Fry, a former archivist for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Historical Society, never knew Young personally, but Fry and a few other railroad buffs made several trips to Charleston in recent years to help identify the rail yards, steam engines and other subjects captured in Young’s photos.
“What really was impressive was as far afield he (Young) was able to photograph in the area without ever having a car,” Fry remarked. He said Young relied on friends who had vehicles and he rode on trains, possessing a special pass from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that allowed him to travel wherever he wanted in the railroad company’s Wheeling division. “It is amazing what he (Young) was able to accomplish,” the historian added.
Fry said he was impressed by the breadth of Young’s collection. “For a guy who didn’t own a car, it’s amazing just how immense his collection was,” Fry said. “He just got everywhere, and he took his camera with him everywhere he went. He had great access.”
Young’s widow, Liz, said her husband never had a driver’s license, yet visited all 48 states in the continental United States chasing trains.
State officials said the Wheeling native’s passion for trains began as a toddler when he would pull himself up on the window sill of his family’s home to catch glimpses of the locomotives steaming along the Baltimore & Ohio’s Pike into Tunnel No. 1.
Family and friends related that Young, as a child, would snag rides in locomotives, sometimes without his parents’ knowledge. Young was 14 years old when his mother sent him to the store for a few last-minute items she needed for Thanksgiving dinner, but the store wasn’t open, so instead of heading back home, he hopped on a train headed for Buffalo, N.Y. From that point on, whenever he left the house, his mother would always tell him to send her a postcard when he arrived at his destination.
“He had amazing stories of things he did while he was chasing trains,” Liz Young, his wife of 23 years, said.
Several years after the state purchased the vacant B&O passenger station in Wheeling for use as the main building of West Virginia Northern Community College, the school’s alumni association began to collect memorabilia related to the building’s history and Young donated 200 of his train photographs to the collection. Wheeling resident Joan D. Weiskircher, who served as secretary of the WVNCC alumni association until her death earlier this year, was involved in mounting several exhibits of Young’s photographs on the Wheeling campus and wrote articles about Young’s avocation.
In a 2008 article, Weiskircher related the beginning of Young’s fascination with trains. She stated, “His father traditionally built a model train display in the family home each Christmas holiday season that attracted neighbors and friends from around the area. Added to that, train traffic flowed nearby through Tunnel Green. Thus a fascination with trains began early for J.J.”
Young had received a camera from his father. “At the very early age of 7 or 8, young J.J. exhibited a talent with the camera. Photographs of the 1936 flood in Wheeling attest to his developing talent and remain as a record of that event,” Weiskircher wrote.
In that article, Weiskircher also offered an account of how Young acquired the special B&O pass. “As his fascination with trains increased, young J.J. would spend a great deal of time around local train stations, getting to know the trainmen and employees of those vital centers of activity. In the process he gained extensive knowledge about train engines and the methods employed in the train yards,” she stated. “On one special day, while spending time at the B&O terminal in downtown Wheeling, young J.J. recognized a situation that had the potential for tragedy. He immediately notified a supervisor and his astute observation and responsible behavior was rewarded with the offer of a train ride ‘anytime he wished,’ promised by the station manager, Mr. Sell. This made it possible for J.J. to begin riding trains hither and yon …”
In a 2001 interview with GOLDENSEAL magazine, Young, then 72, said, “I had the grandest show in the country. It was my own 12-inches-to-the-foot scale model railroad. When you lived in such close proximity to railroads, you either loved them or hated them. I loved them.”
Young, who was born in Wheeling on May 23, 1929, worked for the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad before moving in 1959 to Binghamton, N.Y, where he taught photography. After retiring from Broome Technical Community College in Binghamton in 1995, Young relocated to Charleston, where he continued his life-long hobby of photographing trains until his death on Nov. 27, 2004.
Prior to her death, Weiskircher enjoyed recalling an eerie, but fitting, memory from Young’s funeral. In the 2008 article, she related, “During the funeral for J. J., at the precise moment when those who had gathered to celebrate his life began to pray, a train whistle sounded in the distance. Everyone felt it was a message from John J. Young Jr. telling all that he was in fine hands now.”
Fry estimated that the number of images shot by Young over the years would total “well over 10,000, possibly 20,000.” In addition to the collections donated to the state archives and to WVNCC, many of Young’s photographs remain with his widow in Charleston and his son in upstate New York, Fry said.
“J.J.’s been doubly fortunate that his widow has taken an interest to have his work preserved,” Fry commented. “Too many times, I see or hear of stories that families have a collection and don’t have an interest in it. We end up losing collections.”
Fry praised those who have taken an interest to preserve Young’s collection as an artifact. “It documents not only the subject but also the life of the person who created the artwork. It does me a great deal of good to see someone that cares as much about the integrity and the legacy of the collection as Liz (Young) does in how she’s worked to preserve J.J.’s work,” he said.
Many of Young’s Wheeling photographs showed trains traveling down 17th Street, trains approaching and exiting the viaduct on the back of the B&O Building and local industrial settings with extensive rail service. One of the iconic photos in the current display shows a freight train heading down the middle of 17th Street, with cars parked in close proximity along both sides of the street.
While such a sight might seem incredible today, the phenomenon of trains and cars sharing the same street “was a lot more common than you think,” Fry said. “In most industrial cities, the railroad came in after the streets were laid out. You had to make do, particularly in a city like Wheeling where you have the river on one side and the mountains on another. There was very little land available.”
Young had the advantage of growing up at the time when Wheeling was a big railroad terminal city with lots of movement and work being done on the trains, Fry pointed out.
Citing a reason why photography of railroads is more accessible than other forms of transportation, Fry noted that “trains spend a decent amount of time sitting still. You’ve got to stop the train; someone has to get off and walk all the way back to where you uncouple the cars. The locomotive and rest of the cars are sitting there, and the crew is watching the man doing his job. They have to stop to do what they have to do. In a city like Wheeling, with so many customers, bridges and crossings, it makes photography a lot easier to chase the image.”
Assessing Young’s artistry as a photographer, Fry said, “He really does a great job of working with light, shadow and movement. Some of the images at the state archives are pacing shots, where you hang out of a car at the same speed of a locomotive, the wheels are moving, the background is moving, but the locomotive is standing still … He really had a lot of luck standing at a specific location catching the train as it goes by with high-speed film, manipulating light and shadow.”