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New Book Showcases J.J. Young’s Wheeling Railroad Photos

While the days of train whistles echoing off the Hempfield Viaduct as locomotives chugged across the bridge into Tunnel Green are long gone, train enthusiasts at Lunch with Books at the Ohio County Library on Tuesday recalled those days while admiring the photography of Wheeling native J.J. Young.

A book of Young’s photographs, “The Steam and Diesel Era in Wheeling, West Virginia,” was assembled by his widow, Elizabeth Davis-Young; president of the B&O Historical Society, Greg Smith; and curator of the John W. Barringer III National Railroad Library, Nicholas Fry. The book was published by West Virginia University Press this month.

The three authors discussed the process of collecting Young’s photographs with a receptive audience of about 70 Lunch with Books attendees.

A photographer and professor, Young was born in 1929 and witnessed the golden days of the railroad age in Wheeling.

He grew up fascinated with steam locomotives as his hometown was a crossing point for the Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wheeling & Lake Erie, Pittsburgh & West Virginia and New York Central passenger rail lines as well as industrial railroads and interurban trolleys that crisscrossed Wheeling and connected it to nearby towns.

Davis-Young said her husband’s siblings recalled Young standing up on his tiptoes and looking out of the window of their childhood home eagerly to watch the train pass. Young graduated from Wheeling Central Catholic High School in 1947 and eventually moved to upstate New York. But from the 1930s to the 1960s, he captured thousands of images in Wheeling, 150 of which appear in the new collection.

Some of the photos, such as Young’s widely published iconic photo of a B&O train arriving at the Moundsville station, depict everyday rail passage. Others showcase unique events such as the unloading of Christmas trees transported to Wheeling from Canada and the arrival of the 1947 American Freedom Train to downtown Wheeling. The Freedom Train, shown in the book’s cover shot, was meant to spur Americans to reflect on the meaning of citizenship in the post-World War II era.

Young himself wrote the captions for some of the photos, but many were compiled by Davis-Young, Smith and Fry.

The composition of captions was the unique challenge that had to be overcome in compiling the book, according to the three authors. Young was so incessant in capturing as many photos as possible that he had never stopped to catalogue each photograph’s context.

“There are a lot of J.J. Young pictures that show up in other people’s books, but J.J. had never written a book of his own when he retired,” Fry said. “I think he was probably having so much fun taking pictures that (he thought), ‘Why bother writing it down?'”

Fry told the crowd that Young had a precise memory of the details of each photograph but had only begun to write those memories down for a book when he passed away in 2004, leaving many of his photographs uncatalogued.

“J.J. took a lot of his captions with him (when he died), so we had over 200 mysteries that we had to solve,” Fry said.

Fry and Smith picked up where Young left off, using their extensive personal and professional railroad history backgrounds and connections to piece together context clues and retrace the dates and details of each photo. The majority of these photos are previously unpublished.

Fry said that what makes these hidden gems so unique is Young’s access to all aspects of Wheeling railroads. Young befriended many railroad employees throughout decades of tracing rail lines and observing train passages. He even worked as a fireman on the Wheeling & Lake Erie railroad himself.

“The crews all knew him,” Smith said. “He takes pictures that we would be locked up if we took because he would climb up onto coal towers, a signal bridge, or on top of a roof of a railroad structure and take these amazing pictures.”

An audience member shared a story he heard from Young about his daring stunts. Young once climbed a tree near Tunnel Green and hung there for two hours in order to capture a photo of a special train coming from Benwood.

Smith asserted that despite Young’s rapport with the railroad employees, he never used his access to stage photos; his shots were always authentic and realistic.

While “The Steam and Diesel Era in Wheeling, West Virginia” is an unprecedented showcase for Young, his  legacy is also preserved in the West Virginia archives and at West Virginia Northern Community College. Young willed his Wheeling railroad photos to WVNCC, and they are currently on display on the WVNCC campus in the former Baltimore & Ohio railroad station. The rest of his West Virginia railroad photographs can be viewed at the state archives.

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