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September 11, 1997

Childhood fascination with trains leads Pitt staffer to collection of 500,000 railroad photographs, slides and negatives — with no end in sight.

Some people are attracted to trains because of the adventure they symbolize. Other train-lovers are fascinated by the raw power evident in a churning, smoke-belching locomotive. Still others like trains because they are part of their family heritage: their father or grandfather may have spent his life laying track or shoveling coal for some now- nearly forgotten railroad.

Bill Nixon, assistant director of Central Business Services, falls into that last category. When Nixon was a boy growing up in Morningside in the early 1950s, his father, James, occasionally would take him to the train yards where he worked as an electrician for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then for its successor, the Penn Central.

Among Nixon's fondest memories are images of locomotives being turned around in the "Pennsy" roundhouse on 28th Street near the Herron Hill Bridge, old locomotives being dismantled for scrap in the Sharpsburg rail yards and standing next to engines that dwarfed him.

So enthralled did Nixon become with trains that when he graduated from high school he wanted to work for the railroad. He would have too, except: "My dad said if I ever worked for the railroad, he'd kill me." Although the money wasgood, Nixon's dad knew how hard railroad work was and wanted something better for his son.

Instead of the railroad, 33 years ago Nixon found a job at the University working in the chemistry stockroom. But he never lost his fascination with trains. While still a youngster, he started collecting railroad photographs. Today, his collection contains an estimated 500,000 slides, prints and negatives, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, private collections of its type in the nation. "I don't even have them all catalogued yet," Nixon said. "I only have probably about 100,000 catalogued. It's kind of tough to get them all done because I keep getting new things from people all the time." Although Nixon has copies of photographs that go back to the turn of the century, most of the original pictures in his collection, those that museums and serious collectors are interested in, are from the 1930s and 1940s. It was a time when steam was king, he said. "It was a nice era. The people who lived along the railroad might not have thought that, though, because of the soot." Nixon put together his collection from a wide variety of sources, including his own photos, those he obtained from old railroaders, other collectors and railroad photographers. In their heyday, most railroads had their own photographers who would travel the lines taking pictures of company property for work crews and executives to evaluate.

"Any time I see collections available, I try to get them," he said.

About 90 percent of the collection are color slides. The remainder is a mix of black and white prints, and negatives. Nixon picked up the majority for a nickel or dime each. The most he has ever paid for a railroad photograph was $10. It was for a shot of an "Arrow Train," a General Motors' experimental train from the 1950s.

Nixon does not have any favorite shots in his collection. The ones he enjoys the most, though, are some of the older ones and photos he took himself of his children with locomotives and trains. Because of the insurance risk, he noted, it is difficult to take photos of children next to trains today.

Shots in the collection include everything from pictures of tracks and stations to trains under steam and locomotives being cut up for scrap. Collectors of railroad memorabilia from throughout the country contact the Pitt staffer looking for pictures of locomotives for which they own a lantern, a headlight or a builder's plate, a brass plate similar to the serial number plate on a car. Many like to frame or display a piece of memorabilia with a photo of the locomotive from which it came.

Nixon also collects railroad memorabilia, although not nearly on the same scale as he does photos. He has a few lanterns, travel orders, brass fittings and other items that were used daily by old-time railroaders. He said memorabilia is an entirely different area that requires a lot of expertise. Photos from Nixon's collection also have been an aid to historians, journalists and even filmmakers. They have been used to illustrate numerous magazine articles, in books on the Central Vermont Railroad and the Boston & Maine Railroad, as the centerfold in a publication on the Pennsylvania Railroad and in videos such as WQED's "Things That Aren't There Anymore." WPSX, the public television station in State College, is making a railroad film in which Nixon's photos will appear. Some of his photos have been displayed, too, at Station Square and in railroad museums.

Sharing his photographs with the public gives Nixon a special joy. Among the more dramatic shots in his collection is one of a steam train negotiating the famous Horseshoe Curve near Altoona. "Things like that, you have to share with people," he said.

Nixon's own biggest thrill involving railroads and photography occurred in Sharpsburg about 25 years ago. He was standing along the tracks taking photos of passing trains when the engineer of a four-locomotive set that had stopped waved him over.

Reluctantly, thinking the engineer was going to complain that he was on railroad property, Nixon walked over to the locomotive. When he got there, the man invited him inside to see the controls and take some photos.

As they talked, the engineer offered him his seat and, finally, asked if he wanted to drive the locomotives down the tracks to Etna where he was going to pick up a car.

"The guy could have gotten fired," Nixon recalled. "But I said, 'Sure!' He told me what to do so I took the four locomotives, they were 10,000 horsepower, down the tracks." To avoid being seen by the engineer's boss, Nixon had to get off the locomotive before it reached Etna and walk the two miles back to his car in Sharpsburg. But he said it didn't matter — he felt as if he was walking on a cloud the entire way. Nixon is not sure what he eventually will do with his collection of railroad photographs. He may donate it to a transportation museum being created in Coraopolis in which he is involved. "My main concern is that the stuff is accessible to the public," he said.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 2

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