In my childhood basement, there was a tiny room in the back right-hand corner. It was cordoned off from the rest of the space by a decaying wooden door that was barely hanging on by its hinges. The contents of the room consisted of a bare lightbulb with a pull string, a seat that was so wobbly it was a stool by name only, some narrow work benches, and shelving units that contained drawers and drawers of nuts, bolts, springs, nails, and screws. If I felt brave enough to linger among the dim light, dampness, cobwebs, and creepy furnace noises long enough, I would poke through these little drawers. Taking each object in my hand, I would feel the odd shapes of the metal, turning them over, feeling the ridges, and judging the weight of each one.
I suppose I was drawn to aesthetics of the small totems, but I was also intrigued by their possibilities. Creating a new physical object out of individual pieces struck me as an extraordinary skill that remains somewhat elusive to me even today. These items were a clue to the mystery of “how mechanical stuff gets done” and I was fascinated by them. There were many attributes to fixate on: the way the hardware was both smooth and gritty at the same time, the way the pieces locked together with an oh-so-satisfying precision, and that smell.
Anyone who has ever been around a damp basement with tools is familiar of the smell of wet metal. To this day when I catch a whiff of it, I’m instantly transported to that basement, rummaging through hundreds of tiny drawers, looking for miniature treasures. And so I found myself at yet another location of decay taking pictures of rusty iron rods and abandoned tools, and wondering why it holds such an attraction for me.
The York County Camera Club and the Lancaster County Photo Meetup group held a joint outing to the East Broad Top Railroad, a historic narrow gauge railroad in Rockhill Furnace, PA. The railway has not operated commercially for more than 60 years, and has not had regular public excursions on the line since 2011. A non-profit group, Friends of the East Broad Top is trying to raise the necessary funds to restore the line and bring it back into some form of operation. In the meantime, dedicated volunteers are doing what they can to keep up the grounds and the equipment.
By appointment we were allowed to wander the grounds of the railroad which include the locomotive roundhouse, the various tool sheds and maintenance areas, and the tracks themselves. I felt somewhat conflicted as I walked around the yard. The photographer in me was in his glory with all the metal, peeling paint, and heavy equipment in varying states of decay. The non-photographer part of me empathized with the volunteers present who spoke so passionately about the East Broad Top line and marveled at the scale of it all. You could tell they had grander visions for the railroad that didn’t include being a playground for urbex photographers.
It was easy to see the appeal steam railroads might holds for them. It was the same type of wonder I had, handling those small pieces of metal, just on a much larger scale. This is how mechanical stuff got done. A simpler time when all the pieces fit together in a way you could make sense of.
At the end of the day, I scratched my decay photography itch and had more than one moment when the whiff of rusty wrench sent me right back to that small room in my parent’s house. Even though it would be less appealing to me personally as a photo-destination, I do hope that the Friends of the East Broad Top will ultimately be successful in their efforts to restore the railroad. There will always be new things that are abandoned and left to rot. So few things ever get a second chance to shine in the sun away from the shadows of history’s basement.