In the book, The Mohawk that Refused to Abdicate and Other Tales, writer David P. Morgan described Horseshoe Curve as: “…that great cinder-laden arc which Pennsy describes on the steep wall of the Alleghenies as it seeks to outwit gravity in the eternal fight to reach Pittsburgh and the West beyond.”
In 1978 I rode Amtrak’s National Limited from Richmond to New York City and back at the hopelessly green age of twenty-three. It was an adventure to say the least. We left Richmond shortly before nine in the evening, slipping across Ohio, the northern panhandle of West Virginia and into western Pennsylvania during the wee hours of darkness. Sleeping in coach, I was fortunate to have the twin seats to myself, so I could lay down somewhat. I have a vague memory of the five-am stop at Pittsburgh and my only impression of the Steel City was the wall of solid rock a few tracks over when I glanced out the window.
If memory serves, breakfast took place somewhere on the Pittsburgh Division and fulfilled every promise of dining on the train with ham, scrambled eggs, toast and juice served on fine china, with heavy silverware and real linen tablecloths as the landscape of the Keystone State rolled past the window. Later in the morning it happened: our sojourn around that great cinder-laden arc of Horseshoe Curve that inspired Morgan’s prose of two decades prior. The conductor still walked the train announcing the event, lending a touch of old world class to a gloomy winter overcast that made our transition somewhat less than memorable. Still, tons of machinery and dozens of souls made a safe, controlled descent from the mountain on flanged wheels guided by the silent power of two rails.
Later that day, the National Limited had left the mountains far behind, rolling through the picture post card that is eastern Pennsylvania. We were in electrified territory now, going god knows how fast behind a pair of GG1s. The ride was as smooth and relaxing as any I’ve experienced back then or since.
There’s an engineering genius and beauty that underlies track. Those twin ribbons of steel have inspired writers, artists and photographers for more than a century. For my generation, track still brings thoughts of longing for new horizons or curiosity about what’s around that bend? When we see an old abandoned line, we may wonder who or what used to pass this way? It was important once, what changed to make it less so?
As modelers we can be drawn to track’s mechanical efficiency; to the flow and geometry, the color and gritty texture. We can see it as an annoying source of delay if we’re in a hurry to model something else, or as a chance to pause and reflect. We can look with admiration or pragmatism; thinking of it as a subject worthy of careful study in its own right, or simply a means to an end. However we see it, or the associations it brings to mind, track is fundamental to our craft.
This work holds a different meaning for each of us. I’ve always been drawn to track, it’s flow, texture and character. It evokes special memories that I recall with great pleasure, such as my adventure to New York City. I try to infuse my modeling with these memories to varying degrees of success. In our own way, I think that’s what many of us do.