The "North End" of the normally nocturnal Delaware & Hudson main line affords many scenic opportunities to the patient photographer. Canadian Pacific train 252 skirts the shore of Lake Champlain as they roll south through Port Henry, New York on January 15, 2012. The train is led by a rebuilt and repainted EMD SD60M 6269 (ex-SOO 6060), out on its maiden voyage today.
Lucked Out on the North End
By Nick Wilson /Photos by the author
If you were to ask anyone from the “North Country” of New York what their thoughts are about winter, they would sum it up with one word: Cold! But for myself, the winter season opens up a myriad of opportunities on the already picturesque piece of railroad that is Canadian Pacific’s Canadian Mainline, or as it is more affectionately known, Delaware & Hudson’s “North End.”
As ice fishermen try their luck on the frozen South Bay, CP train 696 rolls by in the background on the approach to Whitehall, New York. 696 is a unit oil train destined for Albany and is sporting a pair of CP’s new 8900-series GE ES44ACs on January 7, 2012.
It was almost by chance that I happened upon the North End. My initial college plans entailed a university in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls region, but a last-minute change landed me in Plattsburgh, New York, near the northern extremity of the old Delaware & Hudson. Like most college students, time and money were at a premium, thus I didn’t spend nearly as much time exploring the North End as I would have liked. Before I knew it, college was over and the North End seemed like a distant memory as I regretted being unable to explore such a majestic piece of railroad. Little did I know that nearly half a year after graduating from college, I would accept a job offer in North Country and reside a stone’s throw from the North End.
Fast-forward to the beginning of 2012, where many long weekend days are spent exploring the rugged terrain and breathtaking scenery along Lake Champlain. I awake to bitterly cold temperatures residing below zero. Steam rising from a hot cup of coffee quickly awakens me as I hustle out the door. The orange glow of the morning sun wages a battle on the retreating shadows as the frost on my windshield and the powder on the ground glisten. With the radio on, my camera at my side, and the needle at “F,” I’m ready to hit the road.
Idling locomotives are the only sound to be heard in the midst of snow-coated farmland. Once a fresh crew is on board, the throttle is opened up, and the voices of the once subdued locomotives echo throughout the surrounding countryside as the chase begins. Once south of Plattsburgh, the landscape quickly starts to challenge both modes of transportation, with I-87 fighting the arduous Adirondack Mountains on a more inland route while the railroad clings to the edge of Lake Champlain. As a result, one can often times see and hear the train for miles in advance. The frigid air stings my exposed face as I patiently wait for a southbound Train 252 in Port Henry atop a rock outcropping, having first seen its headlight nearly 10 minutes earlier. After what seems like an eternity, a recently remanufactured SD60M enters my viewfinder as brilliant sunshine fills the scene.
It is truly amazing to look on as a 10,000-ton ethanol train, dwarfed by its surroundings, is forced to slowly snake its way between the looming mountains and the vast expanse of water extending to the horizon. A generation ago, photographers had made locations like Willsboro and Port Henry known for dramatic scenes starring the colorful D&H. Chasing an oil train south into Whitehall, I understand why. Train 696 is bearing down upon me as I enter the town. Bailing out of my vehicle, I run out toward the frozen lake where a group of ice fishermen have gathered. While their attention is focused on the camera-wielding figure before them, I am more concerned with the arrival of Train 696. I quickly frame them in my viewfinder as the train appears behind them on a causeway, and scramble to resume the chase.
Photos from the North End are infrequent, and for a good reason: aside from Amtrak’s Adirondack trains, the North End is the textbook definition of a nocturnal railroad. Occasionally the regularly-operated trains are tardy into the border town of Rouses Point (as was the case with the 252 at Port Henry), but the real saving grace lies with the recent arrival of unit trains. Ethanol, oil, and even a sporadic grain train have become commonplace on the North End in recent years, providing photographers with the once-inconceivable opportunity of a daylight chase. However, much time and patience is needed as freight will often be held to remain clear of Amtrak trains. With the sun disappearing behind the mountains in the early afternoon, the window for a daylight chase is small. Don't come up to the North End to spend a few vacation days chasing trains, most likely you will go home disappointed. Sometimes, you just have to be lucky.
With daylight fading and over 100 miles added the odometer, I decide to call it a day at Whitehall. Having chased 696 from Rouses Point to Whitehall, I had inadvertently traversed what was once D&H’s Champlain Division in its entirety. Local railfans have watched classic lightning stripes give way to Action Red; vintage searchlight signals have been replaced with ubiquitous"traffic lights." While traces of the D&H are slowly erased; yet new characters continue to fill the stage. So long as the show goes on, myself and others will be there to enjoy it.