Strasburg, PA: Went for the trains. Came back with stereoviews & a scythe.

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted a blog post in over a week. And there’s a very good reason for this. My wife and I spent a long weekend in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Our primary aim in going there was to spend time with her folks at the Strasburg Rail Road – which I highly recommend. But while we were there, we went antiquing for three days after the main ride. Needless to say, I came back with a heap of stereoviews – for which I paid (on average) under 80¢. There are definite benefits to going on holiday in central PA!

The Strasburg Rail Road and Red Caboose Motel

Our Lodgings: The Red Caboose Motel

Yet again, we encounter a visionary lunatic on Brooklyn Stereography: Donald M. Denlinger. According to the back of our menus in Casey Jones’ Restaurant (attached), Denlinger almost-accidentally acquired 25 surplus cabooses in 1969. Unsure of what to do with them, he purchased a parcel of land in Lancaster County, PA, and built the Red Caboose Motel. This was a great bit of synergy, given that the Strasburg Rail Road is within walking distance. Here’s where we stayed:

Our caboose at the Red Caboose Motel in Strasburg, PA.
Our lodgings for the trip: a Norfolk and Western caboose!

Readers who remember the VistaScreen series I posted on locomotives a couple of months back probably remember that I’m obsessed with O. Winston Link, and the line he studied and fought to preserve – the Norfolk and Western. In fact, we’ll get back to both Link and the N&W later on, but for now suffice it to say that this place is awesome. If you’re staying in – or around – Strasburg, there’s really only one option. And no, it’s not some luxury place with heated floors or any of that bourgeois nonsense. But you get to sleep in a freaking caboose!

My Comrades: My Wife and In-Laws

My wife seated atop a kiddie locomotive at the Strasburg Rail Road
My beautiful wife Stacey got her own personal ride, on this locomotive designed for diminutive spouses.

Why people fly or take buses to nearby destinations that are served by rail is beyond me. I love Amtrak, although I mourn the loss of the club cars of my youth. Met a lot of great people on those cars, playing cards and shooting the breeze. But I digress – my wife Stacey and I jumped on the train to Lancaster, and were picked up by her wonderful parents. And off to Strasburg we went. I often wonder at all those “in-law” tropes – as if they’re supposed to be terrible? I love mine. My mother-in-law is a brilliant crafter and the sweetest person you’ve even met. My father-in-law is stoic, with a dry sense of humor and even more of a railroad obsession than myself. We had a great band assembled!

The main event: The 611 on the Strasburg Rail Road

The 611 is the last remaining Norfolk and Western J-class steam locomotive left in the world. It was created in the N&W shops in Roanoke, and after it was decommissioned, it was set to be scrapped. Truly an iron horse, its 4-8-4 (Whyte notation) configuration allowed it to reach speeds in excess of 100 mph whilst pulling long passenger trains. And it’s far more impressive than anything shown in the VistaScreen “Locomotives” series previously shown here. But the thing of it is, the use of passenger rail declined swiftly with the increase in air travel. And these things were not easy to maintain.

The 611 pulls into the Strasburg Rail Road's passenger siding.
The 611 slowing down as it pulls into the station. This is a titanic steam engine, one of the largest I’ve ever seen, certainly the largest I’ve ever been pulled by. It so large, it doesn’t fit into the Strasburg Rail Road’s locomotive shop – this thing is a beast!

And so waited for hours, boarded the wonderfully maintained Strasburg Rail Road passenger cars, and had our ride courtesy of this beautiful machine. There were a few hiccups – the train had pulled too far forward, and slipped the tracks. It’s not easy getting a 400-ton machine back on track! But move we did. And what a fantastic ride – with a unique whistle employed rather frequently for great effect.

And of course, the fact that we were riding it was testament to the fact that it had indeed been saved. O. Winston Link personally sought to buy it straight-out. While Link ultimately never owned the engine, he was instrumental in its preservation, cementing him in the true Railroad Hall of Legends not only for his incredibly innovating rail photography, but for keeping history alive. Today, the Virginia Museum of Transportation owns it; it’s just visiting Strasburg Rail Road.

The boneyard

There was a siding at the railroad where rotting bits of railroad machinery joined still-restorable locomotives, tenders, and cars. It was fenced off with “do not enter” tape, but the tape was shredded and certainly couldn’t be counted on. And besides, I’ve always dug the verse that Woody Guthrie was forced to remove from “This Land is Your Land”:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign said, said “no trespassing”.
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

-Woody Guthrie, © 1956, played well before that

Needless to say, as someone who’s earned money most of his adult life at sneaking into & photographing “off-limits” type abandoned places, I didn’t pay the shredded tape much heed. I climbed up on top of a car on another siding to snap the final picture in this lot. And boy am I glad I did – because moments later, one of the Strasburg Rail Road’s own trains pulled in – the Norfolk and Western 475:

The 475 pulls into the Strasburg Rail Road property.
Climbing on top of disused rail cars sometimes just gets you that magical moment. I wish I’d had a real camera on me, but this iPhone picture is quite serviceable.

Antiquing afterwards

The day after the ride, we started a 3-day-long antiquing binge – punctuated only by a tour of the Strasburg Rail Road’s shops. Sadly, photography was not permitted at the latter. But what a difference 300 miles of distance from NYC makes in antique prices! Stacey finally found some vintage nurses’ capes that were not absurdly overpriced. I got a 1930s police uniform – hand tailored – in perfect condition. And of course there was all sorts of weird stuff to look at:

Yeah, they’re multi-colored oxidized pipes. But they sort of look like mushrooms, don’t they?

But of course, me being me, I was mainly after two things: Great War ephemera, and stereographic doodads. Big fail on the first part – I got excited to find what the owner claimed was an American officer’s sword from the war. But some quick cross-referencing showed me that while it was indeed an M1902, which would have been the sword most officers would have carried, it was of no earlier than 1924 manufacturer. Shop owner knew it too – she kept knocking the price down as I waited for my phone to load pages in the middle of nowhere. Dishonest people annoy me. But while I didn’t find much of Great War interest besides a British Army powder to avoid trench foot, I looked through thousands of stereoviews, which is probably what you’ve been waiting for all along. So let’s take a look, shall we?

Stereoviews in Strasburg, Adamstown, and Lancaster

It’s much more fun hunting for stereoviews in Strasburg than it is around New York City. When people even know what they are (many just call them “postcards”), they have no idea how to price them, and great values can be had. Conversely, some people think that color litho cards are worth a great deal more than cards such as my first example (below). I’m just going to go through a handful of my favorite finds – most of them dollar-bin, some of them two-bits. Of course they’re all Holmes-style cards, so I only bought what interested me – oh, I wish I were in Europe, where I could hunt down collections of glass! Anyhow, of the 50 or so total views I purchased, here are some fun ones:

“These are hunter friends of Mr. A. Bowen”

Some hunters gathered outside a barn with their kills. Handmade view. Found in a Strasburg antique shop.

While heavily faded with age, this amateur view is just great. I love when you get a shot which is so clearly a one-off amateur effort, but is also a good piece of stereography – and this is both. However, on the computer screen, this one is a bit hard to see. So I made a digital negative of it, and enhanced it for digital display:

Some hunters gathered outside a barn with their kills. Handmade view. Found in a Strasburg antique shop. Digitally cleaned up by myself.

Of course, the digital “remastering” brings out more of the damage too, and there’s no way to date this thing, but it’s pretty great. Genuine albumin prints, clearly hand-cut and mounted. If more Holmes-style cards were this much fun, I might care more about the format. Though I do have one major collection that I’m sitting on… This really gains some extra interest when one looks at the handwriting on the rear:

Verso of previous card from Strasburg Antique Mall

The Bavarian Royal Castles – Neuschwanstein (Throne Room, west side)

"Swan King" Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein, from a Strasburg antique shop.

Generally, I’m not a big fan of sweeping, grandiose architectural interiors in 3D. One very obvious reason is that, by necessity, they’re “barely-stereos” unless there are details in the foreground to anchor the image. Nevertheless, there were several salient reasons for liking this card. Firstly, it’s uncommon to find proper European-published cards of European subjects in American stereoview dollar bins. This one has the photographer / publisher – Joseph Albert in Munich – printed on it. Also, it’s in next-to-perfect condition. Besides the aging on the tiny label on verso to indicate which card (10) in a set this is, it looks like it was printed yesterday.

But mainly… it’s freaking Neuschwanstein! The bizarre Fairy Castle of the Moon King! The weird project that got a Bavarian monarch dethroned! I’ve always been fascinated by Ludwig II, and this was both his great achievement and the final nail in his coffin. Apart from weird architectural marvels / money sinks, Ludwig is probably best known as being the biggest patron of Richard Wagner – the greatest composer of all time. Both men were considered mad, but both were quite brilliant. Notice a recurring theme for my heroes on this blog?

Another hunting scene – this one anonymous.

A hunting scene from a Lancaster antiques mall.

Hard to tell if this is amateur or professional, since the subject matter seems personal and not terribly salable, but the photography is excellent and the mounting near-perfect. Quite a contrast with the first hunting card – but I’m not sure about this one. There’s no maker’s mark anywhere, the back is a plain yellow like many pre-made mounts of the era – so basically, it’s anybody’s guess. Either way, this is cool, visually compelling, and easy to view. Definitely worth a buck and a space in one of my “Holmes cards I give a damn about” boxes. And like the other hunting-themed card, this was a fraction of the cost of some worthless color lithos from a dealer. Okay then!

Kilburn Brothers’ – “Trout”

Some trout in an ice cave - a weird still life indeed, purchased in Strasburg whilst antiquing
Back of previous Strasburg market card

Long-time readers of this blog might remember Kilburn’s Crazy Incline and “Group of Mexican Wax Work“. Thus, they might assume that B. W. Kilburn was one wacky stereographer, and that the Kilburn Brothers put out a ton of mostly-weird stuff. This stereoview will do nothing to dispel that. It’s a still life… with a group of dead trout in an ice cave. Buh? It’s a pretty cool stereoview – it’s got an ice cave, and trout, and… well I like it. So there. And that’s sort of the point here – there were dozens of Kilburn views at the shop where I found this one. But at $5 apiece, I didn’t want the normal stuff. I handpicked the weirdo. If your opinion of Kilburn is shaped by this blog, then you’re getting a skewed view of the man. I hand-select these things. I’m the weirdo here. Still – this is cool.

“Bonaventure #9” (possibly) from Palmer’s Stereoscopic Views

A view of a Southern cemetery, found at a Strasburg antique dealer

So the only information on this view that we have is that it was put out by Palmer’s Stereoscopic Views, and possibly is titled “Bonaventure #9”. It seems to have been put out in 1874 – corrected from 1884. Can’t find out much about Palmer’s; they seem to have been around, with a variety of mounts and logos, but nothing like this. Doesn’t really matter though – I took one look at how this very nicely preserved view merged whilst free-viewing it and had to get it. Sometimes, a scene of a Southern Gothic cemetery is wonderful just because, well, it’s a beautiful view. This is a beautiful view. And another of the half-dozen or so 4×7″ cards I picked out during the Strasburg trip. There were lots of these oversized – and presumably rather older – cards to be found in the area.

An H. C. White locomotive, from a full Keystone “Selected Subjects” box

Locomotive stereoview found in Strasburg

So for $20 I got a box of mostly junk – I was largely buying it for the box, in which I can store some of my Great War Keys that don’t fit in with any sets I’m currently trying to piece together. In any case, most of the cards were decent-but-not-great condition “Perfec Stereographs” from H. C. White. Don’t believe White’s hype – the “Perfecscope” was just another Holmes viewer. Holmes designed it without a copyright for a reason, ya dolt. But in any case, it was mostly the usual dreck which winds up in my two-buck stereoview boxes. Columbian Exhibition, genre and comic views, some landscapes – in other words, the next train to Boring City!

Not this one though. Because this one has a locomotive in it! I’ll collect anything with a train in it, though sadly, many others will as well. Most of these get picked out of antique bins pretty quick. So it was nice to find amongst boring views. And it’s good! They’re all pretty good, really, but I don’t care about children playing, or century-old comedic takes on gender roles. This post started with the Strasburg Rail Road, so let’s get some trains in the mix! I love the image. I hate the captioning White insisted on – microscopic black letters on a dark cardstock. Even blown up, it’s hard to read. Ah well.

One more from White – Gold mining in Colorado

Another Strasburg find - gold mining!

Well, in my 100th Blog Post, I promised more American scenes. With the exception of Mad King Ludwig’s folly, I think this post has delivered, so I thought I’d close on this. This is the other “Perfec Stereograph” that’s not going into the bins for sale. As with many American views I like, it features occupation or industrial scenes – in this case, miners working in a Colorado gold mine. While clearly posed and artificially lit – is anybody buying that the candle pictured was the sole light source here? – it’s a great view of turn-of-the-century mining practices and tools, and the use of depth here is great.

And this is also a good one to end on – well almost, there’s one more antique store find that I must share with you – because Strasburg itself was a gold mine. The Strasburg Rail Road in particular was just incredible, but the entire town was charming. Full of good eats, friendly people, interesting shops, old architecture, and bucolic bliss. So while I don’t usually go out of my way to recommend places I visit, this is a great place to stop off if you need a long weekend away. I bet there’s a decommissioned caboose with your name on it right now!

One Final Antique Shop Find…

So every person thinks differently, and I’m willing to wager that I think more differently than most. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is something for historians to puzzle out when I’m dust. But it’s true to an extent, and I accept that. One striking example from this trip is my final purchase on our second day antiquing our way through Strasburg.

Since you’ve read the title of this blog post, you’ve already guessed that I’m talking about a scythe (unless my verbosity in the meantime has made you forget the title). Regardless – yes, I’m talking about a scythe. Specifically, a century-old Amish scythe fashioned from a tree trained from birth. This thing is wicked cool – but fragile. The wood was clearly left outdoors for many decades; it’s like driftwood. The blade is fragile and covered in beautiful oxidation.

But to give you some idea of why I might relate to someone like Don Denlinger or Ludwig II, my first thought on seeing this scythe wasn’t “what would I do with that”, or even “how in the hell am I going to get that thing on an Amtrak, and then on two NYC subway trains”. My first thought was “how much” – and with the answer being “five bucks”, we had an immediate purchase on our hands. Stacey and her parents smiled and nodded, probably assuming that I was just doing some crazy Ian stuff. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. Then again, here I am across the street from my flat after successful travels – and you gotta admit this thing is cool!

This was not taken anywhere near Strasburg.


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