Upper Valley Running
An essay in black & white of the Guilford operation north of White River Junction
February 4th, 1989
It was a Saturday unusually free of commitments, and as the sky lightened to the east I could see the promise of decent weather. I put the coffee water on the stove and contemplated what to do with my free time. When I was part way through a bowl of cereal, the B&M's Mt. Ascutney transmitter came to life.
Northbound WJ-1 was about to depart White River Junction for a run up the Connecticut River valley. The mental debate about the day's activities ended then and there. With the coffee in the Thermos and camera bag in hand, I bid a quick farewell to the family and headed out the door.
My earlier photographic forays along the Connecticut River north of White River had gone well, netting a couple of nice Christmas cards and several great days of B&M railfanning. I wondered what the operation in this pastoral region, known to the locals as the Upper Valley, was like under Guilford.
After a 90-minute drive to the Vermont town of Wells River, I headed south on US Rt.5 and hoped to encounter the northbound train well down the line. However, I had only driven about a mile when I saw the lead unit's headlight in the distance. The train had already begun to decelerate on approach to Wells River. WJ-1 crossed the bridge and pulled into the town of Woodsville on the New Hampshire side of the river. The crew took about a half-hour to do their yard work, and conversation with the dispatcher was minimal. During one radio transmission I became curious when Billerica advised someone about the job coming up behind him. Surely he had picked up the wrong microphone and broadcast a message intended for another district.
As the switching progressed it was easy to figure out the next move. WJ-1 would back across the river onto the north leg of the wye. This complete, the train would be ready for the southbound run back to "The River", and in the process I would have a rather abbreviated day of photography, as I was likely to be back home shortly after noon. Or so I thought.
WJ-1 was sitting well north of the wye when I heard "305 North to WJ-1 at Wells River" loud and clear on the scanner. The ensuing radio conversation revealed that engine 305 had a 26-car train in hand and was bound for the Berlin branch. For some reason this second train was unable to contact the dispatcher on the radio and hoped the crew on WJ-1 would relay clearance for the run up the branch. The 305's crew was concerned with restarting the train with only one locomotive if they were required to stop and talk to the dispatcher via landline.
I quickly headed south on Rt. 5., charged up at the prospect of seeing two trains in this rural area on the same day. At Bradford I found the 305 making good time along Rt. 5 where the highway closely parallels the track. I bagged several shots as it proceeded north through Newbury into Wells River.
The desired permission from the dispatcher was not forthcoming, and the train slowly crossed the Connecticut River and pulled up in front of the Woodsville Free Library around 1200 hours. The conductor stepped off to make the requisite phone call, and I had time to muse over which train to follow. One side of the coin offered a southbound run in good light as WJ-1 headed back to White River Junction. The other side offered a crew with a challenge running up the Berlin branch, which I had seldom photographed. I picked the latter.
With the conductor back aboard, the 305 notched up nicely. Indeed, the train was reluctant to move. More power was applied as sand and debris wisped out onto the main street in town, a scant 15 feet away. The rails scrunched under the engine and the train began to move very slowly. Five feet, ten feet, a deft hand on the throttle prevented the wheelslip I had anticipated. When there was no doubt they were on their way, I bundled into my car and headed east on US Rt. 302 to follow along.
For about the next hour-and-a-half, I picked my spots and took my shots. I played on my day off. In contrast, two men in a darkened cab were at work under conditions that were less than ideal not far away. North of Lisbon, N.H., I stood on the frozen Ammonoosuc River waiting for the train. The sun was low in the sky, surrounded by a prismatic ice halo. The afternoon had grown very cold. Man-made light from down the track caught my attention as the train drew closer. Shivering, I took the last shots of the day as the train passed by across the narrow river.
The events that day reinforced my interest in branch line railroading. It is on these lines that history remains so visible. The train I followed passed under an ancient covered bridge still used as an important river crossing. It traveled through small New England towns with a wonderful deficiency of shopping malls and through a region where log splitters and ice augers were still as numerous as personal computers. It was a good show, and if the cost of admission was cold hands and a long drive home, it was well worth the price.