CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From the front porch of his boyhood home in Wheeling in the 1930s, John "J.J." Young could watch B&O passenger and freight trains emerge from a tunnel and make their way across a stone-arch viaduct over Wheeling Creek.
He would spend hours watching the daily flow of rail traffic, familiarizing himself with their schedules and their rolling stock, and imagining himself riding in the passing locomotives, destined for faraway ports and cities. By the time he was six, he was photographing the railroading scenes that intrigued him.
"I had the grandest show in the country," he said in a 2001 Goldenseal interview. "When you lived in such close proximity to railroads, you either loved them or hated them. I loved them."
A photographic record of Young's lifelong love affair with railroads is now on exhibit at the Culture Center, featuring 51 images of West Virginia railroad scenes captured from the 1940s through 2001. Thirty of the photographs are from the Wheeling area of Young's childhood, while the remaining photos are from the Charleston area, where the photographer spent the last ten years of his life.
The photos in the exhibit are culled from more than 6,300 images of railroad-related scenes bequeathed to the State Archives following Young's death in 2004.
Young's black and white images trace the evolution of the railroad from the last decades of steam power deep into the diesel era. Many of the photos in the exhibit feature everyday scenes of West Virginia life, with a train appearing in the background or foreground.
In one photo, a barber gives a patron a haircut in a St. Albans barber sop as a CSX freight train rolls through the background. In another, a Barnum & Bailey Circus train rolls past the State Capitol complex.
From a perch high in the B&O Station in Wheeling, Young captured an overhead view of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower greeting a mob of supporters in a 1952 campaign swing. In another photo, former president Harry S. Truman is shown preparing to give a stump speech for Eisenhower's Democratic rival, Adlai Stevenson, from the rear platform of a B&O train approaching a siding in Wheeling.
All photos are black and white, most of them printed from negatives 4 inches by 4 inches.
Young began photographing trains by the time he was six years old, using a Zeiss folding camera he borrowed from his father. At age 7, he bought his own Brownie box camera, and moved on to a Kodak Vigilant folding camera the following year, replacing it with a Kodak Monitor when he was 16 or 17. By the time Young was 20, he was shooting with a professional-grade Speed Graphic. He acquired a Japanese-built Mamiyaflex with interchangeable lenses in about 1960, and used it for the rest of his shooting career.
In addition to his impressive self-taught photographic skills, Young had superb access to behind-the-scenes railroading.
As a pre-teen and a fixture along Wheeling's rail yards and depots, he made friends with railroad crews and soon began to snag rides in locomotives. At age 14, his mother sent him out to pick up a few grocery items. While waiting for the store to open, Young hitched a locomotive ride that took him to Pittsburgh, then on to Buffalo, N.Y.
"Ever after that," he recalled in the Goldenseal article, "whenever I left the house, my mother always told me, 'Send me a postcard when you get there."
Young's fascination with the train did not carry over to the automobile. He never got a driver's license, but still managed to make it to 48 states to shoot railroad scenes with other railfans and family members.
After high school, Young worked briefly for Wheeling Mold & Foundry, and then moved on to the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad. In 1959, he moved to Binghampton, N.Y., where he worked for a photo processing company before joining the staff of Broome Community College as a photography instructor. After retirement, he moved to Charleston's West Side, where he continued his hobby of rail photography until his death.
While Young held a number of "day" jobs, his avocation as a railroad photographer did not go unnoticed. His photographs and historic articles have appeared in railfan magazines across the world.
"We made contact prints of everything in the collection, and B&O executives have been poring over them to identify the sites and the equipment shown in the pictures," said Debra Basham, assistant director of the West Virginia State Archives. "It's a really cool collection -- definitely the best collection of railroad material we have." Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.