Fieldbook Reference for Railroad Days

by Mike Kroll

One weekend every year average folks in Galesburg, be they locals or tourists, get to rub shoulders with a peculiar breed of hobbyist­­ the railroad enthusiast. There are lots of different hobbies and each generates its own unique cadre of participants but railroad enthusiasts may be just a little bit different.

As Galesburg prepares to host the 20th rendition of Railroad Days, it's vital that observers know the many and varied species of railroad buffs. These folks descend upon this community in the thousands every June. They don't come for the carnival or the street fair or the 3-on-3 basketball; they come for the train viewing and railroad memorabilia.

Iron horses hold a special place in the history of Galesburg. You can't drive very far in this town without traversing a crossing. For most, the sound of ding-ding-ding accompanied by the alternating flashing of those red signal lights is reason to speed up and cross the tracks before the gates come down. But for the railroad enthusiast those same sights and sounds elicit a smile on their face as they slow in eager anticipation of seeing yet another train pass before their eyes.

Not every railroad buff has the good fortune of living in Galesburg. Many must content themselves with occasional visits. or towns without tracks. But the fourth weekend in June each year attracts them like moths to a porch light. Not too long ago many had noticed that some of the "railroadness" had begun to wear off of this annual celebration.

That may be at least part of the reason for the initiation of a new major event to join the festivities. The first year of the Carl Sandburg College Train Show was 1995­­ with three model layouts and 83 tables of train "stuff" gracing the CSC gym. Last year the same show outgrew the gym with 7 model layouts and 137 display tables spread across the CSC campus. The event attracted over 2,500 visitors and raised $5,200 in scholarship money last year.

This year will feature 15 model layouts and 235 tables of memorabilia as exhibitors flock from 15 states to participate in the show. These enthusiasts come in all variety of shapes and sizes and provide ample opportunity to study a nice cross-section of railroad hobbyists.

To a very large extent, railroad enthusiasts are male but traverse the age spectrum. They can be classified into two principal groups, each with a number of subcategories. On the one hand are the modeler/ collector and on the other you have the rail buffs.

The modelers/collectors approach railroading from a representative viewpoint. In most case, modelers have had little or no direct experience in the railroad industry while the collector may have been a railroader. In either case this is a pure hobby with few academic pretensions.

Modelers often dreamed of having the neatest model Lionel train as a kid but their childhood resources typically forbid all but the most basic set. As adults the modelers now have available resources which permit them to own the stuff they always dreamed of as kids.

The collectors usually specialize in one of the many forms of railroad memorabilia. This can run the gamut from lanterns to dining car china. A collector may be into railroad "paper," stock certificates or bonds. Even canceled checks and ticket envelopes are prized possession of these collectors.

Unlike many other collectable items, these papers are far less durable and hard to come by today. Like the railroad paper, much of the dining car china and silverware has now been lost which make such pieces highly prized.

Most collectors have procured their pieces legitimately but some have gone to extreme lengths to get that missing switchkey or signal lens. This can even include outright theft. When a railroad enthusiast gets caught up in their hobby to this extent they can become real annoying for railroad management and employees.

Just as the various collectors specialize, so too do the modelers. Two key groups emerge: the scale modelers and the "tin plate" or toy train modelers. The train sets we all had as kids most likely fell into the latter category. While the individual cars may have resembled real train cars, realism frequently took a backseat to other considerations.

As grownups, money and space in which to build that nifty train layout became less of a problem. The tin plate modeler's layout almost always in operational and fun to play with. There will be lots of lights and switches to operate and the fun is in seeing one's creation operate.

The scale modeler is far more concerned with the realism of each and every train car and building. The point of the layout is usually less to have fun operating the trains and more to resemble as closely as possible the real McCoy on a much smaller scale. In many cases the scale modeler's layout has few controls and may not even operate but the unquenchable thirst for realism means it can almost never be truly completed.

The dedicated scale modeler typically does not rely on commercially available items, preferring instead to make or significantly modify a store-bought component. A scale modeler can easily spend weeks of evenings and weekends to get a single freight car "just right." An entire layout becomes analogous to a lifetime quest. One aspect of the scale modeler which is appreciated greatly by the railroads is that he is seldom an annoyance to them.

While some of the collectors may become pains-in-the-butt for the railroad industry, rail buffs are far more likely to be royal pains-in-the-ass. As compared to modelers and collectors, rail buffs almost never have had any direct experience as professional railroaders. In many ways, their hobby has been an answer to an unfulfilled childhood dream of "working on the railroad."

Rail buffs fall into three principal categories and one very notable special case, the "foamer." As a group they are far easier to spot in public than the modeler or collector because they tend to festoon their clothing with dozens of rail-related patches and buttons. While a modeler may wear his engineer's cap while he operates his trains, the rail buff is just as likely to wear his engineer's cap while shopping or going to church.

Undoubtedly the largest category of rail buff is the rail photographer. These guys have made a hobby of taking photographs of trains or individual cars, usually in motion. Some of their photographs can be beautiful masterpieces while others are content with snapshots. One key feature of the rail buff photographer is that he is frequently the bane of railroads. They often engage in dangerous or even illegal activities in pursuit of their hobby.

It is not unusual for a rail buff photographer to trespass on railroad property to get his shot or even to stand right in the middle of the tracks in front of a rapidly moving train to take a "head-on" picture. Both activities drive railroaders nuts. While an engineer must worry about the safety of a fearless fool who motionlessly stands in the middle of the tracks as the warning whistle blows, he must also consider the effect of making an emergency stop on his cargo and crew.

Rail buff photographers can themselves be broken into two basic categories: the sophisticated "sportsman" and the far less sophisticated. The hobbyists themselves draw the analogy between the big game hunter who patiently and skillfully stalks and waits in just the right spot for a single prize winning shot and the guy who shoots fish in a barrel.

Both types are never seen with less than two expensive cameras and a bag full of lenses. One camera is always loaded with slide film while the other has color print film. Today it is increasingly likely that the rail buff photographer will be carrying yet a third camera­­ a video camera. Train videos are becoming extremely popular amongst rail buffs. Full-page advertisements can be found in enthusiast magazines.

The sophisticated rail buff photographer will study train routes to find pretty locations where trains can be expected to pass. He will then make detailed preparations to arrive at the chosen site­­ perhaps hours ahead of time. Before the train is anywhere near he will have found the perfect spot to shoot from and have checked and rechecked the lighting numerous times. He may spend the better part of a day to capture one truly special photograph.

The unsophisticated rail buff photographer is typically more concerned with quantity than quality. He may be amassing shot of every GE locomotive east of the Rocky Mountains and doesn't have the time or interest to set up the most artistic shot. His preferred means of photographing trains is to catch them motionless in rail yards. To the sophisticated rail photographer this is akin to hunting at the zoo. This approach almost always involves trespassing on railroad property but, "hey, they won't mind."

If the unsophisticated rail photographer can't get his "sitting duck" shot he may be satisfied with getting in his car and chasing down his intended prey. This approach requires another piece of equipment, the railroad frequency scanner. By listening in on radio transmissions between trains and dispatchers the photographer can race ahead of the train to get his picture.

You may have seen some of these guys around Galesburg trying to simultaneously drive parallel to the tracks while videotaping a moving train. The last thing on their minds are other vehicles on the road or the occasional pedestrian who may cross their path. A location like Galesburg with so much rail traffic and a large rail yard is a virtually Mecca for the unsophisticated rail buff photographer.

The next two types of rail buffs are among the hobby's most academic and intellectual, the restoration/preservationists and the railroad historians.

The restoration/preservationists take great interest and pride in the unique and typically obsolete technology of yesteryear's railroading. Their hands are typically rough from the physical labor of restoration and their fingernails frequently contain residual grease or paint. They dedicate their time to discovering, acquiring, restoring and operating bygone railroad equipment.

This is another expensive and time-consuming branch of the hobby. Many of the restoration/ preservationists find themselves affiliated with rail museums. They need these as outlets to display their handiwork and to campaign for continued preservation of out-of-fashion railroad equipment. Of the universe of rail buffs this is the group most likely to claim former railroaders as members.

The railroad historians are the true academics of this hobby. They frequently adopt some of the rail photography skills in support of their hobby but are more interested in sharing the story of America's railroads. In many ways they depend upon networking with the collectors and photographers as well as active and retired railroaders as a means of gathering data about rail history.

In many cases you will find that railroad historians hold regular jobs as academics in unrelated fields. They like to read and write about facets of railroad history and are always on the lookout for a new public outlet for their work.

The last category of rail buffs, the "foamer," is perhaps the most obnoxious. He is "one who foams at the mouth over anything railroad." Used as a term of derision by railroad employees and other railroad enthusiasts. A foamer is usually called an "FRN" (F___ing Railroad Nut) by people who actually work for the railroads. A milder but nonetheless unflattering term is railfan.

The foamer typically spans across the other rail buff categories into unsophisticated rail photography, illicit collectibles and (usually) deficient railroad history. Railroad enthusiasts share their disdain for these people,

"A foamer thinks he knows everything but usually knows little. He can tell you the number of rivets on the left-hand side of a GP9 fuel tank but probably wouldn't know the brake handle from the reverser lever."

"A foamer may have a great collection of railroadiana hidden in his basement, with items and artifacts and paperwork that would be a boon to any museum or historical society but will never see the light of day. Obtaining such items isn't a problem for a foamer, since 'it was just laying around and it was obvious the railroad didn't need it any more.' It doesn't matter that two fences had to be scaled, one lock jimmied, and strong tools applied before the item obtained the 'laying around' state."

If a foamer does get an opportunity to talk to a railroad crew, a dispatcher, or some official, he usually monopolizes the conversation with his views on how he could do the job so much better.

"A foamer thinks that he has every right to do what he has to do to get a photograph, even if it means trespassing ('What? Me? Trespassing? No, get out of here. So-and-so [long gone from the division] said I could come in here any time I wanted to.'). A foamer will turn up in the most unusual places, several times, before the local railroad employees get fed up and ban everyone from the property and the land for 500 yards around it."

A railfan is a milder version of a foamer. He may admit to not knowing everything there is to know about a railroad, and he usually pays attention to photo lines and traffic on the tracks and highway. He will seek permission to go to certain places and will listen when told "sorry, no" because of the transgressions of others. A railfan may have some idea about how a railroad operates but may not be interested because all he wants to do is get roster shots of every locomotive on the line.

Rail enthusiasts sometimes are employed by railroads. They knows how a railroad operates and how the trains run. They can easily talk with crews, dispatchers, and other railroad officials and learn something in the process. They can signal a crew or call a safety hot line to report sticking brakes or a shifted load and do it in a manner that can be believed.

Photos are taken from safe locations and with an artistic flair. Artifacts and information are easily shared (and legally obtained). While folks run and hide from the foamer, the enthusiast is welcomed as someone who knows the language and jargon and uses it without being overbearing.

All of these creatures will be in Galesburg this weekend for Railroad Days. They can often be found around town at other times as well but seldom in such numbers.

Now is a great time to plan your first rail enthusiast watching excursion.

This article posted to Zephyr online June 26, 1997
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