The Trains of Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is one of my favorite sites to photograph. I just recently made my third trip of 2012 with my husband out to this small town that sits on the border of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. During this photo shoot I wanted to focus my attention on the trains of Harpers Ferry. Amtrak and MARC trains go through the terminal here four times per day, and CSX runs freight trains through Harpers Ferry about 20 times per day. The thrill, for me, is that I never can predict exactly when a train will come - I might wait hours for the shot or the train may come within seconds. 

The little town of Harpers Ferry is part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and is maintained by the National Park Service. The entrance fee for a passenger vehicle is $10 and that provides admission for 3 days. Many Americans, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Brown have visited and marveled at the beauty of this town. Due to it's location and access to several major waterways, this town was strongly contested during the American civil war. These days the town houses a variety of interesting little shops and visitors can take ranger tours to learn about the historic significance of Harpers Ferry.

There are several hiking trails around Harpers Ferry and my favorite takes us up to the Maryland Heights overlook. The trail is fairly steep and the majority of it is uphill, so pack plenty of water and good hiking boots! We started up the 5 mile (roundtrip) trail with all of my camera equipment and some sandwiches to enjoy when we get to the top. Since there can be several hour lulls while we wait for trains, we figured lunch and some entertainment was in order!

After a tough hour and a half, we reached the top and took in the beautiful view. My husband was gracious enough to carry the camera bag, keeping me a little fresher to have a clear head to shoot when we got to the top. Some of the fall leaves were starting to change and the weather was absolutely perfect to enjoy our lunch looking out over Harpers Ferry. Sitting on the Maryland Heights overlook makes the town of Harpers Ferry look like a miniature train set; it reminded me of the train sets I grew up watching my dad build in our basement. I was careful to prep the camera while I ate just in case a train snuck up on us - but the trains cooperated and I didn't risk loosing my sandwich over the cliff by standing up too quickly for a shot! I setup the camera with the wide angle lens and took some test shots to get my exposure correct - then it was time to sit and wait for a train. Not long after the camera was setup did the first of three trains come through Harpers Ferry - this was one of the daily Amtrak passenger trains. Before making the hike up to Maryland Heights I had taken the time to visualize my photograph and was setup for a train that would be coming out of the tunnel directly below my feet; Amtrak was coming the opposite direction and although I took a few shots, it didn't meet my vision. Since the weather was great we decided to wait some more and change to another rock perch to see if we could get another train. About 20 minutes later a CSX train came through the tunnel in the direction I wanted, except this time he used a different bridge and set of tracks than the one I wanted! Dang! I was wanting a train to come down the bridge that didn't have any superstructure around the top of the track so that it wouldn't obstruct the view. This is what makes photographing trains so much fun - you never know what you'll get and when it will come, so you have to be ready at all times. We moved once more and hoped that a third train would come (on the track I really wanted) soon. A few minutes later we heard the horn that once again announced a train was approaching and would be coming out of the tunnel below. Our patience paid off - this train came out the tunnel on the track I was hoping for and sped through the town of Harpers Ferry. I fired a bunch of shots hoping for one that really captured the train moving into the city. I ultimately selected this shot:

I had visualized two other photos, one at the base of the tunnel looking up at the tracks coming over my head and one of a train coming towards me as I sat at the station. Since I felt confident that I'd captured my first image, it was time to move onto our next conquest. When we got to the bottom of the trail I setup under the tunnel to take my next prepared image. I took my shot and was in the process of packing my equipment back up when I once again heard the horn of a train approaching. I hadn't intended to try and shoot a train coming out of the tunnel from this vantage point, but wasn't going to pass up this opportunity! I quickly spun around and had a chance to capture the train coming out of the tunnel, along with a shot of the cars passing over head. Although these weren't the "designed" image, I preferred them to the one I had taken without the train. My adrenaline was pumping after this train - I'd gotten extremely lucky and hadn't waited long for trains yet!

I was still in position and just had to bring the camera up and pull the trigger to catch the train as he emerged from the tunnel

I love the contrast of the bright white and black cars against the dark mountain. I thought this image really captured the speed and power of the train.

After we grabbed a quick snack it was time to head to my last location for the final shoot. I hoped to once again catch a train coming, but wasn't feeling lucky - I'd been lucky with trains all day and didn't think it would continue! I took several shots of the tunnel with my wide angle lens and then switched to the super telephoto (Sigma 150-500mm) to get a few cropped shots of the tunnel. No sooner did the lens cap come off than I heard the familiar horn... I was going to get lucky! I sprinted down the platform to get into position and set my exposure. As the train came through the tunnel I held down the shutter to capture a series of shots with the train getting closer. I selected this one because you could still read the words "Harpers Ferry" above the tunnel and could see the steam of the locomotive. 

I captured two other shots of this train as he blew through the station. The above shot of the locomotive really captured the detail of the locomotive and made me feel like the train was in my lap. I also got the image below of the detail of the wheels. This was a tricky shot to get because I was just a few feet away from the train and had to pan the camera with the train to try and get the wheels in focus. This shot really speaks to the power of America's trains.

I have never rode on a large train like this - my train rides to date have been a metro system, an amusement park, or a local attraction. My love of Harpers Ferry stems from these trains; they capture the spirit and power of America's industries and facilitate the lifestyle that most of us take for granted. As a result, they have become one of my favorite manmade objects to photograph. 

Kristen Meister