This is the story of a lowly, smelly rock that now sits on a shelf in my living room, and the tale it can tell. It’s a tangible link to a tale that spans 120 years, telling a story that weaves together American industry and capitalism at the dawn of the 20th century, an isolated ore-hauling railroad in Alaska, shipwrecks and piracy on the high seas, salvage rights, and reality television into one single narrative.
Huh? Just go ahead and pause until your brain works through that last sentence. Then read on.
In an effort to do literally anything that wasn’t software development or a meeting this evening, I decided to dust off a couple trips I made down to the Texas State Railroad for a pair of photo trains – one in May 2012 while American Heritage Railways (the Durango & Silverton’s parent) was running the line, and another in May 2015 shortly after Iowa Pacific Holdings had taken over and returned some of the equipment to a more historic appearance. I’ve also included a brief history of the route, for anyone curious.
Since 2020 has been the year of “stuck at home, all day every day”, earlier this summer I finished restoring and installing my Union Switch & Signal H-2 searchlight in my back yard. I still didn’t have a good way to control it, however. When Iowa Scaled Engineering was sending off another set of circuit boards for fabrication, I decided to add a fun project to the order in addition to all the various new product ideas we were working on. What project? A WiFi-enabled searchlight signal controller, of course!
When I cleaned out my garage in January, I found a box of stuff that probably hadn’t been touched since my ex and I bought this place 15 years ago. At the bottom was a small Ziploc bag with eight rolls of color print film in it, shot but never developed. Now given that I stopped shooting film in early 2001, that gives you a minimum possible age for this stuff. Could there be any hope for this stuff? Back when I still shot film, heat was pretty much enemy #1 and I was extremely careful about keeping film cold if it wasn’t in the camera. This stuff, on the other hand, had been in a box in a hot garage for nearly two decades.
Two years and change ago, on April 14, 2018, Union Pacific moved former Rio Grande derrick 029 from the Forney Museum in Denver up to the new Moffat Road Museum in Granby, CO. The crane is a 120-ton steam-powered wrecking derrick built for the Denver & Salt Lake as their 10300 back in April 1913, and is still largely original. It was active on the Rio Grande until the mergers, and was never converted to diesel or electric.
Having not done any railfanning in over a year at that point, I thought it was time to pick up the camera and capture this “last run over home rails” event. The results of that trip are posted here.
Back in 2017, I had a week to kill between meetings in Birmingham (England) and Paris, so I decided to visit somewhere I’d always wanted to go – the Isle of Man. It’s a tiny self-governing British dependency in the middle of the Irish Sea, about halfway between England and Nothern Ireland. It’s also filled with historic railways.
The new trip report with dozens of photos of all the island’s operating heritage railways is posted over here.
Well, at least it’s not snakes. Then we’d need Samuel L. Jackson. Fortunately, for carrying insulators, all we need is a quality case and some foam.
Getting back into insulator collecting in 2016, I quickly started traveling to shows all over the US. Since I still have a day job (have to pay for all the glass somehow, you know), frequently the only way to get to shows on the east and west coasts in a timely manner is to fly. Unfortunately fragile century-old glass artifacts and airline baggage systems aren’t exactly a good match. So, before flying to my first Springfield, Ohio, show, I designed a carrying case to safely transport ~18 insulators as airline baggage and still stay under the 50 pound weight limit.
In February 2019, I had to head for Memphis for… eh, professional reasons? Still a project I can’t talk about. But, being me, I added a few days on both sides for general railfanning, antiquing, and getting into trouble. Everybody else was flying in Monday, meetings Tues-Thurs, and flying home on Friday. I decided to fly in on Friday, have a three day weekend, three days of meetings, and another three day weekend before flying home Sunday night.
The Friday-Saturday after the meetings was largely supposed to be rainy and miserable, so any truly railfanning was probably off the list. I decided I’d drive around, hit up some antique stores, and try to make it into Nashville by Saturday night to catch some music.
What I didn’t anticipate was finding a 70 pound relic that needed to be boxed and shipped home. But that’s just what happened. A completely impromptu stop at Mantiques in Hazel, KY found a beautiful old semaphore blade from a Union Switch & Signal type S or T-2 upper quadrant semaphore signal. (This would date to 1906 to maybe the 1930s at the latest, as by that point railroads had converted almost entirely to color light signals.)
Everybody needs an old railroad signal in the backyard, right? I’ve always loved old searchlight signals, and I’ve long wanted one in the back yard. I have to admit, when most folks think about collectables and yard ornaments, these probably aren’t the first things that come to mind, but I’m not most people.
About two years ago I finally decided it was time to do something about that, so I started planning and hunting down all the pieces I’d need. It took me almost a year to acquire all the pieces, and another nine months to find the ambition and time to get it done, but thanks to being stuck at home for months due to everyone’s favorite virus, I finally got it done. Now I can sit out on the patio, drink a beer, and enjoy a big ol’ chunk of restored 1930s-1940s vintage railroad technology watching over me. I couldn’t be happier.
If you want to see what it took to get to this point, read on…
Corporate IT enforces an inactivity timeout and a password lock on my laptop. That’s fine and responsible if I’m out in the world, but it’s really stupid and irritating if I’m stuck working at home for weeks on end – such as right now. There’s no great threat to corporate security in my house. Worst case the cats walk over the keyboard at night and delete some stuff I don’t have in version control yet.
I’ve been fighting it for the last week by looking over periodically and whacking the trackpad when I see i try to go to sleep, but I realized if I could just emulate small, harmless mouse movements, I could do the same thing. I mean I am an embedded developer, after all. However, I have real work to do, so I didn’t want to spend a couple days hammering it out.