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From: "jdent1 AT optonline DOT net" jdent1 AT optonline DOT net
Date: Tue, 6 May 2003 12:15:14 -0400
Subject: Train buff (and RSHS member) finds, photographs rail beds
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Thanks to Rich for mentioning the RSHS
From the Blairsville (PA) Times=2E=2E

Train buff finds, photographs rail beds

LATROBE--Rich Ballash has been a rail fan since he was a few years old=2E
his particular interest has taken him down a different line than many
another train buff
While others get "steamed up" over vintage locomotives and rolling stock,
this Latrobe enthusiast has a one-track mind set on finding and documentin
every remaining mile of rail bed, building, bridge and supporting structur
from the heyday of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and other rail carriers

major and minor
"My interest is in the physical plant" of railroads, "the infrastructure
Ballash plans his free time around exploring the last rail yards, stations
towers, signals and switching devices in trackside communities across
Pennsylvania and other regions of the United States

He stressed that he does not chase trains=2E "I might go a whole day witho
seeing a piece of track," and still have a productive outing
That's because, as active rail lines have dwindled--at an ever-increasing
pace since the 1950s--many tracks have been torn out, leaving old depots
and maintenance buildings stranded far from any train activity
Also, when rail companies abandoned less traveled routes, they often sold
structures to private owners who moved them and adapted them to uses far
from their original function
"You might find an old depot out in the middle of a farm field," Ballash
noted=2E He was pleased to discover that a train station at Cove, near
Harrisburg, was moved to Hollidaysburg to be a museum
"The more obscure and unusual it is, the more it interests me," Ballash
said of rail structures
Along the PRR Main Line east of Johnstown, his keen eyes spotted something

out of place on an overhead signal bridge near Lilly=2E It was a pulley le
over from the bridge's earlier function--delivering water to steam
"It's quite an anomaly that it was still there," he said
Ballash traces his earliest interest in railroads to his pre-school years
in the late 1950s, when he was living with his family on Miller Street in
Latrobe, two blocks away from the PRR station--which itself is celebrating

its 100th anniversary this year
He recalled, "My dad would take me to the station to watch the trains=2E"

Although he doesn't remember many details of those visits, he was
definitely impressed by the enticing call of the trains as they rumbled
away: "I'd see the signals at the other end of town, sort of disappearing
Beginning in the early 1960s, Ballash was able to answer that call--two
times a year
His father, John, a state honeybee inspector, would ride a train from
Latrobe to Harrisburg each spring to pick up a state car he used all summe
to make the rounds of hives
When the honey season was over, the elder Ballash would return the car and

ride back home on the train
His wide-eyed son joined him on those four-hour rail trips=2E The younger
Ballash recalled, "To me, it was like a great luxury, an exotic cruise=2E"

Armed with a movie camera, Rich Ballash would shoot the passing scenery: "
used (the film) sparingly because there was so much good stuff going by:
towers, depots, signals yards, fancy cross-over tracks=2E"
By the time his father quit the inspector post in 1975, passenger traffic
had petered out=2E "The two of us were the only people on a 60-seat coach,
Ballash said
Likewise, his interest in trains was relegated to the back-burner for
several years
Then, in 1980, he came across a photo in a local newspaper, showing a 19th

century view of Latrobe, when just two PRR tracks passed through the town
at street level=2E In 1902, they were replaced with four elevated tracks

According to Ballash, the photo "was the spark I needed to really get
interested again=2E"
He struck up a friendship with the Latrobe man who had submitted the
photograph, late train buff Howard Mewherter=2E The two began attending
Monroeville meetings of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pennsylvania Rail
Road Technical and Historical Society
There, Ballash met many more like-minded rail fans, and, since 1985, he ha
been the secretary of the 400-member chapter
He also contributes a column and occasional reviews of railroad videos to
the newsletter
It wasn't long before Ballash discovered his passion--when he combined his

rail hobby with another lifelong interest, photography
On weekdays, Ballash uses a camera at Kennametal's Technology Center in
Latrobe, where he has worked for 29 years as a metallographic
technician--taking pictures of carbide to reveal its structure
During his free time, he photographs vestiges of the once-pervasive rail
routes which bound together communities in the era before the automobile's

dominance=2E Said Ballash, "I see this stuff and I want to save it for fut
"There were a lot of depots and towers I wanted to photograph locally=2E"
Eventually, "My interest expanded out to new territory as far as the West
He's carried out his rail safaris aboard cars, vans, buses and, of course,

Cultivating relationships with rail employees, he's been able to take
several trips in locomotives--an excellent vantage point for his
Through the lens of his camera, Ballash has captured the restoration of
run-down train stations in Greensburg and Latrobe, both of which have been

renovated as restaurants
While Pittsburgh's Station Square has made a showpiece out of the former
Pittsburgh and Lake Erie rail station on the city's South Side, Ballash
cites a less satisfying renovation
He pointed out the public no longer has access to the PRR's former
Pittsburgh passenger station Downtown=2E It's been transformed into privat
luxury apartments
Ballash got a last glimpse of the closed station during a special bus tour

for rail fans in 1985=2E But he lamented that the whirlwind schedule
permitted him only five minutes to capture a few long-exposure photos in
the dimly-lit interior
He has explored other old depots across the U=2ES=2E as part of the 400-me
Railroad Station Historical Society
Group members gather each June in a new region, with a local host arrangin
tours of area train stations and related historic sites
In 1993, Ballash hosted the group for a two-day overview of 51 rail
structures in an area bounded by Pittsburgh, Somerset and Washington, Pa

"We go to places you wouldn't even imagine were once depots," he noted

He took his fellow enthusiasts to the world's smallest train station,
according to Ripley's Believe It Or Not=2E It now is the nurse's station a
Idlewild Park--a stop on the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, which operated fro
1872 to 1952
This year's Railroad Station Historical Society meeting will be based in
Portland, Maine=2E The June 2004 meeting will bring Ballash and other
enthusiasts to Saginaw, Mich
Ballash is preparing to host the group again in 2005=2E This time, he'll
conduct members among about 30 sites--including Altoona's rail tourist
spots--during a four-day itinerary in central Pennsylvania
In addition to train stations, Ballash has sought out and photographed
numerous "block station" towers, where operators controlled track switchin
on a stretch of the railroad
Many of the towers he documented have since been removed--including the
"S-G" tower, which was off Rt=2E 403 in the "Sang Hollow" section of the
Conemaugh Gap, downriver from Johnstown
He also has captured images of older towers which retain some of the more
ornate 1890s-style architecture the PRR originally chose for its buildings

One such tower remains in use in Altoona=2E But, Ballash predicted, "It wi
be gone in the next couple of years=2E"
Still, given the interest in rail heritage in Altoona, he's hoping the
structure will be preserved for its historic value
Ballash noted Cresson had decided to relocate and restore a nearby PRR
tower designated "M-O" for "mountain=2E" The structure had added historic
significance, according to Ballash: Andrew Carnegie worked there as a
telegrapher when he was young
Unfortunately, as the tower was being eased off its site, a structural bea
split and the building "just fell apart=2E"
According to Ballash, the PRR rail system at its height included 463
separate block stations, each controlled by its own tower
During the 1980s, he managed to visit 124 towers=2E Now, just 13 remain op
Ballash said
In addition to Altoona, Ballash reported towers at Johnstown and East
Conway, near Pittsburgh, are the only ones still operating in the region

Like Altoona, the others are expected to be phased out in the near future,

Ballash said
He explained individual towers and operators gradually have given way to a

centralized remote control switching system
At one time located at the PRR station in downtown Pittsburgh, central
control now is handled far away from any rail lines, at a modern office
building in Greentree
Old PRR lines and structures in the Pittsburgh region currently are
controlled by the Norfolk Southern Railroad, after passing through interim

ownership by the ill-fated Penn Central Railroad (a jointure between PRR
and its former rival, the New York Central) and then Conrail
Even when remaining structures have vanished, Ballash still searches for
clues to rail history
Traveling with other hobbyists, he has photographed rail bed traces of the

old Pittsburgh, Westmoreland and Somerset Railroad (1900-17)--which passed

through Linn Run State Park as it climbed Laurel Mountain on its way from
Ligonier to Somerset
At its southeastern end, Ballash noted, that rail line used a portion of
the bed of the South Penn Railroad--a late 19th century route that was
meant to compete with the PRR but was never opened=2E Portions of the Sout
Penn right-of-way later were incorporated into the Pennsylvania Turnpike

Ballash has created a slide show, featuring his many images of now-vanishe
rail scenes, and has shared them with members of rail organizations he has

That includes the local Penn-Ligonier Railroad Club, which concentrates on

the intertwined histories of the Latrobe section of the PRR Main Line and
the connecting Ligonier Valley Rail Road
Ballash recently repeated his presentation, "Lost Structures of Western
Pennsylvania," as part of the centennial celebration of the Latrobe rail
Though "slides are still king" for portraying past train operations,
Ballash recently has devoted more time to capturing his rail safaris on
With video technology, he noted, he can record rail images in low light
more easily
Also, instead of just relying on his own notes, he can preserve the
spontaneous, informative comments of fellow rail fans as they pass each
significant structure
His choice of camera isn't the only thing that has changed
Nowadays, with concerns about liability and terrorist attacks, Ballash
noted many rail police are quick to crack down on fans who stray onto trac
right-of-way or who spend too much time at a particular overlook or
roadside pull-off, studying passing trains
Obtaining special permission from company officials to film rail operation
or facilities for posterity is becoming an increasingly rare treat, he
"You have no insider's look anymore=2E It's sad=2E"
Instead, Ballash now visits tourist railroads and books passage on special

limited excursions designed specifically for serious rail hobbyists
"I like riding on special sections of track that you normally can't ride o
anymore," he said
Ballash noted, "If you ride on a (rail) line, you see a lot of things that

are hidden from view" from motorists attempting to trace the route via
adjacent roads
He added, "You get an entirely different perspective of a town"--including

a clearer view of landmark buildings if the tracks are elevated, as they
are in Latrobe
Last month, Ballash enjoyed a special Amtrak excursion which took more tha
3 1/2 hours to cover 113 miles from Louisville to Indianapolis
Only being offered through mid-summer, he noted the trip is significant
because it follows a now-defunct passenger route in the most southwest
section of PRR's once massive network of track connections
But, Ballash warned, the trip is "no experience for the casual traveler
sat in Louisville for four hours in a single coach until they hooked us
onto the back of a train and took us to Chicago=2E"
Up until the 1950s, Ballash noted, visiting the local PRR' station was "no

different then than it is at an airport today=2E"
He noted, "The train could take you virtually anywhere in the United
States," with PRR lines extending west to Chicago and St=2E Louis=2E There
connections with other passenger lines could extend the journey all the wa
to the West Coast
Today, he said, "You can still go down to the Latrobe train station and ge
a (Amtrak) ticket, but you're limited where you can go=2E"
While the fruits of Ballash's 20-year labor of love mostly take the form o
trays full of color slides and hours of video footage, he does possess a
few prized artifacts
Among them are an original gold and red-painted PRR sign from the "K-R"
control tower on the western border of Latrobe, near Unity Street
The tower was dismantled in the early 1980s, he said=2E He noted he's stil
trying to determine what those two telegraphic call letters signified

Ballash also owns a short piece of rail salvaged from Altoona's historic
Horseshoe Curve in 1982, when the number of tracks was being reduced from
four to three
From his father, Ballash inherited a commemorative 1950s ash tray molded i
the distinctive keystone shape of the PRR logo=2E It was intended for use
passengers on the PRR's luxury passenger train, "The Spirit of St=2E Louis
which ran between New York and St=2E Louis until the early 1970s, stopping
Jeff Himler can be reached at jhimler@tribweb=2Ecom or (724) 459-6100, ext
=2E 13

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