Gathering his equipment, D.J. Miller, of Gallitzin, heads out for a morning hunt with enthusiasm.
He has checked Facebook feeds and websites for vital information. Once he’s behind the wheel or on foot, he will switch to a scanner to track down his quarry.
Miller is trying to intercept a 215-ton beast, and there may even be more than one. Once in position, he waits. Soon a distinct rumble fills the air, and the ground begins to shake. As the behemoth bears down on him, it lets out a deafening wail that reverberates throughout his body. Remaining steady, Miller composes himself and takes the shot.
Another quality photo of a diesel locomotive pulling a long line of squeaking cars through his hometown or a neighboring community along the main line of the Norfolk Southern railway.
Miller is a rail fan who can’t quite explain his fascination with trains, but he’s certainly not alone. Fifty-one magazines are published for rail enthusiasts, and Spotify currently offers its customers more than 107 train songs.
Websites such as Heritage Units, PT 242 and Virtual Railfan reveal train locations and destinations for people such as Miller, who pursues his passion a few times a week in Summerhill, Cassandra and other communities.
“There’s times I’ll be out all day,” he said.
He’s also among the more serious rail fans who rely on scanner channel chatter to narrow down options.
“You hear the dispatcher, you hear the train crews and you hear the maintenance-of-way people,” he said.
Keith Burkey, of Richland Township, also loves taking photos of trains and has been a lifelong rail fan.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t,” the 43-year-old Vinco native said. “From the youngest point of my childhood, I was interested in trains. ... There is no reason for the draw. It’s a cultural thing, I would suggest.”
‘A glorious racket’
Capturing still images of trains and sharing them on the website Flickr is Burkey’s passion. There’s an emotional reaction to a train being in a photo. Even the sound of an oncoming train, especially at night, rouses something inside of him.
“It is a glorious racket that you won’t hear anywhere else,” he said.
For him, there’s nothing quite like the physical and emotional response the experience elicits.
“It’s pretty neat,” Burkey said. “I wouldn’t trade the hobby for anything in the world.”
He said that there is a universal appreciation for trains and that photographing them in different settings is a uniquely creative art form that serves to teach.
Although he cites Summerhill as a favorite spot, he devotes more time to capturing trains in locations off the beaten path, checking websites for specific information before leaving home.
“It’s a pursuit” that could involve a long drive or arduous hike, he said. Checking weather conditions and sun angles also affects his hunt for optimal settings that add context to his photos.
“To me, it’s never just about the train,” Burkey said. “It’s the story of everything around it.”
‘Pretty cool shot’
For Brad Jones, of Richland Township, close encounters with locomotives are powerful experiences.
“Just the power, the variety of cars, and how long the train is,” he said. “It’s impressive. It’s something that I think everyone should experience.”
Heading out once or twice a week, Jones regularly taps internet chat rooms, websites such as Trainorders and a Youtube channel featuring live views of the Horseshoe Curve to plan his excursions.
Not realizing in the beginning that people even watched trains as a hobby, Jones is discovering a passion for photography and has already passed his passion onto his son, Benjamin, 11: “He’s all about trains.”
Although he enjoys capturing images of trains anywhere in the country, Cassandra is Jones’ favorite spot.
“That’s a nice point looking west,” Jones said. “It’s a long stretch that goes down to Portage, and it’s a pretty cool shot to get with the sun setting in the background and the train coming east – it’s a pretty cool shot.”
‘To photograph trains’
Situated exactly halfway by rail between Johnstown and Altoona, Cassandra has become a required stop for train enthusiasts, and Cassandra native John Shuniak figured that out one day in the late 1990s.
Sitting in front of his building, which housed his used car dealership and auto body shop, Shuniak said, “three or fours cars went by, and I noticed that they were all out-of-state plates.” He said that the cars were headed up to an old pedestrian bridge that crosses over the railroad and that nobody ever waved the way a local or visiting relative would do.
“I was just curious and went up to the bridge,” he said, “and these people were standing on the bridge with cameras, and I just asked them what they were doing, and they said, ‘We’re just here to photograph trains.’ ”
It wasn’t long before Shuniak converted this business into the Cassandra Railroad Overlook Motel. Starting with just two rooms, the nearby trains drummed up enough business for Shuniak to expand to six with free wifi service.
“It is a huge hobby among people, and they are just so knowledgeable about the railroads that run in this country,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Shuniak said the rail fans not only know when the trains are coming through, but where they are heading and what they are carrying.
“A lot of them even know the engineers that are on the trains. That amazes me,” he said. “Especially the Amtraks. They know the conductors that are on those trains.”
Shuniak spent three years creating a picnic and viewing area near the bridge for people to enjoy, and local businesses and private parties have donated benches and tables to accommodate visitors.
“It has been a bigger hit than I would have ever imagined,” he said.
The town’s bridge offers a rare view of a lengthy triple rail straight-away on one side, a picturesque curve on the other and a close encounter as trains pass directly underneath.
“The bridge at Cassandra, Pennsylvania, is known worldwide,” he said. “It really is.”
The stop also offers rail fans the unique opportunity to get photos and videos of trains after sunset, with The Cassandra All-Nighter. A section of tracks at the bridge, illuminated by powerful shop lights, provides a band of light for trains to roll through.
“It’s been a big success,” he said. “We keep the lights up until two or three in the morning, and they’re happy as hell.”
Shuniak said 90% of his patrons drive from locations four to five hours away, but some hail from as far away as Australia, Great Britain and Germany, thanks to the internet.
“I don’t know why they do it,” he said, “but I’m glad they do it.”
Shuniak and a small group of others in Gallitzin, Cresson, Lilly and Portage created Allegheny Mountain Magic around 2005 as a way to promote rail-fanning in the Route 53 corridor in Cambria County. They printed brochures that featured ideal train watching spots, historical sites, dining and lodging – but he said the endeavor failed to gain the support it needed.
In some cases, Cambria County’s rails have attracted people that have come to stay.
Bob Elder, of Leominster, Massachusetts, was so impressed with what the area had to offer that he relocated to Gallitzin, buying The Tunnel Inn in the process in 2018 from its original owner, Mike Kraynyak, another out-of-town rail fan who opened it in the late ‘90s.
“I’m a lifelong rail fan, have been a model railroader, rail fan, photographer all my life,” Elder said, “and worked 35 years as a mechanic and just got to the point where I needed to retire and find something a little less stressful, and to be able to be trackside and enjoy the trains and host folks and make a living at it is a privilege to say the least.”
After a 2008 visit, Elder thought enough of Gallitzin to relocate.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s quiet, peaceful. Again, trackside, watching trains all day, every day.”
Perched above the western portholes of the famous tunnels, the inn has four rooms with air conditioning, cable TV and Wi-Fi service. Three rooms offer a trackside view, and Elder has no trouble filling them.
“I knew there were a bunch of other nuts like myself out there and thought I could make a decent go of it if my feelings were correct.”
His guests come from as far as Canada, Puerto Rico and Germany. From March to mid-November, train fanatics come from Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Texas and Florida.
“I have five LED spotlights out here on the tracks for nighttime photography. I’ve got a beautiful back deck off the building with a chiminea – sit by the fire all night and watch trains.”
Elder said he has greatly enjoyed hosting rail fans at his unique location, which is just six miles from the famous Horseshoe Curve.
“You can stand here in my parking lot and literally look the engineer in the eye as he goes by,” Elder said, “and the Jackson Street bridge that crosses over the rails has photo ports for visitors to use. It really is amazing. It is quite a popular thing.”
Tom Davis, owner of The Station Inn Bed and Breakfast in Cresson, capitalized on the craze in 1993 while traveling near the railroad tracks of the famous rail town.
“I was driving down Front Street and saw this large number of trains, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s a good chance that rail fans would respond to this, and it would be a good spot for them,’ ” he said, “and I hit the jackpot, you might say.”
As testament to that, the New York Times featured his business in 2009, with the Wall Street Journal following suit in 2018.
“There was an opportunity and I seized it, and it’s been successful,” Davis said.
Cresson’s railroad observation platform was one of the spots that attracted Davis to relocate from New Jersey and renovate an 1860s-era building across the street. Although the eight rooms he has are vacant during winter, he said: “By the middle of April, we’ll be turning people away.”
He, too, hosts train fanatics from far-off places.
“I’ve had guests from Japan and England, and they enjoy it,” Davis said.
The inn has become a quintessential stop for rail fans, and offers a live video feed on its website with links to dispatcher-engineer-conductor audio and a model train set for guests to enjoy.
But the big hit at the establishment is the front porch, where folks simply relax in comfortable chairs while capturing photos and videos of the 60-odd trains that roll by daily.
A rail fan himself, Davis stated that many of his guests return annually, spending their money at local restaurants and stores.
“It’s a rail-friendly town.”