J.J. Young, Railroad Photographer
“WHOOWOOOOOOOOO…WHOWOO…WHOWOO…WHOWOO! A hoot whistle cuts through the hazy shimmering heat of a steamy Ohio River Valley mid-July morning in Wheeling, West Virginia. Hey! Listen. A Humper’s just whistled out the th’ flag. He’s gonna take water at Bridgeport. Let’s go get ’em! (a ‘Humper’ is local slang for a B&O lake coal train working ‘over the hump’ from Wheeling to Holloway, Ohio). You grab camera and film and take off running. Down 14th Street, up Eoff Street, cut thru the Yellow Cab’s back lot, up Chapline Street past the post office, over 10th Street and across Market, attacking auto and pedestrian traffic like a Kamikaze trainee.” -J.J. Young
Many years ago, on a Thanksgiving Day just before her country was drawn into a second global war, a mother in Goosetown, West Virginia, sent her son to the store for salt.
Finding the store closed for another hour, the boy, as he was wont to do, wandered over to the Pennsylvania Railroad passenger station near the Wheeling Wharf. The crew of a Pittsburgh bound locomotive recognized the boy, and offered him a ride. Never one to refuse a ride on a locomotive, the boy climbed onboard. Later at the B&O station in Pittsburgh while waiting for a train back to Wheeling, the boy was recognized by another crew and offered another ride, and so on…
That evening, a worried mother back in Goosetown received a telephone call from Buffalo, New York, advising her to send someone else for the Thanksgiving salt.
That boy’s name was John “J. J.” Young. And he loved trains. A lot. “Ever after that,” Young recalled, “whenever I left the house, my mother always told me, ‘Send me a postcard when you get there.'”
Born on May 23, 1929, J.J. Young grew up at 977 McColloch Street in the heart of Goosetown near the familiar “Tunnel Green” train tunnel, fed by the stone-arch viaduct built by Charles Ellet Jr., the same engineer who built Wheeling’s iconic suspension bridge. The viaduct and tunnel are still there, now part of Wheeling’s Heritage Trail for walkers and bikers. But from the 1930s through the 1950s, the area was a hub of traffic for the Pennsylvania and B.&O. Railroads.
And J.J. Young quite literally had a front row seat. “When you lived in such close proximity to railroads,” Young said, “you either loved them or hated them. I loved them.”
He could watch the trains pass by from his front window or the front porch. But he had to get closer, despite the obstacles. It seemed to Young that everyone — his parents, his teachers — tried to keep him away from his beloved trains. But he would not be deterred. “I was never one to play by the rules. I did my thing my way.”
He ran, climbed, hustled, fibbed — whatever he had to do to get near the trains. He was around the yards so much, the engineers eventually started to recognize him. Before age seven he’d been invited to ride with the crew, the first of many such complimentary train rides for young Mr. Young. “The engineer’s seatbox was like a throne,” he later recalled. “That was heaven.”
Young started photographing the trains at the tender age of five, borrowing (without permission) his father’s Zeiss folding camera from the chifforobe. “I had to put it back in the exact place and in the exact manner I found it so he wouldn’t find out.”
He bought a Brownie box camera of his own at age seven, followed by a Kodak Vigilant, a Kodak Monitor, and a speed graphic. Young taught himself how to take photographs as well as how to develop film and create prints. He always maintained that skill in the darkroom was more important than skill with a camera.
Young was bold enough to ask to see the B. & O.’s Wheeling Division Superintendent, John J. Sell, to seek permission to freely photograph all the B.& O. trains and rail yards. As it turned out, Sell had been watching Young around the tracks for quite a long time and was impressed by the way the young man looked both ways and never stepped directly on the rails. Sell said he wished his men would observe the safety rules as diligently as Young did. Sell gave Young a veritable blank check of access to the B.&O. in Wheeling and told Young that if anyone questioned him, they were to contact him directly. That was never necessary, as the B.&O. crews accepted Young as a friend and never questioned the young photographer’s access. The railroaders trusted him. He never let his work interfere with their work, and they never saw him as a hindrance. And that trust meant the world to J.J. Young.
J.J. Young was not a pretentious man. He never owned a car or held a driver’s license. He never owned a suit. He carried his cameras in grocery bags. But his art belies his humble ways.
He loved the steamers best and photographed his beloved trains almost exclusively in black and white. He tried to photograph above the action, looking down to capture the whole story. “If I can find something to get up on,” he said, “I’ll get up on it.”
When the end of the golden age of his beloved steam trains coincided with the loss of his job at Wheeling Mold and Foundry in the late 1950s, Young moved to Binghamton, New York, where he taught photography for many years at a technical college, retiring with his wife Liz to Charleston, WV, in 1995. Though reaching celebrity status among railroad enthusiasts, even being recently named one of Trains Magazine‘s “75 People You Should Know,” J.J. remained first and foremost, an educator. As his good friend and fellow railroad photographer, Jay Potter, eloquently said, “He certainly didn’t act like a celebrity . . . and he also didn’t think like a celebrity, he thought like an educator. If he were here . . . he would, I’m sure, want to teach us something. I think what he would want to teach us as we look at his photos is not to concentrate so much on the work and the ability it took to create the photos, but rather concentrate on the work and the abilities that the photos illustrate which is the day-to-day work of railroading. He celebrated railroading, he celebrated the work of railroaders, and that’s what his photos illustrate. And that’s what he spent most of his life doing. And he’d want Wheeling to remember the importance of railroading.”
Listen to Jay Potter speak about good friend J.J. Young at the at the Grand Opening of the OCPL Archives and the J.J. Young Photo Exhibit at the Ohio County Public Library, October 12th, 2015.
He visited Wheeling a few times later in life but was deeply saddened by the changes brought on by the end of train transport. But the story would be far sadder — so much more would have been lost — but for J.J. Young’s camera and persistence.
When J.J. Young died on November 27, 2004, the Wheeling of his youth had undergone an extinction event. The trains that once crisscrossed his city had disappeared. Sure, there are skeletal remains for those who know where to look: a tunnel here, a paved path where rails once ran there, a stone viaduct here, a rotting bridge over Wheeling Creek there, an adaptively-reused passenger station here, a library built over an old rail yard there. But Young’s legacy breathes life into those metal dinosaurs, reanimating the iron horses of yore in all their fire-breathing, steam belching glory. Imagine a new dimension to paleontology — glossy prints of T-Rex and Triceratops. That’s J.J. Young’s legacy: a passion recorded for posterity in a prolific and visually stunning fossil record of black and white photographs of trains and railroads taken in and around Wheeling, primarily between 1936 and 1959.
“If you remember John Young, you will remember the importance of railroading.”
-Jay Potter, October 12th, 2015, J.J. Young Jr. photo exhibit grand opening, Ohio County Public Library
Thanks to his generosity, the West Virginia Northern Community College Alumni Association has been able to assemble a fine collection of Mr. Young’s train photographs, helping to preserve a vital part of Wheeling’s transportation heritage. And thanks to a cooperative heritage partnership among West Virginia Northern Community College, the alumni association, and the Ohio County Public Library, several of the very best of Mr. Young’s beautiful B. & O. prints are now on display in the hallway near the library’s auditorium for the people of Wheeling and railfans everywhere to enjoy. It’s the way Mr. Young and his friend Joan Weiskircher (a WVNCC alumnus and the driving force behind the preservation and exhibition of Young’s photographs) would have wanted it.
Exhibit Grand Opening: October 12, 2015
Listen to Jack Fahey speak about his 40 years with the B&O. Recorded at the Grand Opening of the OCPL Archives and the J.J. Young Photo Exhibit at the Ohio County Public Library, October 12th, 2015.
Potter, Jay. “’I Did My Thing My Way.’ John Young Leaves B&O Fans a Trove of Stories, Photographs,” The Sentinel (Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Historical Society), Volume 27, No. 2, Second Quarter, 2005, pp 3-14.
Schlerf, Gary W. “Wheeling: B&O’s Crossroads,” The Sentinel (Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Historical Society), Volume 20, Number 2, Second Quarter, 1998, pp 5-34.
Withers, Bob. “Capturing Steam: Railroad Photographer J.J. Young,” Goldenseal: West Virginia Traditional Life, Summer, 2001, pp 10-23.
Young, J.J. “Benwood’s EM-1’s,” Railfan, Volume 1, Number 9, Winter, 1976, pp 18-29.