At the end of November, 2004 we learned of the passing, on the 27th, of John J. Young, Jr., one of the most accomplished, dynamic and colorful railroad theme photographers and modern-day historians American has ever produced.
And many of us in SVRHS were fortunate to have had the privilege of knowing John, as he spent many years as a chapter officer, newsletter editor, and program presenter; and, long after he had gone on to other things, he remained a friend of the chapter.
If anyone in railroad history and railfan circles is worthy of a book, John Young is worthy of literally volumes. He was born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1929. Barely into his teens, he spent a stretch of his early employment at Wheeling Mold & Foundry; then worked for a time on the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad while steam was still losing its reign as "king" of motive power.. It was likely during those years on the railroad when John fell in love with that mode of transportation. And perhaps seeing the slow demise of passenger, mail and express service along with the rapid emergence of diesel power in the late 40s, he decided he would do what he could to capture some of the changing scenes. We're not sure when he acquired his first camera, but we do know that John studied all he could about photographic processes, film and the various types of equipment that went with the industry. And before the 50s began, he was contributing rail subject articles to contemporary newspapers and periodicals in his home state.
We surmise that John also availed himself of various railfan publications of the times, and through them likely learned about photo opportunities beckoning "way up north." There's no doubt he acquired a king's treasure of knowledge about the W&LE, N&W, NKP and various other "giants" in the industry, such as the B&O, the C&O, the PRR, the NYC: most certainly he read stories about and/or saw contemporary railfans' and authors' pictures of scenes along our regionals such as the D&H, the Erie, the DL&W and the Lehigh Valley. Whatever the chain of events that brought him to our area, John was in Binghamton and working for one of the largest local photo processors, Stickley-Siver, by 1959.
In his spare time, "JJ," as locals soon began to know him, would go out to various photo vantage points along regional rails, where he would snap images of trains and become acquainted with the people who ran them. His jaunts were a little different than those for people who took owning and driving a car for granted. You see, John did not drive. He relied on public transportation, or arranged with friends and acquaintances to take him to the various places where he would set up to do his rail subject photography.
Over a period of several years, John became known as an expert in the rail photography field, as well as an extremely knowledgeable rail historian, a great storyteller, and a friend to countless people. In the late 50s and early 60s there had been a great number of transformations, abandonments, mergers and a host of other significant changes in the railroad industry, and history was still cranking them out at a furious rate. "JJ" captured a lot of it on film. He more or less specialized in black and white views, typically 8" x 10", contrasted with what he often referred to in photographer's parlance as "18% gray." Whatever it was to John himself or us as laymen, it certainly showed up in numerous images as pure art with a camera!
After John's passing, many testimonials came in to SVRHS in the form of telephone calls, e-mails, and regular mail items. One correspondent said, "While several photographers have been recognized for their 'significant' contributions to documenting railroad history photographically, JJ never received what I felt was his just deserved recognition. I believe wholeheartedly his work rivaled the best and noted photographers." Continuing on, the writer related that "John was a great story teller; in fact probably the best I've ever listened to. He had a way to say things, be it in person or in printed words, that few can with such effectiveness."
Another contributor remarked about John's being "a tireless and enthusiastic railfan who was always willing to share photo tips and techniques with younger fans and newcomers to the hobby. He came to be among the most widely published railfan photographers in the nation. He will be sorely missed." Still another correspondent had this to say, in part: "The greatest loss is to not only the railfan community, but to the industry too. He was considered to be one of the world's greatest rail photographers, with many of his photos being published in magazines around the world. His ability to capture and bring life to a still black and white photograph had many people asking questions. He was always willing to teach others technique and composition."
J. J. Young, Jr. was not your typical "gentleman" rail photographer. One correspondent described him this: "The first time I met him was in the early 80s in Binghamton, NY. I was photographing Susquehanna (NYS&W Railway Corp.) power at their engine house when I spied this guy walking east along the Conrail main. He had this scruffy beard and what looked like old worn clothing and cap. He was holding a wrinkled paper bag, and by all accounts I just thought it was some homeless dude. Holding my camera a little tighter as he got closer, I was a little surprised to see him pull a camera out of the bag. Then I recognized him from his appearance in a D&H video that was out at the time. Needless to say, he was a wealth of information and never failed to entertain."
Continuing on with John's sojourn in New York State's Southern Tier, the early 1960s found him taking a position in the audio-visual department at Broome Community College. BCC had moved from downtown Binghamton to a permanent campus on Upper Front Street, and John was soon at work there, deeply involved in photography and sound-related programs at the college. He quickly became popular with the students, and was soon serving as an advisor for the student government. Along the way he started a camera club on campus. One of his trademarks during a long tenure at Broome Community College was his "BCC" jacket.
Off campus John was not one to allow grass to grow beneath his feet. He fell in with many local railfans, amateur historians and other folks who had an avid interest in anything that ran on steel rails. By this time the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS), formed with a mission to preserve remnants of railroad history and provide programs to perpetuate its appreciation back in the 1930s, was in a campaign to increase the number of its chapters around the United States. John met with key people from various counties in the Southern Tier of New York State and northeastern Pennsylvania, and spearheaded the petition to NRHS for a charter. Thus the Susquehanna Valley Chapter, NRHS was born in 1962, principally through the efforts of John Young, Jr. and an initial core group from this region.
John became the chapter's first director, and also served two stints as President (1965, and again in 1973-74). Early organizational meeting were held in various members' homes. A few meetings and programs were held as far away as Sydney, NY. Long adept at compiling copy and text for railroad theme articles, John was among a few charter members who laid out and began publishing our chapter's newsletter the FEEDWATER HEATER. One of the things he helped to organize, and mentioned in the pages of the newsletter in the summer of 1962, was a chapter tour of the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad Shops at Susquehanna, PA.
Anything that was news about the railroad scene in our part of the country was quickly picked up by John, and his articles in the old issues of FEEDWATER HEATER abound with well-founded information, minute details and his highly opinionated comments (which were rarely "off the track"). John did not mince words, as many of our older railfans and rail historians can attest. A list of the publications that John's articles and photographs have appeared in over the years would produce a thick sheaf of pages. Suffice it to say that appearances of his work were numerous. Among the periodicals carrying his material have been RAILFAN AND RAILROAD MAGAZINE, TRAINS MAGAZINE, and RAILPACE MAGAZINE, to name just three of the most widely read.
Mark Twain would have had a strong rival, had John Young's lifespan overlapped with his. John was not only a railfan/historian's "diamond in the rough," but he was a "sage" in getting his points and thoughts across to listeners. You only had to hear John once, and you knew exactly where he stood on issues relating to the industry. He was rarely proven wrong after making a prediction about certain trends in railroading in general and the Southern Tier lines in particular.
John got to know virtually every mile post, switch, signal, bridge, building and the very minutiae of the rail corridors from Hancock, NY to Corning, NY on the old Erie line. He know every inch of the old Lackawanna from Scranton to Syracuse and Utica and Owego; the D&H from Carbondale to Binghamton and on to Albany. Virtually every contemporary railroad employee knew and respected him, and there were virtually no barriers of communication between them. If John saw a significant part of history being enacted out on the railroads, he was there to photograph it. If it didn't quite suit what he had in mind, he arranged with the appropriate railroad "powers that was" to get the right equipment, people and landmarks posed for a suitable picture. One of the most memorable is his "arranging" for trains to pose at the famed Starrucca Viaduct in Lanesboro, PA, during the United States Bicentennial celebration back in 1976. Picture an E-L lashup of diesel power stopped on the viaduct overhead, and a railfan special posed on the D&H tracks beneath it, including one of the D&H's "Centennial" locomotives in complete red-white-and-blue livery! That was John....
As a program presenter, he was a spellbinder to his audiences. One well-remembered event was when the Susquehanna Valley Chapter hosted the 1988 Fall Conference of the Erie Lackawanna Historical Society at Binghamton, NY. J. J. was principal guest speaker. During the social gathering before his program, John stood among a growing crowd of railfans, historians, representatives of the industry, and members of the societies. In typical tee-shirt and blue jeans, gesturing and making every word count, John went through a litany of important events in regional railroad history that had the group pumped up to a high level even before the first slide was shown. His key targets that night were the (then) mismanagers of the rail transportation system, and the losses of such key services as passenger, mail and express on regional rails. The program was enhanced by superb views from his collection of black & white images ("with a few borrowed color views for emphasis," he commented).
J. J. loved to spend hours at one of his favorite local vantage points on a bright, sunny warm day. This was the Chenango Street viaduct in downtown Binghamton. From that location, the principal rail yards, the stations and "check-in" points of the Erie-Lackawanna, the D&H and the Lehigh Valley, and later the New York, Susquehanna & Western, could be quite readily "surveilled and lensed." Typical Saturday mornings from the mid-1960s until the late 1980s would find a group of die-hard railfans congregating in the area to photograph train activity from safe viewpoints. John was easily picked out in any such group. Often several lensmen, including John, would meet in the little lunch room that was still ekeing out an existence in the lobby of the former Binghamton DL&W station, have coffee and donuts, and plan their itineraries. It was usually there John made arrangements for transportation to outlying vantage points, should there not be enough excitement at the Chenango Street viaduct at that time. These meetings, discussions of "tactics and strategy," and embarkations via automobile to seek out worthy subjects took place in fair weather and foul. If the trains were moving, or if there was something of interest in things being "static," the railfans were also out and about. Some of J. J. Young's most interesting photos were taken during downpours of rain or thickly falling snow. And they were priceless!
If one saw John out wearing an old heavy overcoat, with a winter hat pulled down around his ears, walking near rail corridors on a rainy or snowy day, and carrying a large brown grocery bag underneath his arm, it meant he was out on the "business" of capturing another classic rail scene, or series of them. The bag contained his camera which, typically, was a medium format Pentax 6x7 loaded with his favorite type of black & white film.
He loved putting the "human interest" aspect into many of his photos. Not only did he capture the railroad theme, but he also "locked in" some of the trademarks of the era, such as the "crazes" of hippiedom, hot-pants and white buck shoes. Now and then he would include a photogenic truck or automobile in one of this classic shots.
John continued on in the photographic services department at Broome Community College until the mid-1990s. Always in the back of his mind was the place of his beginning, West Virginia. From time to time he would go back "home" for short visits. Then as mid-decade approached, he decided it was time to retire. He related to friends and relatives that he wanted to return to the regions of his boyhood and, perhaps, write some books about his experiences with railroading and railfanning. it is estimated that, over his long career in the photography realm, he accumulated well of 20,000 images, most of them on the rail theme. He could have done superb justice to writing several photo histories, using the various rail subjects he had come into contact with over the years. Somehow he never quite got the time to complete that task.
He left us "locals" a legacy. We can vouch that he left few stones unturned in the 35 or so years he lived, worked and "lensed" here. John retired from BCC in 1995. That summer, there were two testimonials held in his honor. One of them was a dinner and evening of reminiscing sponsored by the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway Corp., and hosted by the company's CEO, Walter Rich (who, by the way had been one of the SV Chapter's charter members). Some of JJ's favorite haunts for photographing railroad subjects had been the grades over Gulf Summit between Deposit, NY and Susquehanna, PA. Some of his finest shots were taken at the nearby Starrucca Viaduct. It was also fitting that the dinner and testimonials was held at the old Erie Railroad Station/Hotel in Susquehanna.
The other expression of appreciation was given by the SV Chapter during an outdoor meeting under the canopy at Binghamton's former DL&W station in June of that year. The accompanying photo is of John accepting the MALFUNCTION JUNCTION sign given to him that evening. He posed proudly on one of the end platforms of the chapter's partially restored E-L bay window caboose No. 316 for the occasion.
The words MALFUNCTION JUNCTION, now familiar to many regional railfan and rail historians' ears, were "coined" by John. Versions of how the sobriquet came into being are many, but one deemed most plausible relates to a visit he made to the Binghamton rail yards near the Chenango Street Viaduct one day early in th 1960s. Finding the utmost of confusion, a stalled train, and switching moves "seesawing" back and forth in a virtually hopeless tangle to snarl the main lines, John asked the E-L yard foreman, who he knew by name, as to what was going on. The exasperated man's words tumbled out complaining about the traffic, the tie-ups and the malfunctioning locomotive at the rail junction. Remembering two key words "malfunction" and "junction" as he sprinted around snapping photos during the traffic jam, John came up with the nickname for the local yards which has survived to the present day.
John donated several hundred photos to the SV Chapter when he left Binghamton to retire back to his native West Virginia in the late summer of 1995. He and wife Liz took up housekeeping in Charleston. His laurels didn't end after he left our area. He was praised by West Virginia Governor Underwood for his diligent and thorough efforts at documenting railroad history in that region; many photographs and copies of stories submitted by J. J. Young Jr. have been on display at the old B&O station there. Several months ago he became terminally ill, and passed away quietly at his home November 27. John Young had a gift; in fact he possessed several. He gave of his time, knowledge and other resources so that society could better understand and appreciate the railroad history around us. We were honored to be part of his life. As one former acquaintance remarked in a recent communication to the railfan and rail historians' community over the Internet: "Rest in peace, J. J. You done good - really good!"
Additional articles about John from his native West Virginia: