“One picture is worth ten thousand words.” – Fred R. Barnes, 1927
Is there anyone
who has not lingered over an old picture, fascinated by the
faces of ancestors or intrigued at the transformation of a
streetscape since the photo was taken?
finding old photographs is like striking gold.
What a thrill to discover a forgotten box in a dark
corner of the attic, gently blow the dust from its top, and
gingerly lift the lid to reveal a heap of ancient
black-and-white photographs, awaiting their first viewing in
But what would
you do if faced with the following dilemma?
Imagine that you know the exact location of a treasure
trove of old photographs, many depicting historic scenes in the
Brownsville area, images that were captured on film as long ago
as 1903. Imagine
also that we are not talking about a box or two of old pictures,
but rather a mind-boggling lode of more than eleven thousand
historical photographs and negatives.
Let us imagine
one more thing – that you become aware of the possibility that
this amazing collection of irreplaceable photographs, many of
them on fragile glass negatives, is in jeopardy of being
discarded or removed from the community forever.
What would you
As you may have
guessed, the preceding situation is not imaginary.
In 1987, Brownsville’s Dave Gratz found himself living
this very scenario. A
few weeks ago, as Dave and I relaxed on the back porch of his
Lewis Street home, he told me his unusual story.
Dave said, “when I was superintendent of the Monongahela
Railway, a disturbing comment was made to me one day.
An official of the P&LE [which co-owned the
Monongahela Railway] said, ‘Dave, steel has gone out of the
valley, and that is going to ruin the P&LE railroad.’
“Then not long
after that, the president of the P&LE called and told me,
‘We’re starting to liquidate some of our assets.’
“I said to
him, ‘That means the Monongahela Railway.’
“And he said,
It was the
beginning of the end of the Monongahela Railway.
Fortunately, Dave Gratz is a lover of history,
particularly railroad history, and he found himself in a unique
position to preserve an irreplaceable part of Brownsville’s
1990,” Dave said, “when I realized the Monongahela was going
to be married to Conrail and absorbed into their system, I asked
to purchase the photographic records of the Monongahela Railway.
They were kept in the railroad’s vault in the Union
Station building in downtown Brownsville.
I was able to purchase the photographic records --
thousands of negatives dating back to 1903 -- and the two tall
double-door cabinets in which they were stored.
bought them, we had to move them up here to my house.
Before we could bring the cabinets here, we had to unload
the cabinets, bring all of the negatives and plates up here,
store them, and then bring the cabinets up.
My friend Harold Richardson and I went to the Union
Station building and packed some of the negatives into boxes,
and every evening I would bring a few boxes of negatives home
“You are using
the terms ‘negatives’ and ‘plates,’” I said. “What
proportion of the collection consisted of regular acetate
negatives and what proportion consisted of glass negatives
estimate that about three-fourths of the cabinet space is
devoted to glass plates. Of
course, a glass plate takes up a lot more room than a regular
negative. There are
6,400 glass plates and nearly 5,000 acetate negatives – over
11,000 in all. Until
the day I moved the cabinets to my house, I had plates and
negatives all over the basement.
“After I got
all of the negatives to my house, then we got the cabinets up
here. I decided
that my wife Betty and I could take the cabinets down to the
basement by ourselves. Wrong!
“They are big
and awkward, but not heavy.
The problem was that there is a sharp turn at the top of
my basement stairs, so these tall cabinets had to be nearly
vertical to make the bend.
I had them on a dolly, and I said to Betty, ‘You just
push it off over the edge of the step, and I’ll catch it and
let it down.’
“Well, it got
away from me and knocked me down the steps, and I took seven
stitches in my head. It
was a traumatic affair. So
the other cabinet stayed upstairs until I got more help, got it
downstairs, and then put the negatives back into the
five years later,” I said, “you got the telephone call that
started a nine-year-long project that I came here today to
discuss with you – your new book detailing the entire history
of the Monongahela Railway.”
right,” Dave said. “Terry Arbogast called me one night and
asked me if I would put together a history of the Monongahela
Railway, and I told him that I would.”
“Who is Terry
“Terry is a
retired science teacher from Fairmont who taught in the
Monongalia School District in Morgantown.
He is also a railroad enthusiast with journalism
experience who has taken thousands of railroad photographs.”
Terry contact you?”
me sometime between when I acquired the plates and 1995, because
I started writing the history in 1995 while Betty and I were in
Florida. I took the
index books down there to help me organize the book.”
“The index books are the notebooks in which I had listed each negative in the collection. I was going to see if I could categorize the photographs by subject, believing that the number of photographs on each subject would indicate the importance of each topic. Well, it didn’t exactly work that way.”
explained how you got the pictures for the book,” I said.
“How did you acquire the information that enabled you
to write the entire history of the Monongahela Railway?”
“I had the
benefit of Church’s book [‘Corporate History of the
Monongahela Railway Company, 1927’ by S. H. Church and Andrew
Cunningham], a 1927 legal history that I cited in my book’s
bibliography,” Dave replied, “and I consulted documents from
the railroad. I
learned a great deal about the railroad’s history during my
career there, and over the years I picked the brains of my
“I tried to
develop the story the same way the railway itself developed.
At first, I had assumed that it was just the PRR
[Pennsylvania Railroad] and the P&LE [Pittsburgh and Lake
Erie] that got this railroad going in 1902.
But while I was doing some real estate work as part of my
job at the railroad, I wondered how the railroad could own
property whose deeds pre-dated the creation of the Monongahela
“I found out
that the PV&C [Pittsburgh, Virginia & Charlestown] had
started building the tracks from up near Huron, had come from
Uniontown over to the Monongahela River by way of the Coal Lick
Run branch, the Masontown-New Salem branch and the Brown’s Run
branch, and then had branched up and down the river.
It was only then that the PRR and P&LE formed the
Monongahela Railroad, which became the Monongahela Railway
Company in 1915 when it consolidated with the Buckhannon &
was the start of my
history lesson,” Dave chuckled. “I
worked on the book’s text year-round, and it took me about
three years to put things together.”
Arbogast is your co-author,” I said.
“What was Terry’s role?”
that I write the book, and he prepared the photographs for
publication and drew all of the maps for the book, which
contains 319 photographs and 24 detailed hand-drawn maps.
“Terry is a
perfectionist,” Dave continued.
“He would look at the pictures that I already had, some
of which were old prints from the negatives, and would often
decide that a photograph was not good enough for reproduction.
He would take the negative home and reproduce it on
polycontrast paper, since the publisher had told us that you
have to make it a little bit grayer because when you scan it, it
“Then when he
saw how the book was progressing, he started creating the
detailed maps that are interspersed throughout the book.
The maps that he originally drew were not satisfactory to
him, so being a perfectionist, he did them all a second time.”
“One of the
most important decisions in producing a book like this,” I
said, “is finding a publisher.
How did you do that?”
“Terry had met
the fellow who was going to publish it at those railroad shows
he goes to,” Dave said. “The
fellow does real nice books, and he agreed to do our book.”
just as getting those empty cabinets down Dave’s basement
stairs was not as simple an undertaking as it first appeared,
what should have been a relatively straightforward task –
getting the book published after the text was written and the
photographs were ready – turned into a nightmare.
Next week, Dave and Terry will describe how their effort
to publish the definitive history of the Monongahela Railway was
sidetracked into court and nearly derailed.
These articles appear weekly in the Saturday Uniontown HERALD-STANDARD. If you enjoy reading them, please let the editor know. You may e-mail your comments to editor Mark O'Keefe at firstname.lastname@example.org
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