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Charmed Life

Trainspotting

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 11/13/2002

Ernie Roberts is trying to explain this problem he has: On picture-perfect days, he'll just jump in his car and drive. Sometimes he'll head toward Harper's Ferry, other times it will be north to the Port Deposit, C&D Canal, or Perryville.

At these spots he reaches for one of his eight cameras, which range from a Nikon SLR to a cumbersome wooden bellows contraption that he hoists on a 12-foot-high tripod, and he waits for an approaching train. As the locomotive speeds by, he'll shoot as much of the roll of film as possible. The train's turbines will whine with the rattle of steel, the engineer's horn will blast, the click-clack of the passing cars will build and die, and the wind will whip up, then vanish. And just like that, it'll be peaceful again at the Perryville Station, Roberts standing alone on the platform in the middle of the day. He's done this hundreds of times over the past five decades.

The strange thing is, he's never developed most of the negatives. These impromptu photography trips are just the result of a collision of Roberts' obsessions.

The 66-year-old loves photographing trains, but he loves developing old negatives of trains and historic glass plates of old Baltimore even more. And while he loves using obscure, old camera equipment, he loves amassing it more still. He also collects machinery to build and repair his equipment--lathes, milling machines, and old hand planes--just because he likes the stuff.

"It's one thing after another, and here I am, an absolute mess," says Roberts, who refuses a request to tour his home, which he says is packed solid with gear. The best he'll offer is his car, which is loaded with old picture frames, camera mechanisms, and gadgets. "I go to these auctions, I can't say no," he says. "It's a sickness."

Roberts explains this from the basement of the Alley Shoppes on York Road in Cockeysville, a wondrous collection of old cameras, microscopes, Super-8 projectors, flashbulbs, and old photographs, many of which were culled from old, discarded negatives headed for the dump.

The roots of his tendrilled obsessions were planted in high school, when he started experimenting in his father's darkroom and taking photos around Baltimore. But after high school, once he got married and started working as a draftsman at Western Electric, he put down his camera. Instead, he focused on night school until he eventually earned his engineering degree.

Everything was fine, he says, until the 1970s, when he discovered model trains. He didn't just buy Lionels. He plunked down serious bucks for high-end Japanese-made brass engines. He bought one after another, eventually building up a cache of more than 60 engines. He talks about going to the downtown model-train store M.B. Klein the way addicts talk about going to their dealers.

He moved to another house, mainly because he needed a large basement in which to construct a huge train layout. His hobby drove his wife crazy, so he began hiding his latest purchases in the garage.

"If I had come back from Klein's with a locomotive and we were going to Ocean City that weekend, I had to bring the locomotive with me," he says, shaking his head.

Finally, in the late '70s he rediscovered his darkroom skills, and fellow model railroaders approached him to develop odd-sized negatives of model and real-life trains.

He started collecting equipment--all sizes of vintage enlargers, cameras--and other people's negatives. Glass-plate negatives, popular at the turn of the century, might as well have been gold bars for Roberts. No collection of photos was too mundane for him, so long as it was old. Out of the stacks of family photos--couples standing in front of haystacks, kids blowing out candles on birthday cakes--he'd find views of old Baltimore. He found a huge picture of Charles Street circa 1914, one of tugboats at port, another of a coal wagon parked on the street, all of which hang on his wall.

But Roberts' specialty became railroad photos, and he tracked down industry collections at auctions. At his peak, he estimates that he owned 10,000 negatives taken by career railroad photographers.

Roberts would have been content developing other people's prints, but in 1979 he heard that Amtrak was temporarily putting 50-year-old electric engines, beautiful art-deco behemoths known as GG-1s, back on the tracks on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He grabbed his camera and caught the beasts on film before they were mothballed again. After that, Roberts never really stopped taking pictures. During his lunch break, he'd leave his job on Broening Highway and take shot after shot at a nearby coal works. He'd shoot old tugs rusting in the harbor, and he had a particular fondness for Burnside Bridge in Antietam.

These days, it's Amtrak's high-speed train, the Acela, that gets him excited. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I stood with him on a deserted train-station platform in Cecil County and watched him walk toward the hurtling train as it slowed down to 95 miles per hour to cross the Susquehanna River. There was hardly enough time for Roberts to trigger the shutter before the Acela was a dull silver blur down the track.

Roberts turned, smiled, and tried to explain his obsession again: "Why does a guy go fishing, go to the same spot a couple dozen times, a hundred times, [though] maybe out of all the hundred times, he only caught a really nice fish maybe twice?" he asks. "It's the same thing why I come up here."

I left him up there on the platform waiting for more trains to come by. The next day I asked if he got anything good .

"No," he said. "I'm about done with that place for a few months, but if it snows, I'm back out there. I never got an engine in the snow before."

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