A new exhibit at the Culture Center in Charleston features a collection of photographs taken by a Wheeling native whose passion for trains began as a toddler when he would pull himself up on the window sill of his Northern Panhandle home to catch glimpses of the locomotives steaming along the Baltimore & Ohio’s Pike into Tunnel No. 1.
J.J. Young Jr., who died in 2004, bequeathed 6,328 images of trains in Wheeling and Charleston from the late 1940s through 2001 to the West Virginia State Archives.
“Hands down, it’s the best collection of railroad photographs we’ve got,” said Debra Basham, assistant director of the West Virginia State Archives.
Fifty-one of Young’s photos – 30 from Wheeling and 21 from Charleston – are on display at the Culture Center at the State Capitol Complex through the end of January.
Nick Fry, a former archivist for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Historical Society, and a handful of other railroad aficionados made several trips to Charleston in recent years to help identify the rail yards, steam engines and other subjects captured in Young’s photos.
Fry said he was impressed by the breadth of Young’s collection.
“For a guy who didn’t own a car, it’s amazing just how immense his collection was,” Fry said. “He just got everywhere, and he took his camera with him everywhere he went. He had great access.”
Young’s widow, Liz, said her husband never had a driver’s license, yet visited all 48 states in the continental United States chasing trains.
As a child, Young would snag rides in the locomotives, sometimes without his parents’ knowledge. Young was 14 years old when his mother sent him to the store for a few last minute items she needed for Thanksgiving dinner, but the store wasn’t yet open, so instead of heading back home, he hopped on a train headed for Buffalo, NY.
From that point on, whenever he left the house, his mother would always tell him to send her a postcard whenever he arrived at his destination.
“He had amazing stories of things he did while he was chasing trains,” his wife of 23 years said.
Young, who was born in Wheeling on May 23, 1929, worked for the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad before moving to Binghamton, N.Y. in 1959, where he taught photography. After retiring from the Broome Technical Community College in Binghamton in 1995, Young relocated to Charleston, where he continued his life-long hobby of photographing trains until his death on Nov. 27, 2004.
In a 2001 interview with GOLDENSEAL, the magazine of West Virginia traditional life, Young said, “I had the grandest show in the country. It was my own 12-inches-to-the-foot scale model railroad. When you lived in such close proximity to railroads, you either loved them or hated them. I loved them.”
For more information about the exhibit, call Caryn Gresham, deputy commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, at 304-558-0220, ext. 120 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fry can be reached at 314-516-7253 or by email at email@example.com.