Column #299  –  August 14, 2004


Railway Official Rescued

Amazing Photo Collection

by Glenn Tunney




      “One picture is worth ten thousand words.” – Fred R. Barnes, 1927


        Fading photographs. 

        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?    

        To historians, 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 decades. 

        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 do?

        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.

        “In 1987,” 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, ‘Yes.’” 

        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 historical record.

        “In September 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.

        “After I 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 from work.” 

        “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 (plates)?”

        “I would 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 cabinets.”

        “Then about 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.”

        “That’s 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 Arbogast?”

        “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.”

        “When did Terry contact you?”

        “Terry called 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.”

        “What are index books?”
        “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.”

        “You have 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 predecessors.

        “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 Railroad.

        “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 & Northern Railroad.          

        “Well, that 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.” 

        “Terry Arbogast is your co-author,” I said.  “What was Terry’s role?”

        “He suggested 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 turns darker.    

        “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.”

        Unfortunately, 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 mo' 

    Readers may contact Glenn Tunney at 724-785-3201, at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA   15442, or by e-mail by clicking here.

    To return to Glenn Tunney's Home Page, click here.