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Rail super-fan catches trains on camera

Justin Mellott, 27, of Little Orleans, shoots photos at the Hancock train station.

by LISA SCHAUER

Few among us can recall the heyday of steam engine trains and the public’s fascination with them. Most of those iconic locomotives were scrapped for metal in the mid-20th century when diesel electric trains started taking over the rails. Now only a few remain for Polar Express-type tourist excursions.

Modern rail fans still seek the rush of speeding box cars, now flashing with dystopic graffiti, clacking and roaring as the rails bow slightly under their weight.

One stands on the brick platform at the old train station in Hancock, squinting into the late afternoon sun.

“Here it comes!” he exclaims, grabbing his camera as a thundering freight train engine rounds the turn.

Justin Mellott, 27, of Little Orleans defies the notion of your typical train buff. A young rail super-fan, he is a veritable archive of local train trivia armed with a zoom lens and a passion for photography.

An occasional contributor to The Morgan Messenger, Mellott won the newspaper’s outdoor photography contest in 2021 with his train shots.

Mellott only became interested in trains around five years ago, after starting work at Rankin’s in Berkeley Springs as a physical therapy assistant.

He’d heard some of the older patients at Rankin’s talk about working on the railroads, and he began noticing the trains along River Road during his commute.

“I love history, and it’s just something about being around the railroad. Trains are my hobby,” says Mellott.

“It’s nice to go back to simpler times. I couldn’t experience them, but a lot of folks remember those days,” reflected Mellott.

As some do, he discovered a strong affinity for trains. On his days off, he would spend hours at time, waiting for trains, wondering where they were bound, what they were carrying, and when they would be back.

He started scouring for new train sightings, snapping photos, collecting and submitting them for publication.

At the gym, Mellott befriended the late Kelly Hess, a longtime rail inspector for CSX and fellow train enthusiast. Hess had some of Mellott’s pictures framed and mounted inside the Hancock train station.

“The big-wigs like coming into town and looking at my pictures,” said Mellott with a smile. The station is still in use for railroad worker meetings and breaks.

Hess also gave him a hand-held radio so he could hear if any trains were coming within the next hour. Before that, Mellott said he would wait for hours, not knowing when the next freight train would pass.

Mellott, who grew up in Needmore, says he uses his cell phone for close ups, and his Canon T-6 with the zoom lens for distance.

“It does great in the snow,” he said of the Canon, which he picked up a few years ago.

About once a week he goes to places like Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown, Magnolia, Sleepy Creek, Point of Rocks, Chambersburg, or Altoona to photograph trains, either solo or with a buddy. He says he most enjoys visiting the scenic Western Maryland Railway.

In short time, Mellott has become fluent in train types, rail history, train schedules, destinations, and loads.

Amtrak passes the station in Hancock, W. Va. twice a day, heading east to D.C. in the morning and back west toward Pittsburgh in the evening.

He says his favorite train sightings have been those CSX had painted in bright color schemes to honor America’s military, first responders and law enforcement.

“I’d never seen one up close before,” he said of the red 911 engine he captured in Hancock.

CSX had the red 911 paint scheme made to honor America’s first responders, as seen from the Hancock train station. Photo courtesy of Justin Mellott.

Much has changed since the old B&O Railroad came through here, according to Mellott. The HO control tower next to the Hancock train station was torn down in the early 2000’s after CSX bought it. Now the rails are all switched out of Florida.

“The last caboose I saw was about five years ago in Hagerstown,” he called out as the last boxcar rolled into the distance.

Mellott explains the local history of the B&O running from Baltimore and Washington to Pittsburgh and points west. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was mostly in points south like Norfolk and Roanoke.

At one time, railroad service extended all the way to the Ice House in Berkeley Springs. Now trains only back up to load sand at the Silica plant along Route 522.

A rails-to-trails effort has been slowly underway to repurpose the area around the town of Bath’s historic train depot for recreation and tourism.

There’s also been talk around here for some time about bringing Maryland’s MARC commuter train to Hancock. But that reality would be years away, and it is still pending a financial feasibility study.

For now, with their first baby on the way, Justin and wife Kendall expect that life will change once baby makes three. He says he is trying to get in as much train time now as he can.

“She backs me up on my train hobby. She’s a good sport, and doesn’t mind seeing one or two, but not sitting for hours on end,” laughs Mellott, whose love of trains has already woven him to its history.

Justin Mellott’s photo of a train on the Silica branch in winter.

 

1 Comment

  1. PG on February 25, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    Excellent story – thanks Lisa Schauer. I remember the switching house on the Potomac that was apparently one of the last in the country to use truly mechanical switching. They would light fires on cold winter nights to keep them moving.

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