Sociology of the Run-By


(Skagway Alaska, June,2004) I wish I had a dollar for each hour I’d spent trailing along with my railroad obsessed husband, chasing trains, riding trains, waiting for trains. Don’t get me wrong. I had fun trying to keep up with his obsession. And, that’s the definition of a rail fan: obsessed. Which naturally led to the multitude of railroad-oriented trips we’d undertaken.

From Wisconsin and Upper Michigan locations, to Canada’s Agawa Canyon. From the steam trains of Colorado to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway. Then there’s our west coast search for every Shay locomotive still in existence. It’d been a bumpy ride. Our most ambitious trip occurred in June, 2004 when we rode a steam train out of Skagway, Alaska.

The trip was billed as a “steam extravaganza” specifically designed for rail fans. We began in Vancouver, British Columbia with a short plane ride to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, then on to Skagway.

Today, Skagway is a stop for cruise lines, so the train’s main function is tourist day trips. Skagway’s year round population of 800 can swell to up to 6,000 depending on how many ships arrive each day. The livery stable and general store of times past has been replaced by a Starbucks and gift and jewelry stores. The train is Skagway’s past history and its present day economic base.

Our tour group consisted of about fifty people with several world travelers in our midst. One man, from England, had taken recent trips to South America, Cuba and Russia, just to ride trains. We had travelers from Ireland, South Africa and many Canadians among us.

The first morning we all lined up at the depot and waited for the train to arrive. Men of all sizes and ages, and more women than I expected, waited in equal anticipation. There was enough picture-taking equipment among us to open a photography super store.

Then No. 73, the last Baldwin narrow gauge locomotive built in 1947, rolled into the station. It was a regal beauty, huffing and spitting bellows of smoke. The plaintive howl of a steam engine whistle is heart stopping. This railway, the White Pass and Yukon Route was built for the 1898 Klondike gold rush and No. 73 depicts that era.

Steeped in history, the old engine huffed and bellowed smoke as we climbed to the highest peaks on that sunny, mild morning. Throughout the trip, we stopped for “run-bys,” a new experience for me. The run-by is a scheduled stop, so anyone who wants to, can get off the train and find a photogenic spot. This results in a unique collection of humanity, frozen in time, in highly unusual places, standing on rocks, ledges, cliffs, whatever terrain is nearby. Then the train is backed up and, as it comes forward, an authentic picture is captured.

At each stop, almost everyone disembarked for the run-by. Here’s where the sociology comes in. I found there were rules and rituals connected with this activity. With great respect, each found a spot where they had a good picture taking vantage point but also that didn’t cut out the next fellow.

And thanks to technology, there’s yet another addition to this ceremony. When someone’s videotaping, not only must photographers not block anyone’s view, but they have to be silent so the tape doesn’t pick up idle conversation. Authenticity, again. I wondered what kind of punishment this society would invoke if its rules were broken.

My shutter finger twitched. I felt like Margaret Mead, discovering a foreign culture and began snapping pictures like mad. Of the picture takers! I captured dress, behavior patterns, roles and habits. The hallmark of a well-defined social order. My specimens had no idea their activities were being observed and recorded.

The most dramatic incident occurred at a stop near a tunnel built into the mountainside. There was a several hundred-foot high mountain on one side of the tracks and a several hundred-foot drop-off on the other side. Everyone disembarked on a level 20 by 20 foot plateau carved out on the drop-off side. Amazing. Here’s a spot on the side of a mountain, filled to capacity with people gripping their cameras and waiting.

During the run-by maneuver, I found there were expectations even for me, one of the lone passengers remaining on the train. I was gently warned not to wave or even look out the window. I was supposed to be an ordinary passenger on a train, looking down as if reading. I took my pictures well before the train began moving then sat back dutifully and became the imaginary passenger.

The train backed up and as it came forward through the tunnel, cameras snapped wildly. The train then backed up to the plateau, everyone boarded and on we went to the next stop. Each run-by operation took several hours. I wondered what regular train passengers would think of this. To them, a colossal waste of time. To rail fans: heaven.

We spent three full days on trains, visiting remote spots in the Yukon and Alaska: Carcross, Lake Bennett and the top of the world (Barrow). The run-by’s were plentiful, the scenery beautiful, lakes and streams pristine. But what remains my most vivid memory is being immersed in a complex social system in a land far, far away.


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