Talking Pictures


Central Pacific Woodcutters’ Camp, Circa 1868-1870, Elko County, Nevada

 Central Pacific Woodcutters’ Camp, Circa 1868-1870, Elko County, Nevada

I had been told about this place by Central Pacific scholars who said it was damned hard to find but well worth it if you were lucky to locate it in the miles of rough pinon scrub. A very ephemeral site, one you could walk right through and never know what it was, they said.

Fewer than ten people have been here in the past 145 years. This was among the most interesting of all the sites Carol and I found on my exploration of the first transcontinental railroad, and it was certainly the most mysterious and evocative because more than any other, it held the sense that the men who built this railroad had been here only recently.

In 1868 as the Central Pacific built east toward the completion of the line, the company dispatched woodcutters to the mountains to cut fuel for a growing fleet of locomotives. At this mountainside spot, a handful of Chinese men dug shallow trenches, propped tree trunks and branches across them, spread small sheets of canvas on top to make one-person A-frame shelters. To hold the canvas against the wind, the men weighted the canvas edges with rocks and railroad iron—spikes, bolts, etc.

The site presents some six to ten shelters, a couple remarkably intact given their hasty and simple construction. The canvas has long rotted away, and most of the old railroad iron has disappeared with the few visitors who have been here. So how do we know it was occupied by Chinese men? A large proportion of the Central Pacific workers were hired Chinese, some who settled in the States, some who returned to China to buy farms with their earnings. Most telling: visitors here with metal detectors have turned up old Chinese coins in the dirt. How do we know it wasn’t likely occupied after 1870? The Central Pacific fueled its locomotives with wood only until they had a source for coal, a superior fuel, which came with the completion of the line in 1869.

We were very lucky to find this remote, delicate place amidst so many miles of dry mountain range and desert. It is not marked, nor should it be lest it be raided by souvenir hunters, and there are no landmarks nearby. Railroad scholars gave us directions via subtle land clues, told us to park the truck when the road looked like such-and-such, walk in a specific direction from the road for a certain distance, and there it will be. Or not.

We figured we had less than a 50-50 chance.

On a recent July morning after several weeks on the road making photographs, we parked, fairly certain we’d done so in the right place, and began walking according to the directions given. We’d been given an approximate distance to walk, but since we were walking uphill and through scattered forest, both of which tend to make people overestimate distance, I suggested we subtract about 50% from the estimated distance.

We were just about where we though the camp should be when my cell phone rang, startling me. We’d been in remote places out of cell coverage for so many days, I no longer thought of it as a communication device. It was Central Pacific historian and friend Chris Graves from California.

“Have you found that Chinese woodcutter camp yet?” Perfect timing, I thought.

“Not yet,” I told him. “But we’re just walking up the hill—it should here someplace.”

While Chris queried me about what I saw around me and reiterated his directions, Carol wandered off. She told me later she’d had a strong inclination to go off to the left. A moment later, I heard her call out.

“Just a minute,” I told Chris.

I followed the sound of Carol’s voice and soon emerged through the trees to see her grinning.

“I found it,” she said. And indeed she had. As if walking on eggs, we now stood in the midst of several faint structures of limbs and sticks that had lain here largely undisturbed for nearly 150 years.

“Chris, we found it; Carol and I are standing right in the middle of the camp.”

The phone was silent for several seconds, which suggested the garrulous Chris had been cut off. Finally he said, “I’ll be damned. Last time it took six of us four hours to find it.

We spend the rest of the morning taking photographs, making notes, imagining what this place might have been like as a temporary home, far away from home, for those strong men so long ago. We dug for nothing, collected nothing, carefully avoided stepping near the bleached tent frames for fear of damage.

Did these lonely men stay here a week, a month? It’s likely they played games in the evenings around a campfire and doubtless talked about home and family across the sea. Did some immigrate to live in coastal California, or to help build later transcontinental lines? Probably.

Will I tell you where this place is so you can visit? Nope. I am lucky to be a (fringe) member of a small and informal group of historians and scholars of the transcontinental railroad and have pledged to keep this lonely magic place a secret.


Smith Brothers General Store, Clinton, Iowa

 Smith Brothers General Store, Clinton, Iowa 6/81

In 1981,  just as I was beginning work on “Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America,” I made this photograph of Smith Brothers General Store at South 4th St. and the Lincoln Highway in Clinton, Iowa.

Time and the economy had not been kind to Clinton, and I wondered how much longer the business would stay open in a crumbling downtown. Three decades later, the downtown has decayed to empty storefronts and vacant lots, but Smith Brothers is still open and still sells an eclectic mash of hardware, antiques and chachkas similar to what I found three decades ago. Maybe even some of the same stock.

Thirty years later:

On a sloppy January 2014 day, we attended a funeral in town and drove to see what had become of the place.

The open sign was lit, Carol graced the front door for a photograph, and inside we found Steve Smith behind the counter. He is the son of Millard and nephew of Gene, who were the founding Smith brothers and ran the place for some 55 years. Steve says he started working here at age 16. As we wandered among the aisles crowded with tin buckets, beer signs, and boxes of bolts, I remembered where that 10-inch cast iron skillet of mine came from. I use it to this day.


Gas, Food, and Lodging--Much More and Somewhat Less

Lunchroom, Idle Inn, Meadville, Missouri

The Idle Inn was one of those roadside finds that appear rarely, and by the 1990s, almost never. It was an intact 1940s-era tourist camp, complete with quaint gas station and tiny café, blind to the changes of a half century, tucked into a sylvan grove along U.S. 36 just south of Meadville, Missouri. I found it in July 1993.

Carol and I were driving east at the end of a western trip, headed toward her folks’ place, planning on dinner that night with them in Illinois, when I spotted the gas station/café at roadside. It was a roadside way-back machine, a complete anachronism. A mile past, I glanced at Carol and said, I need to turn back—I have to check that place out.

The gas pumps were gone, but the tiny café inside was open, and I ordered a coffee and looked around. All was tidy and clean, but I had the feeling we were the first customers the owner, Roger Windell, had seen in a long time. We chatted with him about the Idle Inn. He had owned it for many years (I no longer recall how many) and talked of better days when the cabins were full and the lunch counter teamed with travelers. I could imagine it; I could see it.

I had to photograph the place. I was willing to do almost anything to convince Roger to let me bring in my big cameras. Would he be insulted that I thought his business was quaint, a relic? I told him that I really liked his place, and in an age when so many people head for the sameness of fast food, the Idle Inn was a wonderful change. When I asked, he quickly agreed to my making photographs.

With an eye to the clock, which I swear read local time in 1945, I set up the tripod and made several photographs in the café. Without so much as a glance from me, Carol stepped in to engage Roger, who turned out to be chatty, probably lonely from the lack of business. She’s brilliant—she calculated the angles and knew just were to stand and talk with Roger so neither she nor he would appear in the mirror on the far wall.

With two rolls of now-precious exposed film, I asked Roger for a tour of the premises. What I saw made me certain that I had to come back. Several tiny cabins hid in the trees along a gravel drive amid old signs and painted lawn chairs right out of the post-war years.  


Three Years Later...

Clothesline Polke, Idle Inn, Meadville, Missouri

It is 1996, and I’m southwest-bound to photograph in Texas, and I’ve got a bead on the Idle Inn as my first night’s stop. Will it be open? Bulldozed?

To my relief the open sign is still on the door, and after wandering the property a bit, I encounter Roger mowing grass. He seemed to remember me, and he’s happy to accept the print of the café I’ve brought him. He’s also happy to let me photograph all I want, and I ask if I can rent a cabin. Take your pick, he says; they’re all open. I paid him in cash on the spot (did he even have a credit card machine?), and as I recall the charge was $15, a pittance even in 1995.

I chose one of the three or four tiny cabins and had to lean hard on the door to get it open. It was instantly clear from the dust on everything that nobody had been inside for maybe ten years? The cabin was about 10x12 feet, a dresser, a double bed, a lamp, a sink in the corner. I tried the sink—the water came blood-dark with rust.

I was delighted. My $15 hadn’t bought me much of a room, but it had bought me access to an extraordinary photographic opportunity, and I had the evening and the next morning to shoot. And as it turned out, this creaky cabin provided very important shelter.

As evening drew on, the sky in the west darkened ominously, and my weather radio reported severe thunderstorms approaching. Hoping to make as many photographs as I could before the weather broke, I hauled the cameras and tripod around the tourist court as thunder grew near and steady to the west. Time and light were running out as I pushed through the underbrush behind my cabin, and suddenly I stood up to see the specter of a decaying clothesline pole above me, fixed and unmoving as the trees thrashed in the coming storm. On this accidental crucifix was written the agony of the entire Christ story, extraordinary pain on this cyclopean face. Tripod up, exposure calculated, several shots before the storm hit with fury.


Small Comfort

Tourist Cabin, Idle Inn, Meadville, Missouri

I retreated to the cabin, dodging the first big raindrops as the atmosphere broke loose from its moorings. The weather radio called out tornado sightings in nearby towns amid torrents of rain and lighting so frequent as to resemble a flickering neon light.

I speculated as to how little wind it would take to spin this little cabin off its blocks into the Missouri night, like Auntie Em’s Kansas house. Fortunately, the roof of my cabin began to leak, taking my mind off more serious possibilities. Water pooled on the dresser, pattered onto the floor, but by some miracle avoided the bed. I pulled off the dusty bed cover and unrolled my sleeping bag on the musty sheets and went to sleep as the stormed moved off east.

By first light the world was silent and damp. I rolled up my sleeping bag, lit the camp stove on the truck tailgate, and put on the coffee pot. As it perked, I set up my tripod and camera outside the cabin and awaited that instant when the growing light of dawn equaled the light from inside my tiny shelter. I made several exposures in those few moments of grace, poured a cup of strong coffee, and headed south. The café was closed, and Roger was not around.

What became of Roger Windell and the Idle Inn? I haven’t been back since, but a look at the place on Google Earth suggests it is closed and perhaps abandoned. Somebody has built a big new house out behind the trees, and while I imagine the dusty sheets in my cabin got changed the next day, I’d venture that nobody has slept in that cabin, or any of the others, since my stay.