Professional and amateur photographers from across America will be in Abilene Friday to participate in a unique event on the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad: a day-long railroad photography charter train.
Thirty photographers have registered for the shoot, where the railroad’s prized steam locomotive, Santa Fe 3415, will be the star.
The photo train is not sponsored by the A&SV; rather, the day-long charter is the brainchild of St. Louis photographer Dak Dillon, who has organized the photo train to be a fundraiser for the A&SV’s looming project, the rebuild of its iconic 1919 steam locomotive. Santa Fe 3415 is scheduled to be taken out of service next month, disassembled, and rebuilt with a new boiler and flues, a procedure required by the Federal Railroad Administration to be completed every 15 years. A&SV officials expect the locomotive to be out of service for the 2024 tourism season but are hopeful that the engine will return to the railroad’s lineup in May 2025.
Dillon said he has raised $10,000 from registration fees, which will be donated to the A&SV’s Santa Fe 3415 restoration fund.
Dillon is no stranger to Abilene, as he has visited several times to ride the railroad’s stream-driven trains. “I decided to do this project because I like Abilene. It’s a small town, similar to where I grew up. People are friendly, everybody knows everybody else, and people get involved in their community,” said Dillon, who has also written about Santa Fe 3415 for Railfan and Railroad magazine, a national publication.
A photojournalism graduate from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Dillon owns Hub and Spoke, a marketing and digital advertising agency in St. Louis. He developed a love for photography at age 12 and has spent most of his adult life primarily shooting photos of college and professional sports and NASCAR events. But he also been interested in trains since childhood, a fascination that led to railroad photography as a hobby. So far, he has personally photographed 20 different railroads across the country, including the Abilene and Smoky Valley.
This will be Dillon’s second organized railroad photo shoot excursion train. He is coordinating a similar event on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad based in Chama, New Mexico, next month.
According to Dillon, railroad photography is a growing hobby among rail enthusiasts in the U.S., and Abilene photo train is only the latest of the many such events held across the country. Most shoots are conducted on charter trains on excursion railroads.
“We’ll have people coming to Abilene from Boston to California and all points in between,” said Dillon, who added that there is a variety of backgrounds represented by the visiting photographers, who will spend most of the weekend in Dickinson County.
People who photograph trains tend to be older, mostly retired, have disposable income and can travel in the middle of the week when most railroad photoshoots are held, Dillon said. But he added that age is not the biggest factor. Some younger participants have also registered for the photo shoot.
“One of our attendees is only 16 years old and is traveling with his mom from southern California to Abilene. This kid posts his train pictures on Instagram where he has about 120,000 followers,” said Dillon.
Dillon sees a new generation of railroad photographers emerging. “They are likely in their mid 20s, who may have more money which would allow them to travel more, who likely grew up watching Thomas the Train on TV, and they may have later grown up chasing trains and taking pictures of them. They are inspired by the idea of railroad photo trains but have not yet attended a full event. These people are most likely to later become real photographers or who may even become volunteers for railroads like the Abilene and Smoky Valley.”
Other well-known railroad photographers spending time in Abilene will include “a guy who has ridden the most miles on Amtrack than anyone in America. He’s known as Amtrack’s ‘Million Mile Rider,’ and he has taken railroad photos everywhere.”
Friday’s event will feature three different opportunities for these unique A&SV passengers to catch the steam locomotive in action.
The train will leave Abilene’s historic Rock Island Depot at 6:40 a.m., allowing photographers to take advantage of the early morning light as the engine rolls through the Smoky Hill River Valley. Dillon said photographers will have the opportunity to request that engineers Steve Schwarting and Chris Rush stop the train at various locations along the mainline to shoot photos of the engine in a variety of settings at daybreak.
An afternoon session will allow photographers to capture Santa Fe 3415 in scenes that are representative of the era when the locomotive worked for the ATSF pulling passenger trains between Chicago and Kansas City.
Dillon has arranged for shoots that will feature more vintage props that suggest a more frontier setting reminiscent of Abilene’s cow town days, as horses and riders from the area will ride alongside the engine. And from the 1930s through the 1950s, with help from Abilene businessman Rod Riffel, Dillon has arranged for six classic autos from various owners in the area to be trackside for shoots with the engine.
For a night photo session, Dillon has secured professional TV lighting that will give photographers the opportunity to photograph the Rock Island Depot and the engine against the nighttime sky.
“So many features relating to steam power are more visible in that type of setting,” said Dillon. “Things like the locomotive letting off steam, for example, are much more dramatic in darker surroundings.”
Dillon said that photos that will emerge from the event will be kept in each photographer’s collection or posted in their blogs and social media platforms. Some photos may even be published in railfan magazines across the country and even worldwide.
Abilene and Smoky Valley President and General Manager Ross Boelling said the photo train is a first for the railroad and it is an event that signifies the A&SV’s regional and national stature.
“Sometimes we forget what a treasure Santa Fe 3415 is among railroad enthusiasts,” said Boelling. “We’re the only steam railroad in Kansas, and that creates a lot of regional interest in riding our trains. But the engine also attracts people from well beyond the borders of Kansas. This further illustrates the nationwide drawing power of our railroad and the role we play with our museum partners in drawing tourists to Abilene.”
Boelling added a note of appreciation for Dillon and his organization efforts.
“Our railroad thrives on peoples’ imagination and enthusiasm for trains, and that’s true for our passengers as well as our volunteers. We thank Dak Dillon and those who will be attending Abilene, many of them for the first time, and we hope this will become an annual event.”
- Steven Smethers
Kansas State University