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Remembering J. J. Young

By Allen Brougham

[This feature appeared in the December 2004 issue of the Bull Sheet]

I was saddened within the past couple of days to learn of the passing of noted rail photographer J.J. Young. He was surely a legend in his time - a true connoisseur of the art. He died at his home in Charleston, West Virginia, on November 27 at the age of 76.

It was in Binghamton, New York, that I and a couple of my railfanning buddies first had the honor of meeting J.J. Young. But interestingly, none of us knew at the time who he really was. It's not that none of us knew of the name - it's just that we did not make the connection when he introduced himself simply as John Young. It is, after all, not an uncommon name.

Here is what happened: The three of us (the others were Mike Welsh and Vince Hammel) had left from Baltimore early in the morning of March 31, 1983. We intended to spend some time in Scranton and Binghamton. We may have stopped in Scranton - this I do not remember, although we did stop there on other visits to the area later on - but it was Binghamton that became so permanently etched in my mind on this occasion.

None of us had railfanned in Binghamton before, but instinctively we followed the D&H line running east of the city, stopping at a grade crossing which appeared to be a good place to set up. It must have been a good place, as in short order a car drove up, and out stepped two gents who offered to make the rest of the day's adventure a huge success. "Just follow us," we were told, and after a particular eastbounder had passed, we were led on one of the most exacting and thrilling chases we had ever experienced.

Indeed, in hurriedly negotiating a number of the back roads, we were afforded the ability to leapfrog the train to a number of locations, often arriving just in the nick of time to hurry from our cars to get our shots, as the train made its graceful ascent of Belden Hill. That train, as I recall, had an extremely colorful assortment of neat looking power, something these gents knew would offer the greatest photographic yield (to us and to them) as could be available anywhere in the area at that particular time. It was very, very productive!

The coincidental meeting of these fellows was fortuitous, to say the least, as they even offered to accompany us in the two days of our visit that followed. So John Young and Elwood Belknap became our personal tour guides. Elwood, as I recall, was a rather quiet person. He was the one who did the driving whenever we followed behind them in our car from one place to the next, or on a chase. He really knew the roads and how to make the best time when such was of the essence. John did most of the talking when we were all together, doing so in a loud and resounding voice as though he were a natural born tour leader. While he did tell us that he taught photography at the State University of New York in Binghamton, he did not tell us of his legendary talents so widely presented in books and magazines beginning in the 1940's of the B&O - particularly the EM-1 locomotives - and other lines. Indeed, we were in the presence of a distinguished master, and we didn't know it. To us, he and Elwood were just a couple of fellow railfans we happened to meet along the way.

We planned a second trip to Binghamton for January 1984. We even called John to see if he would be interested in joining up with us - which he and Elwood did. In the meantime, Mike Welsh had done some pondering: Was it simply coincidence, or might John Young and J.J. Young be one and the same? I was with Mike when we called John upon our arrival in Binghamton. Mike asked him, in a subtle sort of way, if John had ever had experienced the thrill of photographing B&O EM-1's. Yes he had, and lots of them. And yes, he admitted, he did use the name of J.J. Young professionally.

I've since met a number of others who have had the honor of knowing J.J. Young. Many met him in the same way as we. A true gentleman, always gracious and helpful to others, and humble enough to be simply one of the gang!

J.J. Young, second from left, while three of us from Baltimore were on a railfanning mission in Binghamton, New York, April 1983. Others in the photo are Elwood Belknap, Vince Hammel and Mike Welsh. I took the photo.