Historic Preservation...One man's mission
By Joan Weiskircher, WVNCC Alumni Association
We have all met individuals who seemed to march to their own drummers. And one frequently hears that happiness lies in “following one’s bliss.” Rarely, however, does this combination come together in such a way as to present a gift to future generations. The unique joining of these two life patterns in the person of Wheeling native, John J. Young, Jr., allowed for the creation of a treasure trove of photographic history.
© All Rights Reserved. 2008-09 Joan D. Weiskircher.
John J. Young, affectionately known as “J.J.” to his friends and many acquaintances, was born in Wheeling in 1929. His father traditionally built a model train display in the family home each Christmas holiday season that attracted neighbors and friends from around the area. Added to that, train traffic flowed nearby through Tunnel Green. Thus a fascination with trains began early for J.J. Because he was a rambunctious youth, John Young Sr. gave a camera to young J.J. in an attempt to keep his active mind occupied. With this gift, the father hoped his son would develop some focus and discipline. At the very early age of seven or eight, young J.J. exhibited a talent with the camera. Photographs of the 1936 flood in Wheeling attest to his developing talent and remain as a record of that event, thanks to the youthful John J. Young Jr.
As his fascination with trains increased, young J.J. would spend a great deal of time around local train stations, getting to know the trainmen and employees of those vital centers of activity. In the process he gained extensive knowledge about train engines and the methods employed in the train yards. On one special day, while spending time at the B&O terminal in downtown Wheeling, young J.J. recognized a situation that had the potential for tragedy. He immediately notified a supervisor and his astute observation and responsible behavior was rewarded with the offer of a train ride “anytime he wished,” promised by the station manager, Mr. Sell. This made it possible for J.J. to begin riding trains hither and yon, often on a whim and much to the frustration of his family. Family lore tells of J.J. escaping homework assignments or household chores and of his failure to return from errands on which he had been sent due to his frequent “train rides.” One suspects that his siblings envied his ability to temporarily “run away” at crucial times.
Upon learning stories of his youthful exuberance, anyone who came to know J.J. Young quickly realized that he retained that ability to find excitement throughout his life, especially when he was taking pictures or spending time around his beloved trains. As John Young Jr. developed photographic skills, his pictures became a wonderful record of a period in history now long gone. Because steam engines held the most fascination for J.J., he accumulated an enormous collection of photos of that particular era. His wonderful ability to capture the excitement generated by those powerful machines is legendary. While J.J. Young was enjoying his hobby he was unwittingly preserving a record of a prime mode of transportation that has largely disappeared. In fact, railroads no longer exist in the immediate Wheeling area and his photos from that period are invaluable.
In 1976, the State of West Virginia purchased the then vacant B&O Passenger Station in Wheeling, adapting the building for use as a home for the newly founded community college. Several years later, the college’s Alumni Association determined that there was a need to preserve some of the history of that building. Because of their activities, the building was listed on the National Historic Register. The group also began to collect memorabilia related to the history of that location. At that time, John J. Young, Jr. donated two hundred of his train photographs to the collection, helping to prepare the way for some serious historic preservation. Many of those photos included trains traveling down Wheeling’s Seventeenth Street, trains approaching the viaduct on the back of the building, trains exiting the viaduct both east and west and scenes of local industrial setting with extensive rail service. At that time freight trains still traveled in Wheeling and as a result few realized that an era was quickly passing into history.
Beginning in 1987, train tracks were removed from the Wheeling area as rail transportation ceased. With that change it became evident that the Alumni Association’s collection of photographs and materials relating to trains was an important record, especially those of the B&O Railroad. The B&O was the first rail company to arrive in Wheeling and was a critical element in the economic development of the city. Recognizing the contributions of J.J. Young, the Association nominated him for the West Virginia History Hero Award in 1998. When contacted by the Alumni Association to inform him of the honor, John Young was amazed that anyone felt that his life’s work was so important. As he related at that time, “I was simply doing something I loved to do.” And he did it superbly as train enthusiasts and photographers alike will attest. Over the years, J.J. became recognized nationally as one of the finest rail photographers, having his work published in numerous magazines and books.
Because John J. Young, Jr. did not consider his collection to be of great importance, he simply kept his negatives in brown paper bags. With encouragement from others, it slowly dawned upon him that he had indeed preserved a record of great importance. At that point he decided to donate a large number of his negatives to the West Virginia Archives upon his death. For this West Virginians can be grateful. That collection includes numerous train photos and also many scenes not necessarily restricted to the rails. There are photos of flood scenes, old buildings, street scenes of the Wheeling area plus other locations within West Virginia.
In his retirement, John’s greatest pleasure was spending time on his front porch in Charleston, WV where he could continue to see train movements in the distance.
John J. Young Jr., passed away November 27, 2004. Accolades celebrating his accomplishments were heard from every corner, including resolutions in both the Senate of New York State where John had resided for many years and in the West Virginia Legislature. This humble man, doing that which made him most content in life, helped to preserve a record of local history and of a bygone era. That record is now so very valuable for those who work to preserve history.
During the funeral for J. J., at the precise moment when those who had gathered to celebrate his life began to pray, a train whistle sounded in the distance. Everyone felt it was a message from John J. Young, Jr. telling all that he was in fine hands now.
The Alumni Association of West Virginia Northern maintains a small, permanent exhibit of B&O memorabilia in the lobby and auditorium of the B&O Building The organization also exhibits many of J.J. Young's photos from the collection at special events from time to time. The Association also has a calendar (from 2003) of J.J. Young photos available for sale. For details, contact Joan Weiskircher of the Alumni Association by calling (304)242-5635 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
© All Rights Reserved. 2008-09 Joan D. Weiskircher.