Favorite Places - Western MD, West Virginia, Pittsburgh
Rather than focus on one town or location, I'm going to share with you an area full of photographic opportunities. While I have shot at several locations and taken many images that I like, I have nowhere nearly exhausted the possibilities of this area. That area is Western Maryland, West Virginia, and the Pittsburg area. Julie Gayner and I both love photographing old buildings and we met in Moundsville WV for a photo trip.
Driving from Chattanooga, one of my first areas of interest is Beckley, WV. Nearby is Babcock State park, which is the site of the Glade Creek Mill. You've seen this in magazines, on calendars and shot in every season. With the rocky cascades below it, it looks like a rough hike to get great images, but there are great shots literally from the parking lot or down about 20 steps to get to the base of the cascades. Even I can do it.
Also nearby, and only a slight detour on the way from Beckley to Babcock is Thurmond WV, a ghost town with a small downtown area and a train depot still intact. It can be a bit tricky to find and is only accessible by a long one lane bridge that runs right next to the railroad bridge. In nearby Gauley Bridge WV is Cathedral Falls which is a high cascade waterfall. You can shoot this from within 50 ft of your car. And there is the New River Gorge Bridge. This is the fourth longest single arch bridge in the world and is 875 feet above the river below. This is one of the bridges featured in many car commercials. There are overlooks and it is even possible to drive down near the base. In October the bridge is closed for a weekend for BASE jumping and rappelling. There is a catwalk that runs the length of the bridge under the roadway and is accessible by guided tour.
In Moundsville WV is the West Virginia State Penitentiary which was in use until the 1990's. Several movies have been filmed here, and it is an imposing building inside and out. Tours are offered daily, and the third Thursday of each month features a 10am-2PM photography tour with much greater freedom and access. You can find more information here.
Also right outside of Moundsville is the Palace of Gold, a Hare Krishna palace and temple. While it was quite splendid when it was first built, it has become somewhat run down and dilapidated. You can photograph on the grounds around the palace, but not on the indoor tours. The palace is beginning a multiyear renovation, so hopefully it will return to its original beauty. More information on the palace is here.
In Weston, WV is the Transallegheny Lunatic asylum. Completed in 1881, it is the largest cut stone masonry building in North America. It was in operation until 1994. Daily tours are offered Tuesday through Sunday, but these are not really geared for photographers. There are three Mondays set aside during the year for photography tours, or it possible to make extra ($$) arrangements for photography on Mondays. Most of the buildings are empty of equipment and furnishing, and quite run down. One area that has been furnished to its original beauty is the area that been the doctor's quarters. The main building has two main staircases with wonderful wood railings and views down the four floors. There are three very rundown, but interesting staircases in the women's building.Visit their website here.
Pittsburgh is one of the most photogenic and easily photographed, major cities. There are several great vantage points on Mt. Washington, including the observation deck next to their incline railway, the west end park and many others. Surprisingly, traffic is not as bad as you might expect, and if you choose to fly into Pittsburgh, the great Mt. Washington views are about a 10 mile straight shot down Steubenville Pike. One site we weren't able see was the Heinz Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh, which was closed for renovations. The best times of day for the cityscapes are dawn and dusk. We had to be in place by 530 AM for sunrises, and shot from about 8PM till 930 PM for dusk shots.
I wrote an earlier article (October 2013 newsletter) about the old silk mill in Lonaconing MD. Without repeating myself too much, this is an amazing place to photograph. The building is practically a time capsule of 1957, when it was closed during a strike and never reopened. Most of the equipment used for producing silk thread is still in place. Several photographers such as Tony Sweet and Denise Ippolito lead workshops here, or you can make arrangements with the owner. The winter snows were not kind to the roof of this old building, and it is deteriorating every year. See it while you can, before it becomes too unsafe to allow photographers in.
Near Lonaconing is Frostburg, MD which has an old train depot and a working turntable. These are used for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad which runs from Cumberland MD to Frostburg. Typically the Friday train is diesel, and the Saturday and Sunday trains are a steam locomotive. The train leaves from Cumberland MD, goes to Frostburg, is turned around on a turntale and returns to Cumberland. There are some great places to view the train along its course as well as entering and leaving the depots. We had allotted Sunday to train chasing, but unfortunately the steam locomotive developed problems, and Sunday's train was diesel. We were able to find a cemetery with a hillside overlooking Helmstetter's Curve, which is a famous vantage point among train photographers. The railroad's website is here. The railroad is based in a beautifully restored depot in downtown Cumberland.
The prison, asylum, and mill definitely lend themselves to HDR photography. (Oh wait, I shoot everything in HDR!) Even if you don't plan to process in HDR, bracketing is still a good idea because of the difficult lighting. It is much better to go home with extra exposures than to get home after a major trip and find that you don't have the right exposure. Definitely bring wide angle lenses because you will often be shooting in tight quarters. Bring a longer lens for tight detail shots. All of these are poorly lit, and you can expect long shutter speeds even with fairly high ISO's, so a good sturdy tripod is an absolute must. A gray card or expo disk would be useful at the mill where most of what little light is available filters through dirty windows, and green leaves. I didn't think to bring either and spent several days agonizing over seemingly impossible color balance issues. Also, definitely shoot in RAW, so you have the most flexibility in adjusting color balance later.
The train from Cumberland to Frostburg runs from 11AM till 330PM so this is one part of the trip where handheld photography is possible, and even preferable. All of these locations except Beckley WV are within a 75 mile radius of Morganton WV, although seeing them all involves some backtracking. If you don't want to see Beckley, the easiest way to visit all of these sites would be to fly into Pittsburgh and rent a car.