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Chasing trains, history

New Ulm man’s passion for photography and locomotives dates back to his childhood

The definition of a life-long hobby is doing something you enjoy.

Personal satisfaction and creativity gained from that hobby is a direct benefit which can be shared with others as well.

For Allan Gebhard, 76, of New Ulm, sharing a passion for photography of trains and their history has come through the viewfinder of his cameras and the thousands of images he’s recorded for the past 63 years.

Gebhard’s interest in cameras and photography basically began when he was 13 years old. He was inspired by award-winning photographer H. Carl Schmidt who ran a camera counter at the old Reliable Drug Store in downtown New Ulm.

“He was a professional photographer back in the ’30s and became my mentor,” Gebhard recalled. “He was a source of answers for my questions about cameras and how they worked. When he bought a camera that he thought would sell in the store he’d say, ‘Let’s see what this will do,’ and he gave me some film and told me to go out around town and shoot some photos,” he explained.

That led to Allan taking more photos of New Ulm people, places and things when he started using his parents’ Kodak Brownie six-16 box camera which had just two settings, one for sunny days or cloudy and a viewfinder on each side for horizontal or vertical photos.

Then Allan bought his first camera from Schmidt, a Wirgin folding camera that featured a separate rangefinder for determining distances, manual settings, light meter and an eye level viewfinder. “It also had a good German Schneider lens with an air bubble in it which meant it had good optical glass,” he said.

From there he advanced to a Mamiyaflex camera. “It was a very unique camera with an interchangeable lens, and I used that to take most of my train photos,” he recalled.

He took his first train photos at age 17 in Minneapolis at the Northern Pacific north town yards of an engine coal car being loaded followed by another showing the engine backing onto a turntable. The pair of framed photos still hang on his office wall today.

Gebhard said his early interest in trains probably was cultivated shortly after WW II ended when he received an American Flyer O gauge electric train set for Christmas. “My dad (Roy) put the oval track on a 4×8 piece of plywood, and I’d run that train for hours,” he stated.

As a boy he would also visit his father’s office at the New Ulm Mill that he managed and watched all the grain shipments go out on the rails and trains coming and going through town.

“Sometimes when the train stopped and the engineer would look down and see me he’d ask ‘if the little boy’ wanted to come up into the engine cab. My father would lift me up and then the engineer would open the fire box, and I recall seeing the hot cherry-red light of burning coal, and he’d say ‘You could pop a lot of popcorn in there.’ Then he’d hand me back down to my dad, and they’d get ready to go down the line again,” recalled Allan. Later, when he reached junior high age, he always reminded his father to let him know when a steamer was coming to town.

His growing portfolio of train photos would increase every time he visited his cousin in St. Paul. “We’d hop on his Cushman motor scooter and go out to tour the rail yards with my camera in hand to shoot photos of trains.

“Back then you could walk onto a railroad yard, and as long as I carried a camera, nobody bothered you,” he explained. “I’d be there on a nice sunny Saturday all day from 10-4 p.m. I’d just wait with my camera for the train crews to bring the next engine out of the roundhouse.”

Gebhard’s early experience with a camera qualified him to serve as New Ulm High School’s photographer in 1955-56. After graduating in 1956, he headed off to attend college at Mankato State University (MSU) and later the University of Minnesota to earn five degrees in business administration, economics, physics, mathematics and industrial psychology.

He did some graduate assistant teaching at MSU for two years before obtaining a position as a research physicist at Viron, a satellite business contractor for NASA.

There he worked on the Echo 2 passive (no electronics) satellite communications program. “Echo 1 never really worked out because of difficulty with solar winds rippling the fabric. With Echo 2 it was my job to test pressure inside the sphere’s bubble to determine how much air was needed to keep it properly inflated to offset the ripples caused by solar winds at high altitudes,” he explained.

However, Echo 2 was never launched when federal funding for the program died after active satellites (with electronics) were successfully developed. “After learning how solar winds existed in space I knew the technical difficulties we were going to face with Echo 2. When you’re in research you have to be glad when some projects work but also accept it when they don’t,” he said.

Next he worked for Federal Cartridge in Anoka as a research physicist and later director of quality assurance for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1990. He returned to his roots in New Ulm to live in the house he grew up in with the photo darkrooms he needed to continue developing film and printing impressive black and white prints

Photographing History With his natural curiosity in history, architecture, people and significant events, Allan had a wide variety of subjects for capturing moments with his camera.

One of the organizations he belongs to is the Chicago Northwestern Historical Society, and he’s has had many of his train photos appear in various books and publications, along with some historical structures or scenes on the cover of phone books.

He estimates that during six decades of photography he’s recorded over 10,000 images on film and has easily surpassed that number again in just the past several years since giving up his trusty Nikon 35mm to join the age of digital camera equipment.

Many of the boxes and boxes of 8×10 prints he’s taken include buildings and train facilities or engines that no longer exist so they bear historical significance. He even captured a couple of big time train derailments that occurred within New Ulm city limits in the 1950s. And the restoration of the Hermann Monument about 10 years ago didn’t escape his photo eye as he documented the project for the city, taking one-of-a-kind shots both inside and outside of the statue when it was lowered at the site.

He likened the evolution of railroad engines from coal-fired to diesel much like cameras from film to digital. “If they had access to coal some railroad companies could hang onto their steam engines a little longer before everybody eventually made the final switch over to diesel in the ’50s.

“The first diesel train engine was built by the Electro Motor Division of GM, which actually became available in 1939 and toured the country,” he stated. “It had better power, didn’t need as much maintenance and didn’t have to stop for water. But it got put on the back burner until after WWII was over before it really got going,” he added.

Three of his most prized photos taken over the years are of railroad bridges and structures. They include the mostly forgotten Redstone Swing Bridge located near the New Ulm Quarry site, the Great Northern Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis going over the Mississippi River and the now restored magnificent St. Paul Union Depot. Allan enjoys comparing his before and after photos that he took at the depot in ’60s and ’70s to its now more recent renovation.

His innovative photo of Hubert Humphrey’s arrival at the Burlington Northern Station in Minneapolis on an Amtrak turbo train in 1971 is another one of his favorite creative classics.

Gebhard described the scene as chaotic when he arrived at the station to find a large crowd gathered on the platform waiting for Humphrey, making it nearly impossible for him to get a decent photo.

“So, I ran back upstairs above the depot waiting room to the second floor overlooking the train’s boarding platform and blindly shot a photo with my back to a large double hung window with its top half open and my arms outstretched holding the camera high over my head and pointed upside down.

“I was pleased after I saw the photo had turned out perfectly centered, focused and neatly framed,” he smiled.

Leaving a Legacy Sports photography wasn’t one of his strengths, even though his dad was a big baseball fan, a former Minnesota State Amateur Baseball board member and Hall of Fame inductee.

But in 1980, Allan established the Roy Gebhard Award for New Ulm High School’s baseball team to annually honor a “most deserving team player” award which will be given out for the 35th time this spring.

As for his collection of photos, he’s not sure what will happen with his body of work in the future. He thinks more than likely it will be donated to the Brown County Historical Museum, which is where he met his wife, Darla, who currently is the research librarian.

“She likes to call my second-floor home office space ‘my kingdom’ which is where everything is stored. Sometimes at night when I’m up there watching a railroad DVD or reading you reflect on your life and ask yourself if you took the right branch or fork in the road.

“For me the answer comes when I think about my photography. It was the right choice for me to pursue because I really enjoyed being creative and doing it so much with a camera as well as working in my physics career,” he commented.

“But to get where we are it sometimes just comes to being in the right place at the right time.”

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