Been Workin' on the Railroad


     The SEPTA Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio is a medium-security facility that houses non-violent, male felony offenders. Part of the program consists of a minimum of 20 hours service, working at various locations around Athens County.

     SEPTA inmates are a critical component of the extensive restoration of the railroad at the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway (HVSR), also in Nelsonville. Working alongside volunteers, their work typically involves pulling and replacing old railroad ties or clearing brush and trees alongside the track.

     Many of the volunteers have a history working on the railroad and, for them, it serves as a way to keep active. For the inmates, it means an opportunity to get outside of the facility for the better part of a day and a chance at a better lunch or some cigarettes.

     Railroads have been a major part of Ohio’s economy during the past two centuries and, as a result, the HVSR is a main attraction in the area, beginning operation in 1972. The track was originally built in 1864 and has operated under many names taking passengers between Athens and Columbus, transporting materials like coal or clay and now running tourist trains.

     With the age of the rail system, the trains and track have deteriorated significantly; however, the work of volunteers and the SEPTA inmates allows the trains to keep running in Southeast Ohio.

Frank Brose, far left, operates a tractor while SEPTA offenders John Hanna, Brenton Welsh and Travis Keirns shovel gravel out of the bucket and offender Shane Dye pauses to light a cigarette. Working together, inmates and volunteers work on restoring the track of the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway (HVSR).

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Welsh, center, holds a funnel to help Brose, left, pour hydraulic fluid into a rail-working machine while David McPherson watches. Though volunteers and inmates use a tie inserter, tamper and other machinery while working on the railroad, manual labor often proves to be simpler or more efficient.

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Ralph Calvert and Welsh discuss what work they plan to complete over the rest of the day. Calvert coordinates the offenders’ jobs on site and keeps them focused on the work.

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Welsh jackhammers in spikes to secure the rail to a new tie while fellow inmate William “Billy” Fink uses a pry bar to hold the tie in place. “Most people don’t want to come here (to work at the HVSR) because you actually have to work,” Welsh said. “I have more than 300 hours.”

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McPherson reaches to pull the horn while driving one of the HVSR’s locomotives to the day’s work site as he and Calvert discuss their railway experience. “Most people, even a lot of girls, grow up with an interest in trains before going on to do other things with their lives. We help people relive those childhood dreams,” said McPherson who has driven trains for 44 years. “That’s why I’m here.”

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Dye, left, jokes with Welsh while riding back to the HVSR depot on the caboose. Working on the railway can be taxing but it is an opportunity to get outside of the SEPTA facility for the day.

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From left, Keirns, SEPTA inmate Theodore “T.J.” Reynolds Jr. and Welsh settle in for lunch in the caboose while Calvert prepares some coffee. Calvert either prepares ham and bologna sandwiches or orders pizza for the volunteers and offenders every day they work.

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Seen through a window on the caboose, everyone returns to replacing ties after their lunch break. Over a 2-day period the crew put in 62 new ties.

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Hanna shovels gravel to fill around the new ties before Brose reaches them with the tamper to shake the gravel and tie into place.

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From left, Brose bends to pick up wooden scraps as Dye and Welsh toss an old railroad tie off a flat car. The efforts of the SEPTA inmates and the passion of the HVSR volunteers keep trains running on these rails, more than 11 decades after they were first laid down.

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