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Documenting the Northeast Corridor (Part 1)


January 7, 2013

The passage of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 not only authorized Amtrak’s purchase of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) from newly-formed Conrail, but it also set into motion the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project (NECIP). This program laid out a five year plan for upgrading the entire right-of-way between Washington and Boston with the goal of reducing trip times and maximizing speed.

HAER Bergen Portal

HAER No. NJ-40-37: View of the Bergen Portal of the two North River Tunnels that go underneath the Hudson River to connect Manhattan with the mainland at Secaucus, N.J. Located 70 feet below the surface of the river, the tunnels were begun in 1904. New York’s Pennsylvania Station was completed 6 years later.

Since the NECIP was to be financed with $1.75 billion in federal funds, the overall project was subject to federal environmental, historic preservation and other review processes. Recognizing that “historic properties significant to the Nation's heritage are being lost or substantially altered, often inadvertently, with increasing frequency [and that] the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest…,” Congress had passed the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. Under Section 106 of the Act, any project taking advantage of federal funding had to consider how that work might impact sites and structures that were, or had the potential to be, designated historic.


HAER No. CT-11-41: A new passenger station opened in Bridgeport in 1975, but the former facility, completed in 1905, stood a few blocks to the north until destroyed by fire in 1979. In 2008, a new bus station opened on the site and is connected to the train station by a pedestrian walkway. To the right, the NEC crosses the Pequonnock River.

Accordingly, the Federal Railroad Administration sponsored a photographic survey of the NEC right-of-way to document historic and archaeological resources that could be affected by the improvement program. Coordinated by the engineering firm of DeLeuw, Gather, Parsons and Associates, the photographic documentation was completed in April 1977 under the auspices of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and its Chief Photographer, Jack Boucher. The work identified all historic resources with potential eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, with special attention given to dozens of masonry and metal bridges.

HAER-Zoo Interlocking

HAER No. PA-71-20 : Here at a point known as Zoo Interlocking (due to its proximity to the Philadelphia Zoo, right) the rail lines divide. To the right, the Northeast Corridor crosses the Schuylkill River headed for New York; to the left, the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline heads west towards Chicago.

The Historic American Engineering Record, established in 1969, is an outgrowth of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), founded in 1933 as a make-work program for architects during the Great Depression. Intended to be national in scope, HABS was started through an agreement between the National Park Service (NPS), Library of Congress and the American Institute of Architects. Sites to be recorded would include not just the grand works of master architects, but also utilitarian and vernacular structures that demonstrated regional and ethnically derived building traditions. Participants would use their professional skills to record sites through measured drawings, large-format 5x7 black and white photographs and written histories.

Although industrial and engineering landmarks were included in HABS surveys, in 1969 the NPS created a separate documentation for these types of structures that include bridges, steel works and larger systems such as railroads, canals and roads. Today, HABS and HAER have been joined by the Historic American Landscapes Survey—between all three, more than 40,000 historic sites have been recorded. All materials related to the surveys are deposited in the Library of Congress where they are available to the American people, especially since many files have now been digitized.

HAER-Canton Viaduct

HAER No. MA-19-7: Opened in 1835, the multiple-arch masonry Canton Viaduct spans the East Branch of the Neponset River in Canton, Mass. The bridge was strengthened and widened for the introduction of Acela Express service in 2000.

Jack Boucher served as a HABS photographer for more than forty-six years before retiring in 2009. He also served as the photographer for HAER in its first decade. Boucher began his career in photography as a young boy growing up in Atlantic City, N.J., where at the age of 10, he received his first camera, a plastic Brownie 127. Working at a photography studio on the city’s busy boardwalk, he snapped keepsake shots for tourists. History and architecture also caught the youngster’s imagination. Reflecting on his childhood, Boucher recalled, “[Atlantic City] was quiet and conservative with a lingering Victorian aura even into the war years, and many trappings of an earlier time remained to mold a mind and generate an understanding of the past and an enthusiasm to help preserve it that would manifest itself in the future.”

Out of school, Boucher worked for the Atlantic City Tribune where he became famous for his photos of a hurricane that swept through the area in 1950. After documenting the right-of-way for the proposed Garden State Parkway, Boucher applied for, and won, the position with HABS in 1958. Assignments took him all across the United States on trips that could last up to 3 or 4 months. In 1977, he was given the task of photographing the Northeast Corridor. One of the most historic rail lines in North America, the right-of-way included structures such as depots, freight houses, bridges, viaducts, tunnels and signal systems dating from the mid-19th century to the present day.

HAER-30th Street

HAER No. PA-71-14: . Philadelphia 30th Street Station (r), commuter rail platforms (center), and garage over the Penn Coach Yard (l). In 2006, the Cira Centre office tower replaced the garage. Looking east towards Center City, the skinny tower of City Hall is visible among the newer skyscrapers.

An aerial survey—what Boucher liked to call “aerial portraiture”—was done so that the magnitude of the railroad could be understood. Helicopters were used to travel the length of the corridor; passenger door removed, the photographer “[sat] either on the seat along the open door or cross-legged on the floor at the opening. A dependable seat belt [was] essential…” For his aerial portraiture, Boucher often used a 4 x 5 aerial camera or a World War II K-20 Army aerial camera. Describing his work, Boucher stated: “Every effort is made to correct for perspective distortion well within one degree, to reveal maximum structural detail, and to provide a document—the film negative—that will, with archival developing and storage, last approximately five hundred years.”

In recognition of his distinguished work, Boucher won numerous awards over the course of his career, including the Meritorious Service Award, one of the highest honors given to a federal employee.

Known as the “Northeast Corridor Aerial Reconnaissance of Historic Structures,” the photo documentation of the rail corridor is divided into separate files by state: all images were taken in April 1977.

More photos to be posted next week!


All Boucher quotes taken from Jack E. Boucher, A Record in Detail: The Architectural Photographs of Jack E. Boucher (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1988).

In addition to the above links, sources consulted include:

Annual Reports for fiscal years 1976-1980, National Railroad Passenger Corporation.

Baggerman, Anne, “Mianus River Railroad Bridge,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form, United States Department of the Interior (National Park Service), 1987. National Register of Historic Places database.

Boucher, Jack E. A Record in Detail: The Architectural Photographs of Jack E. Boucher. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1988.

Clouette, Bruce and Matthew Roth. “Movable Railroad Bridges On The Northeast Corridor In Connecticut Thematic Resource,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form, United States Department of the Interior (National Park Service), 1987. National Register of Historic Places database.

Megan McDonough, “Jack E. Boucher, longtime National Park Service photographer, dies at 80,” The Washington Post, September 13, 2012.

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