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The University Magazine

Lifelong passion is the rail thing

John Helmstetter's new barn

John Helmstetter’s new barn was built with the help of train enthusiasts.

Carl Franz

Carl Franz ’65 at the controls.

Steam locomotives have carried Carl Franz '65 (photo science) on a lifelong journey.

The Cleveland native fell in love with the big engines as a youngster. That led directly to a serious interest in photography. "I wanted to take better pictures of trains," he says.

And photography brought him to RIT, where Franz began studying commercial photography but switched to imaging science at the urging of legendary Photo Science Professor Richard Zakia '56 (photo science). Franz, who now lives in Gaithersburg, Md., had a successful career in imaging science, working for many years at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, a research facility.

But trains remained in the picture. In the past 35 years, he has organized more than 140 photo trips on eight tourist railroads.

"Our goal is to create photos that look like they were made in the 1940s or '50s," Franz explains. Each of his trips typically features 25 to 35 "photo runbys." That's where the 40 to 60 rail fan/photographers get off at a scenic location. Then a steam engine pulling vintage freight cars makes several high-speed runs past the photoline.

"Good photos don't just happen," says Franz. "They're made and they take an awful lot of effort." That ranges from days of cutting trees and brush along the track to repainting rusted freight cars.

That explains why Franz and other rail enthusiasts were distressed to learn that a century-old landmark on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad was destroyed by arson. John Helmstetter's red barn had stood alongside one of the most famous photo locations in the eastern United States, Helmstetter's Curve, five miles west of Cumberland, Md.

Helmstetter always welcomed rail fans. On trip days, he positioned farm equipment at strategic locations to create interesting photos and often posed with his tractor, pick-up truck or a pitch-fork. In addition, he helped cut brush and trees and created paths so the rail fans had access to views "manicured for calendar-quality photos."

When the barn burned, "The rail fans wanted to do something to help their friend," says Franz. Franz and another rail enthusiast, Bill Larduskey of Baltimore, organized three train trips to raise money.

Ultimately, more than $42,000 was raised. Combined with money from insurance, it was enough to hire a team of Amish men to construct a replacement barn. CBS sent a crew to capture the barnraising, which was broadcast Jan. 1, 2010, on the CBS Evening News. (

David Page '66 (photo science) saw the piece, recognized his RIT friend and decided to track him down. In January, he had the opportunity to see the new barn on one of Franz' winter Photo Freight Specials.

"Cold temperatures and still air helped create unusually large steam plumes." Page relates. "The highlight of the day was rounding Helmstetter's Curve and seeing a smiling John Helmstetter waving to us from near his new barn that my classmate Carl Franz helped make possible."

Franz continues to pursue other train-related activities. In addition to running engines in the U.S., he arranges tours and helps with locomotive instruction at the "The Wolsztyn Experience," a British non-profit organization that offers training in Poland to rail fans who want to operate high-speed locomotives.

"There may be something better than pulling throttle on a 60 mile-per-hour passenger train, but I'm not sure what it is," says Franz.

Rail fans learn of his projects via trip fliers sent to past patrons and others who have asked to be on his e-mail list. Franz points out that this is his avocation, not a business. His old RIT mentor, Dick Zakia, David Page, Kevin Gilson '64 (photo science) and Joel Entin '65 (professional photo) plan to be on the Oct. 18 Western Maryland Scenic Railroad Fall Photo Special.

"I've had an exciting career thanks to RIT," Franz says. "RIT taught me how to be a good engineer and a good scientist. What's important is not the facts you learn, it's learning how to apply your knowledge to solve technical problems."

Connections to RIT run in the family: He met his wife, Linda Gray Franz '63 (business administration) at freshman orientation. Their daughter Karin '96 (photo illustration), '00 (graphic arts publishing) met her husband, Greg Kacprzynski '97, '02 (mechanical engineering) at RIT. They live in Rochester.

The Helmstetter Farm Fund Committee is offering color photographs and a 90-minute DVD, "Photo Freights on the Western Maryland - Helmstetter's Barn Edition." To learn more, visit

To learn more about Franz' rail projects, e-mail him at