Notes and photos from a Great Lakes region railfan

Coming back from Iowa several weeks ago, I made the decision not to take the most direct route home. Instead, I spent a night in Galesburg, Illinos and made my way across US 24 the next morning. Up until Sunday morning traffic and the lack thereof on the immediately parallel rail line (the Toledo, Peoria & Western parallels US 24 from just east of Peoria, Illinois all the way to Logansport, Indiana. The road and railroad rarely stray more than a mile from each other). I made it as far as Gilman, Illinois before giving up and taking freeways home. Oddly, in doing so, I probably cut a lot of miles and time off the trip, as I-57 lets out far enough west of I-94 to allow one to take I-94 across Michigan rather than having to drive all the way to I-69 (assuming one missed I-94 in the Chicagoland area) to take a real interstate into Michigan…

Anyway, this wasn’t my first trip across this part of US 24, although my first several trips across were westbound, rather than east. This was my second trip east across 24, following an overnight trip more than a year ago, coincidentally also following a (much shorter) visit to Iowa and Galesburg. See Memorial Day Weekend Trains for more on that trip.

This time I took advantage of the daylight to check out a few locations I hadn’t stopped by since my first trip across this part of US-24, way back in 2009. One of these locations was in Chenoa, Illinois. Back in 2009, I’d snapped a picture of the depot in Chenoa, which was in really rough shape. I’m glad I did, because it’s no longer there, and probably has been gone for at least a couple years. But this is what it looked like way back in 2009:

On my way back to see if the depot was still there, I happened across an old sign on the side of a building in downtown Chenoa. A relic from another time, but still in decent shape and readable!

Aside from getting gas and some lunch in Gilman, I drove through town, checking out the TPW-IC diamonds and the large agricultural plant on the west side of town. I don’t recall just how I did it at the time, but on a past trip to Gilman, I was able to get a couple shots of what I believe was an Incobraska plant at the time which really don’t do the size of the plant justice, but from a railfan perspective are kind of neat. First is this shot showing at least two trackmobiles and give a decent idea of how the track is laid out on the west(?) end of the plant.

In the second shot, you can see what the lead trackmobile was doing (that’s a scale test car behind it), and how long those lines of green covered hoppers really are.

That’s the extent of my short trip down memory lane. Life’s been life lately and time to get out and see trains has been short. Moving into the fall season, posts might be farther between than they’ve been in the past, but I’m still kicking. For now.

I Can’t Drive 55…

I’ve decided to take a break from the normal pattern of posting things in chronological order and post a couple things from this past weekend first, mostly while my memory is fresh. One of my close friends is engaged to a young woman from Iowa, and this past weekend was chosen as the time for him to move to Iowa to be closer to her. We have a mutual friend, who is best friends with the friend who moved and is one of my oldest friends, and one of the few people (only?) I graduated from high school with to whom I communicate on anything approaching a regular basis. This guy works for the railroad in another state, a day’s drive or so away, but came back to move our mutual friend across 4 states anyway.

So, dawn on Friday happened after we were on the road. The guy who moved led, the mutual friend was in the middle, pulling a U-Haul trailer with his pickup, and I followed, trying to keep overtaking traffic from crashing into the trailer…which turned out to be more of a challenge than you might think because the mutual friend is one of those guys who can’t be persuaded to bend the rules for just about anything. One thing we noted early on was that the trailer had a ‘speed limit 55 mph’ sticker on the wheel well on the driver’s side (standard for U-Haul). Actually, I knew about it on Thursday when the others were running around picking up all of the stuff that was to be moved to Iowa. The guy pulling the trailer wouldn’t budge above 55, although fortunately our speedometers varied a little, and it looked to me like we were traveling slightly faster. Not enough to keep people from trying to run us off the road (repeatedly), but enough to keep me from going nuts.

I don’t know if we could have chosen a slower route to get to Iowa, even without much in the way of traffic in the Chicago area, it was a good 13-14 hour ride, one way. Fortunately, one of us (me) had the foresight to bring a pair of short-range radios, which greatly improved my ability to tell the guy pulling the trailer when he had enough room to get over without cutting anybody off. Did I mention this was the first time he’d pulled a trailer this far by himself? Yes, it very much felt like amateur hour (or day), but that was also what made the trip so much fun. Yes fun- remember only two of us had radios- the guy who was moving was able to listen in, but wasn’t able to respond to most of the barbs thrown in his direction. Not that there were that many thrown in his direction. Most of the barbs thrown around were related to the 55 mph speed limit imposed by the guy pulling the trailer- I think we managed to pass and stay past one vehicle the entire trip- a van pulling a U-Haul utility trailer near the Quad Cities.

Following the day of ‘fun’, we got the guy who was moving to where he was moving to, unloaded his stuff and continued to tease the guy who had pulled the trailer about his speed. Sammy Hager’s “I Can’t Drive 55” may have come up more than once…I don’t think I’ve laughed as much as I did Friday, Friday evening and Saturday morning in a long, long time. Those guys are my oldest and closest friends and opportunities to spend that much time with them don’t happen very often anymore.

My plan was to drive out with them, help unload and stuff, then take the slow road home (as if that were possible, given the blazing speed we drove out there at), watching and photographing anything I saw that caught my eye. As it turned out, that didn’t really happen. I hadn’t had the opportunity to get out and just drive for long enough that I wound up on familiar roads just enjoying the ride on the way home Saturday, although Friday was a little different.

If you’re still reading, wondering where the pictures are, I’m sorry. This post is more essay than anything else. There is a story behind most of the images I intend to post, and I want to share the story perhaps even more so than the images themselves.

My friend moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, which is in southeastern Iowa. What is left of the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railway (now owned by Canadian Pacific) crosses one of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF)’s main routes west. Amtrak’s California Zephyr travels along the BNSF on its journey between Chicago and the west coast. In this area, the BNSF line follows US34 pretty closely from the Mississippi River crossing to Ottumwa. Not perfectly close, but close enough to see the occasional train from the road. A road on which we drove 10 mph under the speed limit on the trip to Ottumwa due to that something-something-something trailer. And a road that was surprisingly difficult to follow on my eastward journey.

Leaving Ottumwa, I somehow missed the signs that showed US34 diverging from the route it took across town and wound up on a dirt road heading east. It swung around a little and I got a little taste of rural Iowa including

It eventually dumped me out on a paved road about five miles east of town (and about three miles north of the road I wanted to be on). A couple miles after getting back on 34, I noticed a coal train (loaded and eastbound) creeping along on the route parallel to the road. It was already well beyond the first grade crossing I came to, so I figured I’d just catch it at the next crossing. Which I did, but not until after figuring out one of the reasons it may have been crawling along. As I approached the next road that crossed the tracks, I could see a long string of two-bay covered hoppers, the kind that were built in enormous numbers a few years back to haul fracking sand. It appeared to be a westbound unit train (an entire train carrying just one commodity, in this case likely sand), and I’d missed the power, but I did get to see the DPU (distributed power unit- a locomotive on the rear of the train, controlled by the engineer at the front of the train, providing an extra push to keep the entire train rolling smoothly through the hills and valleys along the route).

After the DPU passed, the gates at the crossing stayed in the lowered position as the coal train had been picking up speed and was approaching the crossing. As opposed to most of the other BNSF trains I saw, this train did not have a pair of “Swoosh” units (the current BNSF logo resembles the Nike logo, supposedly referred to as the Swoosh logo, hence the railfan moniker for the BNSF logo):

One of the goals I had for this trip was to shoot the westbound California Zephyr at least one of the two days I was in the area. On Friday we were too busy unloading the trailer to get away and try to get a picture. By Saturday, I was determined to get a shot no matter what.

Before I go on, I feel I need to explain a couple of things about my history and personality. Most of the people I know and communicate with regularly are people I’ve only known a few years. There are several exceptions, but chances are if you’re reading this and you know me personally, we’ve met sometime in the past six years or so. It’s been six years and almost five months since I left a job that was both one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and also one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. I changed an awful lot in the 22 months or so I worked for that company, and became a lot more outgoing than I’d ever been before, but I was also unknowingly dealing with ever worsening Lyme’s Disease, which took a toll on my personality and especially the way I treated and responded to others. I’m not making excuses, I sincerely regret the way I conducted myself during the last couple months I worked in retail, and especially the way I treated those coworkers I most admired prior to leaving to “pursue my master’s degree.” In all honesty, even though I do have my MBA, I left the job because I thought it was ruining my health. Now, I know differently, but it took a year and a half to figure out what was really going on. All of that is probably way more than anyone wanted to know, but in the process I eventually settled in here in Michigan, made several new friends and got involved in things outside of work and school.

There are a couple of people I had worked with in Illinois who I stayed in some form of contact with, mostly via Facebook. There was one individual who I particularly enjoyed working with, and whose department was next to both of the departments I worked in who I’ve tried to make more of an effort to stay in touch with (kind of). Unfortunately, most of my life I’ve been kind of socially awkward and despite all of my efforts to fight it, for the most part I’ve always felt at least a little awkward around this particular individual (my fault, not hers). I don’t recall ever having expressed my appreciation for this particular individual or just how much I enjoyed working with her, maybe I’ll get the chance to do so someday…

Anyway, I’d noticed a while back that this individual was looking forward to a trip out west toward the end of the summer. At the time I didn’t put two and two together that my friend was moving the same weekend (I may not have had the move date yet at that point). I remember thinking that it was pretty cool that she was going to get to go somewhere like that, and interesting that she was planning to use Amtrak to get there. As the date of the move got closer (ok, so like the week of the move), I realized that the date of this individual’s trip out west and our Iowa excursion were pretty much the same day/weekend. Hoping that the trip would be all that she thought it would be and more, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try to photograph the westbound Amtrak trains through Ottumwa while we were in town. At worse I might get a bad photo. Unfortunately, we were unloading the trailer at train time Friday evening, but Saturday was a beautiful day, especially for traveling. Don’t ask me how I know, but I did make it to Galesburg by nightfall…

If you know me well enough, you know that the possibility of being able to do something for someone that they might appreciate (and not necessarily expect) that’s easily within my abilities means it doesn’t just become a neat thing to do, it becomes a driving challenge that (in a case like this) could make or break my entire trip. Well…life intervened and she wound up not getting to take the trip after all. Which I found out halfway through processing the Amtrak shot I’d gotten in Burlington. So instead of processing a picture of a train possibly carrying someone I actually knew, it was just another cruddy Amtrak train…maybe I’ll reprocess the picture someday, but for now it could be a lot worse.

While waiting for Amtrak to show up, I did a little exploring, looking for just the right angle to shoot from. Having never been to Burlington before, I had no idea what the angles were or if there was even an angle worth shooting from. But I can’t tell you just how determined I was to get this one right.

In the process, I stumbled across this beautiful example of obsolete technology, which strongly resembled another retired CB&Q steamer on display at the Wapello County Museum in Ottumwa, which is housed (the museum, not the locomotive) in a station very similar to the one in Burlington, although the Burlington building appears to be used in a slightly different fashion than the museum in Ottumwa.

One thing I found neat about downtown Burlington was the number of closed crossings in the downtown area, and how vibrant the downtown area is despite the closed crossings. The closed crossings also provided an unexpected photo opportunity as the loaded coal train I’d shot in the corn fields east of Ottumwa caught up with me as I waited for Amtrak. It was followed by a second loaded coal train a short time later. As I headed for the location I wound up shooting Amtrak from, I wound up waiting for the second train to pass through town. Fortunately the DPU was running long hood toward the train, so you really can’t tell if the train is coming or going in a shot like this:

As things turned out, I could have planned the trip back a lot better. Sunday isn’t exactly the day to chase a rural shortline through central Illinois. I think it’s probably the worst, unless grain is running at its peak (it wasn’t running at all Sunday). I spent Saturday night in Galesburg, which I hear is supposed to be some sort of destination for people who “foam at the mouth when they see a train”. I wouldn’t know- I couldn’t find the motivation to leave my room once I checked into the hotel. After making my way from Galesburg to Peoria Sunday morning, I started driving east on US24. This isn’t an unfamiliar route- I’d taken a bit of a circle trip from home to Iowa City via the south side of Chicago, then back home via Galesburg, Peoria and US24 to Fort Wayne a little over a year ago and knew how long the trip would be with zero traffic (I’d left Peoria just before dusk, photographed the TP&W near Eureka just before dark and arrived back at home around 6 the next morning). It’s not a short trip and by the time I reached Gilman on Sunday I knew I had a long, long drive to get to Fort Wayne and I was hoping to make it to work the following morning. Rather than continue east on the two lane road, I elected to take the freeway (I-57 crosses US 24 at Gilman) to Chicago and than home. As it turned out, it was probably a good decision as the line of showers I drove through north of Gilman was a lot heavier and apparently spawned a tornado near Monroe (Michigan) later in the day.

All in all, the trip went well. I got to spend a lot of time with a couple of really close friends, and had a lot of time to think and clear my mind on the way home. It also gave me a chance to both just drive and enjoy the drive as well as to drive like a maniac (kind of) in the typical Sunday afternoon eastward rush coming out of Chicago on I-94. I’ve had the rush last as far as Kalamazoo, this time it went most of the way across the state. It was a good trip and I’m looking forward to getting back out to Iowa in June, if not before…

Where to Begin?

It’s been a while. I hope your summer is/went well. I see my last update appears to have been in June.

Lots of stuff has happened since June. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of picture taking on my end, other than a day here and there. Fortunately, I did manage to keep uploading even though I neglected to share those uploads here. Until now. So here are a couple of the shots I took since the Great Spring 2016 Meet Extravaganza.

I spent some time this summer shooting the Canadian National near Port Huron. More than once (ok, so it was probably just twice) I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot as far away as west of Emmett.

On June 5, I got a couple different shots of a eastbound waiting to go to Canada. If I recall correctly, they were waiting for a westbound who showed up just as the rain hit, but before the torrential part of the storm hit. Once the tunnel was clear, this train got the light to head east, and would have the heavy rain to look forward to as they did their work in Sarnia.

A few days later, I ran across M385 just a couple miles into their trip to Flat Rock.

CN 2321 leads a unit autorack train (E231-12) west across the Flint Subdivision.

M396 had more locomotives than I normally see on road trains on this cloudy Sunday afternoon.

A late afternoon L504 (possibly something else re-crewed by the 504 crew) moves toward the tunnel as another summer Sunday draws to a close. Although this particular Sunday evening was accompanied by the sound of mortars and exploding shells coming from all directions as revelers celebrated the 4th of July weekend and all of its explosive tradition.

In summary, I saw a lot of CN over the summer, but not all at once. On average, I managed to catch a train or two once a week through June and early July, the results of which you can see above. Unlike most summers I remember, I just haven’t had the time or energy to actively watch or photograph trains. I’ve been working some on my photoshop skills, but hobby time has been regrettably limited this summer. I hope to post more soon, but in the meantime, there’s plenty of warm weather left to enjoy this summer season. It’ll be cold and snowy again too soon.

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