Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Great Western Trip -- Part Two

BNSF Railway; Gillette, Wyo.; July 8, 2016
In the first part of our trip, we ventured from Kansas City to Crawford Hill in Nebraska, finally stopping at Sturgis, S.D., for the night. We pick up the trip there.

The morning of Day 5 of the trip wasn't good -- a peek out the window showed rain. Lots of rain. After a few extra minutes of sleep, I rousted myself up and head out of the Sturgis Super 8. Today's quarry would be the Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern shortline. Pre-trip intelligence told me there was a reliable train that left Belle Fourche, S.D. (just a few miles to the north) each weekday morning. Upon arrival at Belle Fourche (which would mark the northern-most point of the trip), I couldn't find the locomotives. Was the intel wrong? I hung out near the yard office, and finally a crewman showed up. A quick chat with him and I discovered the power was just north of town. Whew! And they would be running to Rapid City today. Double whew!

As they switched an industry in Belle Fourche I noticed a distinct clearing line to the north. The weather would be improving. The only question was would it improve fast enough? The key shots I wanted were two back at Sturgis. The rain let up and I began the southward chase. One shot was at a campground just south of Belle Fourche. The train was in complete clouds, but you can see the clear sky behind the train. The first several shots would be like this.
Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern; Belle Fourche, S.D.; July 7, 2016
One of the shots I wanted to get was passing the former Chicago & North Western station in Sturgis. The second shot I wanted to get was at the Black Hills National Cemetery, just a couple of miles south of Sturgis. Getting out of the station would involve some city streets -- it would probably be close beating the train to the cemetery. But fortune favors the bold! The skies did clear by the time the train got to Sturgis and I got it passing the station.
Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern; Sturgis, S.D.; July 7, 2016
I jumped back into Sparky (my 2004 Ford Explorer, to refresh your memory) and high-tailed it out of town. By the time I got to the I-90 interchange on the south end of Sturgis I was even with the train. This might work...

I wheeled into the cemetery (I had actually checked the shot out in the rain earlier in the morning so I knew exactly where I had to go). I wheeled to the spot, jumped out of the car and waited... And waited... The train shouldn't be more than a mile away... And waited... Finally, after about 20 minutes the train showed up. I don't know if they worked an industry back in Sturgis or went to breakfast, or what. But the bottom line was I got both shots.
Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern; Black Hills National Cemetery, Sturgis, S.D.; July 7, 2016
I would catch the train a few more times, finally breaking off as the train approached the outskirts of Rapid City.
Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern; Piedmont, S.D.; July 7, 2016
I had allotted all day to do the shortline, but it was only just past noon when I gave up the chase. The run back to Belle Fourche would be largely against the sun, and I had done pretty darn good with the southbound chase. I made a decision to forego the northbound chase and headed over to the Black Hills Central Railroad, a steam-powered operation that wasn't on my original itinerary. Of interest was the railroad's cool 2-6-6-2T locomotive. I would have time to chase the last two trips of the day.

I found the train in Hill City ready to go, and got a shot of it leaving town. I should have stopped somewhere on the six percent grade coming out of Hill City, but instead pushed farther ahead. The road between the railroad's end points at Hill City and Keystone crosses the tracks about a dozen times, providing plenty of photo opportunities.
Black Hills Central; Keystone, S.D.; July 7, 2016
The train runs with the locomotive's butt end leading back to Hill City, so I didn't chase that part of the trip. On the second run out of Hill City, I made sure I was camped out on the six percent grade -- the locomotive sounded awesome thundering through the forest.
Black Hills Central; Hill City, S.D.; July 7, 2016
There is one spot where the tracks head straight south past a rock wall at one of the grade crossings. I knew this would be a good shot and made sure I was there well ahead of the train. After the train's arrival in Keystone, I hopped on the interstate and headed for the Powder River Basin coal fields.
Black Hills Central; Keystone, S.D.; June 7, 2016
Since I had enjoyed a motel the previous night, I decided to rough it again with some car camping. I pulled over into a rest area just east of Gillette, Wyo. Unfortunately, the truck traffic here was extremely noisy. Sleep was hard to come by.

To start Day 6 I turned south at Gillette and headed down to Wright, Wyo., then made a left at Wright to head east into the coal fields. While rail traffic was busy, it wasn't as busy as a couple of years ago but certainly busier than my last visit to the basin (in 1994!). The first mine encountered heading east from Wright is Black Thunder West along the mainline. A Union Pacific train was coming out of Black Thunder's main mine, while a set of distributed power units (DPUs) pushed a train out on the mainline past Black Thunder West's massive silo.
Union Pacific; Reno Junction, Wright, Wyo.; July 8, 2016
The Powder River Basin was busy enough to require four tracks to handle all the train traffic. That's probably not the case now, but it's still pretty busy. Two southbound trains, one from UP and one from BNSF Railway, raced each other south north of the town of Bill. In the background is a rail defect detector car also waiting to go south.
BNSF Railway and Union Pacific; Bill, Wyo.; July 8, 2016
Near the Antelope Mine at Converse Junction, two more coal trains -- one from each railroad -- were heading south as well. As I said, it's still pretty busy here.
BNSF Railway and Union Pacific; Converse Junction, Bill, Wyo.; July 8, 2016
Night was approaching, and it was time to figure out where to sleep. Like the previous night, there were no obvious night photo opportunities, and I was tired since I didn't sleep well the previous night. What I really wanted was a nice sunset silhouette -- it seems everybody that goes to the Basin comes home with one. Alas, my attempts at a silhouette were not terribly spectacular. No motels were within an easy drive (up in Gillette, or the railroad hotel down in Bill), so it was car camping again. Some people like to camp near the tracks; I wanted sleep. So I headed back into Wright to the visitors' center, which had ample dark parking -- and wifi! It was a better night's sleep.

For Day 7, I finally broke out my drone, SkyRail1 (I name things...). The previous days I was either too busy to fly (it does take some set-up time, so if you're in a run-and-gun chase it slows you down too much) or I really wanted to concentrate on the scene with my real camera (it's hard to shoot with both simultaneously). But there were plenty of trains in the Powder River Basin, so the drone would give me some different angles. I broke it out, started to fly it -- and immediately discovered I couldn't see what I was doing with my phone (which you use to get a drone's-eye view for composition) in the bright western sun. I did manage to kind of guess when to shoot for one shot where the drone allowed me to get some mining operations in the background. Alas, this would be my only attempt at flying for the rest of the trip (I have subsequently ordered a sun shield for the phone).
BNSF Railway; Wright, Wyo.; July 9, 2016
Most of the day was spent getting similar shots to what I had gotten the previous day. But as it got late in the day, there was one shot I wanted that I hadn't gotten yet -- a train coming through S-curves with the Coal Creek Mine in the background. I was determined to get this shot, so I pulled Sparky off the road, broke out my sports chair, lit up a cigar, and decided to wait it out. While I didn't get a train heading south, Union Pacific bailed me out with a northbound train with a DPU pushing on the rear.
Union Pacific; Gillette, Wyo.; July 9, 2016
Driving back south, I encountered a BNSF northbound. Since the sun wouldn't be good for the standard "comin' at ya" shot, I went for a broadside near the Black Thunder mines.
BNSF Railway; Wright, Wyo.; July 9, 2016
Finally, I wound up back at Black Thunder West where I found a train loading at the immense silo as a southbound train went by on the mainline.
Union Pacific; Reno Junction, Wright, Wyo.; July 9, 2016
Finally it was time to leave the Powder River Basin and head for my next destination. I was still a bit miffed that I didn't get my silhouette shot. The setting sun was looking good, but I hadn't found the right location... As I drove south towards Douglas, Wyo., though, I saw it -- the perfect place for a silhouette shot. All I needed was a train... I continued south, keeping a watch as the tracks and the road separated. After a couple of miles I saw something moving -- a northbound train? I wheeled Sparky around and raced back to the spot I spotted. Unfortunately the train had a much shorter way to go than I did, so the front of the train beat me to the spot. I had to settle for the DPU pushing on the back. But I got my shot! I was heading for Sherman Hill for the next day, and found a Super 8 motel in the great railroad town of Cheyenne, Wyo.
Union Pacific; Douglas, Wyo.; July 9, 2016
Day 8 found me packing up Sparky as Union Pacific trains headed to and from Sherman Hill, just to the west. But first I decided to head east to the other hill in the area, Archer Hill. Alas, the best shot here is a short walk-in from the road, but the area is all posted as private property. This wasn't going to work, so I headed west, back into Cheyenne. After a quick stop at Union Pacific's steam shop (sorry, no photos, as the crew was way too busy getting 4-8-4 No. 844 ready) I went further west to Sherman Hill.

I wanted a shot at the summit of Sherman Hill at the ghost town site of Sherman. Google Maps and my GPS gave conflicting information as to the location of Sherman, but finally I just followed my nose to the tracks and was soon shooting trains passing a sign marking the highest point on the transcontinental railroad.
Union Pacific; Sherman, Wyo.; July 10, 2016
I also wanted to shoot trains at Dale Junction on Sherman Hill, which features some unusual rock formations. Alas, all of Dale Junction is now on private property and (despite asking nicely) I was denied permission to access the junction. I had to settle for a somewhat distant shot that really doesn't do the rock formations justice. The same ranch also controls the area around Hermosa Tunnel, making that also off-limits.
Union Pacific; Dale Junction, Wyo.; July 10, 2016
Finally, I wound up at Tie Siding east of Laramie, which is at a public grade crossing. The shot here isn't bad in either direction, and among the trains I got was an eastbound (once again a reminder -- not every train I shot on the trip is presented here; this is only the highlights).
Union Pacific; Tie Siding, Wyo.; July 10, 2016
Deseret Power; Dinousaur, Colo.; July 11, 2016





My next destination was pretty much in the middle of nowhere -- somewhere near Dinosaur, Colo. Leaving Sherman Hill, I headed down some remote highways to Dinosaur, where I found the tracks of the Deseret Western. Reportedly there would be a train on the line sometime after 6:30 a.m. With no motels nearby and a very early wake-up call, it would be another car camping night. I found the tracks of the Deseret Western around midnight and did some shots of the star-studded western sky at a grade crossing. I then found a flat spot to park and set my alarm for 6:15. I was now 3,993 miles into the trip. We'll pick it up here next week.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Day On the New York Cross Harbor

New York Cross Harbor; Greenville, N.J.; July 2000
Note: We'll get back to the big Western Trip in the next post later this week. In the meantime, we're going to set the clock back to July 2000.

Much of New York City is located on islands, and back when the city was largely industrial the only way to get railroad service to many places was by barge, usually from New Jersey across New York Harbor. Times have changed, and much of the industrial base has vanished. There are still some industries in Brooklyn, however, that still rely on rail service. And those industries continue to get their railcars by way of the lone remaining carfloat operation from New Jersey, the New York Cross Harbor Railroad. In July 2000 I spent a day on the NYCH, accompanied by noted railroad photographer Joe Greenstein (who, sadly, has passed away since).

The morning started in Brooklyn at the NYCH float bridge. On this day there were no outbound cars heading for New Jersey, so we were greeted by an empty carfloat barge.
New York Cross Harbor; Brooklyn, N.Y.; July 2000
Soon the tug Huntington was tied to the barge. It was time to untie from the dock and set sail across New York Harbor.
New York Cross Harbor; Brooklyn, N.Y.; July 2000
Captain Mike expertly guided the Huntington and its barge out of the dock and into open water. Moran's tug Diana L. Moran is sitting nearby. While the Huntington could be steered using joystick controllers, Captain Mike preferred the old-fashioned use of the wheel to guide the boat.
New York Cross Harbor; Brooklyn, N.Y.; July 2000
N.Y. Cross Harbor; Greenville, N.J.


Soon we were out on the harbor on a very pleasant day. It wasn't long before the float bridge on the opposite side of the harbor at Greenville, N.J., was in view and we steered towards it.


Our boat was built by Ira S. Bushy & Sons of Brooklyn in 1951 as the Huntington for Red Star Towing. By the time of this trip, it had been purchased by Kosnac Floating Derrick Corporation, retaining its name. Subsequent to this trip, it was sold and renamed Nathan S. It is said to be currently laid up in the Great Lakes. The Diana L. Moran (pictured above) was built in 1956 for Moran Towing Company and was scrapped 50 years later in 2006.










Approaching the Greenville float bridge, we get lined up for the middle berth. It looks like some tank cars and a boxcar are awaiting our arrival.
New York Cross Harbor; Greenville, N.J.; July 2000
Once docked and tied down, cars are carefully placed on the carfloat. It is a delicate operation to keep the barge balanced as heavy railcars are shuffled onto three tracks.
New York Cross Harbor; Greenville, N.J.; July 2000
Last car on is a boxcar from Kansas City Southern. A graffiti-splattered switcher from General Motors' Electro-Motive Division (EMD) has the honor of performing the switching for the railroad on the New Jersey side.
New York Cross Harbor; Greenville, N.J.; July 2000
Once everything is loaded, we pull out of the dock and spin around for the trip back to Brooklyn. Looking ahead through the July humidity we see the skyline of lower Manhattan.
New York Cross Harbor; Greenville, N.J.; July 2000
Looking back along the side of the Huntington we see the receding Greenville floatbridge.
New York Cross Harbor; Greenville, N.J.; July 2000
Back on the Brooklyn side, a switcher from the American Locomotive Company (Alco) comes out to unload the barge.
New York Cross Harbor; Brooklyn, N.Y.; July 2000
With our boxcar in tow, the Alco and its crew negotiate the busy streets of Brooklyn. The train does not have to dodge traffic, as it cannot move from its rails -- instead, traffic had to dodge the train.
New York Cross Harbor; Brooklyn, N.Y.; July 2000
Finally we get to the customer. The locomotive runs around the boxcar and pushes it into the customer's siding. With this task complete, the work is done for the day and it is time to head back to the engine house, concluding a land-and-sea day on the New York Cross Harbor Railroad.
New York Cross Harbor; Brooklyn, N.Y.; July 2000

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Great Western Trip -- Part One

Union Pacific; Lusk, Wyo.; July 6, 2016
It started out as a simple trip from New Jersey to Denver to attend the 2016 Convention of the National Railway Historical Society. But then a friend showed me some photos of the Rail Runner commuter trains in Albuquerque, N.M., and I had to add a week to venture south. Then I saw shots from a shortline railroad in South Dakota and had to add another week to venture north. Okay, so it grew into a three-week trip with two big loops out of Denver. Then I priced a rental car for those three weeks -- $1300 for a basic small car and I needed an SUV for some of the places I wanted to see. Suddenly it became more economical to use my own car and drive the entire way. Add two more days out and two more days back, and the trip had swelled to 24 days and maybe 8,000 miles. But it would be a dandy of a trip...

On July 3 I pointed Sparky (that's my 2004 Ford Explorer) west from New Jersey. My first stop wouldn't be until Kansas City and I wanted to spend as much time as possible there the following day. So I drove and drove. When I topped 800 miles I thought it would be cool to top 1,000 miles of driving in one day. So I pushed onward until the odometer had clicked off 1,006 miles and I finally pulled over into a truck stop somewhere west of St. Louis for a few hours of shuteye. Along the way I had hit parts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, before sleeping in Missouri.

The next morning I finished off the drive to Kansas City and hit one of my favorite photography locations in town, the West Bottoms. Here the railroads mingle with old brick buildings, forming one of the best urban backdrops to be found anywhere in the U.S. I did get a few trains here before moving on, including a BNSF coal train.
BNSF Railway; West Bottoms, Kansas City, Mo.; July 4, 2016
From here I headed over to 27th Street in Kansas City. Trains heading east pass an old abandoned brewery as they leave Kansas (somewhere just beyond the brewery).
BNSF Railway; 27th Street, Kansas City, Mo.; July 4, 2016
The real attraction at 27th Street, however, is looking the other direction -- the triple crossing at Santa Fe Junction. BNSF goes overhead on the highest bridge, with Union Pacific on the middle level. BNSF and Amtrak use the tracks at ground level. While it's not unusual to get two (and sometimes three) trains in one shot, this was a holiday (July 4) and while I eventually got trains on all three levels, it was only one at a time.
BNSF Railway; Santa Fe Junction, Kansas City, Mo.; July 4, 2016
One reason I had picked Kansas City as my first stop was the presence of the new streetcar system in town. I eventually left the freight railroads and hit the city streets, getting a modern streetcar passing an old hotel not far from Union Station.
Kansas City Streetcar; 20th & Main, Kansas City, Mo.; July 4, 2016
From here I headed down to the streetcar's southern terminus at Union Station. An overhead walkway provides a nice vantage point to see the streetcars coming south down Main Street.
Kansas City Streetcar; Main Street, Kansas City, Mo.; July 4, 2016
At Union Station the end of the line is served by a single track. Streetcars departing north have to leave the single track and pass completely across Main Street to get to the northbound track.
Kansas City Streetcar; Union Station, Kansas City, Mo.; July 4, 2016
Once done with streetcars it was time to push further west. My plan was to do some night photography every night if the situation was right. I headed west, clipping parts of Kansas and Iowa before entering Nebraska. The Union Pacific mainline across the state is very busy, so I knew if I set up somewhere along it I would eventually get a train. The grain silos in Gibbon looked like they would make a good backdrop, so I paused there a bit past midnight. Not unexpectedly, I got a couple of trains in fairly short order before getting back onto the interstate, finally pausing for the night at a rest area somewhere east of North Platte.
Union Pacific; Gibbon, Neb.; July 5, 2016
My next destination was coal country, specifically the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, so it was no surprise that coal trains started to dominate the rail traffic I was seeing. On Day 3 I followed UP's line through Nebraska, getting a westbound coal train at Lisco, Neb.
Union Pacific; Lisco, Neb.; July 5, 2016
At Bridgeport, Neb., I found a UP train coming from the Powder River Basin loaded with coal. I also noticed that a tooth I broke two weeks earlier was starting to hurt. A lot. This wasn't going to be good.
Union Pacific; Bridgeport, Neb.; July 5, 2016
I wanted to enter the Powder River Basin by following BNSF Railway's line over Crawford Hill in northwestern Nebraska, so I swung north off the UP and picked up BNSF's line through Alliance. Among the trains I saw on BNSF was a loaded coal train coming through Hemingford.
BNSF Railway; Hemingford, Neb.; July 5, 2016
My research on Crawford Hill showed the area around the most scenic part of the railroad was on private property owned by the Ponderosa Ranch. It also showed the Ranch sold day passes to photographers to access the area. Upon arrival at Crawford, however, I found no signs pointing to the ranch, other than a sign to the "Ponderosa Land Management Area." It seems the ranch had shut down and/or been sold. A check of the ranch's website yielded a phone number, but when I called the person on the other end (who had apparently been asleep) had no idea what I was talking about. It looked like I would be limited to the very west end of Crawford Hill. It wasn't as spectacular as I had hoped, but was still scenic nonetheless. A very nice shot could be had from the overhead bridge near downtown Crawford.
BNSF Railway; Crawford, Neb.; July 5, 2016
The curves at the very west end of Crawford Hill were accessible before entering the former Ponderosa property, and a brief storm in the late afternoon provided some dramatic dark skies just before sunset. An eastbound train headed up the hill as the storm cleared.
BNSF Railway; Crawford Hill, Neb.; July 5, 2016
A downhill train with a distributed power unit (DPU) on the rear pushing made for a nice sunset shot. Meanwhile, my tooth was really beginning to hurt and I started calling dentist offices to see if I could get an appointment.
BNSF Railway; Crawford Hill, Neb.; July 5, 2016
The nearest dentist office with an opening for the next day was in Wheatland, Wyo., some 120 miles away. Not good. I made the appointment and stuck around the lower curves of Crawford Hill for a 13-minute exposure of a train going away around the curve.
BNSF Railway; Crawford Hill, Neb.; July 5, 2016
Meanwhile, over on Union Pacific's ex-Chicago & North Western line into the Powder River Basin, there is an old water tank in the town of Lusk, Wyo. I was hoping to get a motel on this night, but my tooth hurt so much I figured I wouldn't get any sleep no matter what, so there was no point in wasting money on a motel. I headed to Lusk (which put me 40 miles closer to the dentist) and spent the night taking photos under the stars. Lights on the horizon would make taking photos with stars difficult (the lights would be too bright for the 40-second exposure I needed), so I used a train to screen the lights. At some point midnight came and went. Also at some point, the right side of my face swelled up. Good thing I made that dentist appointment...
Union Pacific; Lusk, Wyo.; July 6, 2016
After getting shots with stars, I broke out my strobes and did some synchronized flash work, including the DPUs of a coal train heading towards the Basin.
Union Pacific; Lusk, Wyo.; July 6, 2016
After a fitful night of sleep, Day 4 started with sunrise at the water tank (photo at the top of this entry). From there, it was off to the dentist at Wheatland (now a mere 80 miles away). The dentist looked me over, prescribed some antibiotics (and a pain killer/sleeping aid to get me through the nights), and sent me on my way. I headed back to Lusk and went almost back to the Wyoming/Nebraska line to get a westbound train at Van Tassel, Wyo. I should note that not every train I saw is posted here -- these are just the highlights.
Union Pacific; Van Tassel, Wyo.; July 6, 2016
Finally, as the afternoon sun got lower, I headed back to Lusk for a daytime shot of a train passing the restored water tank.
Union Pacific; Lusk, Wyo.; July 6, 2016
From here it was on to the Powder River Basin, but not before a slight detour. As evening approached I headed into the Black Hills of South Dakota. My face was de-swelling thanks to the antibiotics, and I passed through Deadwood, S.D., before finally popping my pain pills and crashing on a real bed (for the first time this trip) at a motel in Sturgis, S.D., some 2,849 miles after leaving home. We'll pick up the trip here in about a week...

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