Tuesday, November 20, 2007

North Woods Railroading

A full selection of photos from this trip can be found in Photologues. Photos appearing on this page can be purchased at ShopDaylightImages.com.

"Come to Minnesota," friend Steve Glischinski said. He was putting together a freight charter on the North Shore Scenic out of Duluth in early September, and he further enticed me with the possibilities of other adventures -- there would be a night photo session featuring Soo Line equipment at the former Soo depot in Superior, Wisconsin; Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No.261 would be powering excursions with a nearly-matched set of Milwaukee cars trailing; the all-Alco powered Minnesota, Dakota & Western was being sold to short line conglomerate Watco, which would likely lead to the end of the vintage diesels plying the line; and even though Canadian National had recently purchased the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range, there were still a lot of trains with matched sets of Missabe power hauling ore. Making this trip was an easy decision.

Day 1 -- September 7, 2006
An early flight from Newark put me into the Twin Cities before lunch, and I quickly grabbed my rental car. The attendant at the exit booth asked where I was heading. "Duluth," I replied. He quickly gave me directions to I-35 and concluded by saying, "...and if you don't hit any moose or goats you'll be in Duluth in two hours." 

Wheeling out of the airport (and through a detour the attendant didn't tell me about), I was soon passing through St. Paul. Trains from Canadian Pacific, BNSF and even Twin Cities & Western tried to lure me off the interstate, but I figured by the time I exited and tried to get to them they'd be gone and I'd have wasted time. Besides, I had a goal -- get to the Iron Range. Distractions behind, I pushed north and decided my only break would be just short of Duluth, where I'd check out the Duluth & Northwestern.

The D&NE was quiet -- it looked like their lone active switcher was ready to head into the engine house for the day -- but I did find one of the railroad's steam locomotives on display in a park. After photographing 2-8-2 No.16 I headed into Duluth, hoping to find a DM&IR (uh, CN) train heading northward.

The quest for a train on the ore dock proved futile, but an ore boat loading at the dock was recorded. Heading up Proctor Hill and into Proctor, I stopped to photograph the Yellowstone steam locomotive on display in the park. From there, a quick drive through the roundhouse area yielded nothing, and so it was time to head north into the hinterlands, hoping to either run into a southbound train or -- even better -- perhaps overtake a northbound.

Talk about a plan coming together. The road and tracks pulled along each other just below Munger, and off in the trees I could see limestone cars heading north. Cool. I got ahead of the train just north of where the former Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific (also now CN) crossed the DM&IR on an overhead bridge and I got my first shot of the trip of DM&IR power. After getting the train passing the signals at South Coons, I continued north with the train as it slipped into the siding at Kelsey. Hmmm, this means a southbound was coming. Since the road and railroad are within sight of each other all the way to Iron Junction, I saw no harm in heading north to intercept the southbound -- which I did at Zim. The surprise was that the southbound was led by a pair of CSX units!

Heading back south, I shot the CSX units at the north end of Kelsey, then resumed my northward chase with the limestone train. At Iron Junction there were a few railfans hanging out waiting for a southbound T-Bird (the shuttle that runs between the Thunderbird North mine and the taconite plant at Fairlane) and as I joined them it was becoming apparent that both trains could be meeting right in front of us. As it turned out, the T-Bird arrived just seconds ahead of the limestone train, so we shot the southbound then wheeled around to shoot the meet. 

Once the ore train cleared, I headed back south to the Fairlane plant at Forbes, where the T-Bird was just pulling in. Even better, a southbound ore train was waiting to come out (with a sister road engine from the Bessemer & Lake Erie second in the consist). I chased the southbound back through Zim to Kelsey, then dropped back north to pick up a merchandise freight at Zim. By Kelsey the light was fading, bringing the day to an end. As always, the DM&IR did not disappoint.

Day 2 -- September 8, 2006
An early rise put me on the road northward to get my next quarry. I was heading for International Falls (often mentioned as the coldest place in the continental U.S. on any given winter day) to shoot the Minnesota, Dakota & Eastern. The newspapers in the area were carrying the day's big news -- the sale of the MD&E to Watco had fallen through. The Alcos had been given a reprieve.

After checking in at the office, I started following a couple of the local jobs around. S2 No.18 would be my morning companion, and I followed it and its crew as it worked the various yards and leads around the Boise Cascade paper mill. A second switcher was working across the river in Canada, but the arrival of two trucks carrying windmill blades had the area around customs all tied up. I decided that venturing into Canada might be more time-consuming than it was worth, so I stuck with the switcher on the U.S. side.

On the scanner I heard a Canadian National train approaching the international bridge into nearby Ranier, so I scooted the five miles east and caught the train on the bridge. I then shot it as it made its customs stop in front of the impressive depot. Not unexpectedly, I drew the attention of a customs agent who came over to see what I was up to. I explained that I wanted a shot of the train in front of the depot. That was fine, he said. He just didn't want anyone taking photos of their new high-tech top secret security camera on the bridge. Okay...

Once the train was clear of customs, I headed to the Route 11 overhead bridge, getting the train there as it pulled into the small yard south of the highway. Then it was back to International Falls for one final check of the MD&W. Parking at the chamber of commerce building, I walked around the back and discovered -- the building had a bay window. Wait a minute -- this is the former Great Northern depot! After shooting the building, I wandered inside where I found only offices and a very nice lady who showed me the entire interior. She mentioned that an old freight depot had been moved away from the tracks into town (but I never found it on a later search). She also mentioned that they were quite proud of the new top secret security camera that was on the CN bridge...

Once away from International Falls, it was back on the road towards the DM&IR. My timing was pretty good, as I caught a southbound hitting the diamond at Ramshaw, followed very quickly by a shot of the train at Spruce. A good rule of thumb on the DM&IR is "if you don't know where any trains are, go to Thunderbird North and look for a T-Bird." I took my own advice and found not one, but two T-Birds there; one was just finishing loading while a second was waiting to go into the mine. Fortuitously, I heard a northbound train on the DW&P and headed over to the diamond at Ramshaw to get it, then headed to Iron Junction where I got a northbound BNSF "all-rail" train followed by the southbound T-Bird. The T-Bird was dutifully chased to the Fairlane plant where, true to DM&IR form, another T-Bird was waiting to come out.

About this time I ran into Steve Glischinski who was chasing with Steve Smedley, making for a confusing trio of Steves ("Hey, Steve." "What?" "Not you.") We caught a southbound CN merchandise train at Iron Junction, followed by a BNSF all-rail train. As the all-rail train headed south, the T-Bird came trucking north. Ya gotta love the DM&IR. With a night photo session scheduled for Superior that evening, the other two Steves headed south. I stuck around to shoot the sign for the yard at Keenan (still proudly saying "Missabe") and shot the next T-Bird as it prepared to launch from Fairlane. 

Once in Superior (Wisconsin, that is) I found the former Soo depot which is now a store but has been fully restored by its owner. The highlight of the restoration is the operating Soo "dollar sign" neon sign on the roof of the station. The Lake Superior Railroad Museum sent a Soo Line FP7 and GP30 over from Duluth, and about 75 photographers (most in for the Soo Line Historical Society convention) enjoyed the night photo session. Kudos to Angela Terry, wife of Railfan & Railroad columnist Jeff Terry, who braved a basement full of spiders to turn the neon sign on and off during the session.

Day 3 -- September 9, 2006
The "real" reason for this trip was the Saturday photo charter on the North Shore Scenic, part of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, from Duluth to Two Harbors on former DM&IR trackage. Power for the trip would be Great Northern NW5 No.192, with a mixed train consisting of a few freight cars, a GN caboose and a combine temporarily relettered for the GN through the miracle of magnetics. 

The first stop was along the harbor where some nice scenes were captured from various angles. Next was the bridge over Tischers Creek in Lakeside (from private property that Steve Glischinski had arranged for), followed by a stop in downtown Lakeside. The only clouds of the day hit us during a photo stop at Palmers, where a vintage sedan was used as a photo prop. Our train then ducked into a siding to let the regular North Shore Scenic train (powered by the Soo Line GP30) scoot past. We then backed down to the large bridge just south of Palmers, where we waited out the clouds for some sunlit shots. The final northbound shot was posed under the DM&IR bridge just outside Two Harbors.

At Two Harbors a lunch stop was made, but most photographers eschewed food to do some photography as the GP30 posed with the NW5 at the staion-turned-museum in town. The GP30 then departed south. Our train followed not far behind, but the necessity to turn our train on the DM&IR wye led to a substantial delay. Nonetheless, the move through the DM&IR yard allowed for some shooting from the train of locomotives and shop buildings that couldn't be taken otherwise (at least not without some serious trespassing). Finally clear of the DM&IR, a photo stop was made next to the approach signal for the junction between the North Shore Scenic and the Missabe.

At Knife River the somewhat forlorn station had a new sign applied by Steve G. for the photo stop there. Then it was a race against the setting sun to a bridge just outside Duluth for a photo stop -- arrival was just in time as shadows were rapidly swllowing the bridge. Backing north to Lakeside, our train took the siding as the "pizza train" from Duluth came north, making its stop to pick up its dinner right there at the siding -- Domino's really does deliver! Then it was back to the museum in Duluth, followed by a group dinner at a local sports bar. 

Day 4 -- September 10, 2006
Okay, based on my original plan I was supposed to be heading for the Twin Cities by now to chase Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No.261 on a couple of short excursions. The weather forecast for south of Duluth was fairly awful, however, while Duluth was supposed to have sun for most of the day. Thus, I stayed north.

The day was supposed to start with a photo session in the yard of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, where a few steam locomotives that are normally kept under the train shed would be brought out into the sun. Meanwhile, the Soo Line Historical Society was having a fan trip on the North Shore Scenic, powered by Soo Line GP30 No.700. A bunch of us went chasing the excursion, starting near Duluth. With the photo session beckoning back at the museum, the chasers mused whether to continue chasing or head back -- then it dawned on everybody that anyone who would be attending the photo session was already out here chasing! A group decision was made to hold off the photo shoot until after everyone got the shot of the excursion on the trestle at Palmers.

With that out of the way, it was back to the museum. While there was switching being done in the yard, I ventured inside to do some shooting (since it was still before normal visiting hours I could use my tripod without impeding traffic). The Yellowstone inside the museum is mounted on rollers and every 30 minutes or so the drivers turn. Neat. I was then offered a tour of the restoration shop, which I accepted. Back outside, Northern Pacific 2-6-2 No.2435, Duluth & Northwestern 2-8-2 No.14 and a variety of diesels were all photographed (Jeff Terry provided a concoction of used motor oil and flares to produce smoke from the steamers) before calling it a day before lunch.

Kevin Madsen was out looking for trains in Duluth and phoned in that a train would be heading up Proctor Hill shortly, so a large motorcade left the museum for milepost 2 on the DM&IR. We were only there literally seconds before a train headed up the grade, and a few late arrivals missed it. Not to worry, though -- that wasn't the train Kevin had seen (don't know where that one came from!) and the one we were looking for would be along shortly (which it was). A chase up Proctor Hill through a church parking lot (impeded by the fact that church was just letting out) got some fleet-of-foot folks a second shot.

Steve G. suggested a quick tour around Duluth to fill out the afternoon, so we headed over to the bridge at Tischers Creek to get the regular northbound North Shore Scenic train, powered by a DM&IR SD9. The Soo Line Historical Society train was due back soon, now with the FP7 leading, so we shot that at Lakeside. Then the scanner reported a DM&IR train approaching Two Harbors, so we raced up there just in time to shoot that. Then we heard a train on the scale at Highland, so we had to go after that. Then, while we were in the area, Steve called a contact at Cliffs Northshore Mining where he found out that, yes, there was a train in the area. We headed deep into the woods to get the train near Norshor Junction and again even deeper in the woods. Finally, the fastest way out of the woods would be to go through Iron Junction. So much for a short tour around Duluth!

A BNSF train was heading south, so we got him at Keenan followed by a nice shot passing a house at Kelsey.  A northbound limestone train was in the siding at Kelsey, so we shot him there and again at Iron Junction. Finally, a train was coming out of Fairlane, this one with a DM&IR unit painted in CN colors. We shot it, then headed back to Duluth. I was heading for the Twin Cities and beyond, so my five-hour drive began a little later than I had counted on. The good weather ran out on the way down, and when I arrived in LaCrescent for the night it was pretty rainy.

Day 5 -- September 11, 2006
It didn't take long to find Milwaukee 261 in the rain in LaCrescent on this wet morning. The 261's caretaker and usual engineer, Steve Sandberg, invited me up into the cab to get out of the rain. The 261 wasn't supposed to be here on this day, but its trainset was -- the coaches were heading to Iowa for a trip using two imported Chinese QJ steamers the next weekend, and when diesels couldn't be found to ferry the coaches south, it was decided to use the 261. The nearly matched all-Milwaukee trainset was interrupted only by a couple of private cars near the rear of the train.

The moist air made for a steamy show as the 261 did a bit of switching to get out of LaCrescent. I headed down to Norma for my first shot and was soon in a spirited chase heading for Iowa (keeping in mind that I had a mid-afternoon flight out of Minneapolis). I found a real nice spot in Brownsville, then shot the causeway at Reno. Entering Iowa, I got a couple of locations near New Albin, then finished off the chase at Lansing. It was time to head back to the airport.

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