Monday, November 26, 2007

A Train Named Soo

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

Another great photo freight opportunity presented itself in October 2007, this time in Wisconsin. Historic Transport Preservation, a group dedicated to recreating scenes of past modes of transportation (particularly railroads) chartered Soo Line 1003 from Hartford to Randolph and Fairwater, Wisconsin, on October 20-21. The host railroad would be the Wisconsin & Southern. After initially planning to drive all day Thursday, October 18, to get to Wisconsin, I decided at the last minute that I didn't feel like doing all that driving. An internet search yielded an Allentown (Pa.) to Milwaukee air fare for about $200 on two days' notice -- that's cheaper than the gas to get there! Thus, I flew beyond the Cheddar Curtain.

Day 1 - October 18, 2007
Landing in Milwaukee early in the morning, I was greeted by cloudy skies and overall drab weather. Why did I fly? I really decided that getting into town a day early wasn't gaining me anything, so I picked up the rental car and sort of meandered north and west out of town, generally towards the Wisconsin & Southern. High on my to-do list for this trip was to get a train passing the Miller brewery at a location called Grand Junction. I found Grand Junction surprisingly easy (a previous trip there with Railfan & Railroad columnist Bob Gallegos made me somewhat familiar with the location) but the skies were dismal.

At this point I had a brainstorm. Good friend Jim Wrinn worked in nearby Waukesha, so I gave him a call to see if he wanted to meet up for lunch. I've known Jim for probably 20 years, back when I was just a railfan from the north and he was actively involved with the North Carolina Transportation Museum and the Norfolk Southern steam program. Now I was editor of Railfan & Railroad, and Jim had become editor of our rival magazine, Trains. Despite the rivalry, we remain good friends and he agreed to meet for lunch. With an hour to kill before Jim got out of a meeting, I headed to Waukesha's ex-Wisconsin Central depot and caught a Canadian National (now the owner of WC) southbound going past (somehow with the sun out). Then it was off to meet Jim.

Following lunch (at Dave's Famous Barbeque where we enjoyed southern-style pork) Jim invited me back to the office of Kalmbach Publishing, parent company of Trains. I know most of the Trains staffers on a first-name basis and it was good to touch base with Dave Ingles, Rob McGonigal, Kathi Kube, Matt Van Hattem, Andy Cummings and the rest of the gang. Jim photographed me in front of Kalmbach headquarters and again turning in my visitor's pass before sending me on my way. "Stay close by and keep in touch," he said. He wanted to ask his wife, Pam, if she wanted to get together for dinner.

I headed to Duplainville, a railfan favorite location where Canadian Pacific's ex-Milwaukee Road trackage crosses CN's ex-Wisconsin Central. First up was an eastbound Canadian Pacific freight, followed by Amtrak's Empire Builder heading west on CP (both in sun -- I was really lucking out on this mostly clody day). A local freight zipped by both directions on the CN, but I didn't shoot it. After a little while, I decided to try a location I hadn't been to before and headed for Brookville. I photographed the restored station as the sun set, but alas no trains came on the CP. From there it was off to Wawautosa to meet Jim and Pam for dinner, then head back to the Super 8 near the airport for the night.

Day 2 -- October 19, 2007
Friend Jeff Smith was arriving at the airport from Philadelphia early in the morning, and I made the quick drive from the motel to the airport just after his plane landed. If anything, the weather was worse today than yesterday. We headed up to Hartford where Soo Line 1003 was being prepped for its ferry move to Brandon (the locomotive lives in the antique car museum in Hartford). We arrived in Hartford, saw the locomotive outside under steam, and pretty much just hung out in the car in the parking lot until departure time, as the weather still wasn't conducive to photography. Even after the locomotive departed the museum, picked up its train and headed for a coal stop in Burnett, we still didn't take any photos -- we were happy just to shadow it as it made its way along.

At Burnett the locomotive was coaled and the skies brightened just to the point where we thought about taking photos. We paused at a nice grade crossing just outside of town for our first shot, got in at another crossing about halfway to Waupun, then again blasting past the feed mill in Waupun. The cow farm just south of Brandon would be our last stop.

Once in Brandon the locomotive crew offered a photo runby, which we gladly accepted and photographed, then we all enjoyed dinner and a quick meeting with trip organizer John Craft before starting a night photo session. Victor Hand and I lit up the 1003 by the Brandon mill using flashbulbs, then the locomotive was moved into the town park for some scenes lit by fixed halogen lamps. Finally, the lamps were turned off and the train headed for Fairwater, where Saturday's activities would start. As the train accelerated out of town, I listened to the locomotive working in the darkness across the fields and reflected that this sound was background noise to generations of Americans over the decades. I savored the moments until the train was out of earshot.

Day 3 -- October 20, 2007
The bad weather gave way to sunny skies by Saturday morning, and a group of about 40 photographers gathered around the 1003 in Fairwater shooting all kinds of servicing, detail and roster shots right up until departure time. After a spirited steamy runby in downtown Fairwater, the train was backed to the west side of town where a pond and a feed mill provided photographic fodder for five runbys. What a start!

After finishing at the mill, we headed back towards Brandon, stopping at Brandon Road for another set of runbys. Then a stop in a playground just outside Brandon allowed for another pair of runbys before heading into town for runbys, lunch and water for the engine. A Subway lunch was provided, but several folks took advantage of the fried brat sandwiches available in the city park.

After lunch the photographers descended upon the cow farm just outside of town to get 1003's southward move, and we got another shot just outside Waupun. At Waupun, the train made a stop just north of town while the photographers gathered near the mill in the town's center. Once everyone was in place, the train crew really put on a show blasting through the center of town at track speed. Wow!

Above Burnett another pair of runbys were held, albeit under cloud cover. By Burnett the sun (and an antique car) were present for another runby before coal was added to 1003's tender. The train then went into Horicon and changed lines, coming out on the branch to Randolph. While the train was in town making its moves, the photo line formed at a crossing west of town for a nice shot. From there, everyone was on their own to find a spot somewhere between Horicon and Fox Lake Junction -- we wound up at Sunset Beach, which looked like a not spectacular shot, but the ensuing image came out looking okay.

The grand finale was at a causeway along Beaver Dam Lake just outside the town of Beaver Dam. Using a private residence, we were able to get many shots of 1003 silhouetted on a causeway while the setting sun provided an ever-changing backdrop. The last runby was made just after sunset and we all headed off for a good night's sleep after an amazing day.

Day 4 -- October 21, 2007

Sunrise in Randolph found the photographers shooting scenes of the train crew preparing 1003 for the day, as well as glinty sunrise shots. Once the train was ready to go, we were told to find a spot somewhere between Randolph and Sunset Beach, then after getting that shot we were to gather at Sunset Beach. I knew the big field right in Randolph was as good as anyplace, so Jeff and I set up there, along with the father-and-son team of Bill and Mike Raia and others. Bill Raia was the man to stick with, as he was the liaison between the photographers and the train crew and he had the radio to communicate with the train -- the train wasn't going to get past him! If you knew where Bill was, you knew you were ahead of the train.

The 1003's freight consist was a mix of modern hopper cars and modern gondolas, and some had been badly vandalized with graffiti. An effort had been made to get most of the graffiti cars near the middle of the train, allowing for attractive shots of both the 1003 and the Soo Line caboose that trailed the train. Just before departure from Randolph, however, it was noted that the gondola up against the 1003 was badly vandalized, so a switching move was required to move the offensive car further back into the train. Our decision to stay at the field proved to be a good one, as we had a front row seat as the 1003 shuffled like a local train from the 1950s, setting out and making up its train. Once the train was together, 1003 backed through town and came roaring through for the benefit of the townsfolks (and us in the field). 

Hitting the car, we headed for Sunset Beach where most of the photo line was already set up at a nice pond just off Fox Lake. Here the 1003 made a nice series of runbys and everyone was able to capture a variety of angles. Then it was off to Horicon for lunch (and water for the locomotive). Before departing Horicon we photographed some of the Wisconsin & Southern diesel power there, and a simulated "hooping up orders" was done by the train order board, with the photo line doing the moving while the 1003 stayed in one place.

Out of Horicon, we set up for a shot just outside of town. From there the checkerboard roads and diagonal tracks kept us behind the train until we broke ahead near Woodland. Suddenly the 20-car motorcade descended into town and the first half dozen cars shot by the side road needed to access the tracks. With those cars wheeling around and turning into the side road from one direction and the other half of the motorcade not making the mistake and turning in from the other direction, it was like dueling motorcades as the cars poured into the side street. With about 90 percent of the photographers gathered at one spot, including Bill Raia and the radio, we had 1003 perform an unplanned runby through town.

Outside Woodland, the next planned runby was at a grade crossing that was fairly nondescript. The grade crossing just prior to that, however, featured a nice farm; fortunately, the back-up move for the primary runby spot took the 1003 back to the other grade crossing so folks were able to pick where they wanted to be. After that, it was off to the next crossing east where another nice farm was located. Here several runbys were planned. What wasn't planned was an antique car rolling up to the crossing. The car and its owners were quickly recruited as photo props and actors for several runbys.

Sunset was rapidly approaching, but so were clouds. The next runby location, at the cemetery in Rubicon, featured a couple of antique tractors. As the final runbys were held, the clouds swallowed the sun for good. Still, it had been an excellent day and an excellent weekend. The 1003 returned to Hartford and we said our goodbyes to each other and headed our separate ways.

Day 5 -- October 22, 2007
Jeff was catching an early flight back to Philadelphia, so I dropped him at the airport in Milwaukee. The dismal skies had me thinking about trying to find an early flight home, but Tuesday's forecast was good -- I decided to tough it out through Monday and hope for a better tomorrow.

I headed up to Slinger in search of Wisconsin & Southern action. At Slinger the WSOR crosses the CN's ex-Wisconsin Central, and approaching town I heard a northbound CN train. I set up on the overhead bridge at Ackerville and caught it there. I thought I heard a southbound WSOR train on the scanner, but the wait at Ackerville produced nothing. I followed the WSOR back through Hartford (there was the 1003 being cooled down before going back into the museum), Rubicon and Woodland (where I spotted a high-rail maintenance truck on the tracks -- no trains here) and went to Horicon. A check at the offices revealed there were no WSOR trains in easy reach, so I headed down towards the CP's ex-Milwaukee main line in search of action.

I finally landed at Richwood, where I shot Amtrak's Empire Builder heading east, followed by an eastbound freight. Trackwork had things gummed up and most of the eastbounds came to a halt, so I headed up to Atsico where I bagged a westbound (and missed a westbound). I headed back to Richwood where the westbounds were still rolling and caught the westward-heading Empire Builder bracketed by two freights. Bob Gallegos joined me after work, and we were later joined by Amtrak engineer Craig Willett who just happened by -- he had been running the eastbound Builder I had shot earlier. Finally, an eastbound rolled past (pretty much in the dark) and Bob and I headed for dinner in the restaurant that now occupies the former Milwaukee depot in Oconomowoc.

Day 6 -- October 23, 2007
I stayed in Hartford that night, and headed out first thing to check on the Wisconsin & Southern at Horicon. Once again, nothing doing. Okay, if I wasn't going to get the WSOR, there were two shots I really wanted before heading home on a 4:00 flight. The coaling tower over the former Chicago & North Western at Clyman Junction was high on my list, as was the shot at Grand Junction near the Miller brewery back in Milwaukee (the shot I had tried to get on Thursday). At least my airline gamble had paid off -- there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Bob Gallegos had given me a primer on interpreting signals at Clyman Junction, so I headed to the eastbound signals. Both green, which didn't mean much. I took a long drive around to the westbound signals and -- zounds -- a red signal. That meant an eastbound was imminent at the junction. I rocketed back to the coaling tower and pulled up in a cloud of dust just in time to almost get the shot I wanted as two light Union Pacific engines moved under the structure. Dang! The engines were heading up the branch that comes in near the coaling tower, and the conductor who was out throwing switches was friendly. I asked if there was anything out on the main line. Sure enough, there was an eastbound about 20 miles away. Excellent!

It took almost an hour, but soon I heard horns to the west. There were about three good angles at Clyman Junction, but I only had one train. I set up for the shot I wanted the most and waited. Much to my surprise, the train pulled up and stopped in the prime spot for photography directly under the coaling tower. It had to make a pickup from the adjacent yard, and each switching move took the engines back and forth under the coaling tower. To say I cleaned up would be an understatement.

With Clyman Junction a certified success, it was back to the other shot I wanted -- Grand Junction back in Milwaukee. The bad news was I only had about a one-hour window to get the shot before I had to head for the airport. The good news was the eastbound Empire Builder was scheduled to fall within that window. The best news was that the train was reported on time, according to Amtrak's Julie. The shot was crucial, though, because the Miller brewery had the classic Miller "bow tie" logo on a large sign on the roof, and with the pending Miller-Coors merger, the sign might not be long for this rooftop.

Arriving at Grand Junction, I noticed the sun hadn't quite swung around as much as I'd have liked, but it would do. I patiently waited. Uh, oh. A westbound CP freight suddenly came up from behind me. Please clear before Amtrak arrives... Okay, it cleared but -- here comes another westbound. Please clear....

Now I was looking at my watch. I had a 4:00 flight, and Amtrak should have come through at about 2:10. It was now 2:25 and I really had to go to the airport... Wait, I hear horns. Amtrak pulls through the shot at 2:27, my cameras are packed back into my luggage by 2:35, I'm at the airport by 2:55 dropping off the rental car, through security by 3:15 and I arrive at my gate at 3:25, with almost 40 minutes to spare before take-off. Success, indeed.

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