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.

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