How do you describe the craziest year of your life?
I don't know. I don't think there's one right answer. I do know that this year was insane from start to finish. I put almost 20,000 miles on my car over the course of the year crisscrossing my home state, flying up and down the northern edge of the American south, venturing north to the Marquette Iron Range and to the cold fields of Minnesota, and so many farm roads across neighbouring midwestern states, I couldn't even begin to plot out a path of where I've been. Then there were the additional, oh, I don't know, 8,000 miles of travel by air, bus, and train that took me to and across London, England. Christ, I've been moving around a lot this past year.
Where do I really begin?
The rumour mill had been saying it for about two years at this point that the IAIS QJ 6988 would be doing a few runs when the official announcement came that this oddity would be performing fundraising excursions for local fire departments in Iowa in August 2021. From what I gathered, 2020 excursions were supposed to have happened, but, well, the obvious. But, with extended boiler time, the QJ had a few weekends to do things in 2021 - and they used them well!
As the dates for trips for my summer and fall began to pile in and organise themselves, the QJ happened to line up really nicely. Slated at less than a week from the Big Boy 2021 trip, it would be a tight squeeze for sure - one that meant I had barely enough time to put out a few QJ shots before the Big Boy would envelope the next few weeks of my life. In trying to get the photos and words edited and put out with that big trip, paired with the next few coming up, the QJ fell by the wayside, and I never really made note of it here except for the photos that appeared in the gallery one day.
Well, I'd say it's about time to correct that!
With 2021 being chock full of trips and photo opportunities alike, it's been a very busy year to say the least. Late summer and fall were really intense - a weekend with the IAIS 6988, then just a few days later embarking on the Big Boy 2021 tour, and the back-to-back London/Drumsheds and MILW261 trips (not to mention the LS&I trip a month and some change before it all). It was just packed. So, of course, there has to be something to round it all off.
Well, in that case, I took another adventure up north to Wisconsin to see the Soo Line 1003, where I participated in the Trains Magazine photo charter with the little 2-8-2. Now that was quite a weekend, and quite a send off as my last trip for the year. Clocking in at three days including transit, this little outing would prove to be quite the experience indeed.
When I was writing Big Boy 2021 and A Trip To London, I mentioned I'd received a surprise message from the official Union Pacific Railroad Instagram account. I think it's time to finally fully acknowledge just what that entailed!
Earlier this year, when UP was just announcing the Big Boy 2021 tour, they added a little note in their email that said this:
We LOVE seeing your photos of our steam locomotives, and during the 2021 tour, we're going to be giving away Big Boy T-shirts to people who post the best photos during the tour to their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds using the #BigBoy2021 hashtag! Make sure the permissions on your posts are public so we can see them, and watch your DMs on each platform to see if your photo has been selected as a winner!
So, naturally, I did tag my photos with that hashtag, really just expecting a little extra traffic on them. I did not, however, expect to actually be one of those winners.
On Sunday, September 26th, I landed back in the United States on a plane ride from London to Chicago. Then, on Thursday, September 30th, I was hightailing it up I-39/I-94 to Minneapolis to chase the Milwaukee Road 261 for the weekend after last second major car repairs and a distinct lack of sleep from the previous few days.
What the hell was I thinking?
I still can't believe we did it.
Somehow, despite this ridiculous rollercoaster of a pandemic, despite schedule changes last minute, despite the incredibly complicated logistics of getting nine people together... we did it. Nine of us met up in London, England, to go see Pendulum Trinity @ The Drumsheds, packing into a single AirBnB in Stratford. How the hell did we pull this off?
I wrote most of this blogpost about four or so months ago, but forgot about it. While reorganizing some files today and working on other posts, I decided to go ahead and do a quick editing pass and post it. Without further ado, please enjoy this brief post on this important piece of Milwaukee Road railroading history!
A few weeks ago, I received a direct message from a friend with a heads up, one I had never been expecting to get. Usually the heads ups I get are something to the effect of a heritage unit or IC or something coming near me - but this one was a little out of the way. The Pan Am Railways (Maine Central) #609 had arrived in Mervis Recycling in Decatur, IL, to be scrapped.
Why did somebody tell me about a Pan Am engine when I'm not even interested in the Pan Am?
Because this isn't original to Pan Am, Guilford, or Maine Central - whichever name the questionable company wants to go by today. This is the legendary Milwaukee Road #156.
And here it was, ready to be scrapped.
Just over two years ago, I returned home from a brief two day venture chasing the Union Pacific 4014 - the Big Boy - from Chicago to Des Moines. That had been a hectic couple of days, but good ones all the same. When I got home, I wondered when I'd next get the chance to see the Big Boy.
I didn't realize it would be over two years later. With a worldwide pandemic shutting down the 2020 excursion plans, neither 4014 or 844 had the chance to go anywhere, nor did we have the chance to go out and get them anyways. Of course, I would end up filling that void with IC deathstars and various shortline operations, among other things, so it all worked out.
The IAIS QJ 6988 had been the latest chance to see steam, but before that, it was the SOO Line 1003 photo charter (which I'll be participating in again this year, now that I've learned a decent bit more since last year). My summer this year has been quiet, photo wise, save for the LS&I, QJ, and the handful of ICs I've caught, so when the UP steam program came out with the announcement that 4014 would be running a month long excursion, one that came within spitting distance of home... Well, the only question was how many days off of work I could take!
Once again, it was time to return to a classic - the one and only Union Pacific Big Boy #4014.
For almost a year now, I've been saying that I'd like to visit the LS&I. The iron mining railroad is home to unique operations and locomotives, and I've wanted to try and get some shots of that. As one of the last operators of some aging GE diesel engines and running a fleet of nearly a thousand ore cars dating from the 1930s to the 1960s, it's attracts many from across the country to watch the taconite trains lumber up the hills and out of the open pit mines.
Finally, after much deliberation and egging on, I ventured north to Marquette, Michigan to see the Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad in action.
Something I frequently talk about is my ongoing hunt for the IC Deathstars, where I always say that "you never know when they're going to disappear one day." It's an unfortunate truth, in that everything does come to an end eventually and we won't be able to catch everything. One hundred years ago, the thought of steam locomotives going away would be strange to most folks, yet within three decades, almost the entire country was dieselized and steam was a rarity. The first and second generation EMDs are a dying breed, and now catching a pair of SD40s on a road freight is rare. The oldest diesels are entirely gone from revenue service, and even newer engines have disappeared completely.
Now, we are down another unique class. As of May 8th, 2021, the CN/Illinois Central's Blue Devils are retired. Their numbers dwindled down to a mere seven, with some lost to CN noodle paints and the Dash 8 purge last year. Now, though, six of the seven blue devils are listed as retired on CN's roster. Only 2466 wasn't listed, but the most recent sightings showed in storage in Canada, essentially marking it as dead now too.
With only seven to catch, spotting them was something I didn't expect to do. I only ever saw three of them before they were all retired.
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