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.
As a rule, I don't spend a lot of money. Now, I'm sure you could look at my record collection or the odd assortment of Milwaukee Road (and even IC now) trinkets I've been collecting and say I'm lying, but if you actually could see my bank statement - well, one, I'd be curious how you got to see that, but two and more importantly, you'd see I currently don't really spend that much compared to what I bring in (which, also really isn't much, frankly). I probably spend more money on gas for chasing trains than I do, well... anything else, really.
Except this time! I was chatting with a friend about camera equipment recently and he commented he had gotten a good deal on some used pieces, stuff he would be set practically for life with. It got me thinking about my camera for a bit and I had to wonder if it was time to consider upgrading from my current one.
Since about, well, 2016 I suppose, I've been using a Canon EOS Rebel T6. It was a Christmas present that year and is definitely one of the best gifts I've ever received. The T6 was new that year, and even though it's been 5 years since the T6 was released, it's still an excellent camera. I took that thing everywhere - it went to Wyoming and Montana, Pennsylvania, practically all over the entire state of Illinois, Wisconsin, and then some. All of my favourite photos have come from that camera.
The T6 is part of the sort of "intermediate-amateur" range, I think. It's simple enough that really anyone can operate it with little explanation, but an experienced photographer can use the tools with it to nail an excellent shot. I'm by no means a professional, but I think I know a little more than just the absolute basics. Especially after having used the T6 for the better part of four years now, I became familiar with some of its limitations. It can do a lot, but there are things that it could do better.
I did some research over the weekend after that conversation with my friend, did some comparisons, and weighed my options. After some careful consideration and lots of hemming and hawing, I decided to move up to a Canon 80D!
It's a pretty typical Thursday afternoon on March 25th, 2021. Work is slow - orders have all been shipped and picked up, I've finished a spreadsheet for some item name changes, and some of my coworkers have already decided to call it a day a little early. In my corner of the warehouse, where I often work alongside two others, one has just left and we've said 'see ya tomorrow' to her. A few minutes later, I look at the corner of my computers screen. 4:40pm. Yeah, good enough for me.
I finished up and shut down for the night and after saying goodbye to my other coworkers, I clock out and head for home. As is usual for this time of year, it's cloudy as hell, another dreary day. It's par for the course considering just how dull of a workday it's been, zero excitements and a lot of just plain and simple boredom.
It's about halfway down North Market street I decide to turn on my scanner - I carry my camera and scanner with me everywhere these days, why not? My route home takes me near the south end of the IC's rail yard and if anything is ever sitting there, I can see it and decide if its worth stopping to shoot - or maybe even chase!
The scanner is quiet, the south end of the yard is empty. Well, it can't always be an exciting day, I figured. So, on I went towards home, thinking nothing of it.
As I'm headed down Bradley, my scanner crackled to life. A slightly static-y voice came through the speaker and said, "NS2, Homewood, requesting permission to proceed east through Champaign."
"All clear," came the response after a moment. They said something else, but I missed it. East through Champaign? There's only one line in Champaign that goes east. Today is a Thursday... Thursday is the day the NS local typically runs, and east means...
At this point, I'm a few blocks from the NS tracks that cross over Bradley near the intersection at Prospect. I looked closer and realized, oh yes, those are hoppers on the tracks moving east. There is an eastbound train. It is finally happening.
I promptly took the first available left and raced eastwards, hoping desperately I was going to be able to beat it. Normally, a simple NS freight train isn't much to write home about. However, there was something important here - but not the train itself. That train was headed for the diamond, and there are two signals on the NS that protect the diamond - the eastbound approach is an old searchlight signal, but the westbound approach is a semaphore signal. For months I'd been watching and waiting for the opportunity to snag a shot at the semaphore, but the way light works, a sunny day would mean shooting it would be impossible unless it's the morning, and NS very rarely - if ever - runs in the morning. Daytime is rare enough as it is!
The key to making sure I wasn't wasting my time was to hit the crossing near the diamond, right beside the switch that connects the CNIC to the NS and see which way the points were lined. Thanks to having spent a little too much time in the general area, I knew the route there like the back of my hand and checked it - the points were lined across the diamond, just as I hoped! Not to mention, the green over red signal really sent home the point: this train was headed across the diamond. A glance in the opposite direction showed headlights, and while they were slow, they didn't have to stop for anything but I most certainly did.
Stoplights and stop signs feel like they take hours when you're in a hurry. They are not fun. The whole way over, I can hear the NS local blowing for the crossings, and while I'm not exactly able to count exactly how many horn blasts and how many crossings and all that jazz - I'm driving here! - I do know that it's close. I made it across the IC, took a crossing over the NS again to see that yes, I was still beating it, but boy, I wanted to be at that signal already!
I was rather glad that I was now familiar with the route to the semaphore, as it took hardly two minutes to get there. I park up on the road beside it and see I'm not the only one aware of the local, there are two other railfans standing there. I grabbed my camera and headed over.
We greeted each other politely but really just focused on our cameras and the incoming NS local. I stood a little behind the other two guys, just far enough over to not get myself hit by the train nor get them in my shot. The local was still a few blocks away and I was already prepping my shot. I made it.
Whatever horn they had on the locomotive was nicely tuned, it was surprisingly pleasant sounding as it approached the old signal. It was also quicker than it looked, and before I knew it, I was grabbing shots as the train rolled beside the semaphore signal.
NS 6149 is former Norfolk & Western SD40-2 and has spent time across much of the NS since the N&W merged with Southern. At some point, it received chevrons on its plow, multiple beacons, and maybe even some RCO antennae on the roof. From what I've gathered, it was a former Bellevue hump engine that made its way out here since Bellevue was shuttered. It very leisurely pulled its four car train past the old semaphore.
The signal itself I know nothing about. I'm assuming it's former Peoria & Eastern or New York Central (or maybe the "Big Four" even?), but I do know it's been here for a while and looks pretty good all things considered. Being that it's located in Urbana, I knew I had to name the photo after a truly legendary Urbana landmark.
Obviously, I'm talking about the American Football house.
When the train had passed and I looked down at the shots on my camera, I had to say, I was quite happy with how the day had turned out.
Strange times as of late, but that's nothing new, is it?
I haven't done much worthy of a big-long post that I usually do. No trips planned, just trips I hope to take at some point. Hoping to get to the LS&I this year to catch the greens before they're removed from service, want to head east and visit West Virginia then meander a little farther to find some of the last PRR Position Lights, try to fit a steam engine in there somewhere... Mostly these days I'm just on the prowl for more IC deathstars and other notable things on the CN. In the past week or so, I've seen a half dozen deathstars, three barns, some Canadian cabs, a BCOL Dash 9WL, a GTW grey ghost/zebra, and some other odds and ends here and there. Some have been perfect for photos, others not so much.
Here's something completely different though: I bought a numberboard last month.
Piggybacking off of the recent post all about them, I've just put together a new gallery just for showcasing the Illinois Central deathstars!
Nothing too fancy, but it's a nice central location for all of my favourite photos of my favourite locomotives. I haven't been seeing too many of them since 1000/1035 with HESR 3868 on A408 a few weeks ago and I've been missing them, so I thought why not? Provided CN isn't hiding them away somewhere, there'll be more photos to add to the gallery as time goes on!
Also of note is the Highlights of 2020 gallery. I've had the banner for that up on the homepage and the main Photos page for a few weeks now, and with the IC Gallery in, I think it can join in as one of the regular galleries. Essentially, I picked my ten favourite photos from last year and put them all in one gallery with some words about why I they're all my favourites.
That's all there is to it - just a quick announcement we have a new gallery to make a total of six. The images above both link to their respective galleries, so if you haven't seen one or the other yet, check 'em out!
With 2020 done and over now, we often find ourselves reflecting on the past year on the best and worst parts. Of course, it wasn't a normal year - not even close. At the very least, though, it's been a year for music. Maybe not the best year for the obvious reasons, but regardless, there've been so many releases in the past year, and some of them have been well and truly spectacular. Some are just bangers made of wicked sounds, others are powerful and simply beautiful.
So now, I'd like to count down my personal top ten favourite releases of 2020. I've spent most of the year on other, older music, but I've still been keeping up with the newest tunes here and there, and there are some really spectacular songs that I've had the pleasure of listening to. Some of them are albums, some of them are singles, but they're all released in 2020 and I love them.
Without further ado, let's have a listen!
2020: The Year of the Deathstar
In years past, when asked about the things I take photos of, I always answered with trains - of course - but always specified something to the effect of: "only really interesting ones, like steam engines. I would never go chase a diesel because they aren't very interesting."
Well, suffice to say I don't say that anymore.
I happen to live at an interesting railroad crossroads of sorts. The old east-west line, owned by too many companies in years past to list but including the New York Central, Penn Central, Conrail, and now Norfolk Southern, certainly acts as a bit of a dividing line in town. But it's the north and south mainline of the Illinois Central that is the true split. It literally divides the town in half and is very much a focal point in the town. In fact, this mainline is the reason the town exists at all.
The Illinois Central went through many changes over the years, including a rebranding into the Illinois Central Gulf after its merger with the Gulf, Mobile, & Ohio, but its parent company finally dumped the railroad on its own in the 1980s. Finally, the IC was on its own again, and ready to rebrand. The new Illinois Central saw a dip back to its classic black paint, but with a new set of logos - a big "i" overtop a circle made up only of parallel lines. The birth of the Illinois Central Death Star.
Somehow, six years have gone by since I started this site. I think we can easily pull another six, and more... but the original reason SMWorks was made is no longer the focus of the site. At one time, I fancied myself a content creator for the train simulator Trainz. Quite fancy indeed, isn't it?
SMWorks was made to host my Trainz creations to allow for others to download them. Most of that content has continued to be up for download, and in fact I retained most of the sites old pages that linked to that and kept them exactly as they were when I decided to convert the site over to be what it is now.
However, the time has come, and it's time to remove the last of the Trainz content from the site.
Hello, my name is SM, and this is where I write.
This little blogspace is where my thoughts go - whether it's talking about a photography trip or a DJ mix, this is where it all ends up.
SMWorks isn't free to run! Consider sending a little support our way if you can.