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.
So, why the LS&I?
As mentioned previously, the railroad is unique in, well, pretty much every way. The motive power is all leased AC4400CWs from CEFX, with the exception of four other GEs. Two C30-7s and two U30Cs, all four ex-BN, make up the backup power for the railroad. They are all some of the last of their kind in operation and are the railfan favourite. These engines, all nicknamed 'greens' for their BN green paintjobs, are rather elusive, only coming out when the AC44 sets are all busy or a set is down for maintenance. You are not guaranteed to see any of the greens if you go there - and that's a risk you have to take if you're looking to shoot those.
Nonetheless, the blue AC44s - nicknamed bluebirds or sometimes just blues - are still a neat catch and the ore cars they all drag behind them even more so. With cars dating back to the mid 1930s and the newest on roster from the mid 1960s, the LS&I ore car fleet is one of the oldest in operation today. These cars are short, all 24ft long from coupler to coupler, and built bulky and stocky to hold the heavy weight of the iron they carry.
Speaking of iron, that's what the LS&I moves. However, it's not straight iron ore - it's taconite pellets. Taconite was once considered an iron waste rock, but after the more pure iron ores disappeared, this rock became more valuable. It's mined and processed into pellets in order to remove the waste, the latter of which becomes the tailings famous on the open pit mines. The small size of the pellets and the age of the old ore cars causes large spillage over time, and it's clear as day which tracks are owned by the LS&I and which are owned by CN as the LS&I's are covered in taconite pellets.
My goal was to come to the railroad and shoot everything I could. Even if I wasn't exactly breaking new ground with shots, I wanted to see the railroad as it currently stands, before things change - and that's what spurred this trip on.
It's common knowledge the greens are on borrowed time. They were supposed to be retired last year, but Covid threw a wrench into those plans. Instead, the greens will go down permanently in August this year as far as we know. The lease on the bluebirds ends this year too, so by this time next year, the motive power situation could look very, very different. I wanted to see the current power - the AC44s, and if I was lucky, some greens.
An eight hour drive on Saturday took me from home to Marquette. Day one of five... not yet done. I was coming into Marquette and exploring it a little - checking out the ore dock, the roads around it and the railroad, that sort of thing - when I turned my scanner on for the hell of it, just to hear a train get permission from the Operator (the LS&I's version of Dispatcher) to head down to the Tilden mine. How's that for a start?
I scurried over to Eagle Mills to hopefully catch the train, but obviously didn't, although I did find I wasn't the only one waiting there, so I hung out for a while.
A while turned into two hours, until the train finally returned, and with loaded taconite cars! My first real taste of the LS&I - the above photo, "Simple Beginnings," was that first train.
With that said and done, I retreated back to Marquette and checked into my hotel, taking the rest of the day to myself. There I talked with some friends online more about operations on the railroad, spots to try to get to, and the like. One friend had been at the LS&I just the week before and offered to give me some tips and a quick little map of the named areas.
This area was to be my focus, the so-called Ore Sub. It's short, but offers a great shots anywhere you go.
Operations on the LS&I are relatively simple. The railroad works in 3 shifts - 7am, 3pm, and 11pm - and each train is named after the shift. So, a run down to the Tilden mine at 7am is called the 7 Tilden. Trains that go up to Marquette are the 'Yard-Hill' trains, trains that work the ore dock are 'Dock' trains, and 'Tilden' trains run to the Tilden mine - the only customer on the railroad. The order of operations is as such:
Tilden trains bring empty ore jennies down from Eagle Mills to the Tilden mine to be loaded in 120 car sets, loading them 60 at a time and bringing them back (about a 90-120min process per 60 cars). The loaded cars at Eagle Mills are then taken up to Marquette by the Yard-Hill job, parking them at the Marquette yard. The Dock job will then take loaded cars from the MQT yard and load them onto the dock, swapping the loaded and empty cars. At the dock itself, great lakes freighters come in and take on the taconite thats loaded into the dock pockets and from the cars directly itself. The Yard-Hill will collect empties and return them to Eagle Mills, where the process starts again.
Additionally, there is the Weigher job, where ex-CNW hoppers (standard sized, not ore jennies) are loaded about halfway with taconite from Tilden and interchanged with CN at Partridge Yard. This job takes the longest, as the hoppers are loaded manually with front end loaders (apparently! as you can't actually get close to see these things). They are only loaded halfway because of how dense taconite is - fully loaded hoppers like that would be too much for the tracks and the bridge at Sault Ste Marie, the destination for these cars.
Speaking of the mine, it should be noted that the LS&I runs by two open-pit mines, side by side, but only operates one of them. The Tilden mine to the southwest is the only one of the two still operating, while the closer Empire mine has sat idle since 2016. The Empire mine is the source of the name Empire Junction, which is something that will be referred to often. Interestingly, the tailings pile at Tilden is the highest point in the state of Michigan, while the open pit at Empire is the lowest point at the state. Also interesting to note, all those lakes around Empire/Palmer Line? Those are filled open pit mines. Those perfectly circular holes you see near those and up in Neguanee in the upper left? Collapsed mineshafts and stopes. Yeah, not my idea of a good time, either. I kept a healthy distance from those.
Come Sunday, I headed out early to catch any possible 7am trains, as well as the early CN local. CN trains are daily here, while the LS&I traffic on weekends is more sporadic. With the knowledge that a freighter was inbound that night, I hoped for some additional traffic - the more traffic, the better the chance for greens.
I hung around Eagle Mills on Sunday morning, eventually moving to the junction. While wandering around the area and pondering what shots I could get, I met another railfan and we chatted briefly until my scanner came to life, announcing the 7 Weigher departing Eagle Mills. A short few minutes later, and the train came rolling around the tight curve with the ex-CNW hoppers in tow.
Sunday was a pretty quiet day, with little else for trains. The CN local, L549 if I understand their schedule correctly, made an appearance after a little while. While I had been planning on it already, a friend suggested I climb the rocks at Eagle Mills Jct, so I happened to be hanging around up there when that showed up.
Waiting a little while longer netted me nothing, and once again from some poking from others, I decided to take the plunge and take the road to Empire junction.
There are two roads to get to the junction - Miller Road and Rolling Mill Road. A small offshoot on Miller takes you to the Partridge Yard, as well, which I'll dub Partridge Road. As I was closer to it, I took Miller towards the junction. Calling that road rough is a major understatement - you can go no faster than 5mph for the overwhelming majority of it. There are massive potholes and few ways around them. My car, a small thing, didn't particularly enjoy the trip, but it made it to the area all the same.
Driving towards the junction is something else. The colossal, artificial mountains that are the tailings piles make for some of the most incredible scenery. You can't get very near them - Empire Junction is about the closest you can actually get - but even from a distance, it's hard to deny their presence.
The Empire Junction area is a neat one to shoot. What with being close to the old mines and three tracks, all headed in different directions, it makes for a great central location to pick shots from. I wandered the area a bit, then decided to check out Partridge.
I am not kidding, Partridge Road is the worst road I've ever driven on. My car really did not like that one.
While there were no cars or trains to speak of, there was the approach lit searchlight there, so that was neat. I didn't stick around for long as clouds rolled in and it was beginning to rain, and I did not want to mess with these roads when they were wet. Thus, I took Rolling Mill Road out, which I found to be more agreeable than Miller. Ironically, the paved portion was worse than the dirt/gravel portion!
Shortly after getting away from the really nasty roads, I found CN departing from Eagle Mills. I just beat it south of Eagle Mills Jct. You'll note the power on the train has changed - apparently the lead SD60 from earlier, a former Oakway unit no less, was giving them trouble, so an SD70I replaced it.
I followed it to a bridge on M35 near Goose Lake, as well. Friendly crew, got a wave and a little blast on the horn, which is always nice.
Finally, the 7 Weigher returned to Eagle Mills, running light power as it had dropped off its cars earlier.
Later in the evening, CN would return with empty cars for the next Weigher and leave light, as well. That concluded Sunday, which was definitely my exploration day while there. Only one LS&I train and no greens. Bummer, but it was still a productive day, and being a weekend I wasn't expecting much. Thus, it was the end of day two.
The next day started off with a 7 Yard-Hill job, one of the few times I would be shooting any of the northbound trains. I was waiting down at Eagle Mills West (West is where Tilden/Partridge-bound trains come out of, East is where trains bound for Marquette depart from) when the call came in over the scanner. I figured if a Tilden was called I'd sprint back and catch it in time. The plan was to head to a spot between Eagle Mills and Route 41, but that road turned out to be private, so I decided to actually head up to Highway 550 for a quick shot.
Not my most creative shots, though they were pretty on-the-fly and with little familiarity with the area, so, you know.
With that train out and working the yard, I returned to Eagle Mills Junction to catch my first 7 Tilden train! 7 Tildens are usually the best bet for greens, so while I kept my hopes tempered, I did still hope.
Of course, it was all blues, but I did still pull a nice shot out of it.
With empties headed down to Tilden, it was a matter of time before loads came back. A friend told me it was about 1.5-2 hours in his experience, which gave me plenty of time to head back down Miller Road and to Empire Junction. I waited there for quite some time, but I got what I was looking for, anyway!
Imposing sights, those tailing piles. I sat on the side of the embankment on Rolling Mill to get that shot. Well worth it.
Also a good time to highlight the ore jennies - they are impressive things. Very hefty, bulky builds they are. They just look heavy, don't they?
I took my leave of Empire Junction again, once again heading down Rolling Mill. It was looking like rain yet again, so I got ahead of the curve. I did stop momentarily to get a shot looking back at one of the water-filled open pit mines and the Empire tailing piles.
Some time later, while it was raining more steadily, the blues finished their work and returned to Eagle Mills light power. I followed them back, but didn't really get any photos worth much. The rain definitely wasn't on my side for that, nor was my lens and the slightly higher ISO values I had to use. Higher ISO and adjustable lenses like mine, with a wider area to cover (18-135mm), tend to cause little green 'flares' around headlights at times. It can be extremely problematic at times, and ruins shots more often than I can count.
While the Tilden train was apparently done, a 3 Hill was sent out, so I decided to grab a shot of it at a different spot than I had earlier. It meant standing in rain for a long while, but I'd been in worse storms for worse shots, so I stuck it out and waited. Ended up working out alright if I do say so myself.
While I was waiting for the Hill train, the Operator released a 3 Tilden with CEFX units in the lead, so I wasn't too concerned about missing that. Once the Hill train was passed, I checked my phone and decided to do something... different.
Earlier I mentioned a great lakes freighter coming into Marquette. That was the Lee A. Tregurtha, which arrived Sunday night around midnight, and departed around 9-10am. It just so happened that a second freighter was arriving at the ore dock... well, right then, actually. The last update on MarineTraffic showed it as having docked already, but that wasn't quite true. I decided to head down to grab a shot or two, then head back to Eagle Mills and wait for the 3 Tilden. What I didn't know was that the Kaye E. Barker was in the middle of pulling in at the second I arrived at the ore dock.
As a small crowd formed on the beach, I made my way closer to watch the ship come in. It was a bit of a test, as being so near open water is rather nerve wracking for me - this is why I absolutely refuse to board any ships or boats for any reason at all. Open water is terrifying. I make a point to stay far, far away from it, but here was an exception as it's not often you see these sorts of things.
The Barker was unloading limestone, not taking on ore (or, at least it didn't while I was there), but it was an impressive sight nonetheless. The self-unloading crane is immense, the siren they play before they begin unloading is startling, and the sheer size of the whole ship is breathtaking. Whole different scale than the trains.
Eventually, I called it and returned to Eagle Mills Junction. It was absolutely pouring down rain, so much so I couldn't even get a focus on the engines returning north. The next photo illustrates how bad the rain was, I think.
My scanner informed me that CN U745 was making its way in a short while after 3 Tilden. I decided to take the risk and climb up the wet rocks to get a height advantage on it. Based on the photos of 3 Tilden and some I'd seen online recently, I knew the rain would be good for headlights, so if I could actually focus it right this time, it could work out nicely. It did!
I have to say though, I'm very thankful I packed an umbrella with me.
After dropping their cars at Eagle Mills, the CN power retreated back through the junction, which I shot quickly. Shortly after that, the LS&I sent out a pair of blues to haul 4 cars of bentonite clay down to Tilden, a material used in the pellet-making process. Naturally, unbeknownst to me, my scanner proceeded to run out of battery shortly after they were starting to talk about it, so I didn't know the train was coming until it was right on top of me. I ended up taking my car a bit quickly down the beat up New Buffalo Road down to the crossing there and shot it headed towards Palmer Line Junction.
With that, my day was over, and I was off to my hotel to finally eat and sleep after another very long day. 6am to nearly 10pm out shooting makes for quite the long day.
The next day was as the last two had been - up at 6am and over to Eagle Mills around 7, where I'd hope for Tilden trains. Well, no such luck unfortunately. The only train I saw was the 7 Weigher that morning, and I didn't shoot anything else until the light power came back at just after 3pm. Yeah, not my ideal morning either.
Thankfully, there was a 3 Tilden to shoot, which my scanner alerted me to well before it was on its way (and this time I had some extra batteries on hand for when it inevitably died late in the day so I wouldn't be caught off guard again). At the recommendation of a friend, I decided to make my way to Palmer Line Junction. I hadn't yet gone there as the road there off of Miller was impassable by my car - much too rough and steep (so not a matter of just a bad road, my car physically couldn't do it. Thankfully I didn't try it!) but it was accessible by foot. So, after rolling down to Empire Junction, I parked up, got my stuff together, and made a short hike down to Palmer Line.
To make the short hike, I took the small dirt track road that I had decided to keep my car off of. I have to say, I was quite glad I decided to keep the car away from that road, as even on foot it's a pretty tough grade. One thing is for sure, this trip got me out in the environment much more than I usually do. Good change of pace.
Palmer is a particularly good spot for signals, as there's two single-headed and one double-headed searchlight signal sets that make it up. Good rocks for climbing, nice rock cutouts - it's a great spot as a whole.
I didn't have to wait long for 3 Tilden to come rolling through, thankfully.
Facing the mines, you can see how picturesque the junction is. If I ever make a trip back, I will be sure to come back to Palmer more for sure!
With a successful shot of the southbound train under my belt, I returned to my car. This time I hiked back along the CN tracks, as it was an easier route and my car was parked right at the crossing there as well.
I decided to hang around Empire Junction and moved up to the LS&I crossing instead of the CN crossing, and waited there for 3 Tilden to return. I wasn't waiting for long until I discovered the days forecast wasn't quite accurate.
That is not a sight you want to see while sitting on a dirt and gravel road in a small car, really. If nothing else, it does make for rather dramatic photos... if only the train had been around then, hah!
Thankfully it didn't pour too hard, but it was a bit distressing to see that storm come overhead like that. An hour and a half later, 3 Tilden's first section made its appearance.
Some friends had visited the DMIR earlier in the year, and one of the shots one of them took had been stuck in my head for a while. I took a page out of his book and tried to go for a blurred photo of the loaded taconite hoppers.
I have to say, I was rather pleased with it. Tough to do what with the awkward light created by the lingering light clouds, but with clouds overhead, it did make it a bit easier to try on the fly.
With the first section returning to Eagle Mills, I left Empire and headed there to finally get a single shot at M35. The powerline corridors make for some very neat sightlines, so I had to get it at least once.
With the 3 Tilden's light power off and working the second section, I hung around Eagle Mills Jct to go for two shots. One was of the CN power returning from Eagle Mills and headed to Partridge. The searchlights there were too good to pass up!
I expected light power, but they had some actual freight with them, so that was a nice little bonus. All the old RCPE/DME hoppers are nice to see, not something I ever see back home.
Back at the climbable rocks, I parked up my camera on my tripod and set up a shot behind the trees. Light here was... tough, to say the least. I took the shot at 10pm under clouds, so not exactly ideal in terms of light. The difficulty really comes from balancing headlights and ISO. As it gets darker, you need a higher ISO to help balance the shutter speed, but this is a double edged blade as that means headlights are bright. The issue comes down to the fact that, with less light, you need a slower shutter speed to get a full exposure, but too slow means the moving train will be motion blurred. Raising the ISO raises light sensitivity, which allows for a quicker shutter speed to capture the train in a still image - but that's what also kills you. The locomotive headlights are included in that, and so they become a lot brighter despite the quicker shutter speed. Plus, higher ISOs can result in a greenish glow around the headlights, which can ruin photos as it's not easy to edit out (and sometimes not possible, really).
All that to say, it's hard to win here. I'm not totally happy with the shot, but I'm not completely done with it. Some more time in the editing booth and maybe I'll have something I'll be happy enough to publish.
Like I said, that was shot at 10pm. I shot that and went to my hotel again, completely and utterly exhausted. I really considered sleeping in a bit more the next day, my last day, but ultimately decided not to risk it and only gave myself an extra half hour instead of the full two I was thinking about.
Thank god for that.
Wednesday was my last day. I had to return home by the end of it, but I had the morning to shoot with at least. I figured I'd shoot whatever 7 trains there were for their run south, then maybe a northbound run, but I made the choice to call it at noon regardless. Only if there was something really worth shooting would I hang around later.
So, I got a little more up close and personal with the 7 Weigher as it rounded the corner. It's amazing to me what shooting in RAW allows for - here's the original, unedited, and then the final, fully edited, photo.
It certainly highlights some of the, shall we say, imperfections, with the final image, but I think it's interesting to see some of the process behind these things. I do 95% of my editing in the Camera RAW Editor in Photoshop (& Bridge), with just a handful of things I do in Photoshop itself (namely compositing images or removing obstructions or items from the background).
Shortly after 7 Weigher left, I was left with a decision. Go home now, or hope for another 7 train? The weigher's power wouldn't return for a good 6 or 7 hours most likely, but if a 7 train showed up, well, that'd be better. I decided to stick it out for a little while.
A few minutes later, my scanner crackles to life, and the Operator says, "Okay, 7 Tilden, you are cleared to run to the Tilden Mine." Well alright, I can shoot another train, hopefully catch one return trip, then maybe call it. I stayed up on the rocks, and just took a shot from a crap spot. It was actually a very poor decision to shoot where I did, because thanks to how the light and scenery worked out, my camera refused to focus on the train itself.
But I'm still so, so glad I stuck around. Because finally, on the fifth and final day of the trip, I got what I came for.
I cannot possibly explain to you in words just how simultaneously exciting and relieving seeing that cascade green and white striped nose round the corner was. Finally, finally, the greens were here. The horrendously fouled horn on the 3009, while objectively a bad horn, felt like music to my ears. The sound of the engines themselves, that was really special. What I got were the two 1974-built U30Cs, or Uboats, which are known for just chugging like nothing else. Uboats are extraordinarily rare to see operating today, so being able to see the Uboat pair was nothing short of a treat.
When they passed, I initially made to go back to Marquette to run a last minute errand, but I decided halfway through not to. With the engines running light, it was entirely possible to my mind that they could come back with a string of loaded cars quick - perhaps an 11 train the night before would have left some ready to go? I decided not to risk it and returned, this time climbing up the rocks with my tripod in hand and taking the time to get the shot I wanted.
However, before I could do that, I was greeted by CN L540 on its way to Partridge. Naturally, I had to stop and shoot that.
I knew I couldn't quite escape the IC!
About an hour later, L540 returned with its new cars from Partridge, which gave me the opportunity to more properly test my shot with the Uboats. This proved to be perfect, as I was then able to more finely tune a few things and prepare for the slightly awkward light that permeates Eagle Mills Junction.
And then, about 40 minutes later, 7 Tilden was back. The echo of the aging 7FDL from the rocks and trees was something to behold, and the unique clanking of the 24ft ore jennies just never got old. You wouldn't believe how many times I pressed the shutter for this shot...
Of course, that was just the first section - the second had yet to come through. The 3000 & 3009 dropped their loaded cars in Eagle Mills, then returned via the junction towards the Tilden Mine. Well, you know me, so you know what I had to do.
Such gutsy, smokey engines, the uboats. They're a delight to shoot.
With those having passed by, I had a good hour and a half, two hours, to go find my next spot. I ran that errand in Marquette and then decided to call my last shot of the trip at Palmer Line Junction. After all, I'd shot Eagle Mills Jct plenty, and I was up for a little adventure, one last time down the gnarly Miller & Rolling Mills roads.
So, off I went, parking up near the track that leads to Partridge. The short hike down the tracks to the junction itself was pretty uneventful to start with, but then... things changed, as they often do. The last time I had gone down to Palmer Line I had taken my backpack and some of my stuff with me, as I didn't want to be potentially sat a decent distance from my car without something I might need - say, you know, water or something. Well, this time I brought my umbrella along, and I was very, very glad that I had!
Clouds rolled in over me as I neared the junction, then they began to open up. It couldn't have been more than thirty seconds after getting my umbrella open that I noticed something different about this rain - it wasn't just rain. It was hail.
Somehow, the UP weather had decided to throw hailstones at me. Wonderful. I could plainly hear them on my umbrella and see them striking the taconite-laden tracks, where the clear-white stones stand out quite clearly from the browns of the iron ore pellets. The hail and rain didn't make it much easier to find a footing on the stuff, that's for sure.
Thankfully, the hail subsided relatively quickly, and the rain was all but gone another ten or fifteen minutes later, but that did leave some cloud cover. Just enough for a decent backdrop but not enough to totally cover the sun. Win-win in my book.
After finding a spot that was slightly more stable than the other areas along the taconite-covered embankment, I waited. I didn't have to wait long, about a half hour, and then the chug of the Uboats radiated out of the artificial valley created by the Empire tailings. Before I knew it, they were on me.
Would you like to know something interesting? End Credits is actually fake. Not entirely, of course, the train was there, the scenery was as it was - except one thing. The signals were unlit until the first of the ore jennies had cleared the mast. Conveniently, however, I had taken a photo from nearly the same angle of the lit signals (and a lot of loaded ore cars! They never stop looking cool). A teensy bit of compositing, and End Credits was born. It's not such a significant change to be unbelievable, though, which is why I made it. When I do edits like that, I try to keep it believable - something that could happen.
And that... was all she wrote. 7 Tilden was returning to Eagle Mills, and by the time I got to my car, the Operator told the crew to park up the Uboats at the shops, so I knew my day was finally over.
Wait, not yet!
The 7 Weigher was right behind 7 Tilden and came thundering out of Empire as I was just stepping out of my car. The Operator was attempting to manually clear them into Partridge, but they got the light they needed first, and they were underway. I had to do a decent run down towards the right track, but I got there just in time.
And now... now we're done. With the Weigher and Tilden trains finishing up, I was done too. I had stayed later than I was planning, nearly 2pm, and I needed to get started on the eight hour drive home. I had bene planning on stopping in Escanaba to take a quick peak at some baldwins parked there, but a horrendous storm washed away any hopes of doing that. The storm nearly washed away me too, as it ferociously poured down sheets of rain so thick I couldn't see a damn thing for well over an hour. A little while after coming into Wisconsin, I was able to escape the worst of it, and by Green Bay, things were mostly clear from there. At that point, I just wanted to get home.
So there you have it, five days away from home and exploring the LS&I. Overall, it was a really great experience, with enough variety to easily warrant a trip back. I can already think of new shots I want to try, new angles and positions, and I'd really love to shoot the Mineral Range as well. I ultimately didn't see tons of trains, but what I did see was unique and different from what I see at home, which alone was worth it. I met a few folks while I was shooting trains and ships alike who were friendly, and even the LS&I crews seemed friendly - I got plenty of waves and, hey, nobody called me in, so that just made it even better.
If you're considering going to shoot the LS&I - do it! If you want greens, you'd better be quick though, as after 2020 you won't be seeing them anymore according to the information I have. If you are planning on shooting the railroad, bring extra batteries for your scanner, and know that you may not see much sometimes. If you can time your trip to coincide with a ship, that'll be your best bet. Even then, there's a lot of waiting as loading at Tilden takes 1.5 to 2 hours per run. This does give you plenty of time to explore and find a good spot to shoot from though, so pick your battles. Learn the roads and ultimately, just enjoy it. The UP was great, and I definitely want to come back and see more of it some day.
Anyways, that's all I have for you today. There's an LS&I gallery on the Photos page coming shortly, along with some new graphics for the site to coincide with that. Thanks for reading!
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