Milwaukee Road 261 - 2021 Dining Train
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?
Earlier in the year when creating plans for fall trips - eg the London Drumsheds trip, the LS&I - the 261 had been a very strong possibility. After being down the year prior due to the obvious, a return made perfect sense. When the announcement came back in June that the Gourmet Express was returning, I was very excited! I knew I had to go. Then I saw the dates and paused for a moment. October 2nd & 3rd. Interesting timing, considering that October 1st would be my 22nd birthday. What timing, right?
Well, I didn't really feel like driving for 8 hours on my birthday, so I decided to give myself an extra day for this years trip. Instead of my usual drive up Friday, chase the weekend, drive home Monday, I'd give myself Friday for... well, myself, and use Thursday to drive up. It would turn out that not only was this a good idea in terms of chasing and photos and such, but also that them pushing the trip to October instead of late August or September, as had been tradition in years past, meant that there was no overlap with the coming Drumsheds trip, and when that got pushed back to September (which would then allow for the Big Boy), the timing worked incredibly well. Time had opened up for everything all at once - the QJ, the Big Boy, London, 261, and then the SOO 1003 a month later to cap it all off.
Of course, that meant the time between London and 261 was very short. I took that Monday after the London trip off because I knew I'd be jetlagged to hell and back. So, with Tuesday and Wednesday to work, and Thursday to drive up, it would be tight, but doable.
Well, it was a lot harder to do than I thought. On the way home from O'Hare on Sunday night, my car started to make bad noises. And by bad noises, I mean that it was loud. The whole car just seemed plain loud. While I was groggy and half asleep, I just said fuck it, we'll deal with it later, and of course I didn't do anything with it on Monday. On my way to work on Tuesday, though... yeah, it did not sound good. At all. We thought maybe it was the muffler going bad, so the next day we took it in and hoped it would just be that and we'd get that fixed up, no problem.
So, trouble, yes. Lots of trouble. I got the call a few hours later at work, and the mechanic told me that while, yes, there was an exhaust leak, my cars exhaust manifold was cracked and it'd be a $1500 replacement. Yikes. Well, I can't say no, so I said yeah go ahead and do it, and he assured me they'd have it done midday the next day. It meant I'd be getting into Minneapolis late, but... well, I need my car working right, so there wasn't much of an alternative.
Turns out that whoever had previously owned the car had pulled the whole engine out at some point and not put back in a certain bracket that supported that manifold, and over the past few years, it'd cracked open. That, paired with the heavy stress I put this poor Kia Rio through (and horrendous roads I take), had done that in. It was doubly stressful as my parents were heading off on a long vacation the same day I was leaving, so I had to rely on my brother to take me to the shop when the car was done.
Although I got it back a few hours because of that bracket (which we still don't have, thanks shortages), I did indeed get the car back, and I was booking it up to Minneapolis. The drive itself was pretty uneventful, except for the one moment some guy took one of those police-only-U-turn spots on the interstate right behind me and I thought it was a cop, but, no, it was just some dude doing an illegal U-turn. The fuck, guy?
So, having arrived at my hotel late, I slept in late, and planned to do nothing much the next day. I did take this time to learn some details for the weekend chase, learning that the train would actually be starting out of Chanhassen this year, using Hopkins as the overnight storage/maintenance. The train would ferry move there each morning.
I really had no plans for Friday, but that was fine by me, because it was my birthday and that's my day to just do whatever. Eventually, I decided to head out and go exploring, first to check out where the train would be leaving out of Chanhassen, then maybe head over to the old Milwaukee Pigs Eye yard by way of the 261 shops to see what they were doing.
The Chanhassen location was a quick scout, and I noted a spot there that would make for a perfect tree tunnel photo - the fall colours were coming in and with the right light, it would be immaculate. I made a note to myself to head for this spot on the ferry moves over the next two days to try for it, then headed over towards the shops at Minneapolis Junction.
Well, I arrived at the shops to see... nothing? But then I saw smoke in the distance, and heading to the other side, I discovered the 261 doing some switching moves. Returning to the entrance, there were a few railfans waiting there, so I rolled up and asked what was happening. Apparently, I had arrived at exactly the right moment to catch the deadhead to Hopkins!
The run out of Minneapolis Junction was a nice treat, what with that big cloud of coal smoke. It's a gorgeous sight.
Speaking of gorgeous sights, the Friends of the 261 acquired a former Milwaukee Road E9, #32A, back in 2019, and this was its first run alongside the 261 itself! Earlier in the year, the unit had been repainted out of the red/silver of WSOR and into a new scheme - one that combined elements from half a dozen notable Milwaukee Road streamliner era diesels. The original FT class grey/orange paint got a special feature on the nose, and the classic F7/EP-4 styling made up both sides, with elements from some of the Milwaukee passenger units from 1940 to 1960 creating the nose. It's such a tasteful new scheme, meant to match the coaches rather than re-use the as-delivered and uninspired UP armour yellow/red paint it would wear if they were going for the as-delivered look.
This here, was my first time getting to see it! It didn't disappoint, it's a real beauty.
So, knowing what I do now, I should have learned the train was leaving, then head over to Nicolett Island to shoot it there at the bridge, but I had misread my Maps and thought those roads were mostly closed off for roadwork/construction - Minneapolis / the greater MPLS area is apparently installing some light rail, which has knocked out a number of roads and is also the reason the excursions started in Chanhassen this year. In reality, I could've easily gotten it there, but alas, I shot at the Junction instead.
I hopped back in my car and raced over to Hopkins to catch it arriving. On the way there, I spotted the train flying underneath the mass of interstates, and it was a wonderful sight! Oh, how I'd missed the 261 last year. It was wonderful to watch that big S3 chug through Minnesota once again. All that stress from car troubles over the past few days had all but disappeared now.
I would get a bit more stress returning though in that I missed the turnoff I needed to get to Hopkins quick, though my phone was able to re-route me quick enough that I only lost a few minutes. Thankfully, the train couldn't go too fast through St. Louis Park due to the light rail construction, so it didn't matter at all.
I arrived at Hopkins with minutes to spare, and it was there I'd find where the Cedar Rapids, Super Dome 53, and the rest of the FO261's fleet had been stored, just on the siding. A maintenance of way train occupied the same siding on the opposite side of the railroad crossing, making for a nice backdrop as the 261 and its support cars, plus the 32A, arrived.
This would be one of the only times to view the Cedar Rapids without the 32A in front, and for a brief few seconds, they were side by side, so I took that opportunity to snag this right quick:
After doing a little scouting ahead and meeting a few more fellow railfans, the 261 did its switching, pulling the whole string of coaches ahead to allow the 32A to tie on to the end, then reverse back and place the whole lashup in the siding. Then, the 261 would shove back to the Hopkins depot, an original Milwaukee Road building still used by the Twin Cities & Western Railroad as an office, and park up on the spur there. The railroad and the Friends were rather friendly towards us, letting us have access to an area that we probably shouldn't normally be allowed in. That hospitality goes a long way to making this yearly trip one of my favourites.
Once it had parked up in the spur, I took that opportunity to get up close with my still fairly new wide-angle lens. I don't think I mentioned it yet, but shortly after arriving home from the Big Boy 2021 trip, I picked up a Canon 10-18mm lens just to give me that extra bit of width I was lacking. If you see the Gallery page often, you'll probably have noted photos like Beyond the Void, The Unseen, Invisible Sun, and a couple others that have utilized it. This, though, was my first really proper field test outside of one ridiculous late night trip.
Side note, we're returning to the screenshot-the-Bridge-camera-raw-viewer thing, so the colours in a lot of the following photos will look rather dulled down just due to how that works. In reality, they're more vibrant and richer, and really just plain brighter, but in order to save time and computer performance, this is a far easier way of being able to show a lot off.
While I and a handful of others got a nice up close and personal viewing with the 4-8-4, a collection of TC&W GPs rolled up on the main, parking beside the old Milwaukee depot. Those were certainly a welcome sight!
After a few other angles of the steamer and depot alike, I headed back over to the 32A and grabbed a couple shots while I still had my wide angle attached. While there, I met an older gentlemen who was a former engineer on one of the Milwaukee's competing railroads, I believe it was the Great Northern. He talked a bit about running trains out west in the northern plains and mountains, I and others chatted a bit about the FO261, the 32A, and the whole excursion business coming up the next two days.
And that was that! I hadn't expected to do a little chase or hang around the 261 at all, but that was a good little warm up for the weekend and a fine way to spend my 22nd birthday. There's an old blog post on SMWorks that details my first chase of the 261, and that was on my 18th birthday, as it happens. To think I've been coming up here since 2017 to chase this thing! How time does fly indeed.
Some other railfans had mentioned coming back later at night for night exposures, but what with the forecast and the fact I just felt like sleeping in, since the schedule allowed it, I didn't, and simply called it a day. Returning to my hotel, I spent the rest of the day just hanging out and chatting with friends online, including one I had made over the previous trip, Tal. Funnily enough, it's already become a bit of a tradition to send each other updates on things like this or other daily going-ons. All that and the outing with 261 made for a fine celebration in my books.
Saturday, the next day, was the big day! The 1pm start to the excursion meant I coul sleep in, which was wonderful, and I had time enough to plan a little bit of the day, setting up some markers in my Maps to make navigating easier. I arrived at Hopkins once again, a bit early, and met with plenty of other railfans, including some I'd met while chasing the QJ back in August.
The local police showed up, asking us what was going on (apparently some trucker at the nearby warehouse was complaining about us in an offhanded manner, hah), but when we explained to her what was going on, she didn't have a problem with any of us and decided to stay to see the train. One of the others suggested parking her cruiser on one of the two service roads to pose for a photo, which was a fun idea. My shot of that didn't pan out as I was hoping for, but that was alright.
So, here's the thing, dear readers - these excursions and such never run on time. There's always something, whether it be a mechanical issue or the freight railroad being weird or petty, there's always something. This time, I don't know what it was, but they were probably about a half hour late getting out of Hopkins. This did work out well enough though.
A bit farther down, technically in Minnetonka at this point, myself and well over a dozen other railfans had clustered around Dominick Drive's crossing. Initially we were all standing up by the crossing itself until someone noticed the old Milwaukee Road era flanger still sitting lineside on the main just behind us. Like a hivemind, we all made our way down the tracks a little ways to find a way to include it in our shots. This little flanger sign signified to snowplow crews that a switch or other obstruction was near, and to adjust the plow equipment accordingly to account for it. One of those little old school railroad details that are fast disappearing these days, and to be able to catch a Milwaukee Road flanger on ex-MILW trackage with a classic MILW train... Well, I wasn't passing that up, at all.
Pack of Wolves is a reference to the Nightbreed song, remixed by Pendulum back in '04, but also references the great big group of railfans all clustered about the siding and crossing here. This whole trip was packed with other photographers, almost like the Big Boy was. With recent talks about converting the 261 from coal to oil, a lot of railfans wanted to get in on the action, figuring this could be one of the last times to catch the 261 in its true form. Not to mention, missing out on last year, and being generally cooped up thanks to covid definitely brought out a lot more railfans than usual. It's a blessing and a curse, good in that it shows that people still love this engine and all, but a curse in that photolines and traffic are... less than ideal.
After catching the train, I ran back to my car and raced towards Chanhassen to try for that tree tunnel spot I'd scouted the day before, but a little traffic and a few painfully slow traffic lights blocked any chance of that. It was close, surprisingly, but I just wasn't able to make it happen. Tomorrow, I told myself. Missing the shot was also less than ideal, but, it just couldn't be helped.
And speaking of less than ideal lines, Augusta this year was wild. I've never seen so many people lined up along the road here! There had to be forty people at least - but what only maybe five of them were prepared for: the sudden rainstorm. You can see it in the photo below, rain pouring down mere seconds before the 261 came into view behind the farmstead. We all got rained out pretty quick! The weather had suggested rain, but I don't think any of us were ready for the absolute deluge that followed us for far too long. It feels like we get slammed with rain for one day every year with this train, I swear...
I hurried back to the dry safety of my car and outran the storm to Cologne, easily beating the train as well. Now we were back in familiar territory - I know the Route 212 chase fairly well still. I was hoping to get a decent view of the train at a familiar overpass just east of Cologne, but I didn't quite hit what I was looking for. I might still be able to do a little cleanup work with the shot I did pull, though.
Right, so, in the past two years, there had been some changes done on the TC&W, evidently. Cologne previously required the train to slow to a crawl, about 10-15mph if memory serves. I thought this was still the case. I was wrong.
I hurried back into my car and sped up the divided highway onto the bridge, parked behind the many chaser cars on the bridge, and started to jog up to the good spot as usual - only to find the train was going at least double the speed I was used to. With a thought of oh shit, why did nobody tell me about this?, I full on sprinted down the highway to where some twenty others had clustered around the barrier. I made it there with seconds to spare, honestly. I was completely winded already, but still managed to catch the shot I was looking for.
So, being totally out of breath (what being out of shape does to a mf), I had to sprint back to my car again, hop in, and hurry back into traffic on a hill, with others in front of me trying to do the same while other chasers at crossings outside of Cologne were catching up. Exhaustion and stress, goodness gracious me...
I did make it, naturally carving my average mpg down a bit as always, and beat the train to Bongards. That isn't a typically occurrence for me, but I won't complain! As myself and others made a quick photoline, the 261 slowed on its way into the unincorporated village.
The train would come to a stop, and we'd all walk up to where the 32A sat. This was typically where the train did photo runbys for passengers, so we expected that. There must've been a good thirty of us scattered and clustered together tightly. What a wild one. The even light did make for a lovely impression with the E9, though.
Then... the train started pulling ahead. None of us had brought our scanners, they were all in our cars still as we'd all been hurrying to get here, so none of us knew what they were doing. Where was the runby?
"So, when do we say they're not coming back?" one asked.
Another said, "If they pass that big tree over there, I think I'm just gonna run to my car."
"Y'know, I don't think they're stopping," said one more.
"Why aren't they stopping?" was the question on all our minds. Then, the train throttled up, very clearly, and wide eyed, we all broke our 'formation' and dead sprinted back to our respective vehicles. There were certainly some surprised shouts of "oh shit!" to go with that! For my part, still out of breath from Cologne, I was just praying my lungs didn't clock out on me at some point during this trip.
I was able to get back in my car and rejoin the fray quickly enough, but didn't get to a shooting position until west of Norwood Young America. Full of old jointed track and Milwaukee codeline, it was a fine spot, but that damned rain had finally caught back up with us then, and we were practically rained out again. There was only one other guy at this spot though, a sharp contrast to the past few shots. A bit of work and I might be able to make something out of this shot.
Somewhere near Plato, myself and less than half a dozen others were waiting for the train, but by god was that rain coming down hard at that point. I was well soaked at this point, hiding my camera under my jacket until the train showed itself. It was hard to think of a creative shot here what with all that rain coming down, that was for sure.
This year was the first one in a long time we'd be guaranteed an arrival at Glencoe. I decided to skip the aging Milwaukee depot and join a big group of folks by the old grain elevator, although being later to the party and having not properly tried this shot before, I can't say I love what I got. I wish I had aimed a little further right, frankly. Ah, well, such as it is. At any rate, the rain was reduced to sprinkling here, which certainly helped.
Initially, we were all expecting the train to head a bit further than Glencoe, but it turned out not to be the case. It was also here I'd learn one of my cars headlights had kicked the bucket. Really, dude? Percussive maintenance wasn't enough to solve that issue, either, so that was nice. Bleh.
After a few minutes of realizing the train wasn't going much farther, myself and others retreated east again to catch the 32A pull the train home. At this point, a number of chasers had clearly called it a day early, but it would turn out that wasn't the right way to do it. At any rate, I headed back to Plato, cursed out my car headlights a few more times, and decided to redo a really old shot I had done back in 2017, but better.
Our train would continue its trip back towards Minneapolis with that wonderful new 32A in the lead. The 25 bell hadn't been added yet, so it was just wearing an S2M for the time being, but it sounded really nice all the same. It was a very welcome addition to the fleet, the E9, especially now in its new colours - it matches with the other cars brilliantly. It headed past some still unharvested fields and throughs trees starting to turn into fine fall colours, but the dreary weather certainly dulled them all a bit.
When the train returned to Bongards, I was surprised to find that wasn't it for the 261. The train stopped and they picked up a local live band, as well as swapped engineers. My scanner told me they were now going to run back west another 15-20 minutes to give the engineer some throttle time and the band an opportunity to place a few songs. What a score! Sucks to be the guys who left early, hah!
At Salem Avenue, steam shadows the whole train, and the rain comes back in force. Damned rain.
It did leave us alone for another shot near Plato though, which was nice. In fact, the rain seemed to be clearing up a fair bit now.
Somewhere outside of Plato, just east, the train stopped, and the 32A began hauling it back east once more. However, with the rain dissipating, I was able to sneak back to Norwood Young America and Tacoma Avenue to finally capture some fall colours as they were meant to be seen!
Is the 261 going backwards or forwards? Good question, you decide! (It's backwards)
Beating the train to Bongards didn't take too long, conveniently, though I did step right into a deep puddle when getting out of the car which wasn't ideal. The rains had blessed me a bit though, creating more puddles along the tracks that I was able to use to my advantage as the 32A leisurely rolled into the village. That bit of reflection was just ace, I was thrilled to see that come out nicely when I checked my photos later!
Photo runbys were absent this year, at least on that day, just due to weather I suspect. The extra run time west more than made up for it though, so I wasn't disappointed at all. After a bit of waiting around, I headed back out to Cologne to, once again, redo an old shot, this one from 2019. Me and headlights are not good friends, and a UV filter I had back in 2019 caused huge flaring that killed a lot of shots, including the overpass at Cologne. I was determined to get a better shot this year, though.
And I did! The rain came back in that interim, but I got the train without headlight flares, and it was a better angle than the previous attempt, so I'm happy!
It was then time to find a last shot for the day. With all the rain, I was just done. I wanted a closer shot and I'd hope for better weather the next day. I remembered that when I had left Chanhassen, I had driven by one spot I was considering shooting for the trains initial departure earlier that just might work. So, I plugged in the spot on my phone, and hurried there with all the speed my car could muster.
Of all places, parking was in the nearby Jehovah's Witness place, then a short walk to an overpass. I was met there by a chaser I'd run into at a pair of crossings near Plato when the rain had been pouring down hard, and we chatted for a moment. We both agreed we were done with the day once we got our shots here, and we quickly found our spots, taking one last assault from the rain. Then, quicker than I expected, the 32A came roaring into view from out of the rain and into the little valley created by the fall-coloured trees.
The headlights casting their light into the rain like in Can't Rain All The Time was a real nice bonus on this one. It's been a trickier one to edit, but I finally went ahead and posted the thing, going with Submarines as the title - a reference to a DJ Fresh track and also at just how wet everyone and everything was.
That marked the end of day one, though. There was a ferry move back to Hopkins, but frankly, the rain had soaked up all my energy, so I just headed back to my hotel with plenty more photos to go through. I wasn't feeling great about the day because of all the rain, but it would of course turn out to have worked out pretty well, with a bunch of shots that have done well for my standards and good catches all the same.
With day one out of the way, it was time to relax, dry off, and get ready for day two. The next day would be earlier, but the forecast promised better conditions, so that was something. That was quite the day, a busy one, but overall a good one all things considered.
So, jumping into day two - technically three, but who's counting? - we find ourselves once again at Hopkins. I have to say, I lucked out this year in my hotel choice - going for Eden Prairie meant I was about, oh, 12 minutes away from the Hopkins depot, which was fantastic. It meant that I could leave a little later and not worry about waking up at some obscene time.
The pluses for the day - great weather. I wasn't sweating, but I wasn't freezing and soaking wet either, and with big blue skies a plenty, well, it's hard to complain too much. The downside, however, was the 10am departure time meant the front of the engine would be in huge shadows for the early parts of the trip. This was far from ideal, but careful placement and timing on curves, plus a healthy dose of camera RAW, meant that it was workable. Not great, but not the end of the world.
At Hopkins, the vast contrast of the light is very easily visible as the train prepares for the day ahead.
After having checked out the morning prep briefly, I decided to do what I did yesterday: head to the Minnetonka area and grab a shot on the ferry move. Now, in my mind, I had two areas to pick from - Indian Chief Road, or Birch Island Road. I've never shot the former, but I did shoot the latter with the shot Breathe back in 2019. That shot had a massive headlight glare thanks to that stupid fucking UV filter that's bugged me for two years now. So, I wanted a chance at redemption - I picked Birch Island.
The wait was shorter than the day before, and there I met a friend from the 2019 chase, Garret. He occasionally volunteers with the FO261 and I met him the previous trip when he was keeping the fire warm at Minneapolis Junction the day before that weekends trips. We caught up a bit and set up our shots with a friend of his that was with him. We all agreed the light here was weird at best. Being early, the sun was not favourable, and it was just plain... awkward. I think this is one of those moments it's worth showing the before-and-after. Here's a screenshot of the RAW image taken a split second before the final:
And the final:
Would you like a secret about Slow Jam? Not only is it named after the New Order song by the same name, but the sky? Completely fake. Thanks to the sun, there was no way of getting the original sky in there, but as it was, in reality, just a basic blue sky... Well, the photoshop sky replacement tool made its first appearance in one of my photos here. Frankly, I'm very pleased with the results. A bit of fine tuning made it blend in perfectly, creating just the right atmosphere I wanted out of this shot. There's enough fall colour in there that really complements it and the dark steam engine. The smoke plume couldn't have been better placed, it made detecting the edges of the sky really easy. I couldn't be happier - this well redeemed Breathe and is actually one of my most favourited photos on Flickr now, currently at spot #9 as of writing this section. More on that at the end though.
Oh, yeah, I tried for that Chanhassen tree tunnel again. Guess what didn't happen again.
Picking the next shot was no easy feat, meanwhile. I tried two locations before this, unsatisfied with them, before coming across a spot that I decided to do something... a bit dumb. Route 41 crosses over the tracks with steep embankments under the bridge that lead to the tracks. So, with a bit of careful parking and an even more careful climb down to the tracks, I found a position to shoot from, just underneath the bridge itself. I nearly tried to climb onto one of the sections of the concrete bridge supports for a higher bit of elevation, but the 'beam' was too high off the ground. Probably for the best anyway.
About ten minutes later, and the distant ATSF 5 Chime whistle and a headlight told me it was time get ready.
Considering how awkward the lighting was, I think Thrillseekers came out pretty well. Definitely took a bit of editing work, but worth it certainly.
Speaking of awkward lighting, I hopped back in my car after racing up the embankment and booked it out of there as quick as I could. Beating it to Augusta was out of the question, but Cologne was possible. In fact, I could make it to a spot I'd wanted to shoot at but hadn't yet. Instead of doing the bridge shot again, I headed down to the crossing visible in the shot of the 32A (and the 2019 101 shot). Nobody else was there, so... Hey, not bad.
Light was really harsh here, and frankly I don't know if editing will solve it, but that's the nature of the beast with these conditions. Compensating for the high sun was tough, but I did what I could at the time. The surprising thing here was I was the only one at this spot, and indeed so far I'd only seen handfuls of chasers following. Some of the previous days chasers were actually riding the train this time, seeing them and waving from the road there was fun. I saw a lot of cameras from the video people, I wouldn't be surprised if I was in at least one of those, hah.
As usual, the question now became Bongards. They slowed for the village, but didn't fool us with a stop like the day before, and kept going. I decided to race ahead a little ways and shoot from Tacoma Avenue again, but take the other side and once again, try to deal with that harsh light. Tough, but with enough work... well, maybe, I don't know.
Something I'd seen the day before was a few people parked on the side of Highway 212 between Norwood and Plato, then getting long distance shots of the train over the still-full fields. I decided I'd give this a whirl myself, and while it wasn't perfect, it was worth the try anyway. It did mean I got to break out my telephoto again, making this the first trip I'd actually go and use all of my available lenses. It also reminded me I need to invest in a larger camera bag - that standard issue Canon one just isn't cutting it anymore. Shoot me recommendations for a nice bag to throw over the shoulder, I need them!
I don't know, maybe some cropping and colour correction, a few other odds and ends... maybe I'll take something from those shots. If only there was more steam though! Ah, well. At least I'd get my clouds of steam later.
After swapping lenses back to my usual, I returned to Plato and shot by the elevator, but the timing was close and rather than wasting what I had and potentially blocking other peoples shots, I didn't get anything too special.
Ah, but of course, the next town over is Glencoe, and there's a shot I always have to try here. There's tons of discarded rail strewn trackside by the old Milwaukee Road depot, so going a little low can make for something quite neat. It's also awkward to situate yourself in, and I found myself half laying across old rusty rail for this.
Side note, look at the depot roof! Someone is finally redoing it! Can't believe it, someone's actually gonna take care of the old thing. We love to see it.
I think a little work on the face of the engine and depot alike could net me a photo I'm happy with there. And speaking of photos I'm happy with, Fine Time is a conundrum. See, after a slightly false alarm with the crew saying they'd go farther west (they did, but not to a location any of us could get to. Glencoe to Sumter is an awkward stretch), I retreated to a crossing between Glencoe and Plato, the County Highway 1 crossing. I looked for potentially interesting angles or framing devices, and while there were no doubt possibilities, they'd be on the tougher side to do.
So, after a decent wait - I suspect they had to stop for a few minutes longer than expected - the MILW 32A pulled the train around the curve, and I went for a very simple, head-on shot with the track marker (is this a more modern flanger perhaps? I don't know honestly) and the old telegraph poles. It's a fine shot, simple, nothing too crazy. Yet somehow this is my most popular photo from the whole trip on Flickr (and indeed, my 3rd most popular photo on the site, period!). It's one of those things, like, on one hand, it's great, but on the other... this was what the most people liked over something like Round & Round or Primitive Notion? I feel like some of the other shots from this should've gotten the attention instead of this rather plain photo. Sure, it's not bad at all, but I don't know, I don't think this shot deserves the attention it's gotten. Interestingly though, the same photo on Instagram received a good response, but not as good as some of the other shots like Slow Jam or Round & Round. Comparing the reception of the same photos on both sites is always interesting, they're often not as equal as one would expect.
Side note, if you can't figure out the naming scheme for a lot of these shots, I'd be surprised.
After the train had passed, I had another location in mind. Near Norwood, where the highway crosses the tracks on an overpass from the south side to the north side, there was a small place to pull in and park - it's sort of vaguely park like, almost like somewhere to park near a hunting ground, but the location seems odd for that. At any rate, there was a gate that led a dirt track road across the tracks and near the lake. I saw people shooting from the parking area the day before and wanted to try and see what I could make of it - I knew nothing more than it was a place to try. When I arrived, I discovered the gate, and after some careful eyeballing, a few ideas sprung to mind.
Initially I had some wide angle ideas in mind, but nothing I tried worked right. A closer look suggested if I got the angle just right, I could use that metal gate as a nice framing device. So, a little testing, and I decided to just go for it. If it works, it works, and if it doesn't, oh well, I've gotten a lot of shots already.
Turns out it actually worked pretty well. I wish I had angled just slightly higher up, but I'll still take it. The 261 and its tender fitting in perfectly was a delight, and to get 32A and the Cedar Rapids in was real nice as well. Those shots are somewhere in the editing pipeline, key word somewhere.
Once the 261 itself had passed, I was back on the road and headed out to tink of another shooting location. I decided to try Salem Avenue again, as I'd not shot the eastbound approach there before. It was a simple shot, but it came out fairly well I'd say.
Initially I did try to snag a shot of the 261 as it rolled away on the other side of the road, but it just plain didn't work out, so it's hardly worth a mention. What is worth mentioning, however, is the return to Bongards!
That sweeping curve into Bongards is just sweet. There's a reason I named the shot from the day prior Round & Round - a song reference, of course, but also because it just feels like we come around to the place a lot - and on this trip, we really did. The bonus second run west the day prior really made that true. The difference between now and then, though, was that there wasn't a ridiculous amount of rain following us, so it was time to try a different angle. It was nice to be able to do it again, as before this trip, I'd not had much luck catching the train coming in from the west.
At last, though, it was time for our photo runbys. Well, almost - first it was lunch time. While the passengers were served, all of us chasers had a little time to kill. I met back up with Garret and other friends of his - the same folks from Slow Jam. We caught up a little, then most of them decided to split and head to Norwood to grab something to eat. Hell, even I broke my usual standards of train chasing and grabbed something - you'll recall I mentioned this in Big Boy 2021, in that during chase days I just... don't eat. At any rate, the lunch time doubled as engine maintenance time - the 261 needed greasing and all, so they moved away temporarily to take care of that.
A little under an hour later, the photo runbys began. We had two here. Everyone spread out to find their spots and the train backed up behind the trees to prepare for the runby.
Well, one thing is for sure, I got my wish for smoke.
You know what's fun about these trips? Coal. Now, I know many people are rather opinionated on fossil fuels and all - and that's fine - but for things like this, nothing beats it. Oil firing is great and all, but the smell of the coal and the raincloud of dust and ash that follows the train is just something that can't be replicated. After all these runbys, I'd later find myself digging coal dust out of my ears, and I even had some get in my eyes and nose. When it rains, it pours - and today was no exception. I know the oil conversion is the most likely route for the future to keep this engine going for many more years to come, but I'll savour the coal-ladden moments like these forever.
For the second runby, myself and a few others strolled into the field beside the tracks for a more distant field shot with the soybean crop. I wonder if the coal dust makes a difference after the harvest. Probably not, I reckon.
Big steam, a dark cloud of smoke, and farm fields in the beginning fall. It's hard to ask for more than that, really.
After the second runby, everyone scrambled to their cars, and while some called it a day there, I had a few more shots left in me - but my camera didn't. Well, rather the SD card. I found myself in Cologne a half hour later, and as I fired off shots, I noticed the buffer counter was not going back up. It hit zero exactly as i hit this photo, then read full.
It turned out the card I'd bene using was a bit more full up than I'd realized. It was the same card from the LS&I trip, and being a 256gb card, I thought I had more room. I should've checked beforehand! I knew I'd backed up the entire LS&I folder, so after a few minutes deliberation, I went ahead and scrubbed that folder off the card. Still, it threw a real wrench into my plans.
Now late to catch the train as I'd been trying to figure out what to do about that fact, I made my way to Chanhassen again after a stop in Chaska to confirm I was well behind the train. There, I found the train unloading its passengers and a small crowd viewing it. I'd also meet up again with Garret & co, and we'd talk about our cars and recent adventures, as well as having a look at that old depot off to the right in the photo below. By this time, the lighting had switched sides, so now westbound was the good light. Funny how that works, eh?
But! After having seen the location on Friday, now in the late afternoon on Sunday, I was in the perfect position to get that tree tunnel shot I'd be dreaming of. I made sure to have myself planted exactly where I needed to be to get that, and once the train had finished deboarding, they left for Hopkins once more, and I finally, finally, got that shot.
I'm happy with it.
So, as usual, I followed the 32A and the 261 on their ferry to Hopkins, arriving shortly after the train did, as well as a cluster of railfans, including Garret and a myriad of others. We all ended up in a big circle in a dirt parking lot trying to figure out the best plan of action. What we did know: the train would be ferrying back to Minneapolis Junction today. What we didn't know: when.
It was pretty much a universal agreement to shoot the Mississippi River Bridge, and I wouldn't turn it down for anything seeing as I'd missed the chance on Friday. What I didn't do is go to the same place as they did - there were three angles to shoot it from, essentially. You can do Hennepin Avenue and its bridge, the West River Parkway and its sidewalk (which allows for either side of the bridge), or, as Garret pointed out, Boom Island also has a sight line to the bridge. While it was tempting to do that shot and try a new angle, I wanted to go with a sure thing in a place I knew. I think next year I'll have to consider it instead though!
So, parking at a small park on the West River Parkway, I grabbed all my gear and went to find the right place to set up for a shot. The light would be tricky regardless, but I found the northwest side of the tracks to be the right place to be. I looked around to see if there would be any particular location to make for an ideal shot, and found that a few steps away from the guard rail, there was a nice opening that with minimal garden work, I could work with.
The light to start with wasn't too bad. It made me think of True Faith from the Big Boy 2021 trip. However, as time went on and the train hadn't shown up yet, light began to fall bit by bit, and I realized I needed my tripod.
I went back and grabbed my tripod, then noticed I could see where Garret and everyone else had gone off to at Boom Island. There they are, the cheeky fellas they are.
With my tripod set up, I continued to fire test shots to make sure everything from focus to ISO was right, which also gave me the chance to edit the exact angles and such until I was happy. Unfortunately, light continued to drop over the course of the wait, and my scanner hadn't given any indication the train was near. Slowly, ever slowly, our light continued to fall, which was made worse by the taller buildings behind me.
Until finally, MILW 32A called on the scanner - it was cut off and so brief I nearly missed it, but I heard 32, and so I jumped up over to the camera and waited. Lo and behold, almost exactly an hour since I'd set up in my position, the 32A streaked across the Mississippi River bridge.
And at last, the 261 itself was there. Simply perfect.
Aside from the song reference, Primitive Notion is named as such because every time I'm here for the 261, I always feel the urge to go for the bridge shot. It's a guarantee at this point you'll find me waiting for the train there at least once every time - it's just such a perfect spot, I can't help but try for it.
I'm especially glad it worked this year, because in 2019, I did see the train there, but I didn't get a good photo due to how dark it had gotten. This was the first successful bridge shot since 2017, I think.
And speaking of things getting dark, when I hopped back in my car to head over to Minneapolis Junction to catch the final switching moves and sort "say goodbye," it got real dark, real fast. It was too dark to even try for a photo, so as I joined the Boom Island gang at what's normally a loading platform for the train, I just switched the camera to video and grabbed that instead.
And that was that, the trip was over. The 261 had some switching to do still, putting away the tool cars and then, well, itself, and the 32A would then take the long string of coaches out to the Minnesota Commercial Railroad, which stores the cars for them. The train stayed towards the north end of the junction, and while our little group chatted for a little while, the 32A lit up, and carried everything away.
While everyone else made dinner plans, I was pretty damn tired after such a long day. They did invite me, and I appreciated the invite, but I was in sore need of just some time alone in my hotel to just hang out and relax. There's often not much room for the latter on trips like these, and while these are fantastic trips that I love doing, sometimes I just need time to do nothing.
So, we bid one another goodnight, and everyone headed out.
I took a last minute viewing of the 261 switching on my own, over on a Summer Street NE on the other side of the Junction, and then headed off to my hotel. No theatrics, nothing special - just a quiet wave to the crew and that was that.
The next day I was up late, then I headed on home, another ~8 hour drive. Aside from the headlight that conked out - which I would fix the next day after work - my car performed admirably throughout the trip despite the heavy work it'd just gone through literally the day of the drive up there. I'm still sort of amazed everything worked out as well as it did, seeing as I had definitely not fully recovered from the London trip by that point and I was just plain tired most of the time. All things considered, this trip went remarkably well even though it probably shouldn't have!
Getting to see the 261 and the newly repainted 32A was really fantastic. As I've mentioned before, missing them in 2020 was unfortunate (though understandable). It's a highlight of the year to catch the big steamer, being that it's both big steam and a piece of my favourite railroad, the Milwaukee Road. They put on a really great show this year and I'm really glad I was able to make the trip happen - thank god all the scheduling worked out the way it did! If Drumsheds/London had been moved up just one more week, this wouldn't have happened. If the parts for my car hadn't been so quick to deliver, things would have been messy. Everything just plain worked out.
As I write this nearly two months after the fact, I've had time to get some of these photos fully edited and posted to my socials, and the results have been really interesting. Flickr, on your about page, provides a list of your most popular photos - the top 25 by default. Of those 25, a full seven are up there - from highest to lowest, these are Fine Time, Pack of Wolves, Round & Round, Slow Jam, Dream Attack, Strands in the Wind, and Thrillseekers. Only ten photos from the trip are even on Flickr yet, so to have these do this well is really surprising. Second Connection is only favourite away from joining the top 25 (or at least equally one of them, as a number of shots are all at that number of favs presently). I'm really happy with the response - most of the photos did well on Instagram as well, which is always so hit or miss. I'm not one to obsess over likes or views or whatever, but I do like to see these things do well, anyway. Dream Attack and Slow Jam are two that I pair together well, and both did equally well on both platforms - they're probably my favs of the bunch. I do wish Primitive Notion had been a bit more successful, but it's hard to complain given how well the rest did. Though with Fine Time and all like I mentioned earlier...
Anyway, all this to say, this trip went really well. It's been the most successful of the 261 trips I've done yet, and I'm really glad it worked out as well as it did. It won't be the last time I go and catch it, but it will be one of the more memorable ones!
Thanks for reading! Coming next is the Soo Line 1003, plus a little mini post about that Big Boy 2021 contest thing, and then some notes on the QJ chase from August. Always more to go, and never enough time to write it all out.
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