The Union Pacific certainly has a thing for Great Races - which certainly makes sense, as chasing down their trains certainly is a race!
Throughout July and early August this year, the Big Boy #4014 embarked on its second journey - called "The Great Race Across The Midwest." The locomotive visited Minneapolis, Duluth, Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, North Platte, and many, many towns and cities along the way. It took routes a Big Boy has never once travelled before, making it a prime opportunity to chase. Of course, it was about a full month, so there was no way I was to be able to follow it the way I did during the Great Race To Ogden because it was prohibitively expensive (as we all know from the Ogden trip...) and getting that much time off work was difficult.
Nevertheless, I managed to secure a short trip - July 30th & the 31st. The route for these two days was simple: West Chicago to Cedar Rapids on the 30th, then Cedar Rapids to Des Moines on the 31st. In Part 1, we'll cover the first day, the 30th, and the ridiculousness that was chasing a Big Boy in Illinois & Iowa.
The thing to understand is that there was no hope trying to chase it out of West Chicago. That would be absolute madness, trying to get out of there with other chasers and the infamous Chicago morning rush hour traffic? Not a chance. We'd be lucky to see it again by Cedar Rapids! So, we went a little ways away from the area, near a small town called Elburn - a crossing on Francis Rd.
Our route, for reference, was following Highway 38 from Elburn to Sterling, where we could jump on US Route 30 for the rest of the day (and most of the next). All of this was, of course, the Lincoln Highway - and US 30 was definitely a big part of the Great Race to Ogden!
Back to the Midwest - and the crossing near Elburn. When we first arrived - and this time, when I say we, it was the usual "we" of my father and I, plus my mother this time (as she wasn't able to come out west for the Ogden trip and she wanted to see the Big Boy still) - we found maybe a dozen cars there already, if that many. It was not yet packed, and all was relatively peaceful. We had a nice sightline towards the east, where the #4014 would be coming from, and plenty of time to secure a spot.
Of course, as is expected, the departure of the Big Boy was very late. And, as more and more time passed, more and more people started to arrive. A lot of people. Some of them indignant and rude and standing down the tracks and getting in everybody's photos. There were a few folks that helped kind of organize things, which was great. We need more people like them, really.
A freight train came by during the extended wait.
The freight stopped a little ways down the tracks and it also confirmed which track #4014 would be on (hint: not the same close track the freight was on). So, now, another half hour later, and the smoke plume became visible over the top of the stopped freight cars down the tracks.
It was still relatively cool at this point, giving the #4014 a nice cloud above it as it raced towards us. What an impression it made. The absolute thunder of the million pound locomotive and the shout of the whistle made it one hell of an approach.
Did I mention the planes yet? I did not mention the planes yet.
During the wait, there were a whole bunch of people flying personal aircraft around - they were everywhere! And during the #4014s incredible approach, one of them flew right towards us...
And just like that, it was gone.
What a rush. The approach felt slow until it passed the freight, then it was past us in mere seconds, thundering away at speed. It was certainly a good first show for the two day trip - and it did not disappoint! It made me remember just why I enjoyed the Great Race to Ogden so much.
A photo my mother got of me while there, because of course she took pictures of me.
Certainly not the last one, either...
Now that the #4014 had passed, the chase was officially on. We hurried back to the car - now noting that the street was incredibly packed with parked cars - and hurried onto Highway 38. From there, it was a race to the next stop.
The thing is, planning each individual stop before the chase sounds great on paper. However, in reality, this doesn't really work. There are too many people, too many variables - the best choice, I've found, is to play it by ear. Figure out the route - know what roads go near the tracks - and follow that, finding good spots along the way. Not to say you can't plan a spot or two in advance, but doing that can lead to a lot of disappointment if that's all you do.
After Elburn, we did not stop until just after Rochelle. We were constantly a little ways behind the train, until we got near DeKalb and it left us in the dust for a while thanks to traffic lights. Still, we caught up and passed it by not too long after.
We passed it before Rochelle, but stopping in Rochelle was just not happening. I wish I had grabbed a photo or two - there were literally thousands of people along the tracks, all awaiting the Big Boy. It was insanely packed, and could be dangerous with that many people, so we left Rochelle (not before being stopped by a BNSF freight first) and on my phone, I found a relatively isolated railroad crossing to wait at.
We caught a freight there, as well.
We were there for perhaps forty five minutes, then a whistle in the distance alerted us that the train was coming. During that wait, we made some friends and planned a bit more of the route ahead of us, but it was cut short when the train left Rochelle a bit early - likely in order to make up for the late start earlier in the day.
Unfortunately we were not on the sun side, which didn't occur to me until it was too late. We caught a great view of the train, but all photos were a bit dark on the locomotive itself. Ah, well, it happens.
The #4014 was definitely making up for lost time, speeding through and making us work to catch it. Route 38 did not come close enough to the tracks to get another stop anyways, and in fact, 38 ended rather quickly at Dixon. So, we jumped onto the Interstate and raced ahead of it, passing Dixon, Rock Falls, and Sterling, until US Route 30 came up.
We weren't even on it for 2 miles. The overpass at Agnew was surprisingly open, just a handful of cars parked nearby, and we were just ahead of the train. So... we parked up and got ourselves ready.
Arguably, we had one of the best spots on the bridge.
The headlight got ever closer and dark smoke poured from the top of the engine as it neared. Right beside the tracks, the chasers on the gravel road were throwing dust into the air to make some rather large clouds to rival the locomotives own. All the while, we stood in wait...
Before we knew it, it was under us.
No picture or video could ever do it justice. Standing at the edge of the bridge as the million pound locomotive rolled under is like nothing else. The incredible whoosh of hot air that could literally push you backwards is such a rush - you want to instinctively pull back, but you keep yourself firmly rooted there instead. You're not likely to find anything quite like that anywhere else.
Looking behind us towards Agnew revealed a crowd there:
Immediately, we jumped back into the car and raced along US Route 30 to catch up and maybe get a little bit of a pacing view. To all of our surprise, we did! It only took a few minutes, then we were right alongside it - a little distance between us and the track, yes, but we were certainly surprised.
Pacing in the Midwest was very different than out in the West - there are more obstacles here in the Midwest. Trees and bushes, in particular. They're everywhere and rather annoying at times. Every time they cleared, we were greeted with the Big Boy cruising through farmland, showing off to everybody lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
From this angle, it was only about 5 or 6, maybe 7 minutes of pacing. All of it very enjoyable, but one moment stands out in particular.
Do you recall the personal aircraft I mentioned back near the beginning? They never stopped - everywhere we went, there was at least one plane, usually more. And a few minutes into this pace...
Wow. What luck.
As it happens, I was actually recording a short video on my phone (for my various social medias, which is why it was vertical. There's a reason for the madness) as the plane came by. I was so startled I cut the video and dropped my phone to the car floor to snatch my camera up in time to shoot it.
Here's the video (8s):
Simply spectacular. You can't plan these sorts of things.
The pace continued on for some more minutes - with the photos looking pretty much the same as the ones above, minus planes, and a few more trees and bushes added in. A car or two, as well.
Eventually, US 30 crossed over the tracks.
This would bring the Big Boy to my side of the car and the road, nicely, so I was able to get a different angle on it.
Naturally, as we're driving along the highway, things get in the way of shots all the time. One of my shots got an interesting obstacle in it.
An accidental frame! Has a neat look to it. A little work and perhaps...
After a mere handful of minutes, we pulled ahead of the train and found a little spot to pull off and await it. We waited no more than 2 minutes until the distant rumble and a whistle alerted us to get the cameras up.
Nice little catch, I'd say. I saw the bridge and knew we had to pull off - unfortunately there just wasn't a spot on the other side that cooperated well to get a nice shot of it on the bridge. I didn't have time to find one, if there was, at any rate.
So, after a bit of work getting back onto the road, we pressed on.
The next stop was in Clinton, IA - so it was finally time to say goodbye to my homestate for a time and visit our neighbours. Unfortunately, our neighbours greeted us with a ton of traffic. The bridges across the Mississippi, over Willow Island, were an incredible sight! But we could only view the tail end of the train. There was absolutely zero chance of shooting it on those bridges - we were just a few hundred feet too far back of the slow moving train. So close, yet so far.
Regardless, we continued on, letting the train find its stop in Clinton. We paralleled the tracks for a time, matching pace with it for a little longer (but taking photos was out of the question because of the sheer volume of stuff in the way). It was scheduled to stop there, but it just kept going, even towards a big industrial plant, which was confusing. We raced ahead of it, regardless. It did end up stopping of course, but I don't actually know where it stopped other than it did stop in Clinton.
Route 30 turned into a divided highway after Clinton, and that was a bit of a curse and a blessing in some ways. Two lanes of chasing traffic was better than one, in theory. Of course, getting on or off the road was still a difficulty at times.
Farther down 30, we tried a spot but didn't like it, so we moved again, crossing the tracks, and found ourselves at a relatively isolated crossing, where there was a small farm right beside the tracks. With a handful of people already there, we decided to join them. We found a nice spot right beside the crossing itself and hung out there for a time. The owner of the farm came out and talked with those of us standing there and waiting for the train, we sort of made our own photo line, and just simply waited. The wait was just over an hour.
Finally, the #4014 came barreling down the tracks about half past one.
A bit dark on our side, but that was okay by me - the sightline we had was a good one, and it was worth the wait. After having waited there for so long though, it was time to return to the road and get to the next location.
Our next location wouldn't be for a little while, though. Traffic along US 30 had increased, making getting ahead of the engine much more difficult than you'd imagine. It took 40 minutes for us to get to Wheatland, where it made its next scheduled stop.
Wheatland was absolute madness. You can see above how many people are along the tracks and at the crossing the #4014 stopped at, but this is from the US 30 overpass - and not up close. Traffic here was very slow and nightmarish. It took a while to get down near the turnoff into Wheatland, and with the sheer volume of cars and people... not a chance. People were parking in every possible location they could - along the side of US 30, in a tire yard, grain elevators, and anywhere in between. We didn't stop.
So, once again, finally ahead of the train, we ran along US 30 hunting for a spot to stop. There were quite a few people lined up along the road. You couldn't go more than 30 seconds without finding at least one car pulled over, waiting for the train.
It took some time, but two miles out of Clarence, we stopped at a tiny little bridge.
Like I said before, it wasn't the last time I'd be photographed...
Surprisingly, we didn't have to wait very long. Within five minutes, the Big Boy was on its way towards us. You could tell by the sudden increase in the volume of cars along the highway if the distant smoke and whistle didn't already let you know.
Absolutely perfect, if you ask me.
Now it was really time to put the title of this excursion to the test: it was a race to Cedar Rapids from here. Which, naturally, we lost. Traffic.
However, we did catch it one last time before it arrived in Cedar Rapids! It was just before it arrived. Thanks to traffic, not to mention the sheer speed of the #4014, it was pretty much impossible to catch it between Clarence and Cedar Rapids. We were right behind the train every time - we could always see the yellow coaches and the dark steam flying out over the treetops, but we could never catch it. We got close a few times, but pacers and chasers got the best of us.
That is, until Bertram.
I figured we could make it to Cedar Rapids and catch a glimpse one last time, but as I looked at the map and the route, I realized we had a chance for one last proper good shot.
As we neared Cedar Rapids, we pulled off onto Highway 151, blasting north instead. 151 crossed directly over the tracks, and, looking at the steam tracker, we had just barely time to get there. It was definitely going to be close, no matter how we swung it. We hadn't even pulled over yet and the tracker said the train was in Bertram.
We pulled off as close to the bridge as we could get, a walk that would take a minute or two. Literally the second I opened my door I heard the whistle - and that whistle was very close.
So, I had only one option: I full on sprinted down the side of US 151. I should mention that I literally do not run ever, and I am far from athletic. But at that moment, there was no holding back - I would've missed the shot!
I found the closer half of the bridge all but empty, and no train had come by. I slapped my GoPro on the bridges concrete barrier and got my camera ready to go. It couldn't have been more than 20 seconds later that it arrived.
That close to missing it. That close.
We won the race to Bertram, but lost to Cedar Rapids of course. After this particularly exciting stop, we took some backroads into Cedar Rapids that followed the tracks, but with the train going at speed and not needing to slow every few seconds for a sharp turn, it beat us easily.
However, that wasn't the last of the #4014 we saw today. We ended up getting much more than a glimpse!
The railyard in Cedar Rapids has an overpass - Edgewood Road - that goes over it. We were just coming up to the bridge when we discovered the Big Boy had stopped just before it. Well, as luck would have it, traffic had ground to a halt and so we were a bit stuck. I jumped out of the car and joined the crowd of people on the bridge and nearby embankment.
This was not the end quite yet - they decided to move up past the bridge.
I ended up laying on the grass just to keep out of other peoples shots and get a solid angle.
As the #4014 rolled under the bridge, and out of camera view, I stood back up and turned around, finding traffic still stalled and many spectators crossing the road. I joined them and crossed, hoping to get a last shot of it-
How did they get down there?
That was a real moment of confusion. Earlier, Union Pacific came out and said that nobody was going to be able to get into the yard to view the Big Boy up close.
Naturally, I was confused. However, seeing all those people there meant I was keen to join them.
So, I grabbed a few more photos of the train pulling forward, then climbed down the steep embankment down to the yard with a fair few other folks.
Quite literally, I and a plethora of other people just walked on in. On a later news report about the Big Boys arrival in Cedar Rapids, the reporter said that "the people just let themselves in," which sounds about right. The yard really was closed to the public, but nobody seemed to enforce it. Instead, they ended up embracing the mass trespassing, which was fantastic.
After coming to a satisfactory stop, the crew greeted the crowd. Ed Dickens came out with a megaphone and just asked people to be careful and said some instructions on where to go and where not to go.
Then, everyone stepped over the lone railroad track blocking us from the train, and it was time for closeups, and to document the crowd a little bit.
My parents did end up finding a place to park and eventually joined me in the yard, where we got to meet Ed and get a photo (of course), as well as a photo with the engine itself. We watched it all a bit longer and then decided to call it a day.
It was quite a long day, but certainly an incredible one. We were all glad to finally get some rest though. The adrenaline of chasing is really startling - you end up completely wiped out by the end of the day even though all you're doing is taking pictures and driving. So, we crashed at the hotel and started browsing through pictures from the day and planning a bit of the next day.
In short, day 1 was a huge success.
That's half the trip down, and July 31st (Part 2) is just as exciting - if not more!
This post is part of a series on chasing the Union Pacific Big Boy #4014 on its Great Race Across the Midwest. For more, find the "UP 4014" category on the sidebar to see more of the midwest and even the Great Race To Ogden!
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