Welcome to part two - and coincidentally, day two - of chasing the Union Pacific Big Boy #4014 across the Midwest! If you haven't read part one, I recommend it - I'm just gonna jump straight into things. Here's a link to part one if you missed it: Link
July 31st marked the second, and final, day of the chase. Ideally we would've chased for longer, however scheduling just didn't work for us on this front. Regardless, we were determined to make the most of our short time in Iowa.
Todays chase would take us from Cedar Rapids to Des Moines, with stops in Belle Plaine, Marshalltown, and Elkhart. The route had the train heading straight west out of Cedar Rapids until it reached Nevada, where it would slowly take a wye and run south into Des Moines.
The route was not as simple as the day before - we couldn't just hop on US 30 and run parallel to the action for the whole day, so that made things more interesting. It also meant finding routes and choosing stops was more involved. So, after some deliberation on finding where we wanted to go for our first stop, we finally agreed on the small town of Norway - not to be confused with the Scandinavian country, of course. We took the short drive and arrived at what we expected: a giant collection of cars and viewers, all waiting for the same thing.
We parked and gawked at the rather large collection of old, classic cars that were also parked there. Lots of stuff from the late 40s to the 60s and all in immaculate shape. You can tell exactly why they were out there...
It was relatively early of course, so getting a good shooting spot and not catching a face full of sun was not the easiest - especially since we weren't trying to block other peoples shots. Unfortunately, two - and I'll put it bluntly, because it's true - idiots decided to stand right not just in front of all of our shots, but also directly in the middle of the double tracked mainline. Talk about irresponsible. No amount of telling them to get off the tracks helped, either.
Still, despite the fact that most of our shots were more or less ruined by it, we did eventually hear the Big Boy in the distance, punctuated with a little smoke cloud above it. Eagerly, we waited, and then...
Well, there's those two idiots I mentioned earlier. At least they got off the tracks, but really, standing in front of all of our shots? That's just low. Reader, don't do this.
I think this one captures what these stops were like. Dozens and dozens of cars lining the road, everyone out and watching. It gets chaotic at times. Many times.
Despite a few people getting in the way (literally), it marked the beginning of the day for real this time - now the race was on. A dash across the crossing and back to our car and we managed to jump onto the road relatively quickly all things considered.
From here, it was time to navigate the backroads of Iowa to follow the train to Blairstown. The trip is not far, but the road does not perfectly parallel the tracks. It curved right, and we had to curve left, and so did the dozens of other chasers in front of and behind us. In fact, not long after that curve, we caught up with the train from a distance!
Of course, due to the angle and the fact I was shooting from the passengers seat while the tracks are on the drivers side... there's some car in the way. Nonetheless, it was a gorgeous view of the train.
On the map, I noticed a crossing coming up. I made the decision to beat the train there and grab shots as it ran through and then hop back in. Let me tell you, this would go in my top ten most stupid yet exciting things I've ever done.
We pull up close to the crossing, I jump out and maneuver my way between parked cars on the side of the road to find an okay spot - and the gates are already coming down. It is a good thing we did not try to get over the crossing! I'm still running around trying to find the right spot while my dad pulls the car up closer to the crossing (I got out a bit farther back, a hundred yards maybe), so I'm in essence racing not just the train, but my own car ride. Which is brilliant.
Then the train came by.
Of course, we were stuck on the dark side of the train, but that doesn't make it any less impressive as it shakes the entire damn earth while racing past.
As the train crossed the road, I jumped back in the car in time for us to get moving as soon as the gates went up. We were remarkably close to Blairstown, and the train slowed a bit for town, so we hurriedly pulled through town and managed to pace it from a distance yet again. This time, however, it was on my side.
But even more importantly... if you read Part 1 of this two-part series, you'll recall the airplanes.
Now, there were not nearly as many planes out on day 2 - but, there were a handful of them here and there.
The stars aligned for this one. The little red plane flying about swooped down at just the perfect moment.
Whoever these pilots are - you are all heroes for the photos you granted the many photographers of the Big Boy. Legendary. Pure luck with the timing - a few seconds in either direction and you'd get a face full of power line, road sign, or corn. Mostly corn. It was just perfect.
Despite the awe of getting the shot, there was no time to rest. Instead, due to the Iowa landscape making it hard to see the train at all, we decided to race ahead of the train and get a photo stop before it arrived in Belle Plaine.
On the way into town, we caught a freight train and a local who stopped to watch the action.
There was nowhere between the Air Race and Bell Plaine that stuck out to me, so we sped into town with the rest of the chasing entourage and looked for a spot. Initially we thought a lot by the tracks would work, but a local lumber company wasn't letting any chasers stop there, so we had to find a new one. I ended up finding a spot on the opposite side of the tracks and at a bridge. So, we stopped, waited with some other people, and caught the train after an anxious wait.
It was a nice little spot. Dark, sure, but the other side didn't work and Belle Plaine was a stop, so it was packed, as we soon found.
The 4014 rattled on through, slowing down for the stop ahead, and as soon as it passed, we were hopping in the car and making our way out to the next stop. First, we had to find our way out of Belle Plaine, which was not as easy as it sounds! Roads were closed off to support the crowds.
Remember I said I regretted not taking photos in Rochelle in Part 1 - I did take photos in Belle Plaine as we passed by.
Pretty much the whole town and then some came out to see the Big Boy. It was wild - and hard to navigate at times.
Still, we made it out of Belle Plaine and looked for our next stop. It came relatively quickly - a dirt road between fields a few miles away. A fair few other people had stopped there as well, but it was quiet and isolated from the road nicely.
It only took 25 minutes since we left the town for the 4014 to catch up to us.
From here, the roads were no longer remotely friendly for a while. We raced northwards to jump back onto our old friend US Route 30 and followed it west. Decent roads from 30 to the tracks were hard to come by, so I elected to forget getting to a spot until we hit Le Grand - there were a few spots just past the small town that we could try to hit.
After driving past town, we pulled off of US 30 onto a not-so-pretty road called Yates Avenue. There, we crossed the Quarry Bridge, which was utterly packed with people. That one was a little nerve wracking - the bridge was only big enough for one-way traffic, especially with the sheer volume of chasers. The bridge went over the tracks of course, so it only makes sense.
We went left along an even worse condition road until we hit dirt, and then we were at a new crossing. We decided to stop there.
It was just another routine stop, really. We waited for maybe 20-30 minutes until the smoke plume became visible above the treetops in the distance, and we could even hear the whistle. As the excitement grew, the older folks became quieter and the younger louder, and then the Big Boy peeked out around the brush.
They were definitely not holding back on that one! It was a fast one, but a good one. It was as impressive as ever.
The train was heading into Marshalltown, which was another stop. As usual, we had no desire to go into the town, so we went around it. We found ourselves on strange dirt roads for a while, finally finding pavement and returning to US 30. I picked out a bridge on Maps, because bridges are great fun.
So, a bit of driving around, and we found ourselves on a bridge on Highland Acres Road just west of Marshalltown, IA. What a view we had! It overlooked a nice, long, and wide curve with lots of nice vegetation on either side. To make things better, the bridge itself was very wide, and accommodated us and the other photographers very well. There was chainlink above the tracks themselves, but a few steps farther down and you had no obstacles blocking you at all.
While waiting, we caught a freight train on the inner track. The #4014 would be taking the outer track.
It didn't take super long for the Big Boy to leave, either. We did have a decent wait there, but once the train left town it arrived at the bridge very quickly. The people from a previous stop who had a scanner with them happened to come to this bridge as well, so we got to hear updates live this time. They were a little delayed getting out of town because too many people were too close to the train. Still, once they got everyone out of the way, they got a move on, much to our delight.
There's a trick here, by the way. We didn't just catch a freight train before the Big Boy arrived - we caught them at the same time.
Have a look in the upper left corner, by the trees. See the blue-grey smoke cloud? I certainly do.
They were taking this curve nice and slow, putting on an absolutely brilliant show for us. It couldn't have been better. We even got trailers here!
Oh, and if you wanted a full view of the scene here...
Never have I been so glad I invested in a new lens just before this trip. There was no losing at this spot.
Slowly, ever so slowly, our superstar locomotive trundled under the bridge and away from us. The opposite side of the bridge was all chain link, but I still felt the need to cross over and get a photo.
And then it was time to go.
Taking more back roads, paved and not, and passing by the town of Lamoille, I got us in position for one of the most stand out moments of the entire chase: an extremely, extremely brief pace, with the tracks just meters away. We beat the train there because it was still going so slow after Marshalltown, and we just stopped on the side of the small dirt road, not a soul in sight.
Just a few minutes later, the train arrived, going much faster than it had been in the curve, and we got a move on.
It was absolutely unreal. The locomotive was easily plugging along, treating us to a simply brilliant, close up view of it in motion with plenty of rod clank as well. You'd better believe I grabbed a video.
Stupid? Very. Worth it? Absolutely.
The dirt road was very short, but long enough to grab clips and plenty of photos. The pace lasted for about 1.5 minutes, give or take.
At the end of it, as the road turned away from the tracks, a crew member on a stopped freight stepped out of the cab to get a photo or video, too.
So very lucky.
The road turned away from the tracks quickly, but we pressed on, and due to a long, outward curve in the tracks, we caught up to it at a railroad crossing packed with chasers. As we came to a stop, the gates going down, I jumped out of the car and over where another photographer stood by the signal boxes and in the weeds.
The unplanned, spur of the moment, shots are the best ones. Such a rush sprinting over to the spot just in the nick of time and catching something by surprise.
I hurried back to the car as the train rolled on through the crossing, clicking my seatbelt on just as the last cars were flying through the crossing, and then we took off towards State Center.
Of course, we ignored the town, as we were now working to catch up to the train. The road into the town was all dirt, and our fellow chasers were kicking up some incredible clouds of dust as we all flew by the town in an effort to catch up to the train. Thankfully, the road became paved once more, and a few chasers broke off at that moment. The speed limit increased and we had the ability to just fly and get up to the 4014.
Which we did!
We decided not to go for the distant pacing for too long, however, and we sped up to reach a little crossing past Colo, where the tracks and the road cross over and switch sides over another track. Had we been a little wiser, we would've gone up to that actual crossover, but we didn't see it. Instead, we found ourselves at a simple dirt road crossing.
From here, it was a race to Nevada. We weren't really sure what we were going to do there, but the train would be making its turn to head southwards on a big wye there. In an ideal world, we'd catch that somehow, but we had to get there first.
We managed to catch up to the train on the way there, getting a striking view of it in the cornfields near a wind turbine.
Once again, the race was on: beating it to Nevada. Thanks to the very helpful steam tracker map, we knew exactly where the Big Boy was headed - to the wye just on the western edge of town. So, we managed to get ahead of the train and head there. Despite traffic slowing in town a bit, because, you know, it's a town and all, we beat the train there without a problem - and it did help that the train was slowing because of the wye.
In all honesty, the original plan was not, in fact, stopping at the wye. The plan was to keep going until we hit a nice road that went straight south, paralleling the tracks for a small distance. However, the road to get there went over the wye, and when we got on that bridge and saw the massive amount of chasers.... Well, it's a good thing traffic was slow! While the car was stopped for other traffic, I jumped out of the car in the middle of the chaos and found my own spot on the side of the bridge overlooking the wye.
It did not take long for #4014 to slowly appear from the east.
As the #4014 slowly rolled into the curve, it came to a stop about halfway through for a few moments. Then, it began to move ahead again.
Hey there, Ed.
Just like you'd expect, as the engine rolled beneath us, everyone stood on the bridge ran over to the opposite side to catch the engine leaving us. Thankfully traffic cooperated with us there!
Not a single person was stood directly overtop, so I decided to take that spot.
Then it was time to go. We still had to catch the train farther down the line, so there was no time to waste. But, it would be impossible to deny just how incredible of a spot that was. The slow approach, and on a curve no less! You got to see just a hint of the articulation there. Something else entirely.
So, I hurried back across the road and jogged down the road to where the car was now parked. As soon as I stumbled in and buckled up, we were off.
The route was definitely changing, as was our sky. The farther west we went, the darker the clouds were, which definitely made things a bit more eerie - but also exciting. Talk about interesting lighting!
But the route itself was now a straight shot south. The train was not set to stop until Elkhart, and it was running a tad late, so it was definitely going to be at speed from here on out. However, it didn't have an opportunity to get that speed until it navigated ANOTHER wye track. Thanks to that, we had time to get there. The nearest road that went straight south did parallel the tracks very, very nicely, however we had to travel an extra three miles to get there, which would be a problem if the train didn't have the second wye. It got to take a shortcut compared to us - the track after the next wye was a diagonal, while we had a big long corner to navigate. It was like a triangle - the train got the hypotenuse, which is shorter than the other two sides combined, which was what we had.
Thanks to the temporarily-slow train and the fact the car was much faster than the train, we raced down 580th Avenue and found ourselves a crossing to stop at on a dirt road that branched off of the main road. There were a handful of others there as well, and with the plentiful trees on one side of the tracks, it made a nice spot.
It really was a good thing the train had that second wye to take. It was only a few short minutes later we heard the whistle - and it wasn't far!
They were really moving this time. Things were a tiny bit delayed like previously mentioned, so the speed was warranted - and it made for a good show.
Now we needed to find a new spot. This wasn't easy, as catching up and passing the train while it was at speed made things rougher. The new treeline made seeing it at all hard, too. We had to rely solely on the online tracker and Google Maps to tell us where it was in conjunction with us. Not such an easy task! I was doing a ton of back and forth to make it happen. It definitely put my "new" little phone to the test, which it passed.
What I discovered on Maps was that at the tiny town of White Oak, we had an opportunity to cross the tracks and get another - and our last - attempt at pacing the Big Boy. Knowing that it really was our last chance, I had to take it. So instead of finding a spot to watch it pass us, we decided to press on and hurry to a spot where we could see each other for a while.
The crossing at white oak was incredibly packed. I'd venture the entire town was out to see it, plus chasers. Nonetheless, we crossed the tracks and went a little ways down to pull off to the side of the road and wait. As it happened, another couple of cars joined us in this. One ahead of us full of a few teens/young adults took the front of the newly formed pack.
Within minutes, the train was coming up on us, and it was time for one last pace. As soon as we all caught site of the train, we slowly pulled onto the road, creeping ahead until it got up closer, speeding up and matching its speed. It is by no means an easy task, but we did it.
It lasted no more than five minutes - my photos claim it was only four, but at the end I watched without the camera to just take it all in.
Eventually, the train began to slow as it came closer to Elkhart, and our pace was over. It was the last pace we got to do, and it was a good one. A solid end to the pacing.
However, it was not the end of the chase. We had just a little more to go. Thanks to the train coming to a stop in Elkhart, we had the time to go down the road further and find a stop. Although we didn't know it, this was to be our last proper chasing spot.
The spot was at a small crossing a few miles south of Elkhart, next to a pair of vader signals.
Being as close to Des Moines as we were, there were a lot more people at this stop. It made it a little harder to find a good spot without getting other people in the shot, or getting in someone elses. It's a difficult balance, really.
Still, after a bit of work, and a bit more waiting, our train was finally on the move, and we could see it moving at speed one last time.
Practically as soon as I zoomed back out the lighting took a steep nosedive. Not really sure why, but oh well. Not every photo is a winner.
With the train having flown past us, it was time for us to go as well. We quickly realized there was no catching it until Des Moines, so we headed straight for the city instead.
The location given for the #4014's stop in Des Moines was, as expected, in a yard, so accessing it was a bit hectic. By the time we arrived, the grass parking lot - normally a fair field, I believe - was incredibly packed with cars. The traffic just to get in was incredible - it was a good thing that the train had to slow down and stop a few times before coming into the yard, otherwise we would've had a hard time getting close!
As it happened, there was one area of the field that wasn't completely packed yet, so we parked up there and crossed the field and entered the rail yard.
The viewing area for the #4014 was all along a small concrete and gravel road that butted up against the tracks, with police tape strung up all along it to keep people off of the tracks. There were a few police cars stopped there as the supports for the tape, and plenty of UP and local police there to ensure safety. Many times they had to shout for people farther down to get off of the tracks.
We had to go down a ways, but we found a spot and made it ours, right on the tape. It was, in a way, like getting up to the barrier or stage at a concert (something I've managed to become relatively adept at, as it happens). Then it was time for a wait.
Almost an hour and ten minutes since we had last seen the train did the coaches appear in the distance. They were backing the train in slowly - navigating the area with the Big Boy, plus waiting for freight trains with priority, meant it was a bit of a slow going. It was well worth the wait, though.
The plan was for the Big Boy to back up and switch onto the nearest track and come up right next to us, as we were told. So, we watched it slowly slink into the yard and disappear.
Then, a few minutes later, it returned, and on the nearest track.
The car on the left, by the way, is a police car, and an officer ended up standing right next to it a few moments later, which prompted a few unplanned photos.
Like I said, quite unplanned, but I ended up with a very flattering image. Anyone know who this officer is? I wonder if he wouldn't mind being a sent a copy of the above photo.
Meanwhile, the locomotive continued its slow approach, with a UP worker following it along the whole way.
It's really an incredible feeling to have such a massive piece of machinery roll past you, just feet away. The sounds, the quake of the earth, the sight itself - just watching all the parts moving with one another is something like no other. It is simply fascinating to watch.
Naturally, who else but my mother would take a photo of me taking a photo of the train here.
Of course, this was the last time we would see the Big Boy move. It continued past us for a ways, back closer to where we parked, and came to a stop there. Then the crowd decided to move a bit closer to the engine. I followed, of course, and took shots of everything I could see going on.
The crowd was huge! But people didn't stay forever - they got their own photos, got their own closeups, and began to leave. I was able to get closer to the engine, up to the police tape, and was able to get a few shots. The lighting was not in my favour, naturally - the skies were a bit brighter now, and the engines shadow sure made it hard to make things fit nicely. I would've tinkered with my settings more, but I just didn't. Some photos came out better than others.
Various crew members wandered about, including the now-superstar Ed Dickens, and as I got up to the "barrier" I got more shots.
And then it started to raining. Absolutely pouring. I was going to say thankfully my camera is waterproof, but it turns out my camera is apparently not waterproof after a Google search, but it didn't die on me, so... It all worked out. I got a photo of myself, and while me and a newly made friend took photos of the train, Ed came by and said to us, "hey, don't get wet!" while the pouring rain soaked each and every one of us. It was fantastic, truly.
And then, it was time to go. After such a long day, and now being soaked, it was well and truly time to take off and say goodbye to the #4014. This was the end of the trip - and the end of my Big Boy chasing adventures of 2019. That was it.
So, I turned and walked off, briefly escaping the rain under a tent, and headed for the car. As I neared it, I turned back to catch one last glimpse through the rain. With timing that seems unreal even now, they blew the whistle. I grabbed my last photo - the one above - and finally returned to the car. That marked the end of the chase. We were finally done.
All in all, the Great Race Across the Midwest was a really spectacular chase. Now, nothing can compare to chasing the entire Great Race to Ogden, but for the two days I got to take on the Midwest chase, it was phenomenal. There were great spots to stop and grab shots, some great pacing spots, relatively easy navigation, great and interesting people, and timing unlike anything else. Who could've planned out the planes, the sprints to the bridges, the paces?
Nobody could've. There was a lot of luck in the chase, but even without that it would've been really great. It was definitely a trip to create some lasting memories - everything from the insane crowds of Rochelle and Belle Plaine to the slow curves at the bridges. It was adrenaline fueled and exhausting, all told, but worth every second. In all, I took a little over 2,000 photos from beginning to end. I'm still in the process of picking out the best and editing them (which is slowed dramatically by the rest of life, as you'd expect), so they're still popping up here and there.
If you want to see the best photos from the trip, the highlights that have been edited, titled, and all that jazz, there's a page for that - visit the midwest in the Union Pacific #4014's Great Race Across The Midwest right here on SMWorks.
So, to close off the two days of the last Great Race I could participate in - as due to school and work, I'm not able to see any of the Great Race Across the Southwest - I'll say that the UP Steam crew is made up of some fantastic people that all deserve a ton of credit for their work. It's them - and the rest of the UP for letting this train go where it needs to go and letting us crazy chasers do what we do - that make adventures like these possible, so a huge shoutout to everyone involved. It's a simply incredible piece of machinery and history that they've brought back into the limelight for all of us to get a chance to see.
So while this is the last chase of the UP #4014 for me this year, it won't be the last forever. You can rest assured I'll be sure to see it again as soon as the opportunity arises. From now until then, there's still other things from me: midwest steam trains, continuing to recount the Ogden trip, a trip to the east, and then some.
Thanks for reading!
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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