On September 30th & October 1st, the Friends of the 261 operated a full excursion train pulled by the 261. I came with my family to chase the train both days, driving up north to Minneapolis on the 29th.
September 29th - Day 0
We arrived and got out and got near the lone track that curved away from the 261's facility, just where that person was standing. We didn't plan on chatting or anything, but he actually struck up a conversation with us. His name was Graham, and he was actually from England and had come to the US for a long trip with his friend, Russell from Maine, and the 261 trip happened to be just the right timing and location for them. We learned that Russell was over at the 261 since as it turns out: the locomotive was open to the public! Shortly after, he returned, crossing that one track, and we all had a brief chat until we decided to head over to the 261 ourselves.
September 30th - Day 1
We got there around 7:30AM (at the recommendation of the two we had met the night before), and as we pulled in close to the train as directed, lo and behold, who pulls up right next to us? Graham and Russell! (who will mostly be referred to as 'our friends' or similar, because that's easy and what we referred to them as during the chase). We all lingered for a bit, checking out the train, and eventually the passes/directions were brought out and we got ours and they theirs, and we proceeded to walk down to the locomotive (a few cars down). Still as incredible as last night, but there was a small crowd of people surrounding it this time! We realized then how lucky we were to arrive the day before to get that early preview, else there'd be no hope of seeing the cab or it without too many people around. Naturally, we took plenty of photos from the available angles and all. It was pretty exciting. Eventually, I decided to check out some of the rollingstock on the end of the train, and walked down the length of the train. There, we got to see the Super Dome #53 and the Skytop lounge Cedar Rapids up close, and they were some truly magnificent rail cars. You wouldn't think you'd be taking a ton of pictures of coaches, but these were just so unique and beautifully maintained, it'd be a disservice not to take plenty of photos, which we most certainly did.
We took some more time to take photos of much of the train and then plan some of our route, going off of the new directions and spots we had been given. As the clock approached 9, we moved to a curve that would soon be taken by 261 in its exit from Minneapolis and set up a camera for video (we were using a Rebel EOS T3 that was a few years old by this point for the video, and my own T6 I had gotten the year before for all the photos, some shown here). Despite bringing the camera and tripod and all, video was the low priority as I was here to see the train in person and take pictures since that's what I enjoy doing, and I can take a decent one once and a while.
So, the waiting game ensued, and a few freight trains went by as the 261 was delayed a while. At around 10AM, however, it blew the whistle and it began to back out of its track and onto the BNSF Wayzata sub and proceeded to back up far enough to get onto the TC&W tracks that would take it towards Winthrop. Tell you the truth, one of those blasts on the whistle sounded remarkably like the original Milwaukee 3-chime it wore back in the 40s that they have, but maybe I was just imagining it. Anyways, it finally slowly rounded the bend and began its journey in earnest.
The directions sheet we had gotten listed some excellent spots to view the train, and we headed towards the first notable one - the bridge over the Mississippi river. Unfortunately for us, traffic lights and general traffic slowed us and we confirmed we missed it when we saw people packing up cameras and jumping into their cars by the bridge. So, we had two options: head to the next place on the directions (which said if you checked out the bridge you'd probably miss this one), or head to Hopkins, MN. So, we headed to Hopkins. We did get a little bit lost at one point, and we even tailed our friends for a short while (and man, do they drive fast! Screams confidence, I'd say.) Eventually, after I stepped in with what people call buggy and wrong (Apple Maps), we got to Hopkins - just barely in time! Interesting to note that on the way there, we had briefly paralleled the 261 as it ran on an elevated track to the left of the main road we were following before we lost sight of it until Hopkins. A quick jog to the crossing - we cut it pretty close, I think they were going faster due to that late start - and we managed to be set up with less than a minute to spare as the train flew past us - extremely exhilarating! I almost considering hopping the guard rail and getting through the light brush, but dismissed the idea. Not wanting to miss any more spots, once the Cedar Rapids had passed by, we quickly packed up and made it back to the car and headed towards our next location.
Well, we didn't miss it, we were plenty ahead of it. We did catch the train beside us a few times between Cologne and Norwood Young America, most notably at Salem Avenue just west of Bongards where we stopped and waited and got a beautiful view of the train racing past. At Norwood, it would take the southern track towards Hamburg. We caught it in Norwood very briefly before running down to Hamburg ourselves. We arrived there a few minutes early and got all set up and ready as others arrived as well. Hamburg was special in that it was the spot in which 261 would do a photo runby for the passengers. The train pulled in and stopped, and let everyone off who wished to see the runby. There was a convenient dirt clearing right beside the track that gave everyone plenty of space to spread out, and after some more vocal railfans appeared, there was a fine line of people who had a great view of the train. It reversed out and came back towards us at high power. What a sight to behold, black smoke across the sky and the driverods flying, and the whistle blowing. It actually did a second runby as well, which was equally impressive to say the least. Our video camera's SD card had filled up before the first runby unfortunately, right after the train came to a stop for the first time, but that actually became a blessing in disguise (and anyway, we had enough phone video afterwards to make up for it...)
This is where things got interesting. From here to Winthrop, Highway 5 perfectly paralleled the tracks all the way with plenty of crossings to stop and take pictures of. One crossing just outside of Hamburg, we actually saw our friends packing up their equipment as we raced to catch up to the train, and I think they also saw us judging by the wave.
Between Hamburg and Green Isle, we stopped at crossings at least once before driving through Green Isle to catch the train at a small bridge that crossed an irrigation stream. It was, indeed, quite small, but proved to be a great spot to catch a few pictures. After choosing my position to take pictures at, I wasn't the only person, there were two other railfans who came up to the same spot (I guess we all had a a good eye, eh?) It was a cool moment, none of us even spoke to each other but we all sort of just understood one another, and kept to a good distance to make sure none of us were in another's shot, and when the train had passed we all left without a word. Non-verbal communication is a pretty nice thing.
We arrived in Gaylord, MN, eventually, and made our way down through town to the crossing there that held some nice grain elevators as a great backdrop. 261 thundered through the town, naturally, and we got back on the road after it had passed. We caught the train at a few more crossings all the while, and one of them had a fun encounter. When we had stopped and I was walking closer to the crossing itself, a woman on the other side was asking us - well, me since I always was out of the car the fastest - about the train and all that, like where it was, if we had been following it, etc. From what I understood, someone had told her about it just a short while before and she just came out to see it - when I said I'd been following the train the whole day, she seemed pretty surprised. Little moments like these are always fun. After the train had charged through the crossing, I'd say she - and the rest of us - were all pleasantly surprised by the experience!
We continued from there on Highway 19 (which was the exact same as Highway 5) to WInthrop, the farthest west the train would go for the whole trip. We got there early enough to see the train pull in and stop.
Whilst we were briefly away, TC&W 4300 - an ex-UP GP30 rebuilt into a GP30C - coupled up the Cedar Rapids to take the train back to Minneapolis. We didn't see it, nor the train pull out, but we did race ahead of it to catch it at a crossing a little ways east from town and another a short ways away from that one.
The rest of the day was spent finally getting to eat - there really wasn't any times to stop during the chase except at the end, which we still didn't do, so, you know - and checking out some of the photos and video we had taken. I made specifically sure that after importing everything from the full SD card, and checking to see it was all on the laptop we had, that it was wiped completely clean. Sleeping that night was easy!
October 1st - Day Two, Finale
It was an excellent day.
The journey for today was to be different, instead of going south at Norwood, the train would continue straight west and drive through a few towns and arrive at Glencoe, MN. The trip was certainly shorter, but the train also wasn't running nearly as fast, and today's weather would make it very different.
Forecasts for October 1st showed a chance of some light rain and notable winds, which would make the temperature feel far, far, lower than it really was, and I will personally attest to that.
To start off the day, we got to the 261 early and did things similar to the day before, taking pictures of the locomotive and cars and some of the surrounding area once more and planning the route a bit further. I also tried a scanner app on my phone and used some of the provided frequencies on the sheet, but I get the feeling I need an actual scanner or radio or whatever, because that app only picked up some other railroad stuff and nothing said on there alluded to 261. Oh, well. Today's #1 target - the Mississippi river bridge. We had missed it yesterday, and we absolutely could not miss it today. We decided also not to go to the curve to watch the train, instead choosing to move near to where the curve and the idle track nearly intersected and watch it go a little ways out and then hurriedly drive out to the bridge in hopes of catching it.
Off to the bridge we went! This was the spot I absolutely had to see, because if anyone knows how I build my routes in Trainz... a bridge is the best thing to get a shot of. We eventually arrived after some slightly confusing directions (I believe at least one road had been partially renamed or there was a typo on the instructions... either way, it worked out) and we got set up in a good spot to view the entire bridge and not have any railings or brush in the way. Parking was more of an issue, because the small street had no actual spots nor nearby lots, but I at least got out to set up the cameras and all with my mother, while my father looked around a bit more (eventually, however, he decided to just drive up near us and put on the hazard lights, which worked fine as no other cars appeared on the narrow road, thankfully).
We waited a short while, a few other people having already shown up and one or two more arriving, and finally heard the sound of the ATSF 6 Chime 261 wore, and a minute later heard the crossing bells on the island the bridge connected to go off. Smoke billowed from the treetops as the locomotive drove through, and finally came into view. It blasted the whistle plenty while it just beautifully flew past us on the bridge, and after it exited the truss, let off a ton of steam from below the firebox.
After that incredible moment, we had to stop gawking and hop in the car. We wanted to reach Hopkins again this time and have a little more setup time and a moment to at least view the Milwaukee Road depot there. We managed to beat the train there with plenty of time to spare, and more chasers pulled up near us and across the track. We were also greeted by a stopped TC&W 2011 on the nearest track. Despite a few people's concerns.. ahem.. that locomotive being there made the photos more interesting, I'd say. One of the chasers near us was asking us about the train to confirm if it had been here yet or not and asked us a few questions, kind of a fun moment. I get the feeling he was just as new to this as we were. Though with the lessons learned from yesterday, we were far more confident this time around.
Having a better understanding of how fast the train was, we made it there with plenty of time and waited. But this is where things were different... rain started to fall. It was light enough, but it was there. This would pick up later. I ended up setting the tripod up just outside my car door but left the camera off of it until the train came by. Eventually, we heard it and I snapped the camera onto the tripod quickly - made easy by the removable top that screwed into the bottom of the camera - and hit record. With fantastic timing, the train came over the bridge just as a car went past - the video for that is some of my favourite I took overall. I didn't get any great photos there, but I was okay with that - we'd be back later, I knew. We drove off towards Cologne proper after the Cedar Rapids went past.
After a few minutes, the train backed up a ways to pick up speed and blaze through town for all to see. It had begun to rain a little harder now, but it was still pretty good in terms of visibility. On a track behind us that led to some local industry, the people had lined up perfectly around the curve, it was a pretty magical sight, not gonna lie. 261 pulled off its photo runby, anyways, being another great success despite the rain and the surprising cold.
After Bongards, we paced it for a good long while, we did view it at another railroad crossing. By this time, the rain had begun to pick up pretty significantly, enough as to where I couldn't reasonably setup the camera outside. So, a bit of fiddling with the tripod legs and using a car seat, I actually managed to get the camera in a decent spot to see the train despite the rain. Had to take photos right there, too, meaning that click of the shutter is pretty audible in some of the video. Pretty interesting moment there. Continuing on, we took off ahead of the locomotive and made a brief stop in Norwood, but not to view the train - we got out and to the next location pretty quickly, however - Plato. Plato was an interesting stop, with a large grain elevator and some wide open spots to get a good shot from. I had a good spot and all for picture and video, but the rain had picked up noticeably, and it was cold. My parents waited in the car while I hung outside with the cameras and all and waited - we knew the train was close, at least - for it to come through. The wind had picked up, too, and the combination of the wind and rain combined with the already low 50 or so degrees it was, it felt more around 25. The cold was, quite frankly, oppressive. Thankfully, the 261 did arrive and passed through Plato, though slower than expected, but in retrospect it made perfect sense. Once the train was through, we drove off to the final destination: Glencoe.
I decided I wanted to setup our camera and all near there, so I walked down closer on the grass lot that separated the road from the railroad track, finding a good spot to watch the new diesel hook up to the Skytop. It wasn't long before we heard the horn of the incoming diesel, which came in to take leadership of the train temporarily.
2301 was fully powered up and got a move on, dragging the train out of Glencoe entirely. Plenty of photos all around for that, and a solid video. We moved on, heading back to Plato once more, but taking a different position on the other side of the grain elevator, which turned out to be a great spot.
During our, wait, however, a very familiar car pulled up beside us... somehow, again, Graham and Russell had found us. They said hello and we said a few words before they drove out a little ways, but it wasn't more than a few minutes until Graham walked back towards where we had set up and said they decided to stay and see it here, it was a good spot. And a good spot it was! It wasn't long after when we heard the distinct sound of a massive motor in the near distance, and all of us, including a few other people on the other side of the bridge, all got ready.
After a bit of a trip, we found ourselves driving back into the 261's home yard, and we looked for a good place to set up once more. Originally, we had figured that the 261 would do the same as the day before, pulling in to where it had sat the last few nights, but we later learned this was not so. We settled on the space between the curve we had seen the train on often and the track it would come back onto, the same place as this morning. The plan was that after the train passed the curve and continued backing up towards the right set of points that would lead it back to its starting position, we'd make a quick run down there and set up once more. When we arrived at the 'corner' between the tracks, you would not believe it. Who else was already waiting there but the two guys we'd been seeing the entire weekend? The absolute most incredible coincidence.
It was pretty amusing, and everyone seemed pretty happy about the whole thing. We pulled up nearby and then we - all five of us, now - waited together for the train and talked about general stuff. Now, what made this more amusing than it really was, was that my parents are not train people, I got that pretty much from my grandfather, but neither of my parents ever knew too much about them other than what was relevant to whatever we were doing, like going to a museum or chasing the 261. Meanwhile, both Russell and Graham were very well versed in railroading and a had lots to say about it. Anyways, we learned a bit more about the two of them, such as how I previously mentioned they had met when chasing Chinese steam locomotives years ago, and then they had taken other trips together. Evidently, they had been to some British steam gala the day before the event was meant to take place and had the whole place to themselves to check out, with no one else but workers who were keeping the locomotives maintained... and steamed up - supposedly a whole lot of locomotives, too! They were quite a pair, it has to be said. I get the feeling that Russell kind of knew that my parents weren't huge train people when he talked to me separately and we chatted about various topics, such as the trains around where I live and where I had chased stuff before (which was really just 844 earlier this summer). He also mentioned some of the stuff he'd done, such as being out west near some extremely busy mainlines and seeing (and hearing) just dozens and dozens of huge freight trains just every few minutes. While we were there, we saw at least one BNSF intermodal go past, plus a set of BNSF light power, and on the other side of the yard one of the regional passenger trains made a runby.
Eventually, though, we saw headlights appear from where the 2301 was meant to be coming from, and a quick look told us that was our train. It's easy to tell with that bright orange and maroon that MILW cars are painted in. The train took the curve once more, heading closer towards its switch that would set it on its usual track, but then, the train slowed to a stop right as 261 came beside us. That was unexpected, but a very welcome surprise.
So, we waited again, and not too long later, the locomotive began driving back towards us after it had used the wye that encapsulated its facility to turn around. It took a slow approach and finally got up close to us, just passing by the length of the locomotive itself. As it came right on us, I decided I might as well actively pan the video camera to view the thing - and man, what a shot. If only it had been a dedicated video camera, I tell you. Regardless, the locomotive finally came to a halt beside us.
Eventually, we decided to get a move on and call the day quits. Some last photos and then we finally had to depart, seeing as we'd been there a long while already. We stopped not far away to figure out some directions, so I did manage to snap a couple final photos.
In summary, this weekend was simply incredible. Prior to this, I had only chased one train before, the UP 844 back on July 1st this year. That only lasted a few hours, but this whole experience lasted more like a grand total of twenty hours of chasing, driving, waiting, looking... it was a simply massive change. It was tiring, sure, but it was well worth it. There were moments of confusion and issues here and there, but it was overall a great success. Something about seeing and hearing this locomotive drive past - even just sitting idle! - is so imposing and simply stunning. It may seem overdramatic, but it really is beyond words.
The 261 itself is simply in immaculate shape, being beautifully maintained by the volunteers of the Friends of the 261. They keep it shining - and shine it does! - and running smoothly the whole way of the trip, I remember my dad saying he was surprised just how reflective it is. Everyone that worked in and around the locomotive and its cars that we encountered was really friendly - the environment around it felt really welcoming to be honest. The event seemed really well done, especially for being non-profit. I would strongly encourage you to check out their site and what they do, and donating sure wouldn't hurt. We bought the chasers passes on the 29th after we had seen the locomotive up close, seeing as not only would we get some good directions, but after seeing it in person, it felt like they could certainly use the money to keep it in such good shape. Link
One absolutely incredible part of the whole trip is how accessible everything was to us. We could go right up to the engine, less than a foot away, I mean, you could even get up into the cab, which was beyond amazing. While they were loading coal up at the very end, they just worked around all the people at the locomotive, they didn't push anyone away, didn't ask anyone to move, they just worked with it. It felt like we were really welcome to view the train, which was just fantastic. We hadn't expected it, but it was a pleasant surprise. Not to mention, all the people - volunteers and railfans alike - all were just really cool. There wasn't any hostility or anger, nobody was really salty - everyone seemed pretty excited and happy, like us. It was a pleasant change from the hostile political and social media environments we see today, and was a great refuge. Even on Monday when we drove home, after hearing about the shooting in Vegas, I still felt overwhelmingly good about the weekend. I really didn't think anything could bring that down, it was just a great trip. I think I learned a lot during it, too. I discovered new things about how to chase a train like this, and new ways and ideas for taking photos. I also found myself being a bit more on the 'adventurous' side of things - getting down in embankments along Highway 5, for instance, and running down and crouching along the side of the hill at the Green Isle trestle just to get a handful of shots. It was overwhelmingly great trip, just the entire experience was really something magnificent. How's that for an 18th birthday trip? Simply unforgettable.
If you read all that stuff, congratulations! I felt like I just wanted to write out the whole experience so I can look back at it and remember more of the details, and I felt like sharing the experience with anyone who was interested. It was an incredible trip - an excellent group, an excellent train, a fantastic experience (and I think I need to invest in a thesaurus!). I'd recommend doing something like this to anyone who hasn't but has any interest in steam or trains.
So, as a 'reward' for all that, here's what's going on with SMWorks and content since the last post.