Hundreds, even thousands, of pieces of railroad history are lucky enough to be saved and cared for, many restored cosmetically, operationally, or even just sitting quiet in a collection. Unfortunately, not everything has that luxury, and many pieces of history have been lost or have nearly been lost, and others sure feel lost. One such example is a little place called Loweth, Montana.
Loweth is a place that makes you feel lost when you get there, even when you aren't. It's so far removed from civilization that you'd be hard pressed to find it without having a map that takes you straight there. It rests beside Montana Route 294, a small two lane highway that runs really about nowhere, and it's one of the only things you'll along the route at all in terms of manmade structures. If you take the road, you'll come across a handful of abandoned, stripped railroad signals, as well as unwired power poles, all following a thin, level strip of grass that rises and cuts through the terrain and winds throughout the hillsides.
It all comes from the former Milwaukee Road that once ran through Montana. In 1914, the railroad, having just finished completing its transcontinental expansion, decided to begin electrifying a portion of this new pacific extension in order to allow their trains to actually run. Extreme cold meant firing steam engines was very difficult to do, not to mention the fact there was no fuel for them out there which meant all of it had to be shipped in from the east. The Milwaukee sunk another $20 million into the Pacific Extension to electrify it - and the result was some incredibly historical and valuable railroading.
The electrification was based on DC power, where 3000 Volts DC (later upgraded to 3400 to handle the immense power of a Little Joe) was sent through wires that ran directly overhead of the tracks - called catenary or trolley wire - and was given to the locomotive via a pantograph. Of course, if you know your history and a little bit about the War of the Currents, you'll know that DC has a difficult time traveling any length of notable distance - much less 656 miles, the final number of electrified route miles. The Milwaukee Road, General Electric, and ALCo were very set in using DC power for this expansion as it was an excellent choice for railroading at the time - so the solution was substations.
Roughly every 30 miles, a substation was built along the tracks. High voltage AC power was run near the tracks and was split off into each substation, where a series of motor generators and transformers would take the AC power and turn it into 3000 Volts DC power, which was then funneled into the catenary from there. Thus, there was always enough power a train anywhere on the route. The substations were placed to maximize efficiency in terms of miles - no massive overlaps or wastes of space - and in strategic locations, such as right before steep grades. The Janney substation right out of Butte was situated before a very steep grade that took trains back east, and as it happens, Loweth is the same, merely westbound instead. It's placed on top of a steep hill for the Milwaukee, where before 1956, the ruling grade was over 2% and required trains to double the hill. The tracks were rerouted behind the substation - which was unusual, as previously all substations were built to have their northern wall face the tracks - in 1956 which reduced the grade to 1.4%.
Loweth was not a unique substation otherwise, though. It was just one of 22, following the standard design for the large brick buildings, which was all ninety degree angles and clean lines. An industrial look, but a startlingly good one as well. It had a set of three company houses with at least one storage shed that sat beside it. Substations needed to be operated 24/7 and thus, Milwaukee built houses for the operators (and their families presumably) so that they could live at the substation and keep it operational day in, day out, until they began to remotely control the buildings.
Every substation was numbered. Loweth was Substation #2.
You wouldn't know it from looking at the engraved placard that faces the highway. It's been utterly ruined - it frankly looks as if it's been shot to pieces, as weather certainly doesn't do that (nor did it do that to Ravenna, Gold Creek, or Primrose).
Substation #2 was named Loweth after the Milwaukee Road's chief engineer at that time, Charles Frederick Loweth. It did not bear the name anywhere on the structure or in the surrounding area, but the name certainly stuck. It still sticks now, as despite the railroad abandoning the structure 45 years ago (and abandoning the tracks entirely just six years after that), Loweth, MT is still a place you can find on Google Maps. It even works on the National Weather Service website when typing in a region to get a forecast for.
As previously mentioned, Loweth was abandoned 45 years ago. In 1974, the Milwaukee Road shut down its electric operations and changed to run strictly diesel. Despite the fact that this truly sealed the fate of the company - though it was already well known they were falling apart - it meant that once the last pieces of valuable equipment were stripped from the inside of the building, it was to be scrapped itself. Brick scrappers could certainly use the material - in fact, Substation #1, Two Dot, suffered that very fate and was torn down to its mere foundations, the same can be said for substations 3 - 7. However, they couldn't secure a deal for Loweth (as well as stations 8, 9, and 10), and thus they left it empty.
So, over 40 years later, I got the chance to take a look inside this seemingly forgotten piece of history. It was utterly fascinating to be able to do so, as never have I seen one of these structures up close before, The substations are much, much bigger than you really expect them to be. They have a really towering presence over the area, one you can't really ignore.
The day I was there was rather dreary. Overcast, cold, raining a bit - with snow even beginning to appear mid-exploration. It certainly made the place feel distinctly less inviting, as you'd imagine. Granted, the giant "NO X-PASSING" graffiti certainly says enough in that regard... but the cold meant I wasn't to be here for very long.
The entrance to Loweth is on the west side, a single doorway with a small anteroom. For a hundred years, there's been a small wooden door standing tall, which eventually fell off its hinges and was merely propped up against the main entranceway for the last few decades. No longer.
Instead, the fragile pieces of wood rest inside the anteroom.
Looking back through the old doorway, the equally old concrete path that once led to a set of houses still remains, though now it merely leads to small foundations instead as the houses were razed some years back.
The anteroom is otherwise empty - except a few metal bars that hang down directly in your path, which can be seen above. The floor, concrete, is splitting down the middle and half of it is coming up, creating an unstable path. There is a window and doorway that lead into the largest room of the substation.
This largest room is where the two Motor Generator sets were housed. These pieces of equipment were the primary means of converting AC to DC power in the building, and seeing as they were designed over 100 years ago, they were very large. They took up enough space that a basement had to be constructed in order to completely hold the full size of these immense machines.
There are three holes in the main room of Loweth. One is completely filled with dirt/manure, another is partially filled, and the last is open. The first two are larger, where the Motor Generators once sat before being scrapped, while the third is the entrance hatch into the basement, with a ladder connected to it. I admit, I didn't know the basement existed in the substation until I did some extra research after I left this place. It turns out the basement is flooded - I didn't confirm that myself, and I did not go down to the basement. Frankly, you couldn't pay me to do it.
The main room also has a large wooden door on the eastern wall, though we'll look at that again later. Otherwise, there is little else to note in the room. Metal rods on the western wall sit high and inaccessible, as well as metal supports on the ceiling, but there is nothing else.
Now, we look towards the south wall. There is another room through there, which is where it appears a series of transformers of some kind once sat on large concrete plinths. They were, at least, large pieces of electrical equipment that were connected in some way to the Motor Generators of the main room. Note the holes in the wall, some very small, and one large one - all on the left of the doorway between the two rooms.
Take note of the colors on the bricks. The paint has faded in some areas, but not quite all. When they were new, the 22 substations received coats of white paint all over the inside (barring the bottom, which was green, as pictured).
Like the room before it, this room, which I'll be dubbing the Transformer Room based on what I think I know, is now empty. Those concrete plinths to the left once held large transformers that connected to the Motor Generators, and more equipment sat in and above the pit on the right. Now, that pit is filled with water and sludge, which was frozen when this picture was taken. This room also has a set of rails embedded in the ground, as well as a pit at the opposite end with a collapsed door resting atop it. In between the rails sits a plethora of glass shards, which have been shot out of the building. This rooms paint has survived better than the MG Room.
You might've noticed the lack of a door earlier, and as it turns out, this door is still there. It appears to be made of metal, or at least covered in it, and presumably was a sliding door connected to the black rod above the doorway. This one, based on the few interior photos of Loweth available online, appears to have been resting on the concrete floor for many, many years now. The other door, farther down the room, has been there for much less time, however.
This door appears to have operated in the same manner as the one mentioned before, based on the metal rod sitting above its entranceway - another large, metal sliding door. Note the cutout - perhaps made to allow a person to step through if need be? Regardless, this door, closer to the eastern wall, fell down some time in the last 5-10 years. There is a photo online somewhere of this door still standing that was published in the last decade, though I can no longer find it unfortunately.
The pit I mentioned earlier is filled with dirt, rubble, and garbage.
The usage for these rails and the pit is just a guess - the pit may once have been a miniature turntable, which would turn carts that had heavy equipment placed on them. The rails would allow heavy equipment to be moved back and forth. Such equipment would be things like transformers - replacing old or damaged ones, perhaps. Note that I am absolutely guessing at this - I have not seen documents that make these claims.
Now, having seen the details, we will take a step back and look at some of the rest of the interior as a whole.
And that is the interior of Loweth Substation.
However, we're not totally done yet.
To go along with the substation and the company houses, there was at least one storage shed on the property. Unfortunately, it has been thoroughly crushed - by what, I do not know. I do know that this is more recent - within the last 15-20 years. Older photos dated two decades back show the storage shed as a complete structure, one that looked in decent shape. Perhaps this is related to when the landowner attempted to tear down the substation, perhaps this was a freak accident - a tree? Bad weather? It's tough to say, and I have yet to find a cause for its destruction online.
Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of the remains of the company houses. They are now small, concrete lines with water and junk sitting in them. They're hard to see, with only one really being visible - the closest to the two remaining buildings. The other two are mostly covered by overgrowth now.
And that... is what remains of Substation #2 of the Milwaukee Road - Loweth, Montana.
Visiting Loweth was a sort of surreal experience. For a long time - years, really - I have researched the Milwaukee Road and its electrification, and I was utterly fascinated by this particular substation. It sits alone, nothing else for a few square miles. It has a strange allure to it, yet it also makes you feel small. It's a lonely place. It is not a tourist attraction by any stretch. It is a strange place, at that. It is not accessible to the public unless you're willing to crawl through some barbed wire fencing and dodge some obstacles in the field around the building. Perhaps a sunnier day would make the location a little friendlier, but when I visited... the place felt cold, literally and metaphorically.
I worry for the future of the site. It is on private property, in a cow pasture at that (which makes the area decidedly gross. I was lucky no cows were nearby when I was there), and the owner of the land reportedly does not like the building, as it attracts explorers and trespassers. It's understandable on their part. Exploring it is not necessarily unsafe, but it is not exactly safe either. It is their land, which is also inhabited by livestock, and you don't want strangers trying to mess with your animals just to try to get some photos of a big pile of bricks. Not to mention, someone getting injured on your property... Nothing good has ever come from that.
In years past, the landowner did try to tear down Loweth, apparently. However, public outcry managed to put a halt to that, though that was some time ago. The building, in all honesty, is not looking good at all. Look closer at any of the pictures of the exterior - the grout is all but gone in some areas, there are cracks in the bricks, and even whole chunks of bricks have disappeared. Nobody has repaired the building since 1974, when the site was abandoned. The basement is reportedly flooded, and frankly... I don't think the landowner wants the building up at all. The graffiti on the side has been added some time after 2013, which is when Google Streetview captured the building.
In my eyes, the only way Loweth will continue to survive will be for a dedicated group to seek permission from the owner of the land to help repair the building or even outright buy the tiny strip of land that it rests on, fencing it off from livestock and keeping it enclosed. Realistically, though, this will not happen. The owner doesn't seem like someone who would willingly give up the land (there's even old fading graffiti at the "no x'passing" sign that says "no sale"), and not to mention, it's too far out of the way to make into much. You won't be making a museum and charging for admission there any time soon.
I think Loweth is doomed to rot away for more and more years to come until the current or next owner of the land decides to knock it down, or weather gets the best of it. It will be a sad day if it happens, but it's likely in my opinion.
To close, here is a collection of additional photos around the site. It is a unique place that, while I can't recommend you visit, I can say was a very surreal and strange place to experience firsthand. I do ask that, if this or other articles/posts about Loweth do end up encouraging you to visit it, please respect the site. Don't take souvenirs as tempting as it may be. You may think, "it's just a lone brick on the ground," but then realize if everyone wanted their own piece... there would be no substation. Don't damage it or the grounds anymore than they already have been. Perhaps most importantly, respect the owner of the land. Perhaps you could seek permission to visit, perhaps not, but regardless, it's private property, and thus it should be treated with the utmost respect for the land and its owner.
Loweth's fate isn't perfectly clear, but it doesn't look necessarily positive, either. I am glad I was able to see the site as it stands now, before one day it is no more.
Something I mentioned briefly in my last post was this quote: "On May 17th, we got to return to the bridge after a rather grueling day in Hanna." Why was it such a grueling day, you might be wondering?
The #4014 was scheduled to arrive in Hanna, WY at 9am and depart 15 minutes later, then arrive in Medicine Bow at around 9:45am. So, none of that happened, of course.
For a bit of reference, Hanna is a very isolated place. It's along the UP mainline and near US Route 30, but a fair few miles away from the Interstate. There's not much there - in fact, there's so little that there isn't even phone service. Remember the lack of service at the bridge? Turns out, Hanna has none either for some reason. You would think that it would, because it's a town, but then you see "No Data" in the upper left of your phone, which is less than ideal.
The truly amazing thing is 4014 left Rawlins on time - actually a little bit early, too. Things were looking good in that regard.
Then it reached the town of Sinclair and stopped for a freight train.
While 4014 was leaving Rawlins, we had caught it and proceeded to jump on the highway after following it into Sinclair. It was still moving when we passed it on I-80 - just leaving Sinclair. So, naturally, following the days plans, we headed up to Hanna. We had skipped it back on May 4th, but now, I thought we should visit for a quick photo, then go to the bridge again if we could. Seemed like an alright plan, right? Well, it was, and then 4014 didn't arrive. Turns out it stopped, but we lost phone service before we could find that one out.
9am: No #4014, probably a few minutes behind, that's okay.
9:11am: Oh, there's a westbound freight, maybe that's the delay- hey hold on is that-
Little did I know that a very dirty Heritage unit would be leading a westbound. In fact, it came up on me so fast I couldn't get a shot of it approaching. The photo above is literally the first shot I was able to get of it. Trains are startlingly sneaky at times.
9:27am: Ah yes another westbound
10:00am(ish): It is time for rain
10:17am: Can I interest you in an eastbound
10:27am: I present to you an eastbound that looks literally identical to the last one but I promise is actually not the same
I didn't even photograph one or two of the other freight trains that went by. At least one more westbound, might've been a third eastbound, too.
This whole time we stood underneath a bridge - the only bridge, mind you - that led into the rest of town over the tracks. It was fairly windy, it was cold, it was cloudy, it was rainy, and frankly, it just kinda sucked. No data either, so we had no idea where the train was. Was there a problem? Were we JUST waiting on freight?
Yes, but we didn't know that. Nobody around did.
Finally, two hours after it should've arrived, #4014 found its way into Hanna.
Despite the wait, we did get to see #4014 and still beat it to the bridge ten miles east or so. Overall, though, my experience in Hanna was not exactly amazing, but... I guess it's hard to ask for a lot in the middle of nowhere while waiting for a train to show up. At least we did see other trains - including the 1995, which was a total surprise - but I can't say I'd do it over again. I now wonder what this experience will do to my perception of people with the name Hanna(h). Better or worse? Hard to say. I used to like that name. I still do, but I used to, too. I have no shame for that joke, by the way.
Terrible stolen jokes aside, after a brief walk down from the bridge over to where the #4014 stopped, we hiked back to the car and drove off to the infamous bridge that the police just absolutely loved - A Tale of Two Bridges, the Big Boy, and the Police.
This post is part of a series on chasing the Union Pacific Big Boy #4014 on its Great Race To & From Ogden. For more, find the "UP 4014" category on the sidebar!
I won't lie to you - it's actually just one bridge. However, it was two separate visits to that bridge that made for one unforgettable pair of stories.
During the Great Race To Ogden, we stopped along a variety of places along the road and in just as many towns, but one spot sticks out in particular - a bridge in roughly, well, the middle of nowhere. Between the towns of Medicine Bow and Hanna, Wyoming sits a bridge that crosses over Union Pacific's transcontinental main, and it was here that many, many photographers wanted to get a few pictures of the UP #4014. We got the shots, but it was certainly not as easy as you'd think.
To get an understanding of what I mean when I say the middle of nowhere, I really mean it. From Google Maps, we can understand where we are pretty quickly.
Hanna was the closer town, at about 8-9 miles away, while Medicine Bow was a slightly less comfortable 11-12 miles away. Sure, there are places plenty more isolated - but the real kicker? There was no cell service at this bridge. Not even a little bit. It wasn't even just my provider, either - not a single person at that bridge had cell service. If they did, well, we would've been a bit better off, I'd say!
For the record, when I say no cell service, I mean that in the corner of my phone it said No Data. Literally, completely isolated in that regard. Not gonna lie - a little bit off putting!
May 4th was the first time 4014 would come to this bridge. It had already been quite a day, leaving Cheyenne, heading through Laramie and along US Route 30 to Medicine Bow, where 4014 would stop for oil, lubrication, photos, and other maintenance... but, there was still a ways to go - to Rawlins, that is. They were a little bit late getting into Medicine Bow, but not too bad really, given the issues they had on that day. Maybe an hour late, hour and a half tops.
After finding out Medicine Bow was beyond packed with people, we skipped it just before 4014 arrived into the tiny town, and instead began to search for our next photo spot. After a little driving through pure emptiness, we happened across this now infamous bridge. Seeing as the train was coming from the east, we wanted to get a shot of it coming at us, so we went across the bridge and parked where some other people were starting to set up. We weren't the only car there by any means.
However, just as we got out of the car, a Wyoming State Trooper told us we couldn't park there. Well, that was certainly annoying, and while our regard for the law during this trip was... questionable at times, we're not ones to directly disobey an officer. So, we get back in and find a spot to park on the opposite side of the bridge where other chasers were now parking. We had stopped there for a moment to figure out what we were doing, then we crossed over... and then we had to go back. Full circle, hmm?
Well, we weren't the only people who were told we couldn't park in the original spot, and everyone else wanted the same shot we did. So, we joined a little convoy of people walking across the bridge over to our earlier spot. Safe? Not in the slightest.
The real surprise is that all of us were allowed to do this. But we did anyways, and then we took our spot, facing east. What an incredible view it offered, too. Surely when 4014 came by in the next, oh, half hour or so, we would have an incredible shot!
Well, yes, but also no.
The thing is, 4014 did not have priority on this trip. It also had a lot of issues on May 4th. We got to this bridge around 4pm, but 4014 was very, very, very late. So while we got a shot, it sure did take a while.
But, that's not all! While we waited, we were greeted by a few freight trains as well as plenty of cloud-based-anxiety (those things can make or break a shot really easily), and moreover... a state trooper who would not let up.
Picture the scene. Standing on the embankment off of the road with, well, a lot of people. I would guess there were over 150 people on this embankment with us (as well as on the other side of the tracks, even more on the other side of the bridge facing west). So, naturally, space fills up fast. We were early enough that we got a front spot, nicely, and so we didn't have any issues with people in the way. Some people were smart and brought little stepping stools to stand on to get over our heads - some people online seem to look down on that, but let me tell you, they certainly looked useful at times. One person set one up right behind me, talking to their friends, and said something about "let me just set up behind the nice lady..." Well, guy, whoever you were... I understand the confusion, but, well, that was a little bit wrong...
Naturally though, with so many people crowding up here, there wasn't space for everyone. Some people got creative with their spot - I saw at least a few people standing right on the edge of the embankment, practically under the bridge and sort of hiding on the concrete supports. Brilliantly dangerous, of course. Other people took to standing up at the top of the embankment, off of the road of course, but on the edge of the bridge. Bridge guard rails tend to stretch out a ways after the bridge is fully passed, so a few people would sit on the edge of that and others who stood nearby - not on the road, but on the very, very edge of the concrete.
Let me tell you - those people at the top? That one single state trooper I mentioned above was not having it. He was constantly telling people to get off the bridge - you heard him say it at least once every couple of minutes, which he repeated multiple times of course... and so, not too long after, all we hear, is an endless stream of, "Get off the bridge! No standing in the roadway! Get off the bridge!"
I won't lie, there were some people standing dead in the middle of the bridge, right above the tracks. That's not smart, and he had every reason to tell them to move. A good idea, really. However, it was the other people not even on the bridge that honestly? Telling them to move wasn't helping anybody. Not to mention, he was still refusing to let people park on this side of the bridge.
Oh, man, that was a dumb idea. There was ample space for a fair amount of cars, but he didn't let a single one of us park there. That had some interesting consequences.
So, while a cop continuously yelled "Get off the bridge!" behind us, the rest of us simply stood in wait for 4014. Like I mentioned earlier, 4014 was very, very late. We got to see some freights though, which was nice.
You really could see these trains appear from the east from miles away. They would snake into and out of sight, then all of a sudden pop out from behind the hill. Then the cop would tell everyone to get off the bridge again. Truly, it was a brilliant spot to shoot from.
So, 4014, right? It was meant to arrive in Rawlins itself to end of the day at 5.
It didn't get to the bridge until 5:30.
But when it did... Well, it was quite the sight.
Well, we got the shot. And a whole lot of them, too. As soon as the train started rounding the corner, everyone went dead silent, and the only sound was the howl of the Wyoming wind... and a few camera shutters here and there. There were a few more clicks the closer it got, then it got just behind the signals and they slowed. Finally, the boiler passed the set of signals.
I have never once in my life heard that my camera shutters going off at once.
To make things really interesting - I got that on video, too! The wind does make this hard to hear at times, but you can't miss the shutters when 4014 passes the signals. It was amazing. Enjoy a little clip of 4014 and a whole bunch of photographers!
(Heads up for people on mobile/data plans: this is a fairly large video file, so in addition to buffering, it'll use up a fair chunk of data most likely).
Once 4014 had passed us by, it was time to head back to the car and run for the next place (which ended up being Rawlins, no other suitable locations between here and there thanks to traffic, the speed of the train, and the distance between the road and the tracks). One problem though... remember the cop who wouldn't let anyone park on the side of the bridge that we were all stood on?
Well, the mass exodus across the bridge was both a little disconcerting and hilarious. Ironically, by not letting us park where we wanted to because he said it wasn't safe, the cop made it actually more dangerous, as now ~150 people were walking across a two lane bridge with oncoming traffic following the train! I grabbed a 7 second clip of the walk with my phone for my Instagram story...
Despite the foolishness of that little journey, we all made it back to our cars in one piece and got going. It worked out in the end but man, that cop... That certainly could've gone worse!
And thus, the bridge was left behind, but not forgotten. Many chasers I talked to later during the trip referenced it - some were there with us, others had heard about it by word of mouth or social media. The cop was always the villain in that story.
Of course, we did have to come back this way still. We weren't done with this trip yet - the race back to Cheyenne had the 4014 taking the same tracks naturally, which meant we would have to see this place again. And we did.
On May 17th, we got to return to the bridge after a rather grueling day in Hanna (more on that in another post). This time, the cops were letting people park on either side of the bridge... guess they learned something between the 4th and then, hm?
4014 would not be coming from the east this time, instead heading east, coming from the west. Our earlier spot was pretty filled up, and I'd already gotten the shot I wanted there, so I elected to have us park in the same place we did last time and walk down to the bridge to shoot, facing west.
As we walked towards the bridge, a state trooper that was pulled off on the side of the road just between the temporary parking lot and the bridge itself called over to us from his car and informed us that we were not allowed to get on the bridge itself or go between the metal guard rails. Well, as it happened, we didn't plan on doing either of those things, so we said, sure, no problem, thanks for the heads up, and continued along. I'm not sure if that was the same cop as before or not, but I feel like it was. Tough to say, really.
The wind was very strong on the 17th - it made the walk a bit rough. An issue we had encountered before was that my tripod was not heavy enough to counteract high winds to setting it up was out of the question at first. However, later on, I did decide to drop it down but not extend any of the legs. The audio is pure wind noise, but it is video nonetheless.
Anyways, our western view was frankly stunning.
Despite the incredibly long delays from earlier in the day, we soon discovered 4014 was arriving much sooner than expected. In the distance, we spotted the headlight and a hint of smoke, and a quiet set over the group of people around us - just like last time, this time with less loud police.
Soon, the Big Boy would race past us. It doesn't matter if you're up high and away from the tracks - that thing will cause an earthquake when it rolls past.
After peeking up over the bridge railing and shooting across the two lane highway, we grabbed our equipment and fought against the high Wyoming wind back to the car to continue our chase. Little did we know that in a few more hours, we'd be in prime position to get the best pacing segment of the whole trip.
The bridge was left behind once more, and this time, we wouldn't be returning to it. The infamous bridge of Medicine Bow & Hanna made for great shots and even more fun as a story to tell - everyone knew about this bridge because people kept getting told to get off of it!
Coming up, we'll be looking at the oh-so-fun events in Hanna on the same day, more detail on the Grandeur at Granger and its 4AM starting time, and even more cops yelling at us - even at another bridge! Plus, more stories from May 4th, a talk about the nightmare of Sherman Hill, another brief moment in the middle of nowhere... and then the true middle of nowhere, standing inside of a one hundred-and-five year old building that was abandoned forty five years ago.
This post is part of a series on chasing the Union Pacific Big Boy #4014 on its Great Race To & From Ogden. For more, find the "UP 4014" category on the sidebar!
The journey from Cheyenne to Ogden and back was unlike any other for a myriad of reasons, but one of them was the opportunity to get alongside the legendary Union Pacific #4014 while it was in motion. The trick was getting up there! Because so many other people wanted to the same thing, it was tough to get close at all. However, we did manage it multiple times throughout the journey. It was truly exhilarating to be able to do, and certainly not easy at times! So, now, we look at some of the highlights of getting side by side the Union Pacific Big Boy, #4014.
By my count, we were able to pace it in some capacity at least 9 different times. Each time was spent carefully eyeing the road in front of and behind us and frantically swapping between picture & video, and even swapping lenses a few times just to get the right shot. The results ended up being about 30 minutes of raw video and, at a rough estimation, between 1500-2000 photos of the massive steam engines and the incredible Wyoming & Utah countrysides.
The first time we paced 4014 & 844 was on US Route 30, between Laramie and Medicine Bow - on the very first day of the chase, May 4th! It was brief, but the moment we found it was frankly incredible. After a stop in, well, the middle of nowhere, we were back on the road heading towards Medicine Bow when we were hit with traffic. Other chasers, pacing the train of course, along with many more simply heading towards their next spot. It seemed like the road had two miles of cars ahead of us, with no end in sight. Then, we crossed a hill and... the road was almost totally empty.
Even now, more than a month later, I don't understand how that happened. Regardless, there were hardly more than a dozen cars left over, and before I knew it, the 4014 popped up to our left, high above the road on its grade. The issue with that: I'm in the passengers seat, meaning the only way to shoot was out of the drivers side window... thankfully, my father, who drove us throughout the entire chase, is a much better driver than he gives himself credit for. He managed to keep us on the road and lean back so I could take a few shots (though I wasn't leaning that close, it was more so just so he wouldn't block the shot! I didn't obstruct his view at all). An unexpected surprise - especially given the advice we were told before the trip, which was, "Don't try to pace. Pick a spot and go there."
Well... who needs that kind of advice?
Well, we didn't pace it again until we arrived in Utah.
Most of the pacing in Utah on May 8th was rainy, so while it provided great steam, it was certainly hard to get a nice photo at times! Especially when it's before you got your lens hoods... Regardless, throughout Echo Canyon we followed alongside 4014 and 844, even making a few stops ahead of the train to grab a few shots and jump back into the action. One of the highlights had to be moving around in the car!
As we were heading west for this part of the trip, as mentioned previously, the tracks were on the left side of the car. Instead of sitting in the passengers seat and shooting out the drivers window this time, I sat in the back seat of the car and shot out of the left. Worked much better in all regards for this part! However, we did get on the Interstate just before Echo, UT, which put the tracks on our right again, and I did need to be navigating... so, I got to experience jumping from the back to the front seat while in a moving car. Protip for those crazy enough to do the same: it's tighter than you think, it will hurt your back and neck, and it is not as fun as you'd probably expect, either. Briefly on I-80 we caught it some more, then we found ourselves making a handful of stops to watch it roll past, and then we got stuck in traffic.
Naturally, May 8th was the end of the Great Race To Ogden... but May 12th was the start of the Great Race From Ogden!
We returned to Echo Canyon Road to do the same as last time - but no stopping this time. We found ourselves a spot alongside the road and waited... and waited... until finally, the quake of the incoming train alerted us to get ready to go.
They were certainly putting on a show! It rolled right up to us, and as we joined the road, it came right up perfectly beside us for an absolutely unforgettable sight of the largest steam engine running mere feet away, all while we kept pace. Unbelievable then, unbelievable now. It lasted only seconds, then we jostled ahead and behind a few times, until we came alongside once more, where I snatched up an incredible 20 second video clip (the very first one in the video at the beginning of the post, in fact). It didn't take long for us to fall behind the engines as more people joined the fray, and then we were too far behind to get much meaningful stuff, especially with the sheer volume of people and cars between us and the train on the side of the road.
Joining I-80 East, we did see the train along the Wasatch Grade a few times despite the heavy traffic. Photos were hard to get, but I tried regardless. It was the first proper test of a different telephoto lens I had brought with me, which turned out to be the better lens, though shooting from a moving car through its windshield does not prove that at all.
On May 13th, we briefly did a very long distance pace between Evanston and Green River, though closer to the latter. The telephoto I mentioned above got a real workout all along that day, and this was no exception, only sealing it as the primary lens for the rest of the trip, as odd as that may sound (especially when its lowest setting is 55mm!).
It was the next two chase days, the 16th and 17th, that were the best days of pacing, by far. Between Rock Springs and Point of Rocks, we caught the Big Boy for what felt like hours! Sometimes the tracks were far, sometimes very near, and regardless of their position we got to see some incredible sights. After viewing the train come at us while we stood atop a bridge just outside Rock Springs, we hopped on the I-80 Service Road and just followed it until we had to get on I-80 at Point of Rocks. It was, in short, incredible.
An interesting tidbit is that this pace was the most dangerous one, because of other drivers not surprisingly. The thing you don't often get in pacing videos or explanations is that traffic rubberbands really hard in a pace, especially one this big. Everyone is speeding up and slowing down to match speed with the train, some people are passing other cars, some people are racing ahead to get to the next photo spot - there's more back and forth than you think. It gets tough to handle, as evidenced by the fact someone in a Porsche was not paying enough attention to the brakelights ahead of them and nearly hit us. In fact, they would've hit us if they hadn't swerved off the road a little bit! It happened while I was filming, though that clip didn't make the final cut of the video at the top of this post. You can't see it, merely the camera pointing down for a few seconds, a squeal of tires, and some choice words about Porsche drivers.
In short: be very careful when pacing. Driving in general, really. Leave some distance behind the car ahead of you! After he nearly wrecked, the Porche Boxster decided to hang a little farther back the rest of the way to Point of Rocks...
Despite the danger, we drove on and on, never taking the camera off of the Big Boy or its companions. After a brief unscheduled stop at Point of Rocks, we caught it at Table Rock, then hopped back on the Interstate to catch up and head to our next spot, and we even caught it there, on I-80.
We wouldn't pace it again that day, but after all the excitement of the morning, catching it for ages and ages - that was totally okay.
May 17th was, without a doubt, the best day of pacing by far. The start of the day was rough, as it got stuck between Rawlins and Hanna and delayed for over two hours, plus the crummy weather to begin... but then things got really good after Medicine Bow. Just like the very first day, we caught it on US Route 30, between Medicine Bow and Laramie.
And we just...
It was only one hour and forty five minutes of pacing, with a five minute stop in the middle, but it was the best of the best. Views near and far from the road, views of mountains, livestock, fields, and most importantly, two very large pieces of machinery that stand out against every backdrop.
What a sight.
Once the train rolled into Laramie, the chase and the pace was over, but there was still one final day to chase... and one final chance to pace.
May 19th, the final day of The Great Race To & From Ogden, had 4014 traveling up Sherman Hill, but there aren't roads to parallel that. Getting to the summit isn't even possible, thanks to the landowners (which is understandable on their part but... dang). However, once it descended the hill, there was a single road off of I-80 that paralleled the tracks all the way into Cheyenne - and you bet we took that road all the way in.
If White Flag didn't already tell you - in which 4014 prepares to leave Laramie - then May 19th was a cold, rainy, and dreary day. Despite the ill weather, we got a brilliant display of steam thanks to it, which, depending on your outlook, makes it worth it. All the while 4014 & 844 raced into Cheyenne, they shot out massive clouds of steam into the sky, which never, ever ceases to be amazing.
The last pace was brief, and we didn't catch right up alongside the Big Boy again, but we did our best, especially given the volume of cars tracking the train into town. It was quite hectic - police were everywhere to try and make sense of the madness, and it's a good thing they were there, too.
That was the end of the pace, and moreover, it was the end of the entire chase! This was actually the first time I've ever paced a train, and wow, what a first impression. It is definitely NOT easy by any means, but it is worth it to get the incredible shots of the train in motion. It allows you to see the way these machines work in a way very different than standing on the ground and watching it go by - instead, you don't see it for mere seconds, but for much longer. I think it makes you have to appreciate the engineering a bit more, seeing it all working like that. Not to mention, it's incredibly exciting as well. If you know the roads well enough, you can definitely pull it off - and if you can, go for it. It's worth it. Just be careful!
We have a lot more stories to tell about this trip - this is just the beginning.
This post is part of a series on chasing the Union Pacific Big Boy #4014 on its Great Race To & From Ogden. For more, find the "UP 4014" category on the sidebar!
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