Monday, May 15, 2017

Chasing Union Pacific 844: Ogden to Green River


 This is now the Desert Empire Project facebook banner, and for good reason - on one end we have an FEF-2, UP 833, and on the other an FEF-3, UP 844, two classic Union Pacific Northerns in preservation.

In case you haven't followed our recent articles, Jacob covered April 2017's "Boise Turn" from Pocatello Idaho to Ogden Utah in the last post; I took up the baton and followed the 844 on its return journey all the way to Green River, Wyoming. The journey began on Wednesday, April 26th while the 844 was still on display at the Utah State Railroad Museum in Ogden. A Union Pacific Engineer's Special was passing through over the ex-D&RGW Soldier Summit route (today's Provo Subdivision) so I had to chase it from Provo to the Red Narrows before heading north to meet up with Jacob and Schon for a Desert Empire Project party (having our four editors spread between four cities and two states means that we usually only coordinate via internet chat).

 I met Schon and Jacob near Salt Lake City so we could drive to Ogden together; waiting for them gave an opportunity to photograph UTA's Trax system.

The reason for being in Ogden on Wednesday was that I, as a director for the Golden Spike Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society (the group behind the restoration of D&RGW 223), was invited to the Steam Crew Banquet hosted by the Union Station Foundation to thank Union Pacific for bringing the 844 to Ogden. This is a tradition that stretches back decades, and in fact we have heard from several past and present Steam Team members that Ogden is their favorite place to stop because of the hospitality and friendliness. The banquet was attended by representatives of both government and rail preservation groups, including the Promontory Chapter NRHS, Golden Spike National Historic Site and Dynamic Rail Preservation.



Then it was off to bed - after confirming that the crew would be up and preparing the locomotive at 5:00 am the next morning, I knew that if I wanted to beat the crowds and get some good early-morning shots I needed to be up by 4:00. Seeing the 844 alone, yet alive, in the post-rainstorm night really set the clock back. Replace the crew's reflective jackets with normal overalls and the scene could have been any day at the Junction City in 1955. Once the sun came up the people started pouring in so I hurried to stake out a spot at 26th Street where I hoped the bulk of the crowds would not be. There I met with Mitch Harvey, who is developing a digital simulation of the entire Salt Lake and Evanston Subdivisions of the Union Pacific System for Railworks. He was my copilot and official out-the-window photographer for the trip; this was a good opportunity for him to perform field research for his project. Unfortunately, and perhaps it was because of the lack of sleep, I made several mistakes throughout the day that eventually struck me out from my plan of filming the entire trip.


After watching the 844 leave the Union Station (after minor problems with the electrical system) we raced to Peterson on the other side of Weber Canyon to catch it on the curve just before the highway bridge. I somehow messed up the settings on the video camera and overexposed the image there. It was also there that we realized the sheer magnitude of the crowds that also were chasing as I-84 became a parking lot within minutes of the locomotive passing us. Traffic was stop-and-go all the way to Emory and it was impossible to catch up. Here is an important lesson for photographers - NEVER PACE THE TRAIN ON A FREEWAY. The train was going 15 mph under the speed limit, and both lanes were trying to stay alongside, completely blocking traffic. Those idiots really made a lot of people angry (myself included) and the traffic was held up almost ten miles back until the I-80 junction where most of them jumped ship. Common courtesy is one commodity that is almost always absent from railroad related events.

Two shots of the traffic near Morgan.

Basically, the first four stops that we had carefully planned two weeks in advance were out of the question. Once past Emory the traffic cleared enough for us to arrive at Castle Rock with time to set up and wait as a westbound freight inched its way by before the 844 arrived. The canyon isn't called Echo for nothing, and the sound of the steam locomotive pounding the iron on an upgrade was incredible. Luckily the extra time there gave me the chance to find and fix the exposure problem for the remainder of the day.

This westbound freight entertained us and the dozens of other photographers perched on the edge of the bluff at Castle Rock. Spencer Peterson of UCrail.com was alongside us although we didn't recognize it until after we began posting our individual photos on our respective sites.

The Boise Turn passes the freight at Castle Rock

Then the traffic held us up again, preventing a stop at Wahsatch and forcing us to arrive in Evanston at the same time as the 844. Union Pacific shut down both east and westbound mains for the duration of the 844's half-hour stay there, effectively holding back several freights.

The Evanston yard, with both mains shut down, was flooded with people, many of whom followed the train from Utah.

Mitch and I decided to continue on to find a good spot; after much thought, some confusion, and multiple last-minute decisions, we chose a spot called Leroy, the site of a now-demolished section house. Only the trees planted by the railroad and a small dugout mark the site as having once been inhabited. It was here as well that the wind really picked up, blowing over my tripod which luckily was caught by another photographer who Mitch had met a year ago in Salt Lake City.


From Leroy it was a mad dash down a muddy dirt road to reunite with the interstate and reach Granger before the train, which luckily we did. The gentleman at Leroy advised us to run straight through Granger to the bridge just west of town, which was some of the best advice I have ever received. We had the location all to ourselves as the 844 slowed from track speed to enter the town, where it stayed for another half hour. Unfortunately I set up the tripod on a stack of ties which turned out to be very unstable and with each gust of wind pushed the camera further and further to the side.

The bridge at Granger. Note I was not on the bridge or the track but took this photo from a distance with a zoom lens.

Then on to town to find a sudden and unexpected population explosion as the little town was invaded with people who were there to see it the 844 despite strong winds and alternating hail/snow/rain/sun that hit us every five minutes or so. Granger's existence depends on the junction between the Transcontinental mainline and the ex-Oregon Short Line Pocatello subdivision to Idaho so rail traffic is heavy through there. As temperatures dropped I realized I didn't bring a jacket, so the emergency raincoat was pulled from the back of my car to improvise. Two westbound freights passed through, one of them a Herzog ballast train, while we waited, and then it was on to Green River where the real party began.

 A westbound ballast train approaches Granger

UP 844 highball Granger!

Winds kept getting stronger the further we went until they exceeded 40 mph; when we reached Green River we thought the pedestrian overpass spanning the yard would be a great place to film the train coming in, but the wind was strong enough to sway the bridge enough to cause nausea and vertigo. In addition, a long line of freights and intermodal trains were backed up in the yard so the 844 was held for hours as one westbound after another pulled out.

The 844 was held here for several hours while westbound freights poured through Green River. Dozens of people were crowded on the pedestrian overpass waiting for it to move which it never did.


 A yard job passes under the overpass. Extremely strong winds caused the bridge to sway back and forth, yet this tenacious crowd stuck to it for hours despite the 844's lack of activity during that time.

One of many freights that passed through while waiting for the 844.

After waiting for more than two hours we decided to head back to Ogden, where we caught one more freight in Echo Canyon before parting ways for the day.

This was a great chase. Upon returning to Utah, several friends remarked that we were crazy for going all the way to Green River. In a way we are, I guess. You need to be crazy to devote so much time and effort into following a steam locomotive.

You can watch the video from this trip here:

And my video from the last time UP 844 passed through Utah here:

-Josh