Iowa and the Twin Cities
Ever since I first read about the Iowa Traction in the pages of Model Railroader back in the 1980s, I've always had an interest in this side-of-the-road survivor. After what seems to be a recent spate of articles and features in the railroad press, I kept saying to myself, "I gotta get out there." A couple of years passed. Every time I planned the trip, something came up. Changed jobs. Car repairs. Life.
I had decided 2009 would be the year. My friends and I started planning for the trip during this past summer, plotting ahead to March when we could both get time off. Fall passed into winter, and we confirmed our days off and our plan. Fly into Minneapolis. Drive to Iowa. Spend a day, maybe two down there, then finish up in the Twin Cities.
Chris would be flying in from California, Dave from Rochester (NY), and I'd be coming from New York. After we all meet up and finally get on the road, it's nearly 11:00pm. We finally get in to Mason City around 1:00am. Jet-lagged and groggy, we crash as soon as we drop our bags.
Next morning, we are up with the sun. Weather calls for partly cloudy in the teens. The railroaders go on duty at 7:30, and they're expecting us (thanks to cover letter I sent ahead of us). As we drive along the road to Emery, the trolley line comes into view. The construction is all too familiar to us, but its setting outside of a museum isn't. The shops at Emery come into view, and already No. 50 has its pole raised, headlight glowing, air compressor thumping. After 20-some years of wishing, here it was. And it was totally worth it.
We went inside to introduce ourselves and sign photo releases. Retired owner Dave Johnson was friendly, and looked at us with a cautious eye. "You must be here to take pictures," he said. He later joked that if he had a dollar for every photo taken of this place, he could have retired years ago. The crew was already on the road to go switch out the AGP bean plant, so off we went.
We spent most of that clear, blue morning following the crew around Mason City as they switched the AGP plant and brought interchange to the IC&E. They told us to come back in the afternoon, so we went off to occupy ourselves for a few hours. Discovered a UP loco working its way through town, followed it for a bit. Wandered over to the IC&E yard and shops and poked around a bit. Explored up by the Holcim cement plant hoping their switcher would come out and be photographed (it wouldn't). Discovered a great C&NW bay window caboose in full paint in the UP yard. Had lunch at Culver's, a chain I'd heard much about. The Butterburger and side of cheese curds was well worth the price of admission. We caught up with the crew again, and watched as they pulled gondolas of scrap metal from the yard behind the shops. It would take both motors to make it up the hill. After an afternoon of shooting, we headed back to the shops to talk with Johnson about his career and the future of his railroad.
Burgers at Hardee's for dinner (why not?). Stopped at a gas station, picked up a "Twin Bing" made by the Palmer Candy Co. in Sioux City, Iowa. After dinner we went back out again to do night shots of the two motors stored by the AGP plant. In sub-zero weather, we're out there with deer-spotting lamps painting these engines with light as we fire off frame after frame. Guys from the AGP plant wonder what we're doing. When we tell them "trains," they turn around and say "Have fun."
Friday morning dawns gray and cold, we head over to the Iowa Traction anyway for one last look. Grab some more shots of the bean plant switching. Then we head up US 65 towards Albert Lea. Stop off at Manly to check out the Iowa Northern display of chop-nose Geep and Rock Island caboose. In Glenville, we stopped at a massive elevator and photographed a Trackmobile at work. We had a great scene lined up at Northwood, but no trains in sight.
Into Minnesota and Albert Lea. We investigate some of the branches and small yards, but no activity. We continue to press north, merge onto I-35 and head directly to St. Paul. We stop off at the mother-of-all-Amshacks, and poke around, burning off some midday sun. The Hiawatha obs "Cedar Rapids" is parked here, along with some other PV's. All of a sudden, the Minnesota Commercial shows up with an Alco and a cut of cars, followed by a GE and a cut of cars. We head to the Transfer Road overpass, and shoot the engines working in Midway Yard. Then it's off to the MNNR roundhouse. We sign a release and begin our self-guided tour of the facility. Lunch was at White Castle (they don't have deep-fried apple pies here like they do in New York).
After lunch we made our way down University Avenue towards Minneapolis and University Junction. Walking out onto the overpass, we shoot a couple of trains (CP and BNSF) heading into the yard at 35th Avenue. We gawk at the BNSF dead line and go down to track level. A parade of trains ensues, including a treat for us easterners: an ex-MILW "bandit" unit second back in a Soo train. Wow! Between 4:30 and 5:30 we photographed seven trains. We head over to the hump at Northport and get a few shots of cars going down the hill as the sun sets. We call it a night and check into the hotel. Dinner is at Gluek's downtown, an excellent old-world style beer hall with excellent beers and good food. The co-ed's that came in for "live karaoke night" were not bad to look at, either.
Saturday morning we headed out to 35th Avenue, grab BNSF warbonnets screaming through town. Great morning shots of the yard with the Minneapolis skyline in the background. We then head to the south and Dayton's Bluff overlooking St. Paul. We get a BNSF train against the skyline. We check out Westminster and the tunnels, and end up missing two trains because we can't make up our minds what to do. Then we ended up back at 35th Ave. to see what we could see, and talked with a local fan for a bit. As we pulled away, a BNSF container train streaked through! Lesson learned: Patience, patience, patience!
Ended up at Humboldt Yard and photographed the line-up of Soo trains reading to go south. Chased one back to 42nd Avenue in Camden and got a great overhead shot of the train crossing I-94. We backtracked to Little Canada and ate at an awesome open-air A&W restaurant. A burger, onion rings, curds, and a tall root beer in a frosty mug hit the spot. We then went back to St. Paul to visit the Jackson Street Roundhouse to burn off the midday sun. Great little museum in the Roundhouse, and we enjoyed the caboose hop. Would have liked to stay longer.
Went down into Pig's Eye and photographed CP and BNSF trains. Photographed a line of Soo power along the shops, including more Bandits (sorry, we MILW fans from the East get easily excited)! Then out of nowhere, a train with NS leaders shows up, blasting though the yard. One thing about trains out here, they do not creep! And they have no problem sending out one train after another, either. We left Pig's Eye and got some shots from the side of the road of trains along the bluffs, including a BNSF/UP meet at Division Street.
Then it was up to Dinkytown and the 14th Avenue overpass. Too fenced in, not really a great shot. Headed back over to Transfer Road and Midway Yard, missed a Soo train by a few seconds. Caught up with him at East University, but there he sat. Followed a CP train north, got a late afternoon shot passing the container yards and the skyline. Hustled over to Camden and waited for him to cross the Mississippi, but he came about ten minutes after sunset. Dinner was at The Herkimer north of the city. A great brewpub in a neighborhood that reminded us a lot of Buffalo's Elmwood or Delaware strips.
Sunday morning we got up early and followed the light rail out of the city. Got a great morning shot at the Metrodome with part of the city in the background. Followed Hiawatha Avenue to 46th Street station, stopped for some more shots. We decide to try Westminster again. The radio crackles with a train calling for the drawbridge tender. We scramble to get downtown and over the Roberts Bridge. The UP train is already across the bridge, so we wait patiently on the opposite shore. The train shoves back, and we get shots against the iconic St. Paul skyline. A great way to end our trip.
It's nearly 11:00am and it's time to head to the airport to catch our flights home. Two states, four days, 400+ miles, 13 rolls of film later... Chris asked, "This was fun. When are we doing it again?" A friendly town with great beer and non-stop railroad action? I'm already marking my calendar.
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