Over the last couple of years, as construction of the new LRT line progressed across St. Paul, I’d take every opportunity to ride my bike down the middle of the tracks. Once the concrete had been poured between the rails, it was the smoothest and most direct pathway back from Minneapolis – not to mention the safest!
Each time I did it, wheels turned in my mind about making a moving timelapse of the whole line. I wanted to do it after construction was finished and the wire was up, but – obviously! – before the trains started running.
But how would I do it?
For a time, I made moving timelapses of bike trails by clamping my Canon G9 to my handlebars, but, never satisfied with the results, I ceased doing them.
They always came out with a seasickness-inducing sway resulting from the the side-to-side movement my body makes as I pedal, not to mention an unacceptable number of blurry frames caused by the shutter firing at the same time as the bike hitting a bump in the road.
In the case of the LRT, I had the additional problem that the smooth concrete between the rails gives way to standard concrete ties in locations where there are crossover rails between the two main tracks, and on bridges. I certainly wouldn’t be biking over those segments.
Unless! Unless I were to somehow put my bike on the rails! In areas with a large amount of abandoned trackage – more common in the Northwest than anywhere else in the country – this is actually a hobby called ‘railbiking’.
Some people put their bike on one rail, and then somehow attach a gizmo that provides a rod and a flanged wheel that reaches over to the other rail. Others have built full-blown vehicles just for the rails – think of a handcar made with bike parts – and some even sell DIY kits to build your own.
For something I’d have very little use for since there are basically no opportunities for railbiking in these parts, I couldn’t really justify buying or building one. Renting one would have involved a pair of drives to Montana or someplace even farther out.
And then, as I imagined myself pedaling down the light rail line on such a device, it was hard also not to imagine ending up behind bars, or at the very least, getting a cordial recommendation to cease what I was doing.
No, I concluded that I would simply have to walk the line and photograph it by hand. I started looking at shoulder mounts and other such gadgets, but finally also concluded that if I wanted to obtain high quality, well-composed images, I’d really need to use my tripod.
That’s ultimately what I did.
Now, usually when I make a timelapse, no matter how much I’ve thought about how I want it to look, I tend to think of further visual ideas while I’m making it, which has led to inconsistent results, so, on Nov. 3 I did a partial trial run. The goal was to test various compositions, and to define some rules.
I photographed at both 24mm and 70mm. The 70mm shots were more dramatic – eg., the hills were more pronounced due to focal compression – but ultimately, those views didn’t show enough of the surrounding buildings. I also wasn’t happy with how the curves came out at either focal length.
The trial run gave me an idea of the amount of time I’d need: roughly nine hours, not including breaks, which, at this time of year, is roughly the total amount of daylight in a day.
I decided to acquire one piece of gear: the Eg-D focusing screen. It provides gridlines over the entire viewport, making it much easier to root the rails at the bottom of the frame.
Weather prevented me from going out again until Nov. 17th. Alas, I woke up late that morning, but, with a high overcast sky, and projected highs in the upper 40s, I decided I’d try anyway. I wanted to get it done before any permanent snow arrived.
Powered only by a cup of coffee and a waffle from the Black Dog, I started off a little after 10am in Lowertown, just a few feet in front of the doors to the line’s maintenance building.
To minimize the time setting up each frame, I lined the tripod head to be as level as possible, and left it that way. Composition was then done only by moving the back legs of the tripod. I also put the camera into aperture priority mode, at f8.
The basic rules were to set up a shot about every three slabs of concrete on straight segments, and every two slabs in curves, with adjustments to get a shot at the entrance and middle of each intersection.
I would also prefer that vehicles be depicted in whole, and not cut off, and I also tried to avoid getting people in the shot. Finally, I tried to make sure that an identifying sign for each station and cross street was clearly visible in at least one frame.
Around noon, when I had only arrived at Rice St., I realized that three slabs wasn’t going to be fast enough, so I upped my interval to four slabs. This gave the final video a pleasant effect of the appearance of slower travel in Downtown and on the curves and hill leading out of Downtown, and then a speed-up once up on the comparatively flat terrain of University Avenue.
I briefly considered slowing down and speeding up around each of the stations to further the illusion that the camera was actually on a moving train, but, I reasoned that the mental exertion that would be required to judge where to make those changes would be too much to juggle in view of the other rules, and consistency would have suffered.
Fewer than a handful of people interacted with me over the whole day. The first was a guy who pulled up in his car about a block from where I started, rolled down his window, and said, “Hey, what kind of lens is that?” “Canon 24 to 70, f 2 point 8” “What kinda camera is that?” “Canon Five D Mark Two” “Oh, that’s a nice camera!” “Yeah, I like it!” “What are you shooting?” “Well, the whole line actually. I’m walking from here to the Metrodome.”
I needed to make that statement out loud, because at the time, I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d actually be able to walk the entire eleven miles, especially in the rather stiff wind that was blowing.
His reply was wonderfully Minnesotan: “Oh! Well I better letcha go, den!”
The most useful interaction took place around 4:30, down along the University’s Transitway. The sun was going away, and it was starting to cool off. I was thinking about throwing in the towel about then, but a couple of college kids came biking up, and one of them said, “Hey, man! We went to Target like four hours ago, and saw you on the tracks! What are you doing?!”
I told them about the project, and that I’d started at 10am in Lowertown. They seemed to think it was pretty cool, if not a bit crazy, and frankly, it was their interest that made me decide to finish at the end of the line, rather than quit simply because the sun had gone down.
There were two pieces of uncertainty, however. The University had put fences up around the “pedestrian transit mall” they’ve built along Washington Ave., would those still be in the way? And secondly, I wasn’t sure I’d have the guts to walk over the Mississippi River bridge, which is very clearly not a place I’m supposed to be!
An hour later, it turned out that the fences were indeed still there, but I was able to move them enough to pull myself through, and, during the time I was “trespassing”, I don’t think a single person looked at me twice. Or once, for that matter.
When I got as far the pedestrian bridges at Northrop Mall, I decided to keep going over the river. Nobody was going to give a damn.
The final leg, up the embankment leading to the bridge over 35W, was the most difficult. This was due to the poured concrete giving way to standard concrete crossties, but, unlike the segment near the stadium, the ties were spaced in a way that was not convenient for my tripod. Composing each shot thus took much longer.
At the other side of the bridge, about seventy yards from the junction with the existing line, I captured a nicely blurred Blue Line train streaking by on its way toward Target Field. Thinking that that would be a good frame on which to end the video, I stopped there.
I had shot nearly 3000 frames in nearly nine hours; the longest interval between shots, according to the image timestamps, was less than four minutes.
Feeling that I’d passed a true endurance test, I headed off to the nearby Dunn Bros. for a well-deserved pastry and cup of hot coffee.
The other night, as I was driving around in dejection after having suffered another classic evening of cribbage defeat at the hands of my father’s suspect shuffling, I found myself heading south on Snelling Avenue with the ultimate destination of Amtrak’s Midway Station.
I sometimes hang out there at night to watch the train come in – an activity I’ve ramped up in recent months, since, if all goes according to plan, Amtrak will soon be moving back to the Union Depot and Midway will be abandoned, and, we can only hope, subsequently demolished.
I had acquired coffee, and was on my way to acquire a pastry when I came across University Avenue, and, of course, the brand new light rail tracks.
The stoplights were blinking red, and traffic was crawling in all directions. I chuckled to myself, “You think THIS is bad, just wait until the trains start running!”
A familiar train of a rant streamed back into my consciousness: As a general public transit advocate, i.e., someone who enjoys getting around by any method other than a car, and helping others figure out how they can to do the same, I like the idea of being able to walk out of my house, get on a train, and end up somewhere else. However, I am conflicted about how these lines are coming about.
The party line has always been about “reducing congestion”. Ask anyone who drives on Hiawatha Ave. about reduced congestion! This new line is going to be much worse. Outside of downtown, in South Minneapolis, the Hiawatha Line (which, in a fit of Big City Envy was recently rechristened ‘The Blue Line’) has 10 grade crossings; in contrast, in between the downtowns, the new line has close to 40 of them.
It’s a bit ironic that the two biggest transit systems in the country, those of New York and Chicago, abandoned their surface lines in 1936 and 1947 respectively, pushing all rail transit either above or below ground, but, we chose not to be informed by that.
No, of course the real reason to build the line has much less to do with moving people around, and more to do with lining the pockets of developers, who, as we speak, are systematically replacing anything that has any character with clone after clone of the same boring six story building containing retail on the ground floor, and “luxury apartments” above, surely to become utter eyesores in ten years.
“Progress”. Ultimately, though, it’ll be a good thing for the city. Nobody will be around to remember what it used to be like, and all will be swell.
Having exhausted those rather cynical thoughts (but let’s face it, they’ll probably crop back up at some point), I crossed back over University at Cleveland, newly acquired pastry at the ready. A police car was sitting at the intersection with its lights on. “Something’s going down somewhere”, I shrugged as I made my way up the block to the Amtrak depot.
The westbound Empire Builder pulled in as usual, and in a refreshing departure from the norm, it was almost exactly on time. Near the end of the nightly trade of humanity that occurs on the platform, I heard a train horn through the music I was playing.
Very odd, I thought, since the train generally only blares its horn to indicate its immiment departure, which, at that time, was still several minutes away. I cracked the window, and then heard it again – and it certainly was not the horn of an Amtrak P42, but one of the fakey-sounding horns that adorn our local light rail cars!
The night was foggy and still – perfect weather for effective sound transmission – but there’s really no way that the horn of a Hiawatha train could have travelled that far.
I immediately started driving. They’re running a test of the new line, dummy! That’s the reason for the cops and the blinking stoplights!
Once I had swung onto University, I could see that ALL of the intersections were blinking red. I didn’t know which direction it had gone, so I tried going west. By Raymond, the blinking had stopped, so I concluded that the train had actually headed east. Off I went back that way.
Cleveland, Prior, Fairview, Snelling, Hamline, Lexington, and finally, at Chatsworth, there it sat: Car 113. I recalled riding on that very car on the opening day of the Hiawatha line back in 2003.
In an instant, I then thought two things: a) “How about that! A streetcar is running on University, on rail, under wire, for the first time in almost exactly 60 years!” b) “An LRT car. How ordinary.”
The night obviously wasn’t over, so I went around the block to get some gas before anything further happened. While I was waiting at the pump, the train came flying down the tracks, doing, I thought, at least 35mph.
Of course, the chase was hampered by the blinking red lights at every corner, and the presense of the police that obligated me to stop at every one. By the time I caught up, the train was already at Prior.
This was starting to be fun. I drove home to grab my camera bag – the point-and-shoot I had with me would not do – and came back. By then, they’d made it back to Chatsworth.
Even though it was now well after midnight, people were starting to gather on the street corners, and traffic seemed to be picking up. It seemed like the word was out!
Or more likely, the neighborhood was waking to their first taste of the noise pollution this train will wreak on them. The horn was being blown with impunity at every crossing – much louder than any car horn – and I wondered, in fact, if it could be loud enough to be in violation of city ordinances.
South Minneapolis went through the same thing ten years ago. South of Lake Street, the line travels along the side of several residential neighborhoods, and even though those neighborhoods are somewhat isolated from the tracks by earthen berms, the people living in those neighborhoods complained bitterly about the horns.
There are federal regulations that dictate how and when horns must blow, and it turned out that the only way to appease the neighbors AND the feds was to slow down the train. I can only imagine that the same exact thing will have to happen along University.
Back at Chatsworth, they seemed to be readying another test, so I drove ahead to figure out a place to set up a shot. Oops, nowhere to park! The tracks had eaten up nearly all of the spaces!
I ended up parking on Charles, in front of the Goodwill. I walked down to Fairview and University, and set up my tripod. Then I pulled out the day’s NYT crossword, and started waiting out in the drizzly night. The cops were still there, but hunkered down in their car.
The camera got wet, the crossword got wet (but it was still solvable by space pen!), and I got soaked, but just as the chills started to settle in, around 2am the cops spun up their lights and started directing traffic again.
Showtime. I was hoping for some nice dramatic video of the train streaking by, but instead, it was crawling, and anyway, the shot was blocked by a gaggle of cop cars and electric trucks and supervisor trucks chasing along, and one poor civilian in the left turn lane who was forced to wait for several minutes before he could make his turn onto Fairview.
Get used to it, pal!
I like doing things that sound utterly crazy at face value. “How about biking to Duluth, in street clothes, on a 3-speed bike with 16” wheels?"
I told this awesome idea to my old friend Mike, and invited him to join me as a way for us to mark (or perhaps, combat) the fact that we were both about to turn 40, he about five weeks before me.
Since both of us take our busyness in bursts that always seem to be out of phase, we booked time on the calendar about five months in advance, for the middle of the week in late May. The idea was that by then we’d surely have some Fine Spring Biking Weather. Surely.
To further add to the craziness, as the date of our departure approached I kept deferring the maintenance I knew my bike needed, and, as it turned out, I started the ride with a threadbare, pockmarked rear tire and a chain that was so stretched out that it seemed like an extra link had been added.
[I won’t remark too much about the need to fish said chain out of the trash due to the bike shop selling me an incorrect chain, or the time spent getting that filthy mess of a chain back into one piece – just know that swears and tools were thrown liberally about.]
For the unaware, “The Skally” is the old nickname for the first railroad to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Superior, unsurprisingly named the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad. Apparently, dem Svedes dat built da railvey often made an utterance that sounded like “Skally go hoot!” which roughly translates to “I’m going to Duluth”.
The line, incredibly important when it was built since it was the first connection between the headwaters of two major waterways, opened in 1870 and lasted about 100 years under a few different periods of ownership, the longest of which was by the Northern Pacific, but by the early 1970s, it had become redundant, and the dismantling began. As was typical of the times, the line was first severed, turning a through route into a set of branchlines.
The first segment to be removed was Hinkley-Moose Lake, followed by Moose Lake-Duluth, Hugo-North Branch, and finally, St. Paul to White Bear Lake. Each of those segments are paved bike trails today. The remaining two segments – White Bear Lake to Hugo and North Branch to Hinckley – are operated by a pair of local railroads, and by all accounts are successful, so it will probably be many many years before the whole line becomes a bike trail.
Our route to Duluth, therefore, would be over the three trail segments, interspersed with two segments on the shoulder of old Highway 61, which is more or less continuously adjacent to the Skally. We finally set off from the Black Dog – apropos, since it is housed in a former Northern Pacific warehouse – at 10:30am, May 21.
After some unpleasant riding on city streets, we hit the Vento Trail just before it passes through the Seventh Street Improvement Arches and started uphill out of the Mississippi Valley through the hidden gem that is Swede Hollow.
In spite of the threats of bad weather, at that time, at 56 degrees and a low overcast sky, it seemed like a perfect day for biking. A slight drizzle started, but that didn’t really faze us. We were on our way to Duluth!
Once out of the Hollow, the trail follows along the now-decade-old Phalen Boulevard, which was more or less built on top of the Skally grade east of Payne Avenue. Heading north toward Lake Phalen, the tracks used to swing up onto a substantial earthen berm (originally a trestle) , which was needed to put the railroad through the swamps that drained the lake. Most of the embankment has been removed; only the section that separates the neighborhood north of Maryland Ave. from the lake remains today.
We recounted memories of goofing around on that embankment when we were kids, back before the tracks were removed in the mid 1980s. After abandonment, the old track signals were left behind, so we cannibalized them for the lenses. I wonder whatever became of those?
About a half mile past the lake is the location of the community of Gladstone, which used to be the location of the major shops of the LS&M; today, the site of those shops, in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Frost St. and English Ave. is a nature preserve. One would never guess the scope of the industry that used to be present there. The Gladstone name virtually disappeared when the town was absorbed by the city of Maplewood in the 1950s.
Cruising north through Maplewood, we made what will likely be my last trip across the bridge over Highway 36; it will be demolished very soon as part of the project to eliminate the stoplight at English Ave. Yet another piece of the Northern Pacific, vanishing into history.
It was an easy, straight shot up to the end of the trail, just north of I-694. After that point, the tracks still exist, and so we shifted over for our first leg of travel on Highway 61. Of course, now we lacked the benefit of tree breaks or light gradients, and the going was tougher out in the wind. We didn’t get to Hugo, which contains the next trailhead – the Hardwood Creek Trail – until noon-thirty.
About 22 miles into the ride, somewhere between Forest Lake and Wyoming, Mike’s saddle post started slipping. On every bump, it would notch down a few millimeters – perhaps one of the must frustrating failures possible on a bike.
After taking the thing apart, the bolt didn’t seem stripped at all – and that’s when it dawned on Mike, to great chagrin, that that post wasn’t the correct post for his frame!
After much harumphing, and an offer to do the whole ride standing, I suggested maybe wrapping some thin packing tape around the post and ramming it in. We tried it, and what do you know? It stayed, and it held.
Unfortunately, the good weather did not hold.
As soon as we got back on the trail, the rain started falling. It started out light, but got heavier. The wind, which had constantly been in our faces all morning, wasn’t dying down either; if anything, the gusts were getting stronger. But we persisted. Fourteen miles later, at the end of the trail at North Branch, we pulled into a pizza joint, and attempted to recover our faculties.
The decision was made, since it was now 4:20 in the afternoon, that it wasn’t realistic to reach Hinckley by nightfall, so we set our sights on Pine City instead, only another 22 miles away. As we ate our food and tried to warm up – difficult, since we had been seated directly under an AC vent! – we became hopeful, over frequent checks of the internet weather radar, that the rain would stop. And it did! We quickly got onto the road – along old Highway 61 once more – and not five minutes after starting out, the rain started again. Bah!
From that point on, we were really only thinking of one thing: how to pull off stringing up our hammocks in the rain without everything getting soaked. This mental drumbeat, useful for masking out perceptions of coldness and wetness, was only interrupted near Rock Creek: At that point, the tracks bridge over the road at a slight angle. As I went under the bridge, rather slowly for a momentary respite from the rain, I noticed, through the rusting, peeling paint on the side of the span just a tiny bit of old lettering for the Northern Pacific!
Our speeds decreasing dramatically, we finally topped the small hill that leads into Pine City, and saw the streetlights of civilization. Standing still for five minutes, though, we realized our situation. We were soaked through, it was now well after dark, and, according to a bank sign just up the road, it was now 44 degrees. Shiver!
Okay, well, camping in these conditions would not have been terribly conducive to sleep – but maybe hypothermia! – and, due to all of the delay, we were still about 90 miles out of Duluth, so, in an exhibit of what can only be described as pure, unadulterated Common Sense, we turned into the driveway of a motel that was about ten feet away. Just our luck, the woman that runs the place was just turning out of the driveway to go home for the night, and she rolled down her window and asked if we needed a room.
That sealed it. We spent the next hour rationalizing our choice, convincing ourselves that we hadn’t wimped out. Part of that rationalization was that we had just biked 63 miles, about 36 of which were in a cold rain. Nothing wimpy about that!
Day Two, out of Pine City, we encountered more headwinds in open country, but at least the rain held off. We were still on the highway, and therefore didn’t have the benefit of the light grade of the still-active piece of the Skally just to the east of us, but, somehow, having the tracks nearby was a motivating factor.
About three miles before Hinckley, my rear tire started feeling a little mushy, so I put some air in, went about 500 yards farther, felt more mushiness, put some more air in, and went about 250 yards farther. I had become the arrow of Zeno’s paradox.
I walked my bike up to the first intersection, and turned and got off the main highway a bit. No point in complaining; I just started tearing the back wheel off and got on with changing the tube out. The coldness made it tough to get the damned bead over the rim of the wheel; the skin was practically torn from my thumbs.
Watching all of this was a chap named Steve who lived in the house nearby. He’d come over and said that he’d seen us down the road when we first stopped, and wanted to know if we needed any help. We didn’t, but, in the 40 minutes that it took to change out the tube, the guy pretty much told us his life story, which at least was a welcome distraction. Of note is that he actually makes some money doing trapping, and he seemed to think he was a rare bird in his age group (late 20s) for doing so. The rest of his peers, he said, just sit around and play video games.
A northbound train came by, a few hundred yards away, and that started him off complaining about all of the increased train traffic due to the new frac sand transloading facility that the railroad built in Rush City. He had a lot to say about the railroad, but very little of it was positive or accurate. Rather than argue with him, I kept at my work.
Just as I got everything back together, the rain started again, and it was coming down quite nicely by the time we pulled into Hinckley. We had only come fourteen miles since breakfast, but the headwind had really sapped us. Thus, we both ate breakfast number two, at Tobies.
Here I began to notice a pattern. At each successive dining establishment, the demographic of the clientele seemed to be skewing older and older. I didn’t want to come to a definite conclusion here, though, since the presense of a large casino nearby was likely highly impacting the numbers.
We glumly sat there for a while until the rain stopped. Already after noon, I think we both knew that we weren’t going to be hitting Duluth that day, but since Mike needed to be back the following day – which was his fifteenth wedding anniversary, as it happened, a fact he had neglected to mention until that morning! – we proceeded onward as if that was still our goal.
We biked back through the heart of town, and swung onto the fourth and final trail, the Munger Trail, which would take us the last 63 miles into Duluth. Our hope was that the trail, now cutting through pines, would be relatively sheltered from the wind, but alas, this wasn’t really the case. The temps dropped into the 40s, and the rain came back, and this time it couldn’t really be called “light.”
The next 14 miles were by far the most difficult of the trip, but having no choice but to press onward, we said things like, “We’re lowering the bar here! On any future bike trips we take, we’ll always be able to say, ‘Remember that trip to Duluth? This is nowhere near as bad as that!’”
At least we had rubber wheels on a paved trail! The following snippet from a journalists’ account of a tour of the partially completed Lake Superior and Mississippi in 1869 adds further perspective:
“Weather cold and drizzling. Roads this day worse than ever, though worse had seemed impossible. Every little while a wagon sticks in the mud. Now a whiffletree breaks, now a king-bolt; now a baggage-wagon upsets, or a horse is down; and now we just wait for a gulf of mud to be bridged with logs and brush.”
Pulling up to Finlayson, however, and growing weary of shoots of pain emanating from my thumbs and going all the way up my arms, and knowing the next town was quite a distance, we simply had to stop. We limped into the cafe there. I think about a half an hour went by before we could even begin speaking again.
There isn’t much to be found in that town – the cafe, a gas station, a bar, and a couple of small businesses – but it had the one thing that would be most useful to us at that moment: a laundromat! We went over there, and tossed everything we had into a dryer. The place was fully coin-op, and completely deserted except for a couple of teens having sexy times in the back room.
Thirty minutes later, we thought we had a triumph on our hands. All of our stuff was dry and the rain had stopped. Maybe now we’d have some clear sailing!
And we actually did, for a time. Just as we were about to cross over the Willow River, I gasped, pointed at the trail, and exclaimed, “Mike! Holy shit, you’re casting a shadow!”
The sun had come out! The birds were singing! Life was good!
But, this was not to last. Prior to the next town, I started sweating, and it gradually occurred to me that I was sweating much more than I should have been. When I finally stopped to take a break, my hat was soaked enough to wring out! I was completely damp again! Aw, I’d let myself get dehydrated!
I drank the last of the water I had, but I then suddenly felt very fatigued, and I didn’t think I could make it too much farther. Luckily for me, “too much farther” turned out to be Moose Lake, only a few minutes away.
But now we faced a new dilemma. Mike had to be home in the morning, and my car was parked in Duluth. Discussions and apologies and cockamamie proposals ensued, but in the end, we were saved by Mike’s wife, who was able to make arrangements such that Mike wouldn’t have to be back until later in the day. She said she knew all along that we’d never make it in two days. Touche!
So, due to my shaky physical condition, we decided to get a room in Moose Lake, get up at dawn, and still bike into Duluth as planned.
Day Three, at breakfast at a Moose Lake cafe, I finally decided that I had seen enough evidence to answer the main postulation of the trip: The farther north we traveled, the older the demographic of the locals seemed, and, at the same time, the weaker the coffee became.
It is unclear whether or not there might be some correlation to those two facts. One possibility is that a rather large number of those elderly people could be Finnish, and the Finns are known for brewing extraordinarily light coffee, apparently due to the high quality of the water in Finland, which, one can imagine, is also in good supply in northern Minnesota. I am not a coffee snob by any means, but supposedly, brewing with high quality water brings out the subtler flavors of lighter roasts.
On the other hand, I had left my mass spectrometer at home, but I’m fairly certain that the warm, brown water presented to me at that final establishment did not merit the label “coffee”. I had to stifle an urge to offer our waitress $20 to dump out the current batch, and replace the obviously multiply used grounds with, here’s a idea, new grounds!, and at least five times the normal amount of them at that!
It’s just as well that I didn’t, since her attitude betrayed perhaps just a small bit of bitterness at having been trapped in a town of hundreds her whole life, and probably wouldn’t have appreciated anything thing other than an “Oh, very good now, you betcha!” to any inquiry about the quality of the swill she loyally kept pouring into my cup.
The food was very good though, and, fully carbed up, we hit the trail, at long last in full sunshine. It was a beautiful morning. We made very good time up to our first break, at Askov.
The town seemed to have about two buildings: a used book store, and a general store. The proprietor of the latter, after inquiring about our journey, informed us that it would all be down hill after Carlton. “Brother,” we told him, “we’ve been dreaming of that hill for the last 70 miles!”
Back on the trail, as we turned to the northeast toward Carlton, we started to notice changes in the landscape that told us that we had entered into the Canadian Shield. Cuts of rock began to jut from the ground. We crossed several swollen streams, stopping to admire the clarity of the water.
After Carlton, the trail crosses the St. Louis River into Jay Cooke State Park. Due to severe damage by the Flood of 2012, the bridge was closed for reconstruction, so, we were forced to cross the river via the highway through Thomson, but then, even in Thomson, the trail had been completely stripped of its pavement for rebuilding. It wasn’t clear where the pavement picked up again, and, so, the promise of pure down hill travel after Carlton dashed, off we went on the rollercoaster of the local highway, finally reconnecting with the trail in a dead end off East Palkie Road.
It’s worth remarking that the remainder of our travel to Duluth would be over the grade of the former Duluth Short Line Railway. The original LS&M; line closely followed the St. Louis River, and due to severe grades and the need for extensive trestlework, the line was a maintenance headache, and so, in the late 1880s, the Duluth Short Line was built, a literal short cut between Duluth and Carlton that spread the decent into the Lake Superior basin over a much larger distance.
The original line was severed and mostly abandoned in the 1920s. I’ve always been told that much of the old grade is still hikeable today; however, I strongly suspect that the Flood erased a great deal of it.
Now, whereas I started acquiring knowledge about railroads practically before I even knew how to read, Mike has done the same thing with birds. He knows more about birds than anyone else I know, and so, while he got to hear more historical details of the railroad as the trip went on, he provided me with the identification of many species of birds, some from their sound alone.
As we were coming down the DSL grade, we heard some squabbling birds. Mike gleefully dashed off into the woods to try to get a glimpse of them, and also possibly what they were fighting over. I stayed on the trail and rested, thinking that what had just happened was quite similar to breathless runs I’ve made when hearing strange locomotive horns.
He came back about ten minutes later, fairly scratched up by the underbrush, but, a smile indicated it had been worth it. “Ravens”, he said. They had been fighting over a deer carcass, the odor of which, once pointed out, was definitely noticable.
Heading farther along, toward Ely’s Peak, around the base of which the line curves, I was hoping to see a train on the former DM&IR; Spirit Lake branch, noisily conquering the hill toward Proctor, but as our path bridged over that line, I saw that this wasn’t going to happen, since a large crew was at work below us, replacing the rail. One machine was lifting the old rail off the tie plates with a magnet, while men ahead were manually pulling spikes.
Just slightly farther downgrade, after going through a pair of rough-hewn rock cuts, we came out into an open, treeless area with a superb view of the St. Louis Estuary, as well as Downtown Duluth, still about ten miles away. There is always something magical about that first view of Duluth after coming over the hill, perhaps half due to the discernible change in climate, and half due to the realization that Duluth is an international seaport.
The magic was slightly broken, however, when I suffered another flat, just after we crossed Highway 23. I had fully expected it, given the condition that my rear tire was in, but the fact that we were only about a mile from the end of the trail made it much more annoying.
Once again things ground to a halt while I fixed it. And once again, a passerby stopped to talk to us. She asked us where we’d biked from, and we told her we’d biked from St. Paul to celebrate turning 40. She replied that she was going to turn 65 soon, and was planning a bike ride from Duluth to Madeline Island and back, which made us feel feeble in comparison! Here’s to hoping we’re still able to bike like that in another 25 years!
The fix went much faster that time, and we were soon moving again, albeit, now rumbling over the moonscape of Duluth’s maintenance-impoverished – but still highly traveled – streets.
I would soon receive an answer to the last mystery of the trip: How much would it cost to rescue my car from the parking ramp in which it had sat for 3.5 days? I lucked out, since a human was involved in the calculation: The attendant looked at my ticket, and said, “six fifty”. My guess is that, after looking at these things hour after hour, the brain stops looking at the date portion of the timestamp, and only pays attention to the time portion.
Awesome! I was expecting it to be at least $30.
As we buzzed home on the freeway, the names of all the communities we’d been through flew by on the various exit signs. We now have new appreciation and imagery to attach to those signs.
All in all, I’d say it was a good trip; an application, if you will, of the adage, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – and in fact, now I’m emboldened to try even longer trips.
Mileage: 157 total miles of biking, 53 in rain.
Confirmed bird sightings, in no particular order: Great blue heron, green heron, bald eagle, ruby-crowned kinglet, american redstart, american robin, common raven, goldfinch, yellow-shafted flicker, hermit thrush, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager, yellow warbler, rufous-sided warbler, myrtle warbler, connecticut warbler, swamp sparrow, song sparrow, cooper’s hawk, red-headed woodpecker, baltimore oriole.
Cups of tasteless warm brown water consumed: More than I care to admit.
March 30, 2012
| Posted in rail
Prominent among my many childhood memories are those of the hikes I took with my father along various sets of railroad tracks. These walks occurred when I was between nine and twelve years old, and were usually around ten miles in length.
My mother would drop us off somewhere, we’d walk to some convenient point, and then she’d pick us up.
On one of these walks, likely around 1982 or ’83, we walked the remaining length of the Stillwater and St. Paul railroad, starting in downtown Stillwater.
Upon hearing last Fall that those tracks would finally be removed, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit that walk, and photograph the line. Once the tracks are removed, those scenes will never be the same again. I recruited my friend Tim, who grew up watching trains on the line, to join me.
A brief history of the line:
The Stillwater and St. Paul railroad was built in late 1870; regular service started in 1871. It was truly one of the pioneering railroads in the state.
It started in Stillwater and terminated in White Bear Lake, where it connected with the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad, giving Stillwater rail connections to both St. Paul and Duluth. When the Minneapolis and Duluth reached White Bear Lake in mid-1871, Minneapolitans could ride a train directly to Stillwater, completely bypassing St. Paul.
The Lake Superior and Mississippi quickly leased the line, as it afforded connections between Stillwater’s grain terminal and those controlled by LS&M; in Duluth. The LS&M; collapsed, along with many other parts of the economy, in the Panic of 1873, but by 1877, it had been reorganized as the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad.
The St. Paul and Duluth railroad did not formally acquire the Stillwater line until 1899; in 1900, the St. Paul and Duluth was officially absorbed into the Northern Pacific Railway, and the Stillwater and St. Paul was thereafter a small branch of a very large system.
Over the next 80 years, the diminished logging industry gave way to heavy industry along the shores of the St. Croix, which then, too, began to fade.
In 1970, the Northern Pacific was a part of the giant Burlington Northern merger.
This merger, envisioned by James J. Hill back around the turn of the century, was very much about the scrapping of redundant and under-utilized lines. The Stillwater branch became a target for abandonment, along with most of the other Northern Pacific branches in Minnesota.
It enjoyed some new life over speculation that BN might win the coal delivery contract for the Allen S. King power plant in Bayport, but this didn’t happen, and by 1982, the line was abandoned from White Bear Lake to a few hundred feet west of a place called Duluth Junction, which was the location of the crossing over the original Wisconsin Central line, now better known as the Gateway Trail.
The abandoned portion of the line quickly vanished back into the hands of private property owners, and BN started accessing its Stillwater yard via trackage rights over the Chicago & North Western’s branch from Hudson that entered Stillwater from the south.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Transportation Museum was on the hunt for a place to operate their steam train, powered by the former Northern Pacific #328.
This engine had spent most of its more than forty year career on the various branch lines of the old St. Paul and Duluth, including the Stillwater and St. Paul, and, due to the work of a forerunner to the Museum – the Minnesota Railfans Association – 328 was saved from the scrapper in 1950 and put on display on Stillwater’s riverfront.
When the museum completed a five year restoration of 328 in 1981, they ran her on various lines around the Twin Cities, but they wanted to find a more permanent home. In July 1983, the Burlington Northern gave them one by donating the remains of the Stillwater and St. Paul, with only a few operational caveats attached.
After much back-breaking track work, mostly by volunteer labor, the line was put back into service and was frequently used throughout the 80s by the museum and its train. A read through the museum’s publications from the time show high optimism at their development of their own railroad.
Unfortunately, though, the more rural areas of Washington County were seeing more and more residential development as the 80s went on, and subdivisions started butting up against the museum’s operations. Many of the line’s new neighbors objected to having train operations in the vicinity of their homes. Some were even angry enough about it that there were evidently multiple occurrences of verbal confrontation between the museum’s members and these residents while work was being done on the tracks.
After all, steam engines, for all their old-time romance, are noisy, dirty, smelly creatures. Noise and pollution, aside from simple economics, were key reasons for their going extinct. I suppose few people alive now really understand how much of a nuisance steam engines were in daily life, but those people in Washington County probably got some idea of it during the Museum’s weekend operations.
Finally, facing increasing threats of litigation, the museum sought to compromise with the community as to the scope and timing of its operations, but, by 1991, the more vocal of the critics succeeded in getting an ordinance passed that would essentially destroy the economics of the line for the museum. Happily, though, at the same time that this was unfolding, historical preservation folks in Osceola, WI had been working on preserving their Soo Line depot, and they approached the museum about moving their operations to that line.
A flurry of discussion with that group and the owner of the line through Osceola resulted in an operating agreement that started in 1992 which continues to this day. Meanwhile, the Washington County NIMBYs were not as upset with the operation of the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train, which was much more low key, and so in 1993, the museum sold the line to the owner of the Zephyr on a contract for deed, using the annual revenues from the sale to finance their other operations.
By the late 2000s, the owner of the Zephyr decided to retire, and in lieu of a buyer, finally shut down the train in late 2008. The Zephyr train equipment currently sits, looking rather forlorn, near the faux depot that served as a point of embarkation for the train’s customers.
As a part of the deal that ended the 2011 Minnesota government shutdown, the DNR will acquire the property, remove the tracks, and put in a bike trail from Duluth Jct. to downtown Stillwater, thus finally providing a Stillwater connection to the popular Gateway Trail. But they’ll remove more than the tracks: the bridges will be made “safe”, if not completely replaced, and any trace of railroad accessory will probably be removed, and in their place will be tasteful trail-side interpretive displays that will try to recapture the reasons for the corridor’s existence.
We began our walk in Downtown Stillwater.
The site of Stillwater's last railroad yard
The yard persisted well into the 2000s, even though its only connection to live rail, via the former Omaha branch from Hudson, had been been long severed by a washout south of town. The city had a great need for parking, and convinced the BN to abandon the property.
Directly north of the yard, the right-of-way now serves as a back access road to the marina.
The “historic” Stillwater depot. Nothing historic about it, really. It was built by the owner of the Minnesota Zephyr.
As we approached the Zephyr equipment, I noted that something had changed with the long-parked train. It has two engines, and for many years, they ran it with an engine on each end. I was certain that I had seen the rear-facing engine only weeks before. Now, scores in the pavement suggested it had been dragged away, possibly to be loaded on a truck.
The place definitely has the look and feel of something that has simply been left to the elements for a few years.
Aha, the rear-facing engine was not missing at all, it had been moved next to its sibling.
As we walked past the engines, it was clear that something had recently polished the rails. Our conjecture was that perhaps the whole train had been pulled forward, the rear-facing engine placed on the siding, the rest of the train put back to where it was, and then the rear-facing engine was joined with its counterpart, and that during the move, the train had been accidentally shoved off the end of the track.
Maybe. This snippet from Stillwater’s police blotter dated Sept. 14 only adds to the mystery:
“While downtown Stillwater early this morning an officer observed the Minnesota Zephyr off the train tracks. The report stated that it appeared that the train had rolled off approximately 40 yards south of the tracks. The area has been taped off with police line tape. Officers tried to contact the last known owner but could not reach him. The report states the train suffered damage.”
Heading north out of the station, we saw that the surrounding nature is definitely starting to close in, but the tracks are still mostly walkable.
The right-of-way, starting the switch for the “rip” track, and heading out of town
After this point, though, the way was reduced to a well-traveled foot path.
The last artifact of note prior to crossing Highway 95:
I would really like to believe that this sign dates back to the Northern Pacific era. It certainly isn’t the kind of sign the Burlington Northern would have put up.
I have memories of it being there in the 80s, but the realities of a wooden sign being exposed to the elements for possibly more than 50 years makes me lean toward the possibility that the Museum put it up as a very accurate replacement.
I don’t think there’s any question that the _ location_ of this sign isn’t original, however: On Google Earth, the sign is recognizable by a single white pixel; a trace of the line for a mile past that point toward town gives an endpoint of exactly the site of the former Union Depot.
This view amused us both:
Explanation: At this point, the line is starting its climb out of the valley. On the other side of these trees, down the embankment, is a house with an elaborate outdoor swimming pool. It looked to us like this line of young pine trees had been planted in a bid to build a “natural” fence to protect the pool from future gawking cyclists.
The climb continues, and curves up to the bridge over Highway 95.
The bridge itself also has some mystery attached to it. Both of us had understood that it was actually a repurposed turntable from some local roundhouse, probably in Stillwater. I’ve found no evidence in print to suggest that, and indeed,the “split” nature of the bridge suggests that if it actually was originally a turntable, then it must have been dismantled and reconstructed. The turntable idea, therefore, was probably misinformation.
The first image below is a good juxtaposition of the old vs. the new (drab) housing that has filled the area.
The grade crossing over Hazel Avenue:
According to the old plat maps of the area, at this point the width of the right-of-way increased from 75 feet to 100 feet.
The line then turns due west and follows a twisting path out of the valley through Brown’s Creek Ravine. These couple of miles had grades in excess of 1.6%, with a small piece of 2.2% toward the top. Many cuts and fills were required to traverse the area, and that construction was obvious to us, even with the dense foliage that now covers the area.
I recalled, from the walk I took with my father, walking through a large stone culvert, and additionally, that that culvert still had large quantities of ice inside of it, in mid-June.
And indeed, we found it:
There is every indication that this culvert was part of the original construction of the line. A snippet from an 1870 edition of the Stillwater Gazette, reprinted in John Luecke’s The Northern Pacific in Minnesota, speaks of it.
The line continues its climb, with Brown’s Creek 70-80 feet below. This segment is exceedingly beautiful, and will definitely be a highlight of the new trail.
As we walked, we noticed many variances in the quality and size of the rail. This was due to much of the rail having arrived through various donations made to the museum over the years. We found several examples of rail that were clearly marked “Great Northern”, which, in absence of the knowledge that the Museum partook in an offer by Burlington Northern to salvage surplus trackage from the formerly vast, former Great Northern Waite Park yards in St. Cloud, could cause an aspiring historian to come to an erroneous conclusion about the line’s origin!
Near the top of the climb out of the valley, the line passes underneath Stonebridge Trail, which is named for the stone bridge that crossed Brown’s Creek in this vicinity. This bridge, built around the time of the Civil War, purportedly still stands, but currently stands on private property, and we did not venture off the rail line in search of it. We did see some evidence of the mill that used to exist at this spot; presumably, the new trail will include a marker with some info on that.
Finally leaving the valley, the line crosses over the creek on a small bridge with stone abutments, and then skirts the western edge of Oak Glen golf course. The landscape here is nowhere near as shady, and therefore, we found ourselves walking through quite a jungle of weeds.
The more we slogged through them, the crazier it seemed. We discussed calling it a day, but, by then we only had a couple miles remaining to get to Tim’s car, so toughing it out was really the only logical option.
In the 1980s, the Museum made a deal with the DNR to swap their few hundred feet of property beyond the Gateway Trail for some property adjacent to the trail toward the south. New trackage was then built down along the trail, ending with a passing siding so that engines could run around their trains and pull them back to Stillwater. Some time after the Museum ceased operating on the line, leaving it solely to the Zephyr, this new track was removed, and not much evidence remains of it.
End-of-track is therefore now several yards east of Duluth Jct. Completely choked in undergrowth, it is marked with a pink flag on the end of a piece of wire.
As we pushed our way out of the bushes and onto the Gateway Trail, we encountered a elderly gentleman out walking a couple of Chihuahuas, who, by the way, didn’t react too kindly to a couple strangers popping out of the woods. We chatted with the guy for a few minutes, dodging the lycra-laden bikers that were humming by. “This trail is the best thing to happen to this area in years,” he said.
Indeed, and it’s about to get even better!
The final Ford Hauler makes its way past downtown St. Paul on its way back to the yard on Dec. 16.
Yesterday, Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant closed for good when the last new Ranger truck rolled off the line.
Whereas most of the interest in and coverage of this event took place at the front of the plant, I was more interested in the final events taking place at the back of the plant: the assembly and departure of the final Ford Hauler.
Over the many years that I’ve been paying attention to Twin Cities railroading, train operations have started and stopped, changed routings, and changed owners, but there really is no comparing any of those to operations on the Ford line, having run virtually continuously in one form or other since the 1920s.
How did the trains get to the Ford Plant? The Milwaukee Road built a branch off their St. Paul - Minneapolis “Short Line”, at a point appropriately named Fordson Junction, near the area in St. Paul where Western Ave. reaches the bluff line.
To cross a deep ravine immediately west of the junction, a large timber trestle was constructed, a trestle which stands to this day. The Ford line more or less follows the direction of Seventh St./Fort Road, winding past the former Schmidt Brewery and through St. Paul’s West End, and as it nears Fort Snelling, it curves sharply west toward the river, and then north, paralleling Cleveland Avenue, and finally turning west again, under Cleveland Ave., terminating in a yard area directly behind the plant.
At the time of the line’s completion, the Highland Park area was sparsely populated; eventually, the area around the railroad tracks filled in with new subdivisions, and the curvature of the railroad line influenced the alignment and curvature of the adjoining properties.
Even though the Milwaukee Road ceased to exist more than 25 years ago, the line still sports some reminders of its heritage, including several examples of the distinctive Milwaukee switch stands, and at least one DOT grade crossing marker that says “MILW”. The Soo Line took over the Milwaukee in 1986, and the Soo’s parent, Canadian Pacific, took complete control of the Soo in 1991, and continues to operate the line today, but in all of that time, the Ford line’s operations underwent relatively few changes.
I have a special fondness for the train operations around the Ford Yard, since for many years – all the years I was growing up, really – my grandmother lived in an apartment at 33 Inner Drive in Highland Village. Her back door was about 500 feet to the east of the Ford Plant, and I recall a fascination with sheer scale of it all: The super-sized parts cars with the names of exotic, far away railroads (at least to a young boy!) such as Norfolk and Western, Grand Trunk Western, and Chesapeake and Ohio, the flatcars stacked high with raw Ranger truck frames, the giant car-carrying auto racks, and of course, pairs of orange and black Milwaukee Road switch engines moving all of these cars back and forth.
Sadly, though, as I became an adult, the regularity of the operation made it kind of boring – or put another way, when out looking at trains, I’d only chase after a Ford Hauler if there was absolutely nothing else going on. I figured that it would always be running, and so I’d focus my attention on operations that were changing, or were in danger of going away.
I did start using the ’Hauler as a sort of informal economic yard stick: Every evening, I would check to see how many loaded auto racks were coming down from the plant. The longer the train, the better the economy.
Of course, by the mid-2000s, Ford started making regular noises about closing the plant, and so I started putting the Ford Haulers at a higher priority.
A few shots culled from my archives:
Back to this week. I spent the last few days of the week working out of my car (definitely a perk of working with a company that lacks formal office space), attempting to get some last photos of regular train operations on the Ford line. As the week had gone on, the trains had gotten shorter, and seemed to be running earlier than usual. No more parts were needed, and the last of the empty parts cars had been taken away.
Especially at the Cleveland Ave. overpass, there were other people trying to document the last of these trains as well, which, in the case of one guy, did not escape the notice of a St. Paul policeman, who had apparently thought that someone standing on a public sidewalk aiming a camera at a car manufacturing plant that was imminently closing represented some kind of threat to all of our well-being. This fine public servant had actually pulled his patrol car perpendicular to the edge of the bridge, as if he were running down a fleeing suspect!
Yesterday, I got up early, at sunrise, just as the train was departing St. Paul Yard for the plant. In this case, there was nothing for the train to bring. There were plenty of empty auto racks already available at the plant to handle the last few Rangers that were being built, so only a couple of light engines made the trip up to the plant.
When they arrived, a pair of Soo Line engines that were already at the yard did some switching, and then it became a matter of waiting for the last auto racks to be loaded. I went for some breakfast, and came back.
By 1pm, the men had just about finished putting the train together. Over the radio, one of them said, “There are a few more cars on ramp three, but they just closed the doors.” “Oh well, let’s just leave them for the afternoon job.” … “Wait a minute, I just realized something: There isn’t going to be an afternoon job!”
After some more discussion, they departed for St. Paul Yard. I gave chase, but alas, due to a couple of bad driving decisions, I wasn’t able to get a shot of it on the iconic trestle, and I had to settle instead for a shot at Chestnut Street.
I got a few more photos at Hoffman, and then I let them go as they pulled into the yard. Eighty-six years of operation, complete.
I just returned from filing the paperwork to start my own software company: Hoffman Avenue Software, LLC.
I must say, it was an exceedingly painless interaction with government. There are places on the Internet, eg., bizfilings.com, that try to make you think that that starting a company is a big, complicated task that should be left in the hands of professionals. And for $250, they will take care of all of that for you.
I suppose some people have a hard time filling out forms, but in this case, it is a single form, with only eight fields to fill out! Three of those fields are optional. Two of the mandatory fields are your name/street address, another is your phone/email. Another is a check box that indicates whether or not the new business will have any interest in any lands used for agriculture. And the final mandatory field? The company name!
I took about a minute to fill it out, biked over to the Secretary of State office, waited another two minutes for my number to be called, wrote them a check for $160 (sigh, it’s 2010 and they still don’t take credit cards), got a stamped copy of the form I was filing, and within five minutes I was back out the door.
Wow, and people will pay $250 to bizfilings.com to do that for them? I’m in the wrong business!
A couple words about the name of my company. Hoffman Avenue is another in a long line of lost Saint Paul streets. I’m not entirely sure when it vanished, and I have found some conflicting information as to its existence. According to Don Empson’s wonderful book, “The Street Where You Live”, Hoffman Ave. was originally called Dayton Avenue, presumably in honor of Lyman Dayton, the man for whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, but was renamed in 1872. This was the year of the first major street renaming in St. Paul, and since there had also been a Dayton Ave. running parallel to Grand Avenue since 1854, the Dayton Ave. on Dayton’s Bluff was renamed to Hoffman Avenue to honor James K. Hoffman, who, in addition to being the owner of several sawmills in the area of Dayton’s Bluff, was also on the City Council at the time that the street was renamed.
The conflicting part is that Empson says that the street vanished into the construction of I-94 in 1960. However, the only reference I can see of Hoffman Ave. on the old plat maps is a tiny piece that seems to jut off Mounds Blvd. near the intersection of Mounds, Bates Ave. and Clermont St., and head toward the bluff edge, picking up again at the bottom of the bluff along the property line of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, now BNSF.
This may now give a hint as to my interest in this name. At the point where the road started at the bottom of the bluff is a railroad interlocking plant that is identified as Hoffman Ave. by the railroad. Five tracks go through the plant, and turnouts are available to cross from any of the outer four tracks to any other, in any direction. Due to space considerations, the tower housing the interlocking equipment was situated over the track nearest to the bluff, as seen here. The tower was demolished in 1986; only the retaining wall above it remains. Hoffman Ave. is now remotely controlled from Fort Worth, Texas.
The image on the top of this page is of the signal bridge that controls eastbound movement through the interlocking.
One of my long term project ideas (ie., I had the idea back in 2001, and I still haven’t gotten around to implementing it) is to develop a reliable webcam live video delivery architecture, and as a proving ground, point a camera out my window over to Hoffman Avenue, package it up into a iPhone app, and see if I can’t get enough train nerds to pay, say, a few dollars a year to watch the video. If I could generate enough interest to pay for the bandwidth, why, I’d be pleased as punch.
I made this moving timelapse on the return trip to Durango from Cascade Canyon by mounting my trusty Cullmann clamp to a grab iron, and mounting my G9 onto the clamp.