A Time-lapse Tour of the Green Line

December 10, 2013 by cynick | Posted in rail , saint-paul , timelapse

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.


October 6, 2013 by cynick | Posted in rail , saint-paul

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!

A Bibliophile Christmas

December 16, 2012 by cynick | Posted in bibliophilia , saint-paul

I am a lifelong adherent of the Theory of “Scroogenomics”.

This is the rather unintuitive idea, promulgated by a Pennsylvania professor of economics, that compulsive gift giving during the Christmas season actually harms the economy rather than boosts it, due to the great deal of waste that such giving creates.

The only thing I hate more than feeling obligated to give people perfunctory gifts that they did not ask for, will not use, and will either end up in a landfill or a Goodwill, is receiving such gifts, and having to put on a veneer of false gratitude, lest I hurt someone’s feelings, and then having to file away little notes of remembrance in my brain to display, wear, or talk about such gifts each time I encounter the cretin who gave it to me, so that their feelings aren’t hurt in any future time as well.

Bah humbug! What could be more exhausting?

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a terribly stingy person, in fact, I think I’m fairly generous, and I do not limit that generosity to one narrow time of year. However, I’m only willing to display that generosity with things that are truly meaningful and useful to a person.

Sometimes, quite rarely, a great gift opportunity comes along that actually coincides with Christmas.

Now, my great friend Mike, who I’ve known virtually all of my life, comes from a long line of artists, and is himself a professional artist. I had always known that one of his ancestors has portraits of governors hanging in the Minnesota State Capitol, but it was only at the beginning of this year, on a field trip with Mike to the Capitol to seek out those paintings, that I learned more details about the man who made them: Mike’s great-great grandfather, Nicholas R. Brewer.

Mr. Brewer, it turns out, wrote an autobiography toward the end of his life, and after having expressed my interest in reading it, Mike pointed me to the website of the Library of Congress, where a scanned copy of this book could be viewed, page by page.

Since I am a person with a deep interest in the historical roots of St. Paul, this book proved to be an amazing document indeed! Mr. Brewer was born in Olmstead County in the year before Minnesota became a state, moved to St. Paul in 1875 with thirty-four dollars in his pocket – a true St. Paul pioneer! – and worked his way up to becoming a celebrated artist.

The book is peppered with names that litter today’s landscape – eg., Isaac Staples, Archbishop Ireland, James J. Hill, Pierce Butler, Frank Kellogg – and contains Mr. Brewer’s observances and anecdotes from conversations with these men.

One remembrance I found particularly interesting was his recounting of the horse-drawn streetcar on Fourth Street. On the “steep grade on a couple of blocks of Fourth St.” – presumably between Minnesota and Wabasha streets – the cars needed an extra horse to get them up the hill. This “reinforcement nag”, as he called it, was smart enough that they could unhitch him, and tell him to go back to the bottom and wait for the next car.

Mr. Brewer, being a lad of 18 who had only just arrived in town, assumed the horse was a runaway, and thinking he was doing the owner a favor, tied the horse to a post to prevent him from running too far afield – and in return received a severe tongue lashing from a driver of one of the cars, and slight mockery from some girls who were riding the car! He remarked,“I never go down that street to this day that I do not recall what a hayseed I was”; and now whenever I’m on those particular blocks of that street, I think about that story and smile.

Mike had said that one of his long term wishes was to find a copy of the book; over his many years of searching, he’d never found one. I made it my goal to find a copy of this wonderful book for my friend.

I strongly felt that if it were to be found anywhere, it would be at Larry McMurtry’s storied bookstore, Booked Up – which is less of a bookstore and more of a book campus, comprised of four separate buildings – therefore, on a recent trip to San Antonio, I went 400 miles off course to tiny Archer City, Texas, not certain of what I’d find.

On the way there, I had read that only a couple months prior, Booked Up had hosted an auction wherein about three-fourths of the collection, some 300,000 books, had been sold off; McMurtry wanted to scale back in order to avoid overburdening his children. Choosing in this instance to be a ‘glass-half-full’ guy, I still thought it was worth a try. I had budgeted up to three hours of time to look through the labyrinth of shelves – the layout is self-described as “whimsical” – or up to the first onset of mold-induced wheezing, whichever came first.

I pulled up in front of Building #1, next to a car with Maryland plates – another book hound on a similar quest, perhaps – and went inside. A friendly young woman was sitting at a desk in there, with the requisite cat or two for companionship. Usually when I enter such a place, I’m not looking for anything specific, indeed, my pleasure is mostly derived from the unexpected find, but in this case, I was able to clearly state that I was looking for a book called “Trails Of A Paintbrush”, by Nicholas Brewer.

She frowned, and said that she was fairly certain that most of the art books had been sold in the auction, but she rose and started off through a doorway to the back shelving area, beckoning me to follow. We turned a corner, went through another doorway to an adjoining space, down about three rows of shelves, and turned another corner into a dead end aisle, where she stopped in front of a tall shelf, probably 10’x6’, positively crammed with books.

She suggested I start scanning that shelf, and, failing that, there were a couple other areas she could show me.

And then something utterly amazing happened: the FIRST book my eyes focused on was the book! Forgetting decorum, I blurted out, “Holy shit! There it is!!”

It was near the top of the shelf. I got up on tiptoes and pulled it down. It wasn’t musty or moldy, and the binding wasn’t broken or loose at all. No dust jacket, but that is to be expected for a 75 year old book. As I leafed through it, every page was there, and in fact, a couple appeared to be uncut!

And then I arrived at the first page: It had been signed by Mr. Brewer himself, to Clifford K. Berryman, who a quick Google search revealed to have been a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington DC political cartoonist who had worked at the Washington Post, and for most of the first half of the 20th Century, at the Washington Star.

I had budgeted three hours, with fairly low expectations – even the story that I had explicitly driven there to look for it would have had some value! – but instead, after three minutes, I had come up with a signed copy! I am still geeking out about it; I can’t imagine coming up with such a miraculous find ever again in my lifetime!

As I drove away from there, I was grinning ear to ear.

When I returned, over thirty hours later, to St. Paul, I was actually scheduled to attend a concert with Mike the next evening but I said not a word of any of this. I wanted to wrap it and give it to him as a surprise Christmas gift.

And indeed, a couple weeks later, after a lengthy dinner conversation, still not having mentioned the book, I started my speech about Scroogenomics, and said, “but then sometimes… hang on a minute, I got you something”, and I went out to the car to fetch it.

His stunned reaction upon folding aside the tissue paper and seeing that book, and holding it in his hands, brought me every ounce of joy that I had hoped it would, a memory which I will savor for many years to come!

A Nice Tour of Saint Paul

October 3, 2012 by cynick | Posted in bike-jaunts , saint-paul

’Twas a nice day for a bike ride.

The fall colors had made a stunning surprise appearance, contrary to all predictions that the drought promised to keep them all but muted, and, given that the sunshine was warm, I thought there there couldn’t be a better time to take a tour of St. Paul by Nice Ride bike.

To the uninitiated – not that there could be many of you, if you are paying the slightest bit of attention – Nice Ride is a bike sharing system. You first pay for a daily, monthly, or yearly subscription, and then check out a bike at one station, ride to a different station, and check it back in.

The catch: you only have half an hour to ride between stations before you begin to incur “trip fees”, which for very good reason, grow arithmetically (not exponentially! – just another split hair to help quash the cultural overloading of the term “exponential growth”, used when more often than not what is actually happening is some kind of polynomial or geometric growth. End nerd.). This keeps bikes available in the system, and discourages people from hoarding them at the office.

The system is designed for short trips, in both the placement of the stations, and in the bikes themselves. Stations generally come in clusters that are centered inside a commercial area, or contain common pathways to and from a school.

There are a few outliers that require a bit of hustle in order to avoid the trip fee, but I’m guessing that those will become rarer as the system fills in over the coming years. (For the record: in my two years of subscribership, I have never paid a trip fee. The clock nearly ran out once, but I managed to beat it with just a minute to spare.)

You certainly would not want to ride a Nice RIde bike all day long over every pothole-pocked road of the city, but they are plenty comfortable for a five minute jaunt from, say, one side of downtown to the other.

If you are an annual subscriber like me, you have your own-RFID based key that can be stuck into a slot in the dock of any bike. This saves much time mucking around with credit cards at the kiosks every time you want to take a ride.

For my tour, I checked out my first bike at the station near Kellogg and Robert, and about 4.5 hours later, I arrived back at that same station, having visited all 46 St. Paul stations along the way.

Pics or it didn’t happen:

My routing was ad hoc, and probably not completely optimal, but followed the general idea of tackling the West Side first, then working west along Grand Avenue, and coming back east along University Avenue, down the middle of the LRT tracks whenever appropriate.

I loosely based my strategy around minimizing traversals of the bluffs along the Mississippi, and trying to travel on the spine of the ridge that runs roughly north and south along Snelling Avenue.

(Digression: I’ve always thought it would be interesting to try to write bike path mapping software that takes into account changes in elevation in addition to terrestrial distance. That is, the optimal path might not be the proverbial straight line, but it might make twists and turns through some saddle point in between one or more hills. Perfect beta city, believe it or not: Omaha.)

I did the whole tour on the same bike. On several occasions at nearly full stations, having gotten into a groove of slamming the bike into the closest open dock to the “legend” end of the station, running over and taking the picture, and running back, I took off on the wrong bike!

Each time I did this, I knew it immediately due to the seat being too low or ridiculously high, but at one station in particular, when I turned back around to get the correct bike, more than one had my exact seat setting, oh no! – but then, looking closely, I was able to pick mine out by the absence of cobwebs on the handlebars.

By no means should this imply that the system has been underutilized – indeed, I think it’s been highly popular – on the contrary, the spiders are wildly efficient in some areas of the city, especially closer to the river!

For future purposes of historical reference, here is the (completely unabridged) routing I took:

Leg 1: (3 min) Kellogg-South Robert-Fillmore-Livingston

Leg 2: (6 min) Livingston-Plato-South Robert-Cesar Chavez-State

Leg 3: (2 min) State-Cesar Chavez

Leg 4: (4 min) Cesar Chavez-Wabasha-Plato-Fillmore-Harriet Island

Leg 5: (5 min) Harriet Island-Wabasha Street Bridge-Second

Leg 6: (3 min) Second-Wabasha-Sixth-St. Peter-Fifth

Leg 7: (3 min) Fifth-Market-Kellogg-Science Museum

Leg 8: (4 min) Science Museum-Kellogg-Exchange-Eagle-Chestnut-Shepard-Washington-Upper Landing

Leg 9: (6 min) Upper Landing-Sherman-Shepard-Chestnut-Ryan-Walnut-Exchange-Ramsey-West Seventh

Leg 10: (3 min) West Seventh-Kellogg-Kellogg & Smith

Leg 11: (5 min) Kellogg & Smith-Kellogg-John Ireland-Minnesota History Center

Leg 12: (4 min) Minnesota History Center-Marion-St. Anthony-Western-Western & Central

Leg 13: (4 min) Western & Central-Western-Dayton-Virginia-Virginia & Selby

Leg 14: (4 min) Virginia & Selby-Virginia-Laurel-Dale-Hague & Dale

Leg 15: (3 min) Hague & Dale-Dale-Dale & Grand

Leg 16: (5 min) Dale & Grand-Grand-Milton-Summit-Milton & Summit

Leg 17: (3 min) Milton & Summit-Summit-Lexington-Grand & Lexington

Leg 18: (2 min) Grand & Lexington-Grand-Kowalski’s (Kombucha)

Leg 19: (7 min) Syndicate-Portland-Hamline-Laurel-Albert-Hague-Saratoga-Selby-Snelling-Laurel

Leg 20: (3 min) Laurel-Fry-Summit-Macalester-Grand & Macalester

Leg 21: (2 min) Grand & Macalester-Grand-Grand & Fairview

Leg 22: (4 min) Grand & Fairview-Grand-St. Thomas

Leg 23: (8 min) St. Thomas-Grand-Cleveland-Summit-Prior-Marshall & Fairview

Leg 24: (3 min) Marshall & Fairview-Fairview-Fairview & University

Leg 25: (7 min) Fairview & University-Charles-Prior-Middle of LRT Tracks-Hampden-Charles-Raymond & Ellis

Leg 26: (8 min) Raymond & Ellis-Raymond-Como-Carter (Macaroon)

Leg 27: (5 min) Carter-Eckles-Commonwealth-St. Paul Campus

Leg 28: (18 min) St. Paul Campus-UM Transitway-Como-Hamline-Railroad Tracks-Energy Park-Hamline-Minnehaha-Minnehaha & Simpson

Leg 29: (5 min) Minnehaha & Simpson-Simpson-Thomas-Snelling-Sherburne-Sherburne & Snelling

Leg 30: (7 min) Sherburne & Snelling-Sherburne-Hamline-Western District Precinct Station

Leg 31: (4 min) Western District Precinct Station-Hamline-Marshall-Syndicate

Leg 32: (7 min) Marshall-Griggs-University-Middle of LRT Tracks-Lexington-Wilder Foundation

Leg 33: (9 min) Wilder Foundation-Lexington-Sherburne-Dale-Dale & University

Leg 34: (6 min) Dale & University-Dale-Sherburne-Marion-Marion & Aurora

Leg 35: (7 min) Marion & Aurora-Marion-Concordia-St. Paul College

Leg 36: (5 min) St. Paul College-Marshall-John Ireland-MLK-Capitol Grounds-DOT Building

Leg 37: (3 min) DOT Building-MLK-North Robert & Fourteenth

Leg 38: (5 min) North Robert & Fourteenth-Fourteenth-Jackson-University-Lafayette-Grove

Leg 39: (4 min) Grove-Pine-Tenth-Ninth-Wacouta-East Seventh & Wacouta

Leg 40: (3 min) East Seventh-Temperance-Ninth-North Robert-North Robert & Tenth

Leg 41: (2 min) North Robert & Tenth-Tenth-Tenth & Cedar

Leg 42: (3 min) Tenth & Cedar-Tenth-St. Peter-West Seventh-Wells Fargo

Leg 43: (2 min) Wells Fargo-East Seventh-Cedar-Fifth-Fifth & Minnesota

Leg 44: (2 min) Fifth & Minnesota-Minnesota-Seventh Place-Jackson

Leg 45: (2 min) Jackson-Fifth-Wacouta-Fourth-Union Depot

Leg 46: (3 min) Union Depot-Middle of LRT Tracks-Fourth-Jackson-Kellogg

(Thanks to Peter Bernardy for his Impressionist Amalgam of my pics of the stations!)

Crashed Ice

February 1, 2012 by cynick | Posted in saint-paul

On a summer day, a year and a half ago, I was biking back from Lilydale along Shepard Road, and just after I passed the High Bridge, I ran into a thick crowd. “Oh yea,” I thought. “That crazy Red Bull ‘Flugtag’ thing!” It had been hyped up in the newspaper, but I’d mostly shrugged it off.

As I tried to progress farther down the trail, the crowd got so thick that not only could I not walk my bike, I had to fold it and lift it over my head to get anywhere! To be certain, I don’t consider myself claustrophobic – the time spent in my youth traversing the various storm drains of St. Paul cured me of that – but I was feeling mightily boxed in by that pack of Red Bull-swilling twenty somethings, mostly male, who were repeatedly uttering the word duuuude, emphasis not mine.

The crowd size that day was estimated to be 90000! Only in Minnesota would that many people – roughly the third of the size of the capitol city – be bored enough on a sunny July day to watch a bunch of idiots nosedive hackneyed flying devices into the drink.

And indeed, what a spectacle there was to be seen across the river, during the few times I could crane my neck across the people and actually see something. It later turned out that one of the flights I had witnessed had set the world record for distance.

In short, those idiots turned out to be highly entertaining. Red Bull really seems to know how to put on a show!

So when the mayor of St. Paul proudly announced that the city had landed another one of these events – this time featuring idiots ice skating down a bobsled run that was to be manufactured on one of the steepest hills in the city – I thought, “Oh yeah! That sounds like fun!”

On the day before the final competition, I hiked up to the Cathedral area to watch and photograph the time trials. I figured that there wouldn’t be too many people out there in 12°F, early on a Friday afternoon, but I was wrong. There were maybe a couple thousand people, happily generating muffled rounds of applause through their woolen mittens.

I was amazed by the sheer amount of gear that had been installed. Cables, lights, scaffolding, cameras, oh my! The neatest thing of all was a skycam (but not necessarily a Skycam™) that had been strung up high above the length of the course. It was a useful tool for detecting when a – what do you call these people? Crashers? – was on his way down the hill, for, there were no vantage points that offered a single view of the entire course. They should have built some bleachers to go along with the scaffolds.

I definitely saw some cringe-worthy spills and crashes. C’mon, everyone, let’s be honest, that’s what we were all there to see, wasn’t it? I think one of the guys broke some ribs crashing into the boards, and kept on going, guzzling Red Bulls from both hands all the rest of the way down.

See! the pics:

Last of the Ford Haulers

December 17, 2011 by cynick | Posted in rail , saint-paul

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.

Calling the "B" Ark

March 31, 2011 by cynick | Posted in b-ark , saint-paul

I’ve lived in Lowertown for a little over seven years now. During the three years before moving in, I was making regular trips there to witness/oversee the restoration and redevelopment of the historic building I live in.

In all that time, the Mississippi rose above flood stage four or five times (depending on which government bureaucracy you ask). Even though my building is at one of the lowest elevations in the city, it has never flooded, due to an elaborate pumping system in the basement.

This year, something new happened: I received a letter from the city that said I might be required to evacuate, given this year’s forecast for a potentially historic flood.

Wow! That sounded pretty serious! A meeting was scheduled at the Black Dog, presumably so that more details on this possibility could be conveyed to the people in the neighborhood.

And I must say, out of the public meetings I’ve been to, this one was highly attended indeed! Every single person in that room had one question on their minds – under what conditions could we expect a call to evacuate?

Instead of getting an answer to that question, we were treated to a 1.5 hour masterpiece of government non-information and misinformation.

The meeting started with an introduction of all the various people from different departments who were going to speak. This went on and on and on, including thank yous to this and that person for planning the meeting – like an Oscar acceptance speech that’s way past its expiration date.

Then the Power Point slides started rolling. For the first twenty minutes, an historical recap of all flooding in St. Paul. While interesting, this had very little do with what’s happening now.

The crowd began stirring. One woman asked, “This is all well and good, but when will we have to evacuate?”

Response: “I cannot predict any flood timing, I am not a hydrologist.”

Then our “Not a Hydrologist” – who was some suit from the city emergency planning department – proceeded with a presentation of hydrologic data, including the current NOAA hydrologic prediction chart in cubic feet per second vs. time, and historical probabilistic exceedance forecast as well as a deterministic forecast based on current conditions.

Eyes glazed over. When asked the difference between probabilistic and deterministic, the guy said they were different mathematical “theorems”. (?!)

Our “Not a Mathematician” was then asked the same question again, perhaps in more specific terms: Under what conditions would we be forced to evacuate?

For the first time since the meeting began, he tossed out a nugget of new information! He said that the city may be forced to shut down the sewer system, and if that were to happen, we wouldn’t be able to occupy our units.

Great! Under what circumstances would the city shut down the sewer? “I don’t know, I’m not a civil engineer.”

By now, most people had figured out that no information would be forthcoming, except for a woman who piped up to say that she lived on the first floor of the Tilsner, and she was worried that she could be flooded out. A guy nearby rather rudely asked her if she’d been listening at all.

But, I thought, “At last! I can give someone some useful information!” I set about to find the photograph from the record 1965 flood that showed Kellogg Boulevard under a few feet of water, but well below the first floor of the Tilsner. When I showed it to her, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had found it on the front page of the Tilsner’s own website.

Mention was then made of the possibility of shutting off power. Someone asked whether this could happen block by block or building by building.

“I don’t know, I don’t work for Xcel.”

More things may have been said in the following forty minutes of speakers with important sounding titles – perhaps something about the Humane Society, or something about phone numbers to call – but my mind was far, far away by then.

Sour Grapes

January 31, 2011 by cynick | Posted in humans , saint-paul

An annual pleasure of mine is armchair-observation of the St. Paul Winter Carnival Medallion Hunt that is put on by the Pioneer Press.

To the uninitiated: the newspaper, under circumstances nobody to date has witnessed (that I know of, anyway), conceals a small plastic puck somewhere on public property, almost always a park in St. Paul, and then clues are printed daily in the newspaper over the course of the Carnival.

It doesn’t matter how much snow piles up, or how cold it gets: Somebody always finds the thing – after all, there’s up to ten grand in it for the finder – but also, and perhaps more importantly, the finder enters the very exclusive club of the people who have found it.

It saddens me to declare that the hunt has become rather dumbed down as the years have gone on; I seem to recall that when I was a kid, the clues were much more about St. Paul history, geography, streets, and historic “characters”, rather than today’s sets of clues that are full of very fresh pop references, lyrics from music that Baby Boomers listen to, veiled shout-outs to people that work at the newspaper, and even self-references to clues from previous years.

I never truly have the time to sit down and try to decipher the clues; and in fact, even when I were a young lad, I couldn’t have looked for it because I had a job slinging the newspaper. Conflict of interest, you know.

I’m interested in the human story of the outcome, always being gratified when it is found by some person or group that has put in much effort over the years, but always came up short. More often than not, there is a sense that the finders truly deserve their prize.

It’s enough of an interesting and unique story that a documentary film crew from New York filmed several of the hunts in the early 2000s, and profiled some of the most interesting characters that go out with their shovels, year after year. The resulting film, No Time For Cold Feet, is packed with wonderful lore and stories of the hunt over its nearly sixty year history, as well as lots of footage of people digging for gold – including a classic melee in the Como Park woods on the night of a last clue.

I was privileged to see the premiere screening of the film in Minnesota, and, as it turned out, the audience was stacked with people that are in the movie – they were easy to spot by their markedly louder hootin’ and hollering at seeing themselves on the big screen.

For some people, the hunt is a way of life. They schedule vacations around it, study old clues year ’round, and many fly in from different places around the world.

Subsequently, there is an enjoyable sub-aspect to the hunt: Complaints from people who weren’t lucky enough to hit the jackpot. I expected there would be a good whine selection when I heard this year’s outcome: it was found after only seven clues! Thousands of people, robbed of five days of bliss.

And, believe it or not, when the story of the discovery was published on the Internet, the comments did not leave me disappointed. (Comments full of sour grapes, you say? What a novel concept!) (Quick aside: the article – and ha, now I see the print version as well! – contains one of my favorite gaffes: “..pouring over a map of the St. Paul parks”. Pouring.. what? Coffee? Milk? That’s the problem with using only a spellchecker: it couldn’t possibly know that the author meant to use “poring” instead.)

A common complaint was that “there is no way the thing could have been found after seven clues”, but someone replied that they had sent their daughter to about fifty feet from where it was. Some satisfaction must have been attained just by getting her that close.

In the article about the discovery, a member of the victorious team states that they saw a lone man digging by one of the trees mentioned by the clues, but she “didn’t have the heart to tell him”. A commenter wrote his outrage in caps: “SEEMS TO ME SHE HAD NO HEART!!”

I disagree. I think anyone who is that gung-ho to be out there at 3am, digging away, deserves to live the dream as long as possible. With luck, he hadn’t paid attention to the women, and went home not long after, and will never know.

A less whimsical statement is that it would probably be unwarranted for a couple of women to announce to a strange man in a lonely gully at 3am that they had just found something that’s worth ten thousand dollars.

Another whine was that, since the park was closed, the finders should be cited for being in the park after dark. This fellow said it wasn’t fair, because the police had chased him away, but not the people who found it. Note to this sad victim of the self-esteem movement: You didn’t want it enough! If you really want it, what you do is, you say, “Yes, Officer. Sorry, Officer”, and then double back once the cops are gone, and resume digging.

I suppose he would like to see the winners stripped of their prize.

_ Your Honor, my client demands an Instant Remedy whereby the medallion is returned to its Original Placement in the park so that he can Search for it during Legal Park Hours._

He forgets this one fact: The paper always releases the next day’s clue at 12am. It used to be the case that teams would have someone wait down at the newspaper headquarters, get the clue, and then phone it in to the rest of the team who were waiting at whatever park for the information, where they would immediately apply it and start digging. (That is another in a long line of traditions that the Internet has wrecked: the “phone relay” is no longer needed as a hunter’s device) By the last day, there can be thousands of people out digging in the middle of the night. Try telling them to leave!

Then there were several complaints about safety. Apparently, to get to the hiding place, one had to go down an ancient staircase that had been completely snowed in and iced over. Of the many revelations that have come out over the years, as far as I know there have never been specific statements about how and when the treasure is buried, but one assumes it was buried long before last December’s blizzard. Should they have moved it somewhere else? Would that have been “fair”?

Yes, let’s make it completely safe, so that everyone has an equal chance of finding the medallion. In fact, let’s put out many medallions – like an Easter Egg hunt! – all worth about $5. Then everyone can be a winner!

That sounds like an awful lot of fun, doesn’t it, kids?