random thoughts on railroad photography, railfanning, technology, and such

PROMONTORY: The Hallowed Ground of America's Western Railroad History

The Big Trip - Day 4

We were awaken by the sound of a tractor and metal slamming against metal. I stepped outside the camper and found the source of the noise. Apparently it was watering day at the Brigham City/Perry South KOA and there was a grounds man laying massive 3-inch pipes on the grassy common areas of the campground. I don’t recall the time exactly but it was too early, in my opinion, to awaken any guests so rudely.  Score another point for the Perry KOA!

Despite the start to our morning, today was going to be a great day because we were headed to one of my favorite locations — the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory, Utah. We got cleaned up and broke camp. We planned on spending the night on public land somewhere near the Golden Spike National Historic Site so we made certain to empty our waste tanks and fill the fresh water tank.

As we made the rather pleasant drive towards Promontory, I fortunately looked down at the fuel gauge on the truck and realized, in my haste to get to the park, I had forgot to get fuel! We were about one-third of the way to Promontory at this point and I knew there were no gas stations along the way due to remoteness of the site. We turned around and headed back towards Brigham City to top off. 

Golden Spike National Historic Site

After some thirty miles of traveling west out of Brigham City we reached the entrance to the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

What is this Place?

On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad joined their rails here at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory and realized the dream of an entire nation—a transcontinental railroad across America.

Citation: Pacific Railway Act, July 1, 1862; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.This dream, which became known as the “Pacific Railroad,” had its roots in the early 1830s and soon garnered a lot of support from the likes of Asa Whitney, Zadock PrattTheodore Judah, The Big Four—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and most importantly, President Abraham Lincoln.

Eventually, after much debate in Congress, the dream became official when President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 on July 1 of that year. This act not only formed the Union Pacific Railroad, which would build west from the Missouri River, but and also named the Central Pacific Railroad, which would build east from Sacramento, California as the two railroads which would receive federal land grants and funding to build a railroad the likes of which the world has never seen.

The story of the Pacific Railroad is a fascinating one. It is truly a microcosm of America’s story. It is a story ofAndrew J. Russell’s “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail.” - May 10, 1869.
Utah State Quarter depicting the Golden Spike Ceremony - Released: November 5, 2007
vision and determination, greed and scandal, ingenuity and back-breaking labor. It is a story that spans American culture from emigrants, both Chinese and Irish, all the way to the elite of the Supreme Court of the United States.  It is the story of you and I.

Seven years later the transcontinental railroad would be complete and joined at Promontory, Utah.

Those of you not familiar with the history of the Pacific Railroad, nor Promontory and the Golden Spike NHS, might still recognize this famous A.J. Russell photograph of the “golden spike” ceremony from a history class or two. Perhaps you have seen the back side of the U.S. quarter for Utah which depicts this event and location nicely.

Promontory Today

Much of the original transcontinetal route is still used today as part of the Union Pacific Railroad system which now includes the original Central Pacific Railroad (Southern Pacific Railroad) as well. Fortunately, this important and historically signigficant part of the route was bypassed in 1902-04 by the building of the Lucin Cutoff by the Southern Pacific Railroad which had obtained a lease to the Central Pacific Railroad in 1885 and official acquiring it in 1959. This bypass eventually left the route up for abandonment and scrapping during World War II. The National Park Service now owns the old railroad right-of-way and the surrounding grades which constitutes the Golden Spike National Historic Site housing a Visitor’s Center, a few miles of trackage, an engine house and assorted historical assets. For details click on the Park Tour Map below:

Park Tour Map - Golden Spike National Historic Site
Courtesy of National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Standing Were Giants Once Stood

The Golden Spike National Historic Site is unique among many sites in that it really provides an opportunity to feel what it must have been like to be there on May 10, 1869. The site operates identical replicas of the steam engines present at the Golden Spike Ceremony from May 1 through Labor Day, and recreates the ceremony by running the locomotives up to the location of the last spike. This opportunity has adds an additional dimension to the experience with the sights, sounds, and smells of the steam engines. It is quite a treat.

Once we parked the camper in a shady location I grabbed my camera and made a beeline to the Visitor’s Center. I felt like a kid in a candy store no doubt. Here are some of the photos that I captured:

“Golden Spike” Site Monument Bronze Plaque - From the concrete obelisk built by the Southern Pacific Railroad to commemorate joining of the rails. The original granite plaque read, “Last Spike Completing First Transcontinental Railroad Driven at this Point May 10 - 1869.” The recessed granite plaque was covered with concrete and this bronze plaque placed over the original plaque. Click on the image to open a web page showing the obelisk and details regarding its significance.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

NPS Park Ranger David Kilton delivers a fact-filled, yet entertaining, presentation on the building of the transcontinental railroad and the Golden Spike Ceremony at the spot were the last rail was laid while Central Pacific’s locomotive “Jupiter” waits to do a photo runby.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

Jupiter Prepares for Runby at Promontory - Central Pacific’s locomotive “Jupiter” makes a reverse move prior to doing a photo runby.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

Engine Crew at Promontory - The attention to historical accuracy is maintained in the garb worn by the engine crews at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

Union Pacific’s No. 119 Prepares for Runby at Promontory - Union Pacific’s locomotive “No. 119” begins a reverse move prior to doing a photo runby.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

Union Pacific’s No. 119 Photo Runby at Promontory - Union Pacific’s locomotive “No. 119” performs a photo runby on the siding at Golden Spike NHS.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

Replica Engines at Promontory - The attention to historical accuracy is maintained by these identical replica steam engines of the original locomotives which were present during the Golden Spike Ceremony.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

Plaque on the Last Tie - A replica tie sits in place of the original last tie laid and it is adorned with this plaque.
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

Hallowed Ground - No. 119 and Jupiter stand where giants once stood at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
(I consider this my piece de resistance from my visit to the Golden Spike National Historic Site and it is one of my favorite works that I have done thusfar.)
[5/22/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com. All rights reserved.

More to See and Do

Besides the photo runbys or steam engine demonstrations there are many things to do during your visit to the site. There is a Visitor’s Center with a gift/book store, a theater, and a small exhibit space. Plans are currently underway to update and improve the exhibits and static displays. Also there are some great outdoor activities as well as this excerpt from the Golden Spike National Historic Site web site explains:

Reenactment Ceremony
Step back in time to join Leland Stanford, Thomas Durant, and others to relive one of our nation’s significant events. Reenactments of the “Golden Spike” ceremony are held on Saturdays and holidays between May 1st and Labor Day at 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., at trackside in front of the locomotives, the same location where the original ceremony was held over 142 years ago on May 10, 1869.

Big Fill Loop Trail
This is a mile and a half round-trip walking trail. You will be walking out on original Central Pacific grade and back on the Union Pacific grade. The trail allows you to see and even walk out on the Central Pacific’s Big Fill. Walk through cuts, over fills, and see drill marks where workers blasted rock away. Keep in mind, all of this was accomplished by simple tools, sweat, and an amazing amount of endurance.

Promontory Auto Tours*
See evidence of construction methods used to build the railroad along two tours in Golden Spike National Historic Site.

The West Auto Tour is a 14-mile loop drive. As you ride on the original Central Pacific grade, look for the Union Pacific parallel grade; pass through several cuts; view fills, a stair-step cut, rock and wood culverts, and a distant glimpse of the Great Salt Lake. Pass the spot where the Central Pacific workers laid 10 miles of track in one day. The West Auto Tour closes in the Winter season.

The East Auto Tour is a 2-mile drive. Along the way, see the Union Pacific’s last cut; several trestle abutments and fills; drive through cuts made by blasting rock; and walk to the Chinese Arch, a natural limestone formation, a memorial to the thousands of Chinese who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad. Descend the steepest mile of railroad grade in Utah as you leave the tour. The East Auto Tour’s hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Winter season. In bad weather or heavy snowfall, the East Auto Tour may close.

A Hearty Thanks and If You Are Ever in Northern Utah…

I truly enjoy visiting this site each and every time I go there. I am thankful to all of the men and women of the National Park Service and the volunteers that keep this site alive and available for us all to enjoy. I look forward to seeing the site in the future as it gets even better year after year. I highly recommend that you stop by and see the magic of Promontory for yourself and step back in time to a nondescript place with tremendous significance in America’s story.

Fellow Travelers and Bloggers

Sierra and Cameron from allinanairstream.com.

While I was inside the Visitor’s Center, pouring through the vast amount of books that were on sale, Deb was still taking some shots outside near the locomotives.

While doing this she met a young couple, Cameron and Sierra, who were also taking photos of the engines. It turned out that they too are bloggers and were at Promontory as part of a road trip of their own.

They run a web site/blog called All In An Airstream.com and you should go check out Cameron’s photos.


A Night's Rest and Then Northbound

The Big Trip - End of Day 2

Once the sun had set on our eclipse viewing adventure, we high-tailed it east to Cedar City, Utah for a much-needed night’s rest. There was no need, nor desire at this point, to return to Beaver Dam State Park back in the mountains. It had been a long and adventure-filled day filled with driving and taking photos. Nearly 13 hours after we left North Las Vegas, we tucked in at the Cedar City Walmart around 9:00 PM.

We slept soundly.

End of Day 2 Detail Map - Our run from Modena, Utah to Cedar City, Utah to spend the night.
[5/20/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.

The Big Trip - Day 3

Day 3 Overview Map - Our route from Cedar City, Utah to Perry, Utah.
[5/21/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.
Eager for the next big adventure on our journey, we hit the road early—about 5:30 AM. Today was just about getting to the next camping site for the night which was a small community, just north of Salt Lake City, with a killer name—Perry, Utah.

I intentionally wanted to ignore any opportunities for railfanning or photography along the way because I didn’t want to lose time, so we drove north on Interstate 15 right up the middle of Utah. This route was well out of the reach of the Union Pacific’s Caliente Subdivision. Despite this fact it was a great drive with plenty of beautiful mountains, farms, and vistas to delight our senses. It was a bit surreal — almost as if we were on vacation!

Brigham City / Perry South KOA

All of our experiences with KOA (Kampgrounds of America) campgrounds have been excellent throughout the period we have owned our camper. We like the facilities and more often than not we are able to locate a KOA near our day’s destination. They provide full-hookups, which gives us a chance to empty our waste tanks and fill up with fresh water, a small store, laundry facilities, and showers, all for a modest cost.

We located a KOA in Perry, Utah and once onsite we opted to drive around the nearly vacant campground to see if there was a particular spot that we liked and could ask for upon check-in. We made a partial loop around the facility and then we were immediately waved down by the manager and questioned as to what we were doing. Certainly not the usual greeting.

We explained our motive and were met with an unfriendly and curt attitude that left us questioning whether or not to even spend the night here. Considering our options we opted to go ahead and get a site. The manager got retribution, we assumed, by putting us up in a spot situated in the full sun with no shade at all. 

We made the most of it and decided that we would not be return visitors to this KOA, our first bad and unwelcoming experience at one of their locations. It happens. Upon reviewing the campground on the internet we learned that others were treated similiarly and, in one case, it was nearly identical to our experience.

We took this opportunity to take full showers and Deb prepared a great spaghetti dinner. Afterwards, we transferred our photographs from our SD cards and shared them with one another. As the sun began to set we took a walk and enjoyed the views of the Wasatch Range that cradles the Salt Lake City region in this part of Utah.

Tomorrow was big day for me as our destination was the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory, Utah. We turned in early and rested well.

Willard Mountain - Our view from the Brigham City / Perry South KOA.
[5/21/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.


Playing Hide and Seek

The Big Trip - Day 1

On Saturday, May 19, 2012, with high levels of anticipation and excitement Deb and I pulled out of our driveway — our “big trip” had begun. As I headed towards the freeway I ran through the several checklists of items we needed to bring and tasks we needed to perform. Green light, all items packed and our rig and ourselves were ready. I mashed the accelerator as I turned onto the freeway on-ramp. Next stop Las Vegas, Nevada.

This first day was merely a travel day. We had no activities or photo stops planned. Our sole goal was to reach North Las Vegas and find a spot to spend the night. The real trip would begin on Sunday which is when the annular eclipse would be occurring. 

It happened as we climbed Cajon Pass on Interstate 15 North. I could tell something wasn’t quite right as the turbo fully-engaged on our Ford F-250 truck just as we leaned into the steepest part of the grade. The turbo was making a very discernible high-pitch whining noise. As I backed off of the accelerator the noise dropped away.

“Bummer,” I said aloud,  “this could be bad.”

We were just getting started and now we have an issue. Not a very satisfying feeling to be sure. However, once we crested the summit the noise abated. I called my good friend and talked to him about the situation. He was kind enough to do some research and would get back to me. I continued on, thinking that perhaps our rig was just really heavy at this point with full tanks and stores aboard. I reasoned that the vehicle would get lighter as we progressed northward. I also decided to go easy on the truck as well. After all we were on vacation, so no hurry.

We cranked up the tunes and the AC and settled into a rhythm as we passed through the desolate towns on I-15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. The long grade eastbound out of Baker presented no problems for us and I did not hear the turbo noise like before. My concerns about it became a distant memory. 

Eventually we settled on spending the night at a truck stop or “travel center” adjacent to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway which is 12 miles north of downtown Las Vegas. Fortunately there were no races being held at the time as the noise would have made for a rough rest stop.

The Big Trip - Day 2

Sunday marked the day of the eclipse. I had selected a viewing location at Barclay, Nevada. The spot was about 175 miles from where we spent the night in North Las Vegas, Nevada and the route would take us through Caliente, Nevada and along the Union Pacific’s Caliente Subdivision.

We headed north on US Highway 93, The Great Basin Highway, and admired the beauty long the way. I always enjoy taking a road for the first time and seeing new sights. The road, a two-lane undivided highway, was well-maintained and had very little traffic which made the experience that much more enjoyable.

Caliente, Nevada

After three hours or so, we reached the railroad town of Caliente, Nevada. This is where I planned to chase the UP’s Caliente Sub until we reached Barclay. A quick glance at the GPS and I found the road I was searching for — Clover Canyon Road. Based on the information I gleaned from the internet, eventually this road would turn into Clover Creek Road, a gravel/dirt road, and roughly parallel the tracks toward Barclay.

During a brief stop in Caliente, Nevada, Deb caught this westbound coal train pass the old Union Pacific Depot which was built in 1923 to replace a wooden depot that burned down. It now houses a museum and local offices.
[5/20/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.

Deb’s view of a more modest part of Clover Creek Road.
[5/20/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.

Clover Creek Road

Initially I was optimistic that we would be able to pick our way through the ranches and pastures that lined the road because it appeared to be sufficiently-used by the locals. Soon, however, I began to realize that the actual route of the road did not match up with either the GPS nor the topographical maps that I had of the area. Despite this fact we were still able to proceed more or less in the direction of Barclay so we continued on.

At this point the road began to crisscross what I assumed was Clover Creek itself all the while still roughly paralleling the UP trackage. The UP trackage would disappear from view now and again as the road dodged vegetation and the runoffs that feed Clover Creek.

The area was marked by cliffs of what appeared to me as sandstone forcing the UP tracklayers to make use of tunnels along this portion of the route.

This road was unlike most roads I drive when chasing steel in the southern California. This area had lush vegetation and water! It was fun to watch the schools of tadpoles bolt out of the way as our truck crossed the creek.


Tunnel 12 - Caliente Subdivision

Eventually the road became much too sandy and narrow for me to feel comfortable that we could use it to gain access to Barclay. I decided, after coming close to getting buried up to our axles in sand, to head back the way we came and take a tamer route towards Barclay. Unfortunately this other route would not parallel the tracks at all so we decided to lay up at one of the tunnels we passed earlier so I could take a break and get a few shots before leaving the UP and the Clover Creek Canyon area behind us.

Tunnel Surprise - UP 8448 (EMD SD70ACe) is the lone front-end power on this eastbound stack train roaring out of Tunnel 12 on Union Pacific’s Caliente Subdivision. The train was nearly upon us before we heard it.
[5/20/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.

UP 7850 West - UP 7850 (GE AC45CCTE), UP 8382 (EMD SD70ACe), and UP 8422 (EMD SD70ACe) hustle this westbound stack train into Tunnel 12 on Union Pacific’s Caliente Subdivision.
[5/20/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.

Plan B - Pick a Spot, Any Spot

It was now fast approaching afternoon at this point and I had yet to locate any spot to use as a location to witness the eclipse. Fortunately I had done some pretty exhaustive research, albeit from 30,000 feet with Google Maps, before the trip and I had some alternative locations in mind. We headed back to Caliente and turned north onto Highway 93 once again looking for Beaver Dam Road.

Beaver Dam State Park is a location that I thought would make a great place to spend the night after we took in the eclipse. The park is best described in this excerpt from the Nevada State Parks Guide brochure

Beaver Dam State Park is eastern Nevada’s most remote park - its primitive and rustic character will impress nature enthusiasts and hikers alike. The immense 5,500-acre park borders Utah and is
approximately 34 miles east of Caliente. Its primary features include deep canyons, pinon and juniper forests, a tranquil stream and numerous beaver dams. The park offers fishing, camping, picnicking,
hiking, photography and nature study. Facilities include campgrounds, a group use area, a day use picnic area, and hiking and interpretive trails. Beaver Dam is located six miles north of
Caliente on U.S. 93, then 28 miles east on a graded gravel road. The park is open all year, but travel may be hampered in the winter.

We headed towards the park keeping an eye out for any rail-centric vantage points along the way. Despite crossing the UP trackage further down Beaver Dam Road at a location known as Acoma, Nevada. I decided to keep going as I felt that location was not ideal. (In hindsight it probably would have worked out just fine as the sun was higher in the sky than I thought it would be.)

Eventually we reached the Beaver Dam State Park and found it at the bottom of a steep-sided valley. The area was like the description from the brochure and we found the campsites perched throughout on the side of the hill. We had evaluated the park and opted not to reserve a site at this point because we wanted to remain flexible in our plans and the park had few campers during our visit so we weren’t concerned about it filling up at night.

Having not found a favorable site yet I decided to go to a location that I was certain had a clear view of the sky and still presented an opportunity for rail traffic. That location was Modena, Utah. To get there we would have to traverse the access roads of the Dixie National Forest west of Enterprise, Utah. It was nearly 4:00PM and I was sweating whether or not we would even see the eclipse.

I drove safely but quickly as I was unsure of the route being passable. We enjoyed the scenery along the way which was dominated by various varieties of pine trees. It was a welcome reprise from the startling, yet beautiful, scenery of the high desert that we drove through around Caliente.

Day 2 Detail Map- Map showing the areas we traversed on day 2 of our “big trip.”
[5/20/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.

At Long Last… 

We reached the area around Enterprise in relative short order and I welcomed the paved roads that now pointed the way out of the mountains. The land gave way to rolling ranches and farms and the area unmistakably suggested that we were no longer in Nevada. It seems as though everything in Utah is just a bit different. What a gorgeous state!

Soon we had our truck pointed towards the setting sun as we raced along Utah Highway 56 west to Modena. We began to see more and more cars pulled off on the side of Highway 56, on either side. The occupants and their families were busily preparing their telescopes and viewing equipment — eager to capture the eclipse same as us.

When we reached Modena I circled around small enclave of aged buildings that constitute the makeup of Modena and settled on a somewhat railroad-centric location east of the tracks with a water tower prominently positioned in the frame. This was not the view I had hoped for as the tracks ran perpendicular to the setting sun rather than parallel to it. Nonetheless here we were — at long last. 

Our Rig at Modena
[5/20/2012] © Copyright 2012, ChasingSteel.com.

We had less than an hour before the beginning of the eclipse so I took a much needed rest after we got something to eat. I think I rested a bit too long because once I got a pair of binoculars securely affixed to the rear of our camper with some photo clamps and appropriately positioned I saw the eclipse was already underway!

Deb and I sprang into action. I positioned myself against a sign post for stability, as my tripod was still buried in the cab of the truck, and began to shoot bracketed exposures for an HDR image. I hoped for, but never got, a train to enter the scene during the entire eclipse. In fact, for the few hours we were there we only saw one train pass by.

I Am Sorry Deb

During the eclipse it became apparent that I had not fully prepared for the eclipse properly. I was interested solely in photographing rail stuff during the eclipse and not the eclipse itself. As such I neglected to realize that Deb was more interested in actually “seeing the eclipse occur” as one would with a proper telescope with a solar filter attached. I should have made sure that Deb had the right equipment and filters to enjoy the experience. I felt bad as she watched the eclipse occur basically through the binoculars projecting the image onto the rear of our camper. Safe, but not the way an amateur astronomer, such as herself, wants to do it. I am sorry Deb, I’ll make it up to you.

End Product

Below is the image I got during the height of the eclipse. There is no train, nor tracks, but there is a water tower. Not the image I envisioned myself getting but I like it nonetheless. I’ll do much better next time because now I know much more about what to expect and do:

[5/20/2012 - Caliente Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

NOTE: An interesting phenomenon occurred during the apex of the eclipse. Crickets could be heard starting to do what crickets do at night. After the eclipse passed the crickets stopped. I bet they thought that was the shortest night ever!