Road to Promontory 2019

Walthers Team Heads to Promontory
While some of the Walthers team flies into Salt Lake City to attend the Spike 150 celebration, two members make the journey by car and spend 3 days on the road, the Road to Promontory.

4:00 am comes pretty early, luckily Keith agreed to drive the first leg out of Milwaukee and into the dark gloomy morning. We’d spent days configuring and re-configuring the full van-load of supplies and this morning was the start of something epic. It was in the air. This is the story of how Walthers trains celebrated the SPIKE 150.

After about 3 hours on I-43, the storm clouds started closing in. We were headed south now on 90/94 between Beloit, WI and Rockford, IL. The traffic on that stretch goes at a pretty good clip so there wasn’t much slowing down for the morning rush into Rockford. Keith and I talked about everything we were going to see, how cool it was that we’d be heading to one of the most historic events of our lifetimes, and what kind of trains we were hoping to see along the way. A short time later after a quick bite to eat we arrived in the small town of Rochelle, IL. The little town with a big railfanning park. Well, it’s not that big. It does have some of the best railfan criteria and I remember people always discussing the park ever since I was a kid in Southeastern Wisconsin. The park itself is no bigger than a residential lot with a small structure on it. It’s a Midwest trainspotters dream. The Union Pacific 2 track mainline runs from east and west and the BNSF main runs north and south forming a diamond just to the west of the observation area. We noted that there wasn’t much in the way of inbound traffic coming and MOW guys working on parts of the track just west of the diamond, so we grabbed a couple of van shots that our team back home in Milwaukee would use to share via social media and then hit the road. Soon we were on HWY 30, just south of the Rock River and Sterling, IL. Our next goal was Iowa, and we weren’t wasting any time.

Amazing railroad towns across rural Iowa
The mighty Mississippi was approaching quickly as we now were driving parallel to the UP mainline, we managed to see a few trains but we knew we had a spot to hit and a really long drive ahead of us. Now in Iowa, the rolling hills and subtle hints of color from the earliest flowers filled our eyes as we made our way west to the Kate Shelley Bridge.

The Kate Shelley Bridge
Around 3:00 in the afternoon the sky was now sunny and the May temps were starting to warm into the 70’s across north central Iowa. We crossed through Ames, Iowa and started North on the barely paved road named “J” avenue. We took a jog onto a gravel stretch which quickly unveiled the mighty Kate Shelley. The bridge is just shy of 3,000 feet and spans the Des Moines River Valley. The two spans that stand today mark an amazing story of a heroine and the night she saved more than 200 lives. The river had been flooded due to heavy rain, the railroad had sent a pusher locomotive to check the condition of the bridge due to the possibility of washing out of the structural timbers. Around 11:00 pm that locomotive would crash into the river when the timbers gave way. Kate Shelley found two surviving members of that crew, and then proceeded to rush back and alert the railroad, which subsequently managed to stop the speeding passenger train in time to avert the same fate as the pusher. The brave act spread nationwide; poems and songs were written to honor her. In 1901 the bridge was rebuilt as the Boone Viaduct, but quickly renamed the Kate Shelley as it is still referred today.

As we arrived we got set up for some live social media streaming to all of you we were greeted by the rumble of a prime mover, and wouldn’t you know it…a coal train. The awe that was created watching a fully loaded coal train roll across a 3,000 foot span can be felt and was amazing. Keith and I just stood there and smiled for a second before we remembered we had to go live. We left the Kate Shelley with a renewed sense of purpose and for me a new realization that as model train enthusiasts we really do have some amazing things to replicate.

Into Nebraska
We headed south back to I-80 and within a couple of hours we were crossing into Nebraska. The sky opened up and as we went past the Kenefick park display (a great park with a big boy and a UP Centennial #6988). I figured we would be waiting a while since it was 5:00 pm and we were in the middle of a severe storm. After a short wait and a long and slow right through Omaha we were speeding up towards our final stop for the day at Grand Island.

Bailey Yard
Day two started fairly simply with some hotel continental breakfast and wondering if our minivan would actually run, seems the auto-stop feature on this model has decided to call it a trip. The van runs and we head west out of Grand Island with a goal of making Rock Springs, WY by the end of the day. The weather has turned much cooler and there is a mist that goes back and forth between drizzle coming down which makes it feel even cooler. No more than a mile out of town on Hwy 30 again, paralleling the now triple mainline, we run into our first train, an intermodal which amazingly consists of locomotives and freight cars that we create and sell at Walthers, with the exception of the pink containers. We don’t even get back in the van before the oil train roars past heading the other direction. These oil trains interest me in that they’ve gotten quite the reputation for derailments and explosions, even Walthers has created a much more ridged and safer tank car with the bulkhead ends vs. open ends. The noise this train makes with the wheel flanges rubbing the rail as it goes by is so amazing I shoot a live video to my Facebook friends asking them to describe it. It’s a metallic whine and roar at the same time. Many rail fans call it a squeal. It’s spooky to say the least. So we hit the road and within a few miles we come across a grain elevator system and processing plant, so we grab a few images and keep going, and then we come across another, then another… interesting if you aren’t from Nebraska that every 5-10 miles there is another elevator and small town next to the railroad tracks. Each unique in some way but very much exactly the same. We finally make it to our second major stop, the Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard and the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, Nebraska. What an amazing thing…if you’ve never seen the largest train yard in North America from a 60′ observation tower shaped like a giant railroad spike, you must. The tower is complete with a gift shop and educational area. We were greeted by a young man in a storm trooper outfit and were quickly assured that he wasn’t part of the school event taking place. From the tower you can almost see the entire 6.2 miles of rail yard. One of the UP’s huge locomotive shops, and roughly 20,000 railcars and locomotives. This is a prototype gold mine.

Cheyenne, WY
As we leave North Platte I take on some of the driving duties for Keith, who’s driven the entire trip thus far. It’s sprinkling out and still pretty cold. The 3 and a half hours to Cheyenne are relatively mundane, although Keith is a great person to travel with because he is a great conversationalist. We talk about how great it is to see so many prototypical cars and how great it will be to actually catch up to the Big Boy in Evanston, WY. We arrive in Cheyanne and I am immediately amazed that there is a town this large that literally is dominated by a rail yard and one of the most historic depots in the USA. We tour the Union Station and relax for a few minutes before hitting the road yet again, this time we’ll head to Rock Springs, WY. A mining town which is located close enough to Evanston, WY to allow us to catch the Big Boy before it leaves within a reasonable driving distance.

The BIG BOY 4014
We leave Rock Springs, WY at 0600 and it’s actually now snowing lightly, you can see some snow up a little higher up on the cliffs and mountain tops where it’s sticking. I-80 is wet but not slippery as we start our trek. We have 2 hours to make it to the depot in Evanston where the Big Boy will be departing, and we are actually a couple of minutes late. We make up some time on the highway but we arrive a few minutes behind and end up having to chase the train through town to get some pictures. Realizing that we need to move to a second spot we head back to the freeway and then realize we are not alone. There are hundreds of vehicles all around us seemingly up to the same thing we are, getting photos of the Big Boy in all its glory. Running again for the first time in more than half a century. This locomotive takes people back to a time when railroads were the fastest and most prolific form of transportation in all of America, and the world. I suggest to Keith that we skip an exit and get in front of the mob of people and we only really have one option, Echo Canyon. We exit and indeed we manage to slip in front of just about everyone. We get a few more shots as it starts to rain. After the train passes we are stuck. Stuck in the middle of one of the greatest train chasing moments of all time, in all of history to this point. We slowly, and by slowly I mean 1-2 miles per hour, make it down the hill into Echo. In Echo we realize we’ve been left behind and can no longer see the train and we are still stuck in traffic. 4 hours later…we reach the city of Ogden Utah.

Welcome to Ogden – A city in celebration
Ogden, Utah, it’s now about 2:30 in the afternoon, tired, hungry, and sick of the cold weather, we decide to check out the site of the Spike 150 celebration where we will set up our display for the people of Ogden, and the world, who are in town to celebrate one of the most historic events to ever take place from sea to shining sea. The Union Station in Ogden is where we will be. The celebration event will take place on the grounds at promontory park, but will also be televised via closed circuit TV at the Union Station where people who can’t make it to the actual site will also gather. The Union Station is now functional as a museum and houses some really neat locomotives such as one of the UP’s Big Blow turbine powered locomotives and others. 25th street is closed to vehicles and is set up like a street dance, with vendors sporting their wares and various other types of booths. The street is lined with various shops, restaurants, and other establishments with a definite feel of trendy old west. The warmth of a wonderful city and the passion of train lovers surrounds us.

We manage to arrive on site to set up at 6:45 am and almost immediately we start meeting people from all over the world. Since we are set up next to Union Station, where the Big Boy will be on display, we expect to see lots of people. They just keep coming. We talk to people from Netherlands, Italy, Germany, France, and lots of people from every corner of the US. They all have one thing in common, they know how big this is. We brought a finished N Scale layout, which was converted to run on batteries. Every kid within viewing distance was in our booth. They wanted to see, touch, and feel the amazing little railroad. Lots of kids have never seen anything like it.

Others mention how their dad or grandfather have layouts at home. We quickly realize that we are next to the audio visual display as they start up the historical presentation that explains everything about how Ogden, Utah was literally the railroad hub of the entire west. I don’t think I’ll ever forget some of that presentation, or how amazing it was to be on display at something so historic. We talked to hundreds and hundreds of people. Some railroad fans, others not. So many people thanked us, meaning Walthers, for being part of, and acknowledging the event. They thanked us in a way that felt like by being there we were somehow giving back to the people who loved trains. In many ways our being there was validation for them that the event, the hobby, and the love of trains really meant something. For us, them being there was validation and thanking us in such a way, was validation that we’d made the right decision to be part of the Spike 150.