Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Last Switch

Union Pacific's OC Switcher pulls the last car out of the Blue Heron paper mill in downtown Oregon City.

On Wednesday, with no prior warning, the Blue Heron Paper Company announced that its mill in Oregon City was closing. The last day for hourly employees would be just two days later. The mill ceased production on Friday afternoon, and for the first time since 1829, the hum of industry fell silent on the east bank of Willamette Falls. There was one empty boxcar remaining in the mill when the closing announcement was made. Fittingly, that car had brought in a load of recycled paper earlier in the week -- the chief raw material used at the mill, and reason for its closure. Increased demand in China has driven the price of recycled paper above what the mill can afford. Just after midnight on Saturday morning, Union Pacific's OC Switcher came into the mill and retrieved that car. Several ex-mill workers, most who had worked their final shift in the previous 24 hours, were watching from 505 Tavern (note the sign on the sidewalk). One even stepped outside to toast the train, shouting, "One more time" as the two SW1500s pulled across state highway 99E. No less than six railroad photographers were on hand to document the end of this era.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Last Shift

Southbound train of empty centerbeam cars passing the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City.

(Written on March 23.) This afternoon was the final shift at the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City, a clear and cold winter day that produced billowing clouds of steam at sunrise, looking for all the world like the very symbol of corporate health. I was surprised to hear a southbound train approaching in the early afternoon, an unusual time of day for rail activity on the main line, but it turned out to be an extra train of 75 empty centerbeam flatcars heading south -- cars that had been in storage due to the depressed demand for lumber during the recession ... somehow fitting as one the last trains to pass the mill while it was still in operation. When I came back outside three hours later, everything was quiet. Later, while photographing the OC Switcher's last work in the mill with several friends that night, we wondered whether there was simply some big, overriding on-off switch somewhere inside the mill. More seriously, I did wonder who was working that last shift, and who had the tasks of shutting things down for the last time, and what they were thinking.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Snow in the Valley

Amtrak Cascades train no. 500 running along the Willamette River in Oregon City.

(Written on March 23.) I had planned to sleep late after a long night of photographing the Blue Heron mill and the OC Switcher, but when Maureen woke up at 6:30, looked outside and saw an inch of fresh snow, I was up quickly. Snow is rare in the lower elevations of Willamette Valley, and snow photos in general have eluded me in the northwest (ask me sometime about my many failed attempts to photograph railroads in fresh snow in the Cascade Mountains). Amtrak no. 500 was the only train in the vicinity, and so we walked down to this overlook by the river (Maureen's work was canceled for the day, as Marylhurst University closed due to the weather.) Behind me, route 99E was serenely quiet in what was a heavily subdued morning commute. Within two hours, the snow had turned to rain and nearly every trace was gone, although freezing rain mixed with flurries returned in the afternoon.

On a side note, the OC Switcher had visited the mill in the previous night, pulling all the way in and even coupling onto the last car remaining on the property. For some unknown reason, they then uncoupled from that car, leaving it in the mill and returning light engine to Clackamas. On this night, they did not even venture to Oregon City, setting the stage for the last switch in the mill on Friday night, which was documented by no less than six photographers.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mill Closing

Union Pacific's Hinkle to Roseville freight train passing the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City.

(Written on March 23.) I emerged sooner than expected from my hiatus to document the final days of operations at the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City. Its closure was announced on this day, with the final shift scheduled for Friday, only two days hence. The mill had been in bankruptcy since 2009 and its future was always on shaky ground, but I never expected its closure to happen so quickly. Most mills give 60 days notice, as was the case with the International Paper company mill in Millersburg that closed in December 2009. 

I first heard the news of Blue Heron from one of the email list serves that covers railroad operations in the area. The subject line was simply "Another Mill Closing," and I never expected it meant the Blue Heron mill. A flurry of activity followed this afternoon, and within an hour I had received closure announcements from no less than four different sources. Thanks to the unusually cold weather, the mill went out with stacks blazing towering columns of steam into the winter sky, seen here on its second-to-last nigh of operation as the QHKRV hustles by on the main line. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Second Hiatus

I'm going on hiatus again. Too much Web and writing work right now, on top of planning the Center's conference, to photograph everyday, but that's a good problem to have...

Sunset on the Columbia

Westbound Union Pacific intermodal train at Bridal Veil, Oregon.

Heading back to Portland following an afternoon of hiking in the Columbia Gorge, Maureen and I stopped at Bridal Veil to enjoy the sunset, where I photographed this westbound Union Pacific container train at twilight. When my mind wandered to photography today during our hike, I often considered the differences between content-driven and emotion-driven photographs. I've enjoyed working in both throughout my almost 12 years of photography, although the pendulum usually swings more to one side than the other. When I started in 1999, content or perhaps documentary photography was my primary aim, then around late 2003 or 2004, conveying emotion became increasingly more important to me as a photographer. Over the last couple of years, I feel that I've gravitated back towards content-driven photographs, although hopefully with a heightened sense of formalism and greater care in composition. Still, I have hardly abandoned emotion in my photographs.

After spending most of Friday afternoon in documentary mode, I felt a strong urge to attempt something more emotional this Saturday evening, especially as I saw the western sky flaring up at sunset. This train came too late for peak color in the sky, but the darker scene allowed for other emotional effects, like the soft glow of the lead locomotive's headlights in front of the train, and a slight blur to the traffic on I-84. I feel an inner tension between content and emotion in my photography, and I often wonder which is more important to me. Many of my own favorite photos achieve elements of both.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

East Portland Branch

Oregon Pacific freight train bound for Milwaukie, Oregon, seen from the Ross Island Bridge

The Oregon Pacific Railroad's Molalla and East Portland branches served as bookends to my week, starting on the Molalla branch in Canby on Monday morning and ending on the East Portland branch in Milwaukie on Friday afternoon. Locomotive no. 100, an SW1 from 1952, took four refrigerated boxcars to the interchange near OMSI and returned to Milwaukie with two cars. The 100 has spent nearly its entire life on the East Portland line, always clad in the orange and black of her original owner, the Portland Traction Company.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stormy Weather

Roseville to Hinkle freight train seen from the bluff in Oregon City.

A late winter storm system is blowing through the Pacific Northwest right now, creating dramatic skies in the valley, low-elevation snowfall, and heavy snows in the mountains. Snow can wreck havoc on railroad operations, as extra crews are required to run special trains to keep the line open. Union Pacific is already running short on crews due to an extensive track maintenance project in the area (requiring extra crews for work trains), so this storm has compounded the problem. The train seen here is nominally the Roseville (California) to Hinkle (Oregon) train running several hours later than usual, although its length (108 cars) and the presence of many lumber loads indicate that it's been combined with the Eugene to Hinkle train. The move frees up a crew and set of power to work elsewhere (or perhaps relieves a shortage of one or both). Given that both of these trains are running somewhat short right now due to the weak lumber market, I'm a little surprised that combining them isn't a more common practice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Freight by the Falls

Hinkle to Roseville freight train passing Willamette Falls.

Between showers this afternoon, the sun emerged spectacularly, as it often does this time of year in the Willamette Valley. Union Pacific's daily Hinkle to Roseville (QHKRV) freight train was running early, making for a timely appearance along the river at Willamette Falls. Its rear locomotives (operating in distributed power mode) are shown here, behind a car of Canadian wheat, a staple commodity on the QHKRV. I've posted nocturnal photos from this location, but this is my first daytime view from here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Abernethy Creek

Portland to Roseville freight train crossing Abernethy Creek in Oregon City

On the northern end of Oregon City's business district, the Union Pacific main line crosses Abernethy Creek on a wooden trestle. Once common throughout the nation, and especially in the West, wood trestles are becoming increasing rare on American railroads, particularly on main lines, where steel and/or concrete have been the standard bridge construction materials for decades. The stream is named for George Abernethy, a highly influential Oregon businessman and politician of the 19th century, who served as Oregon's only provisional governor (preceding statehood).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Oregon Pacific at Canby

Oregon Pacific SW8 no. 801 pulling six covered hoppers across highway 99E in Canby, Oregon.

Nothing says Valentine's Day like a pretty red-and-white...locomotive. Every Sunday night a southbound Union Pacific freight train drops off the week's business for the Oregon Pacific's Molalla Branch at Canby, and every Monday morning the OPR goes to work serving its customers. There were 27 cars on the interchange track when I arrived early this morning, and today the OPR took six of them to the Willamette Egg feed mill at the end of the line, which is actually just outside of Molalla at Liberal.  This was the first time I've photographed any activity on the Molalla line, and I look forward to getting back soon.

Amtrak and the Foggy Mill

Amtrak Cascades train on. 509 passing the Blue Heron mill in Oregon City.

Amtrak Cascades train no. 509 departed Portland almost half an hour late tonight and, although it's not visible in this view, was powered by a Union Pacific freight locomotive pushing on the rear. The train is shown here passing the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City, in my first attempt at an angle I've been eyeing for quite a while. I'll call this one a work in progress and go to bed, thankful that our taxes are almost finished.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

End of the Line

Union Pacific's Lake Transfer with Montana Rail Link locomotives entering Albina Yard in Portland.

It's the end of the line for these "pretty blue ones" (in the words of the yardmaster): Montana Rail Link locomotives coming to Portland to be scrapped. This afternoon the Lake Transfer brought a total six MRL SD45-2s into Albina Yard, nos. 313, 304, 303, 302, 314, and 310; they will go to Schnitzer Steel next week to be reduced to raw material for some other products for the future. The 314, in particular, looks fresh from the paint shop, although she is in fact the oldest of the group, having rolled off the assembly line in 1969 for the Southern Pacific. The other five date from 1974. The 302-304 entered service for the Clinchfield Railroad, where they once hauled coal in Virginia and Kentucky, the 310 came from the Santa Fe, and the 313 from the Seaboard Coast Line. Most recently they hauled tonnage across Montana, often in helper service, assisting everything from lumber to coal to grain over Rockies. Montana's diminished lumber market and the arrival of new SD70ACe locomotives, which burn less fuel and develop more power, have rendered these road warriors redundant.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chip Service

Unused wood chip unloading equipment at the Blue Heron Paper Company in Oregon City, Oregon.

It's good to be back. I had a very productive trip to Wisconsin, but I was battling a nasty cold most of the time. Thankfully I seem to be recovering. This afternoon I walked the loop down Singer Hill, through downtown, under the tracks, along 99E to the pedestrian overpass and back along the bluff. It was good to be out with the camera looking for compositions. I focused on the unused equipment for unloading wood chips by rail at the Blue Heron mill, looking for interesting lines and shapes in the supports and conveyors. Chips still arrive at the mill by truck, but as far as I can tell, chip service by rail ended before Union Pacific bought Southern Pacific in 1996. I've found old track charts that indicate the chip siding had a 12-car capacity, and it's hard to imagine the mill receiving that many chips at a time. Today much of the material for making new paper arrives in the form of old paper for recycling.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Wisconsin Crossing

Passing a railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin.

Often when I visit Madison, there's limited time for photography. Today seemed like the best opportunity during this trip, and there had been hope of a spreader run on the Wisconsin & Southern. A quick trip by the yard showed everything tied down, however, with most of the crews likely laying off to watching the Packers beat the Steelers. About to let my streak of daily rail photos quietly end, I hit upon another idea for conveying the way the majority of Americans experience the railroad, and so I submit today's view of passing a railroad crossing.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Excitement in the Heartland

Discarded cigarette pack on the tracks by our train.

Yesterday morning, I paid for my first cup of coffee in the cafe car and received free refills on account of our tardiness. The good news was that today, even the first cup was free. The bad news was that was because we were running even later.

By the time we crawled into Minneapolis-St. Paul at 1:00 this afternoon – more than five-and-a-half hours late – I wouldn't be surprised if the smokers on the train were exhibiting early signs of withdrawal. The Twin Cities stop was the first smoke break since Minot, North Dakota. Normally, those stops fall at 9:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., but our tardiness increased even further yesterday evening, to the point that we hit Minot around 1:30 a.m. and didn't leave until 3:00 or so.

The trip got more interesting east of Havre. Operationally, we had a complicated three-way meet between our train, our westbound counterpart train no. 7, and a container train. At a lonely siding between Havre and Malta, we pulled in behind the container train for no. 7 to pass, then backed out of the siding to pass the container train and continue our eastward journey. Near the North Dakota border, our progress slowed considerably below what the flat, straight track would allow. At first I thought we were following a slow-moving eastbound freight train, but then the conductor announced that our lead locomotive's ditch lights weren't working (the pair of eye-level lights below the main headlight), requiring us to go slowly through every road crossing. We were not able to address that issue until the service stop in Minot, but first we had to contend with internal issues.

The train became more crowded again at Havre, so after dinner in the diner, I staked out a spot in the corner of the observation car to do some reading and writing. There was a card game going on at a table near the middle of the car, to which I paid little attention until voices escalated to shouts and copiously dropped f-bombs and left the two principal antagonists – a tall, skinny guy and a shorter, more squat one – in a standing face-off in the middle of the car. Tensions cooled somewhat as two girls with the skinny guy intervened, but the obvious flow of alcohol continued, keeping the situation primed near the boiling point. The eventual result was a long station stop in Williston, North Dakota, where no less than half-a-dozen police officers from the city and the county sheriff's office boarded the train, and eventually departed with the short guy in custody.

This morning I woke up to a hazy sunrise in Fargo, and thick overcast persisted all day. We had lost enough time through the night that our engineer and conductors had to be relieved at an unscheduled stop between Staples and St. Cloud, Minnesota, leaving us almost six hours late. We encountered another short delay while waiting to get into the station at St. Cloud, but its cause served as a reminder that our situation could still have been worse. We had been waiting for our westbound counterpart, train no. 7, to finish its station stop in St. Cloud – which should have happened almost 11 hours earlier!

Finally through the Twin Cities just after lunchtime, I passed the afternoon in the observation car as we sprinted past the snow-and-ice-covered Mississippi. I spent the last hour of having a pleasant chat with a Korean exchange student from Winona State University, who seemed more impressed with the comfort of American trains than their lack of timeliness. But maybe she was just being polite. John was waiting for me at Columbus, where we arrived five hours and fifteen minutes late, having actually made up a few minutes since this morning.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Crossing Montana

Train time at Whitefish.

We've been in Montana since long before I woke up this morning, and we still are nine hours later with over 200 miles of Big Sky country to go. Since leaving the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park, we've been rolling through the flat, high prairies that comprise the eastern two-thirds of the state, dubbed “flyover country” in the age of jetliners. Nothing like overland travel to drive home the sheer breadth of this continent.

We were on-time out of Pasco at 9:00 last night, and that looks to be the end of on-time performance for this trip. Train no. 8, the Seattle section, was 2-1/2 hours late into Spokane, so it was almost 3:00 in the morning by the time they put the two sections together, and well after 3:00 when we finally left. (Scheduled departure is 1:30 a.m.) I slept pretty well despite being surrounded by a pack of rowdy skiers going to Montana who were quite disappointed to learn that if they consumed the alcoholic contents of their cooler on the train, they would be kicked off. The staff on this train is based out of Chicago, and due to the blizzard there, they had to spend an extra day on the West Coast, so they're all anxious to get home and in no mood for trouble. They also seem to all be Steeler fans. My car attendant is mad at the Packers for beating “her” Bears, and the lounge car attendant hails from Pittsburgh and proudly hangs a Terrible Towel behind the counter (the official hum-haw Myron Cope version). She's giving free coffee refills since we're running late, so I can be a Steeler fan, too, at least for now. (I'm not even sure if I'll watch the game.)

The Seattle section of the Empire Builder coupling onto the Portland section at Spokane.

I stepped out just long enough in Spokane to watch the combination of the Portland and Seattle sections. It was once common for long distance passenger trains to combine and separate en route to provide direct service to multiple cities while achieving greater economies of scale on the overlapping portions of the route. Union Pacific famously (infamously?) ran a streamliner in the 1960s that went by the nickname “City of Everywhere,” as several sections combined, ran together across the middle of the country as a giant, 20+ car train, and then split apart to reach different destinations. In the 21st century, only two of Amtrak's long-distance passenger trains routinely combine and split: the Empire Builder in Spokane and the Lakeshore Limited in Albany, New York.

The skiers left us this morning at Whitefish, Montana, enough of them that the baggage tractor was pulling four trailers piled high back to the station. At Conkelley, we passed two crows and a bald eagle just a few yards from the tracks, showing no fear as they pecked at a carcass in the snow. I'm so used to heroic, patriotic imagery of our national bird that it always comes as a mild shock to see it “reduced” to scavenging. It was a good dose of reality in the quite, almost surrealistic morning, peering out into the snow and down into the ice flows in the Flathead River from the comfort of my padded, climate-controlled coach seat.

We overtook an eastbound container train just out of Whitefish, but we soon stopped again. Host railroad BNSF keeps a window open everyday for Amtrak's schedule, but if the passenger train runs late and misses that window, all bets are off. At Coram siding, we waited 45 minutes for not one, but two westbound loaded grain trains to pass us. I hope they were at least expedited “G9” trains, pressing westward to meet waiting ships in Portland or Tacoma. We then overtook another eastbound container train at West Glacier, by then running almost three hours late.

After stopping in Essex and its historic Isaac Walton Inn, we waited briefly to cross the single-track trestle at Java as a loaded coal train descended from the continental divide at Marias Pass. We stopped again just east of the summit due to high wind warnings, with gusts of up to 69 mph – BNSF will allow Amtrak to proceed at restricted speed with winds up to 65 mph, but nothing above that. I settled in for a long wait, but we were moving again within a few minutes, and I held my breath as we crossed the wide open trestle high above Two Medicine creek near East Glacier. Delays earlier this morning elicited groans and complaints from the vacationing skiers. Since then, the remaining passengers – most of them traveling for necessity or to visit family – have taken the unscheduled stops in stride.

From the windy summit, we've been running well, but still encountering plenty of opposing traffic (including at least five more loaded grain shuttles) on the busy High Line, but for the most part these trains waited for us. The sun appeared and snow remained only in shaded pockets and drifts on much of the high prairies. I didn't even need my jacket when I stepped onto the platform for a brief stop at Shelby. At Havre for the afternoon service stop, the yard was filled with even more grain trains and shadows falling long across the snow. The cloud bank on the eastern horizon has been getting closer and bigger for the past few hours, but it will be dark soon, and I look forward to dinner in the diner and tomorrow's run down the Mississippi valley.

Thursday, February 03, 2011


Go by train? Don't mind if I do!

We have a train, it's facing the right way, I'm sitting in a window seat with a power outlet and a bag of hot Indian food from a Portland food cart. Wisconsin, ho!

Eastbound (?)

I'm supposed to be heading east on this afternoon's Empire Builder, train no. 28, out of Portland. Destination is CRPA Headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin. As I've posted before, the afternoon eastbound departure of train 28 uses the same equipment that arrives in the morning as westbound train no. 27. A quick check of the Amtrak website this morning revealed that train 27 is running almost 12 hours late today. Since the scheduled turnaround time between the two trains is only six hours and 25 minutes, I was rather concerned, but both the website and an Amtrak ticket agent assured me that this afternoon's train is scheduled to depart on-time. Further checking the website reveal that yesterday's train 28 was annulled as a result of the severe blizzard that just hit parts of the Prairies and the Midwest, so I can only assume that today's 28 will use the leftover equipment from yesterday's canceled run. Otherwise, it's going to be a long bus ride to Spokane or wherever.

I'll be photographing the trip, but I may not be able to post updates until I land in the Badger State, hopefully sometime on Saturday afternoon or evening. Photos and reports for the next couple of days will be posted as soon as I have access.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Morning Traffic

OC Switcher at Route 99E in Oregon City.

I rose before 5:00 this morning, ostensibly to get more work done but also with the hope that I might catch the OC Switcher in town, and I've been successful on both counts. The train was only halfway through its work at Blue Heron when I went out to the bluff, and it's shown here on the switching lead that extends across Oregon State Highway 99E and down Main Street for one block (which was once the Portland Traction Company's main line that hosted trolley service between Oregon City and Portland). It's 5:16 a.m. and 99E is already handling a fair share of early morning commuters, forced to pause while the switcher stops in their path to make a reverse move. Following its work today, the OC returned to Clackamas with six cars: the three it pulled from the mill yesterday morning and three more from today.

Morning Meet in Oregon City

Amtrak train no. 500 meeting the OC Switcher in Oregon City.

Last night was another long one for the OC Switcher, which was just finishing its work at the Blue Heron mill when I got up this morning. It returned to the junction with the main line where it waited for one train to pass in each direction: first, Portland & Western run-through train no. 663, and then Amtrak Cascades no. 500. Once both of those were by, the switcher left its three boxcars on the siding, pulled onto the main, and ran light (without any cars) back to its base in Clackamas. The lowly local freights have a long tradition of waiting for higher priority trains, and this morning was no exception.