Great Rail Stations of the Midwest

Opulence on a scale that brings awe to mere mortals: Union Station in St. Louis.

There was a time which I’m sure I romanticize but which I sense was a golden age of transportation where powerful machines hauled long trains of passengers across the landscape of our still-young country. When all the disparate rail lines with separate terminals finally matured and agreed to co-terminate in major cities for customer convenience, the concept of a Union Station was born.

I’ve been to many and most leave you feeling small, emotionally affected by their scale and beauty. The three I visited on this trip were exceptional. For what ever reason (and they each had different stories) they were saved, brought back to life after they grew unused and neglected after passenger rail slowed to a crawl. Thankfully, money brought them back to life and these three example are a real joy to have visited.  Continue reading

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The Loop at Tehachapi

Tehachapi

This is not a picture of two trains passing one another. No, this is the same train passing itself. Strange as it may sound that’s what happens many times a day as trains take this loop to gain elevation.

I’ve visited the Tehachapi Loop before but I didn’t find it very interesting. This time however was quite a different experience. Today I had an absolutely fabulous visit because my timing was perfect. I arrived in time to see a very long train enter the loop and circle over itself. Crazy!

To understand what you’re about to see you need an overview. The first picture below is a satellite view of the Tehachapi Loop from Google Maps. I’ve annotated it with details which should put the subsequent pictures into perspective. Flow through them and see why it’s such a fascinating spot.

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Views from Mt. Tamalpias

Mt Tam

How can San Francisco be made to look small? Take a picture from far away, from way up high, and use a long lens. From atop Mount Tamalpias in Marin County, the City can become just a feature.

Beth talks fondly about Mt. Tamalpias from the days before we married. She lived and worked for a time in Marin County just north of San Francisco. While climbing Mt Tam has been (and remains) on my list of things to do, I did drive up today and took the short hike around the peak.

The reason I didn’t hike it today was for lack of a trail. For a short few years there existed a tourist train which made the steep ascent via many switch backs up to the peak. It railway started service in 1896 but by 1930 was closed due to a tragic fire that burned down the facility, competition from the new fangled automotive, and the onset of the Great Depression. However, the path of the original tracks exists to be hiked and next time I’ll find them!  Continue reading

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Where East Met West

Train

No plans existed for this historic engine so the Jupiter was rebuilt using only references designs developed from pictures and postcards. It is now very similar to the original train engine and it is in immaculate condition.

Every day, east meets west in a recreation of the event that made this huge country small. On May 10, 1869, two railways joined tracks at a place called Promontory Summit in Utah and created the first transcontinental rail line. For the first time it was possible to buy goods on one coast and have them efficiently delivered to the other, the west could sell to Europe and the east could sell through to asia. The world got smaller too.

The reason the railroads met here was chance. The two companies who accepted the government’s contract started from opposite directions: one in Omaha heading west, the other in Sacramento heading east. Progress across the plains was fast and easy but laying track out of California over the Sierra Nevada mountains was slow progress.  Continue reading

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Finishing Blue Ridge Parkway, Someday

Winston Link Museum

Winston Link captured in sight and sound the end of the steam railroad era. In the restored Roanoke passenger train station is a wonderful collection of his work. Check out this link to see a selection of pictures.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway is fun. It’s not a stunning experience or life changing in any way. It’s simply joyful. The path is not ruthlessly twist-turny but instead follows the contours of the hills. You can drive a satisfying 35 to 45 mph, about right for this roads. The periodic overlooks provide pleasant vistas and the roadside historic sites are interesting. For around these parts, this drive is a pretty nice distraction.

The impression you get is that you’re driving a road through the wilderness. However, in the winter this illusion can be shattered. Whether you’re driving the Natches Trace Parkway, Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive, or the Blue Ridge Parkway the trees having lost their leaves makes it possible to see out of the park. You realize how narrow, how tunnel-like these parkways are. You can occasionally look off to either side and see back yards. The rest of the year you can delude yourself in to believing you’re riding through a never-ending wooded landscape along nature’s contours. Winter strips away the veil.

In any season I enjoy riding these roads. If it wasn’t for my tendency to go in the winter when storms leave ice and snow which result in road closures and detours, well, I’d enjoy them even more.  Some day I would like to the end of the Blue Ridge. Again this time the bottom third is closed. At mile marker 290 I exited and went by Interstate to Asheville. Sadly this means I fell 175 miles short of my goal of finishing.

Some day I need to drive this road during another season.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway tried to cross the Rockies by way of the Gunnison River but found the Black Canyon impassible. Still, it did arrive at the canyon's mouth at Cimarron.

Great Hike: Gunnison Trail (caveat: this is only for experienced hikers) 

Nature created conditions where a powerful river cut a deep and narrow slice out of a hard granite terrain. The result is a canyon whose walls are very steep and access to the river below is very difficult. One consequence for visitors wanting to hike in the park is that there are few trails of any length. Almost all the trails are short and lead to overlook points along the rim road. One of the few exceptions is the Gunnison Trail which descends 1,800 feet in just one mile. Along this trail you actually hike from the rim to the Gunnison River’s shore. There was little doubt that this would be my pick!

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North Cascades NP

Grand Coolie Dam

You know you've arrived in the Pacific Northwest when you start seeing massive hydroelectric projects everywhere. Grand Coolie is the world's largest dam.

Great Hike: Thunder Knob

First, I have to admit that until two or three years ago I had never even heard of North Cascades National Park. Second, I went expecting to appreciate one thing and came away also appreciating something very different. Third, I can’t believe how lucky I was to have had perfect weather. This visit for me was to virgin territory and once again I recognized that the National Park Service manages some wonderful parks.

My orientation pass through North Cascades gave me confidence that its nature was going to impress. Glaciers here had molded impressive mountain shapes, had carved valleys down which wide rivers now flow and which contain great lakes of clear blue waters. But what I also realized is that man had come in and harnessed all this for power, for recreation and for preservation. While I did choose a Great Hike, it’s not all that impressed me.

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A Path Down the Middle: C&O Canal

C&O Mile 0

Under the shadow of the Watergate and hidden behind a boat rental store you can find “Mile 0” of the C&O Canal. Here it drops into the Potomac which opens onto the Chesapeake and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Canal barges were pulled at four miles per hour but there was a time when people were betting they were the best option for moving goods, certainly better than those new-fangled trains. Hard to believe but in their infancy trains were slow and dangerous and didn’t have much of a hauling capacity. For a small window in history, the riverboat canal system and the railroad competed for supremacy. Seems hard to believe today.

America’s manifest destiny was to grow, to expand west. In post-colonial times this meant expand into the Ohio valley where fertile land and natural resources were bountiful. Critical to this expansion were communication and transportation and this meant connecting the east coast with the Ohio River. In the late 1700s this stirred the development of the C&O Canal along the Potomac River to link the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River. America was moving west.  Continue reading

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Wales Across England to Scotland

Wales England Scotland

Three ambitions, three countries, and six weeks to do it all. Another great U.K. trip. (But see that green island to the left...it’s next on my list!)

This trip started with three ambitions: ride the Snowdon Mountain Railway, walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall across England and again climb Ben Nevis. These ambitions happen to be achievable in three different parts of the U.K.: Wales, England and Scotland respectively. These geographies became the rough outline of my trip which was conducted in phases as outlined below.

The list below is in chronological order. If you’re curious to learn about any segment of my trip then just click on any title below. If you want to see the trip in its entirety then click the first title and subsequently click “Next” at the bottom of each page to progress to the next page. If you’re interested in the three ambitions listed above then click here. If you’re not interested in any of this then be off with you(!) and thanks for your time. Continue reading

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My Trip to Outdoors U.K.

National Trail

This acorn didn’t start out meaning very much to me but as I learned it stands for the National Trails of the U.K. I came to appreciate it. Have acorn, will travel. It’s a symbol of the potential for a lovely outdoor adventure.

This trip was planned for August for a reason. I expected it to rain less. All my previous trips had been off-season, any months but summer months. This usually affected outdoor activity moistly. While I did still have rain this trip I was largely able to plan around it. Bottom line: mission accomplished.

What inspired me to care to do things outdoors?

Three grand features of the U.K. –

  • Snowdon Mountain:
    site of a climbing steam train and highest peak in England/Wales.
  • Hadrians Wall:
    an Roman wall built across northern England to ward off Scots.
  • Ben Nevis:
    the tallest mountain in all the U.K. in the Scottish Highlands.

My goals were to hike down #1, walk the length of #2 and climb #3.

That’s what I set out to do and that’s what I did.
Again, mission accomplished!

It was a great trip.

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