Driving Trip - March 17-19, 2011

Note: click on the thumbnails for a larger image

There are few negatives to landing a new job, especially when a person gets a job after being on unemployment. However, one down side is that it usually means you have fewer vacation days available at your disposal. Extended vacations are not an option. So when my wife said she wanted to attend a conference in Minneapolis for a few days, the wheels in my mind started to turn. Why not take a few days off and make a short vacation of the trip.While she attended the conference, I could explore the area. So we booked our accommodations and made a trip of it. The following are a few photo highlights of the trip.

Up to this point I had never been in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Now I can say I've been in both, though Wisconsin was nothing more than a conduit in order to reach Minneapolis. Both are large states and the limited amount of time curtailed what I was able to see. So I had to be organized and come up with a sort of itinerary for myself. Thursday would be spent in Minneapolis doing a little sightseeing. Friday would be my driving trip to explore the state, and the little time left on Saturday would be spent around the Twin Cities area.

Thursday March 17, 2011

My first impression of Minneapolis was that it was much bigger than I thought it would be. While the locals probably found the freeway system organized, it was anything but in my mind. Thank goodness for the GPS, although my Australian female navigator did seem to have some interesting ideas with regards to routes. For example, sometimes she, er, it would route us two different ways between the same two points. Our GPS does not have traffic built in so I'm not sure why it did this.

Anyway, after dropping my wife off at her conference, I began my docket of activities which was to ride the Minneapolis light rail line which runs from Target Field on the north end of downtown to the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. I proceeded to punch in the address for one of the Minneapolis light rail Park and Ride lots at 6053 Minnehaha Avenue. Of course the GPS couldn't find that address (despite just spending $50 to upgrade the maps!) and suggested something like 5300 Minnehaha Avenue. I figured that was close enough so I accepted the route and after a while I found the lot.

My objective was to ride the light rail line to the Mall of America, then after walking around the mall a little bit, ride the line from end to end, then back to my car. I walked over to the station and purchased a six hour unlimited ride pass for $4 from the automated ticket kiosk. Buying tickets to ride seemed to be based on the Honor System as no one asked for my ticket and I didn't see anyone roaming the cars for tickets. But I did notice that most people either had a badge type pass or had a ticket in hand so I guess the system works. The trains run every 10 minutes during the week so I didn't have to wait long to get the next train south. I grabbed a seat and took in the scenery.

An interesting part of the light rail system is that it connects terminals at the airport (the fare between the two terminals is free). The train runs in a tunnel at a high rate of speed (I think I saw a 55 mph speed limited posted). After exiting the tunnel it then gradually slows down over the next mile or two and ultimately crawls at 10 mph or less into the Mall of America station. A short three minute walk has you from the train to the entrance of the mall.

The Mall of America is, well, a mall. Yes it has a small amusement park in the middle of it, and yes it has an aquarium in the basement, but it's still a mall. The images I saw online and what I had expected to see were little in similarity to what I saw. I was so inspired that I didn't take a single photo while in the mall. Yeah it's neat, but it's still a mall. So I did what I normally do when I go to the mall and get my 30 minute walk in for the day. I did see shop names I've never seen before, but none lured me in (although the Lego store did look really cool). After all, it's just a mall. Must be a guy thing.

After doing my exercise I walked back up to the train platform and got on the next train north. The schedule states that it is a 40 minute ride from end to end, but as is the case with most commutes, whether by train, car or even plane, the first mile and the last mile take the longest. So if you were going between two intermediate stations the transit time would be fairly short. From what I could tell during the day driving the route would be faster, but during rush hour the train might be just as fast. It certainly would be less stressful as the Minneapolis drivers are much more aggressive than I would have expected for an upper midwestern city.

After leaving the mall, the train passes by the aforementioned airport, then passes a military complex and what looks to be a military cemetery as well. Then the scene changes again to more of a residential community before heading into the downtown area. Eventually you pass the Metrodome which looked like an abandoned industrial site in its deflated state. I'm sure something is going on inside the building somewhere, but from the outside it looked desolate.

A little further north the train begins street running for most of the remainder of the route. The trains have to obey their own signals at intersections which are timed with the traffic signals. It's fairly slow going while on the street running trackage, but nothing moves very fast downtown so it pretty much goes with the flow. The north end of the line ends at the almost brand new Target Field. This station also meets up with the Northstar commuter train line which runs from the tracks below street level to the northwest suburbs. The Northstar trains only run during rush hour, and for the most part in one direction only. As much as I tried to figure out a way to ride it I was concerned I would miss a train and get stuck at one end or the other so I did not try to ride it. There are plans for a second light rail train to run between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

I then got on the next train headed south to get back to the park and ride lot where I was parked. Thus ended my first day of exploring Minneapolis.

Friday 3/18/2011

Today was my day to explore the Minnesota countryside. I had about eight hours to drive around so I mapped out a rough route the night before to get an idea of what I was going to do. My goal was to head to the Mississippi River and follow the river south to Winona, MN, then west to Owatonna, then back north to Minneapolis which Google maps figured was about six hours.

After dropping off my wife I had to figure out how to get to the river but bypass all of the Twin Cities city traffic. I saw "St. Croix, WI" on the map so I figured that would at least get me in the right direction so I punched it into the GPS. Of course it didn't like it and suggested "St. Croix Falls". "Close enough", I thought so I let it set a route out of downtown. Initially the route seemed a little odd but it was taking me east so I kept going. However after a while I had enough of a directional sense to notice that it seemed like I was going more north than east. So I pulled off at the next exit and studied the map. Sure enough it was taking me to St. Croix Falls which was probably 50 miles north of where I wanted to go. So I reprogrammed the GPS to take me to Cottage Grove, MN which was southeast of the Twin Cities. I'm glad my keen sense of direction won the battle with the GPS!

Just before I got back on the freeway I could see crossing flashers activated a block or so away. By accident and pure luck the Minnesota Commercial Railroad was switching a local industry. I was fortunate to get this grab shot as the train pulled its train long hood forward to the next customer. I believe this locomotive is a B36-7 of Southern Pacific origin.
Minnesota Industrial
Back on the freeway I was able to navigate myself down US 10/US 61 and began following what I thought was a single rail line but actually was two (BNSF and CP). The two lines parallel each other as they leave St. Paul, split a few miles south, then meet again just before Hastings, MN (I could be wrong with this but this is how it looks on the map). At Hastings on the east side of the Mississippi River, the BNSF route swings due south while the CP line turns right and crosses the river entering Hastings on a lift bridge. A small depot used by CP crews stands at the east end of a small flat switching yard. Here are a few photos of the area.

Hastings, MN depot
Hastings, MN depot with lift bridge over Mississippi River in background
Hastings, MN depot
Another view of the Hastings, MN depot and shop building
Hastings, MN
A CP local has grabbed a caboose and is ready to start a day of work
Hastings, MN
The local and a CP road train meet at the east end of the yard

I continued to follow the mainline south as closely as I could. For the most part I was always within eyesight of the track but occasionally it would swing far away from the road. The countryside was quite flat in this area but very scenic. Eventually I arrived in Red Wing, MN. I took a left off of US 61 and arrived at the Red Wing, MN train station which doubles as the visitor's center for the town. The depot is an attractive looking brick building with free parking adjacent to it. If I build a house I may try to incorporate some architectural aspect of this depot in it! I walked around inside and saw that according to the Amtrak sign I missed the southbound Empire Builder by about 90 minutes. The depot's interior is decorated with railroad memorabilia and other items of local interest.

Red Wing, MN depot
The Red Wing, MN depot has a large brick passenger platform
Red Wing, MN depot
View of the Red Wing, MN depot from the opposite side of the tracks
Red Wing, MN depot
Parking in front of the depot is free! The depot doubles as the town's visitor's center

After shooting a few photos of the building, I noticed that a signal just south of the depot was displaying a clear indication. Given that all of the signals seen up to this point had been dark I figured something was coming soon. Sure enough about five minutes later a southbound grain train approached the station... with CSX power. ARGH! I can see CSX power three miles from my house. I've driven over 800 miles and nowhere near a CSX line and what do I get - a train with CSX power.

Reminds me of a trip to San Antonio several years ago to visit a friend of mine. The first train we saw on the UP line from San Antonio to Laredo had CSX power in the lead. But I digress...
Southbound grain train

I continued south on US 61. Except for a two mile or so stretch, the road and the rail line are right next to each other, however the track is just above the level of the river while the road is elevated above the track by 20 feet or so. A few miles south of Red Wing the the river's footprint widens and a sign along the road declares this to be Pepin Lake. As can be seen by these photos, the river, er, lake was still frozen despite a week of 50+ degree weather. Another thing I noticed is how much lower the river was in relation to the lands on either side. I'm guessing this is from hundreds or thousands of years of slowly carving a path through the lands. It almost looks like there is a plateau on either side of the river.
Lake PepinLake PepinTrack beside Lake Pepin

It had been a while since I crossed the track to check the signals so as I approached the town of Wabasha I looked for a road crossing. Out of pure luck I could see a northbound coal hopper train approaching so after a quick driving maneuver I arrived at a crossing and was able to get this photo while shooting through the passenger side window of the car, and subsequent going away shot through the driver's side. Northbound coal train - Wabasha, MNNorthbound coal train - Wabasha, MN

A little further south I reached the town of  (Clark) Kellogg. I've interjected the basketball reference as while I drove around I've been listening to the NCAA tournament on the radio. Though I'm young(er), I still enjoy listening to a game on the radio. Here are a couple photos from the one road crossing in town. If you look at the photo with the bridge abutments it looks like another rail line used to cross at this point. However closer inspection of the grade to the bridge reveals that this used to be a road over the track. It is also clearly apparent that this used to be double track territory at some point in the past.
Kellogg, MNKellogg, MN

Further south in Minnesota City, MN I arrived at where the DM&E line splits off the CP line westward. A train was parked on the lead awaiting for a crew to take it east.

Minnesota City, MN

A little further south I caught this northbound CP train exiting the siding to the main which had a SOO snow plow on the rear. The train crews are hoping its work is done for the year.
CP local Minnesota City, MNsnow plow Minnesota City, MN

Since I was running about an hour behind schedule at this point I decided to not continue south to Winona and instead turn west to follow the DM&E line. This line appears to be in somewhat of a state of transition from the look of a branch line with minimal maintenance to that of a decently maintained mainline. From just beyond the split for several miles are ribbons of welded rail on either side of the track so an upgrade of the track is about to take place. In places an ancient looking pole line still stands. Another observation is that while the track is older, almost every bridge over a creek or river appears to have been recently rebuilt or refortified. This could be due to a major flood within the past 10-15 years, or maybe part of a line upgrade to handle 286K gross weight railcars.

Here's a picture of the line as it approaches Lewiston, MN. This part of the main hasn't been upgraded with the welded rail, and also note the old pole line on the right side. Almost every decent-sized town along the line has a grain elevator, but few elevators actually have a rail spur. Lewiston, MN

A little further west in Eyota, MN, the town pays tribute to a previous tenant of the rail line.
Eyota, MNEyota, MN

The next city west of Eyota is Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic. Apparently my pursuit of lunch took over as I managed to miss anything of interest in town. The satellite maps show a short stretch of quasi-street running which might have been worth a look. I also may have felt that I was running too far behind to explore but, to not even give it a look is a little odd for me. Again I'll chalk it up to me being hungry!

Anyway, a little further west I found a local doing some switching in Dodge Center, MN. Unfortunately the crew was taking their time switching so this was the only shot I was able to get. I'm not sure which is more interesting - the Milwaukee Road paint scheme on the locomotive or the Southern paint bleeding through on the NSHR boxcars.
Dodge Center, MN

Finally I arrive in Owatonna, MN where the DM&E line crosses a Union Pacific north/south line. A third line extends southeast off of the DME line. While criss-crossing the UP line I noticed a northbound signal change from stop to proceed so something was coming on UP. The problem now was figuring out how much time I had before I saw it. After killing a few minutes in town and not hearing anything I started north, criss-crossing the line every few miles to check for a headlight or a signal. Finally I stopped in Faribault, MN and parked next to a nice sized depot that has been converted to a restaurant. About 10 minutes later I suddenly heard a whistle and after hurdling a large pile of snow I caught this shot of the northbound train.

Faribault, MN track
CF&I is the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company
Faribault, MN depot
The Faribault, MN depot is now a restaurant.

At this point I figured I better head back to Minneapolis to pick up my wife from her conference.

Saturday March 19, 2011
I had about four hours to myself so my goal was to see a couple local sights and if I saw a train then that was icing on the cake. After dropping off my wife, I drove to St. Paul and found the old CN&W depot which, though it is still standing and has tenants, is no longer used for passenger trains. However, plans are to bring the Amtrak stop back to this location in 2012. Here's a photo of the front of the building which looks more like a government building than a train station. CN&W Depot - St. Paul, MN

Along the way to the Amtrak station in St. Paul I passed the Cathedral of St. Paul. The massive structure sits on top of a hill making it even more prominent in its appearance. I went inside hoping to take pictures of the sanctuary and pipe organ but a prayer service was going on so I was only able to get a few discreet photos of the interior. A sign in the building states that it can seat 3,000 in the pews, and 4,000 by bringing in extra chairs.
Cathedral of St. Paul - St. Paul, MNCathedral of St. Paul - St. Paul, MNCathedral of St. Paul - St. Paul, MN

I then reached the current Amtrak station in St. Paul. It resembles a government building constructed in the late 1950s-early 1960s, and appears to have had little done to it since! I walked inside and make a quick reconnaissance of the interior. The station schedule board (also resembling something from the 1960s) stated that the next train wasn't due for a long while so I left without taking a single photo. I did notice some private passenger cars parked near the station platform but did not investigate.

Back towards Minneapolis I grabbed photos of Williams Arena and TCF Bank Stadium which are across the street from each other on the campus of the University of Minnesota (incidentally, on the journey up to Minnesota and back we passed by the locations of six Big Ten schools - Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota). The interior of Williams Arena is really what I wanted to photograph but the building looked locked. From the outside it reminded me of an old music hall rather than an arena. The football stadium looks much bigger on TV than it does in person. Is TCF Bank Stadium the last location that quarterback Brett Favre started in?

Williams ArenaTCF Bank Stadium

I then headed down to the downtown Minneapolis riverfront and parked on the east side. A neat landmark is the formerly double track stone arch bridge that spans the Mississippi River. At 2,100 feet long, it sits squarely between the Pennsylvania Railroad's Rockville bridge (3,820 feet), and the Baltimore & Ohio's Thomas Viaduct (614 feet). Today it serves as a part of the downtown pedestrian and cycling paths along the river. Here are some views of the bridge.
Stone Arch Bridge - Minneapolis, MN
This sign gives a brief history about the Stone Arch Bridge
Stone Arch Bridge
The bridge affords spectacular views of the Minneapolis skyline
Stone Arch Bridge
The bridge makes a rather sharp curve to the north at the west end
Stone Arch Bridge
Here is a view from the bridge looking to the south 

Stone Arch Bridge
This photo was taken from the east bank of the river near the old power plant

The bridge gives a perfect view of the river and structures on either side of the river. To the north is the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam with power house, and to the south is the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam. Also visible is the I-35W bridge which replaced the structure that tragically fell into the river in 2007.

Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam
The bridge gives pedestrians and cyclists a perfect view of the Upper St. Anthony spillway
Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam
Here's a better view of the dam with lock. The power plant is out of view to the right
Old mills
On the west bank riverfront are a number of old mills which relied on the water power
Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam
In the distance is the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam and the new I-35W bridge

A little to the north of the locks is Nicollet Island, a small land mass in the river that is home to a school, some houses, and a BNSF route that runs across it. This route is used by the Northstar commuter rail line. A substantial looking truss bridge across the river sits off the west side of the island. Someone took the trouble of actually creating a Wikipedia page for the bridge which can be found here.
BNSF bridge

My free time was over so I packed up the camera, picked up my wife from her conference, and began the journey back home.

Questions, comments welcome!

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