I can’t believe it’s been 45 years since my infamous railfanning trip out west. A lot has happened in the last four-plus decades, but this was one of the most unique railfan events that I have had the good fortune to experience. I grew up in Rutherford, N.J., at Milepost 9 on the Erie Railroad. My life revolved around the Erie Lackawanna, and that’s where I spent most of my time before that fall trip in 1972 and since then. That year I decided that I was going to pack up my four-year old Mercedes 220 diesel that I had bought brand new in 1969 and head west with my girlfriend, who was my partner in our trucking business. She wasn’t a big railfan, but she had a good time… Mostly. Along with my cameras and film, I loaded up the trunk with ten gallons of diesel fuel and a case of motor oil. Times were different then; you could go for long stretches without finding diesel, especially if you were off the truck routes.
I had set my sights on North Platte, Cheyenne and the Milwaukee Road electric operations. I had an idea of what was out there from reading railroad magazines and a few books. That’s where I got the idea to go. In September 1972 we set out for our big excursion and our first stop was the locomotive shop at Council Bluffs, Iowa, where a family member of a friend worked in Union Pacific’s public relations department gave us a tour. I would have been better going myself. He kept telling me, “Don’t walk through that — that’s greasy!” Please. And I couldn’t go into the shop. That’s what I wanted to see, where the equipment being worked on!
Until 1967, there were two electric operations in Butte, Mont., as both the Milwaukee Road and the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific used overhead wires to deliver power to their locomotives. The town was settled on a rich vein of copper and the railroads were kept busy moving the ore for over a hundred years. Here, a pair of Little Joe electrics get a boost from a GP9 as they bring a long eastbound road freight out of Butte. There was just something about the look of the catenary and the pantographs reaching up to power long freights in the mountains that made this railroad special. Milwaukee Road’s last electric train would run on June 15, 1974. The end was less than two years away at this point.
After our tour, it was across the Missouri River and off to North Platte, Neb. For most of our vacation the weather was good. That’s why we picked September in the first place. The next few days were awful, though. It was tornado weather. The temperature was 104 and we and had to roll down the windows and turn the heater on to keep engine cool! We slept in the car for two nights and another night we slept in the car because we didn’t know where hotels were in the days before smart phones and computers.
Here we see former Union Pacific E9A No. 944 being serviced. The 944 was retired in 1971 and sold to Amtrak, where it was assigned the number 421. Lucky for me, Amtrak operated many former Union Pacific E-units for more than a year in Armour Yellow paint with no Amtrak markings whatsoever.
At North Platte I set up shop west of the yard by the grain driers and photographed the trains heading in and out of the massive facility. The big General Electric U50’s ruled the UP main line at the time, along with 6900-series DDA40X Centennials. I hollered up to an engineer who had three U50’s in his consist, “Hey what are you doing with all that power, you’re going downhill?” He just made a muscle with his arm and pointed to it
Read the rest of this article in the 2018-2 issue of Trains & Railroads of the Past!