Friday, July 26, 2019

Union Pacific's Big Boy, the World's Largest Steam Engine, Visits West Chicago

Union Pacific 4014, better known as Big Boy, is one of 25 4-8-8-4 locomotives manufactured for UP between 1941-44. Of these 25, only eight are still around, and of those eight, only one, 4014, is in operating condition.

UP 4014 at West Chicago after stopping for what will be a three night stay.
Big Boy got its name from an unknown worker who wrote the phrase on the front of 4000, and is currently the largest operating steam engine in the world.


Big Boy heading westbound on the south track at West Chicago station, greeted by thousands of onlookers, drones and even a helicopter.

Letting off steam after parking.

It is difficult to get the entire thing in one photo!
Now once again in operation, Union Pacific is showing it off across the western United States. It was at Promontory for the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, and moved as far east as Milwaukee.

I guess I was a little too close. You can really feel the heat emanating from this beast!
It is now on display at West Chicago until 8:00am on July 30th, when it'll move once again to Rochelle, IL, en route to Cedar Rapids, IA. The photos in this blog come from me on Friday, July 26th at West Chicago.


Thanks to Twitter, I knew exactly where she was coming from and when, by the time it passed Winfied, I knew it was less than 10 minutes away. Broadcastify can also be a help for railroad scanners.

While at West Chicago, I of course stopped by some of the landmarks, like the original depot, now in use as an Art studio.
There were tons of railfans on all corners of the station at West Chicago, some unfortunately were also on the right of way of active rail. For all of you planning to visit Big Boy on its remaining journey home, please remember to expect a train at any time, and do not trespass!


Thanks as always for reading!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

A Visit to the Monticello Railway Museum

This weekend, we made the trip down to Monticello, IL, to visit their eponymous railway museum. The museum is located on right of way once occupied by Illinois Central Railroad, and the Interurban freight line Illinois Terminal Railroad. Right from the exit on I-72, there's neat things to look at here!

This engine doubles as a sign to turn for the museum. Don't know much about its history though.
Given that it was an extremely hot Saturday, I was more excited for the air conditioned car than for the fact that our power that day would be Southern Railway 401.

SRY 401 parked at the Museum entrance, waiting for the 11:00 AM departure.

Her waiting at Monticello Station on the south end of heritage operations.
But before we look too much at the experience, let's talk about the museum itself. The Monticello Railway Museum was founded in 1966 as the "Society for the Perpetuation of Unretired Railfans" - or SPUR, per the Museum's history page. By 1982, they had become the MRM that we know today. purchasing both ex-IC trackage, ex-Illinois Terminal trackage, and building their own for storing rolling stock.

Just like the Illinois Railway Museum, Monticello has a working wig-wag signal as well!
The line itself dates back to the 1870's, with a charter from 1861. Construction began in 1863 as the Monticello Railroad Company. Like many companies in the late 19th century, they consolidated with their peers to form larger conglomerates. In this case, they merged with the Havana Mason City Lincoln & Eastern Railroad, and the Indianapolis Bloomington & Western Railway, with the three companies becoming the Extension Railway. The line defaulted and was reorganized in 1879 as the Champaign Havana & Western Railway. One year later, it would merge again with the Wabash St. Louis & Pacific Railway (better known as the Wabash Railroad).

This was the best pic I could get of what was a big steam engine rusting away, hidden from view. 
The Wabash held the line for only six years, selling it in 1886 as it was facing bankruptcy. The newly incorporated Chicago Havana & Western Railway, owned by Edward Harriman, who also had interests with the Illinois Central Railroad.

Many IC cabooses are found within the museum's rolling stock, including 9831 which was part of the train's consist during our ride.

IC 9926.

IC 9570.

IC 9831, as viewed from the Air Conditioned car aboard the train.
The Illinois Central (and Illinois Central Gulf after the merger with Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) ran the line for most of its history. In 1888, they leased it, and purchased in 14 years later for the right of way, rolling stock, and one dollar in cash.

In 1987, the museum purchased the Illinois Central trackage, ostensibly being the end date for IC railroad service along the route.

In its place, the museum runs about 5 miles of track between Monticello and White Heath, IL, naming their "stations" White Heath, Blackers, Nelson Crossing (where the museum rides begin), Dighton, and Monticello. It also has an extensive list of rolling stock, although I was unable to spot perhaps its most famous passenger car, the "Nautilus", owned by the Shedd Aquarium. The Nautilus transported passengers and aquarium fish to the entrance of the aquarium along IC trackage that has long since been abandoned.

It would make visiting the museums and Bears games at Soldier (ignore the second S on the map) Field so much easier if it were reactivated... Image: 1929 USGS topo map.
But in spite of missing the Nautilus, I have to say this is probably the best visit to a rail museum I've had to date, and an air conditioned railcar had a lot to do with that. The last car in the consist was air conditioned, but there was an open-air car at the front as well.  

The conductor checking tickets aboard the air conditioned car.

I mentioned being thankful for the advent of air conditioning at the last museum I visited, the Coopersville & Marne Railway, and it was only about 85 degrees that day. It was well over 90 by the time our ride began!


Monticello depot. The train stopped here for 15 minutes, allowing a quick view of the exhibits inside, which were mostly railroad signs and equipment from yesteryear.

Rock Island 2541 car, not air conditioned.

Map of the Wabash inside the depot. 

Illinois Central sign.

Also, Southern 401 purred during our visit, running faster than 15 mph that the C&M did, and with a much smoother ride at that. Kudos to all the volunteers for being able to keep such an old machine running as it does!

Historic signal at Monticello. I couldn't tell if it was for show, or was still in use by the museum.
I got some more pics of some of the static equipment the museum shows off, including this Republic Steel Corporation 0-6-0 switcher steam engine.



And this Lincoln Sand & Gravel Company diesel from 1940, pictured below.



The train ride took about 55 minutes, and I think we stayed at the museum for roughly two hours total. In addition to the rolling stock, they also have a gift shop with your typical museum stuff in it, including t-shirts, books and hats.

And this too, because why not?
Like every museum, they can only preserve our railroad history by people like you visiting, so I suggest taking a trip down to Monticello at some point and taking a ride on the line!


Thanks as always for reading, if you'd rather watch the blog on YouTube, here's the link for that as well!

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Area 51's Railroad

With how much Area 51 has been in the news recently, I figured it would be a good time to talk about one of the facility's more interesting (to me) pieces of infrastructure, at least that the US Government acknowledges exists, its railroad.

An L.A Times article from 2014 notes the railroad as well. It states, "[Thornton "T.D"] Barnes worked on a nuclear-rocket program called Project NERVA, inside underground chambers at Jackass Flats, in Area 51’s backyard. “Three test-cell facilities were connected by railroad, but everything else was underground." This implies that this is the extent of visible railroad operations at the facility, but more might exist underground for testing purposes.

First, let's talk about what we know. In the middle of the Nevada desert, or the "Nevada Test Site" on topo maps, exists a small railroad operation less than 7 miles in combined length. It is west of Groom Lake, otherwise known as Area 51, in an area known as Jackass Flats, or Area 25.

You can see the railroad's west end at approximately 36.832704, -116.311753 on Google Satellite Imagery. I've mapped this operation below;



This line is first acknowledged on topo maps in 1983, but it's unknown if it existed earlier, since the area became a top-secret facility sometime in the early 1950's. Were it located anywhere else, there probably wouldn't be much else to say about the operation, but this is Area 51, and the speculation can literally drive people mad with theories.

Honestly, it only appears as though the line was used to haul materials between the three different sites. It isn't connected to the rest of the rail network in any way that can be inferred by imagery. This isn't a secret transcontinental railroad, as has been suggested by some.

The entirety of the line is acknowledged in the 1986 Beatty Topo Map.
From imagery, there are a few interesting nuggets that can be found, however. At least part of the railroad still appears to be in operation, as rolling stock can be seen.

Two cars and a small engine appear at the south facility.
Many more cars can be seen on small branches emanating from a spur just north of here:

Pictured: The train from Super 8, probably.
A little sleuthing on behalf of my readers unearthed the fact that this line was unofficially known as the "Jackass & Western Railroad", and is out of service despite the existence of what appears to be rolling stock still along the line.

NOTE: I cannot stress enough how bad of an idea it is to trespass at Area 51, or any US Government facility, so please do not raid the area for any reason whatsoever. All of the information in this blog was derived from satellite imagery or government sources.

Thanks as always for reading!

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Inside the Big House: The Old Joliet Prison (1858-2002)

Today I visited the Old Joliet Prison, a now-abandoned and famous prison off Illinois Route 171 in Joliet, IL.

The East entrance to the prison, the same one where Joliet Jake left prison in The Blues Brothers
The Old Joliet Prison is among the most iconic buildings within the City of Joliet. In addition, the city and facility have nearly identical timelines, as the city was incorporated in 1852, while the prison was constructed from 1857-1861, with the first prisoners arriving in 1858.

The Prison as shown on the USGS 1923 topo map. Note the existence of railroad tracks which went through the center of the facility.
It is close in proximity to the old Joliet Iron Works, although on the opposite side of the former Chicago & Alton Railroad tracks. It was likely constructed at its precise location due to its proximity to those tracks, as its first batch of prisoners came from what was the only other penitentiary at the time, Alton Penitentiary, about 300 miles south from here. It was also near limestone quarries which are now full today, providing work for the prisoners to do, and materials for the buildings.

A sign on the inside of the prison showing the quarrying and railroad activity going on.
The prison is iconic within the Chicago area for being a backdrop to numerous movies and TV shows dealing with prison life. As stated earlier, the opening scene of The Blues Brothers was filmed here, as was much of the first season of Prison Break. More recently, an episode of Empire was also filmed here.

Entrance to what was the Warden's quarters, located on the second floor. Offices were on the first floor in this building.
Nearby Stateville eventually replaced the need for the prison, but not for almost 80 years of the two existing simultaneously. It closed down for good in 2002 after nearly 150 years, but outside of filming movies, it was left vacant for nearly 15 years afterwards, attracting vandals, squatters and urban explorers.

It's amazing what just 15 years of neglect looks like. Here is a stairwell in the hospital building. 
Recently, the prison was opened up for tours, but has also had parts of it used for haunted houses in the interim between its use as a prison, and its current use as a tourist attraction.

Inside the East gate. Many buildings were fenced off, either from Arson or neglect, they were unsafe.
The tour began inside the East gate of the prison, where on the left were the cafeteria and commissary areas, and on the right, a mattress factory.

Some buildings look more like warzones.
The prison could be considered a small city in how it was set up. Early in its life, a common mantra was self sufficiency, as the limestone was constructed from nearby quarries, and some prisoners were taught trades, which proved useful in their re-entry into society.
A guard tower.


Part of what was guard offices.
Lots of graffiti. Joliet Historical Society officials are trying to determine how much, if any, of the vandalism should be preserved in the history of this place.

During the tour, most buildings were inaccessible, for obvious reasons. Lots of metal and debris everywhere.

The Central guard tower. It was only accessible via a tunnel system, which often flooded.
The first building we got to see the inside of was the segregation area, or the prison within the prison. Interestingly, this was quite the reprieve from the July sun, it was quite cool inside! I doubt the prisoners interned there had the same positive thoughts about it, however.

Historical image of the inside. Image: Joliet Area Historical Museum.

Ironically, the toilets were some of the cleanest parts of the interior.

These cells made me the slightest bit claustrophobic.  
The tour guide told a story of how two girls on an earlier tour got themselves locked within here, requiring the Fire Department to come rescue them. Apparently, very few keys exist.



This looks like something out of Silent Hill. It should be noted that my flash is on here, the real cell is much darker.

This would make one hell of a haunted house.

Different wardens employed "punishment" or "reform" tactics to the prisoners. This message was painted during one of the reformists' tenures.

Looking up to the second floor. I wonder how many prisoners dreamed of escaping through here.
The electric chair, when the prison was used in executions, was located nearby. However, it was transferred to Stateville sometime in the 1950's, and hasn't been used in decades. Illinois used the lethal injection until 1999, and finally abolished the death penalty for good in 2011.

The next place we visited was easily the scariest, the hospital building. Much of the equipment, including an X-Ray machine and the psych ward, was still on site.


Patient treatment center.

What appeared to be a doctors office.

Another image with my flash off. It was really dark in here.

I have no idea what this is supposed to be.

X Ray machine. Looks like a zombie or nurse could pop out of the shadows at any minute! 
You can tell this was one of the more modern buildings on the campus, at least in the interior.



This was an elevator door. With no power in the building, it would only work if supernatural forces acted upon it. I'll take the stairs.

The rest of the tour consisted of more of the prison's history, including some of the most famous inmates, and a walkthrough of the rest of the buildings on the campus.

Large smokestack in the center of the facility. The grounds were pretty large. It hardly felt like a prison.

This was the exercise facility for those in solitary confinement. Obviously, it was much smaller.

Many scenes in Prison Break were filmed in this gate.

The education center. In the earliest days, prisoners would become literate here. Later, prisoners could earn their G.E.D and, for a short time, even Bachelor's Degrees through Lewis University.

The chapel. Any religion could be practiced here except Voodoo. Originally supposed to be part of the tour, the roof caved in during a storm last fall.

I was able to peek inside. I was amazed by the amount of light that comes in through here.

More exercise courts.

Very few stairwells were accessible.

Looking east toward the exit. Railroad lines used to run inside here, but I wonder if they just transported materials, or if prisoners came via railroad as well.

The west, and more commonly used, exit. 

Another condemned building. I wonder how much loot is in here.

This building looked pretty stable, but other than a peek inside, there wasn't much to see.

View of the outside of the prison.
The Old Joliet Prison is about as unique of a tourist attraction as you can find, and it is full to the brim of history, most of which is more depressing than what the average tourist spot is, but it's nonetheless a tale that needs to be told. Certain things about the conditions, and some of the crimes committed within the prison are noted on the tour, but omitted in this blog.

If you'd rather watch my photos, I made a video collage below.



Thanks as always for reading!