Railfanning Stevens Pass (and beyond)
with Ben Ringnalda
Sunday, June 18, 2006
by Lindsay Korst
GN Empire webmaster, Ben
Ringnalda visited Baolu and myself
for a few days in June 2006. This is the story of our day
trip over Stevens Pass.
We started out fairly early and headed to Monroe for
some breakfast. Soon, we set off with the hope of
photographing the westbound Empire Builder at the
Sunset Falls bridge. This is a tough shot to get
as there is practically no warning of the train coming
downhill. According to the Amtrak website, #7 was
right on time and unfortunately, all we got for our
trouble was an empty bridge.
We must have JUST missed the Builder as it coasted
downhill. Undaunted, we headed off eastward on US 2.
At Baring, we spotted a westbound just approaching
the east switch. A quick U turn and we set off in
pursuit. Orange unit on the point, check. No time
to catch him at Sunset Falls. Instead we made
for the milepost 1751 bridge east of Gold Bar.
The clouds had not completely burned off which
obscured the mountains in the background. Oh well.
We set off eastward again.
Rounding the curve into Baring, we saw a high green
over red - sure to gladden the heart of any railfan.
Now we knew we had an eastbound to follow to Wenatchee
which was lined through to at least Skykomish.
When we reached Sky, the sun had come out and despite
the occasional clouds, it looked to be a fine day ahead.
Now there was plenty of time to photograph the newly-painted
depot and the X-294 caboose alongside. Get your pictures
of these two icons together soon, as plans are to move the
X-294 caboose up to Scenic for placement at a new roadside
rest area later this summer.
Finally, my scanner came alive. A nearby detector announced
the arrival of our eastbound. A very interesting lashup
rolled by the caboose and depot. On the point was an orange
BNSF 4806 in Heritage II dress followed by an HLCX 6090 SD40-2,
a BNSF 742 C44-9W in red/silver warbonnet and the star of
the show, MRL 390, an F45 -- the former BN 6644 built
As he began the 2.2% ascent at the east switch of Sky,
the engineer on 4806 reported he was making 16 mph.
Now where do you suppose a visiting railfan would like to
go next? That's right. Boonies! We rattled up a rocky
access road to the "cut" just east of the Bonneville
power line crossing.
We got a friendly blast on the horns as 4806's engineer
rounded the corner, flanges squealing on the sharp curve.
We both returned the highball with a wave. Nice shots!
I just love that little red meatball on the nose of 390.
By the time we got up to Scenic, 4806 was already past
the east switch and working into the Cascade Tunnel. We
set off in pursuit over Stevens Pass.
At the east portal, we opted for a "long shot" from the
access road. This would allow us to quickly get ahead of
him once we photographed the power. We waited and waited.
Finally, the "five minute strobe" came on. 4806 East was
coming very slowly out into the fresh air. His trailing
units were having trouble, spewing exhaust out of the bore
ahead of the units. We heard the engineer yelling
about similar conditions over on Stampede Pass followed
by a big, Yeee-uck! Breathing that crap even with the
air-pack scuba gear must really be horrible.
Finally, 4806 crawled into the sunlight at about 5 mph.
The HLCX 6090 was really smoking with the hogger just
nursing those suckers out of the tunnel. Ben and I
banged off multiple shots.
Once the train had started to pick up speed on the downgrade,
we headed to our next boonie spot, the signal bridge at
the west end of Merritt siding.
It was a rough ride, but we reached the spot in good time.
As we waited for 4806 to come downhill off the 2.2%, Ben
noticed a westbound creeping up the mainline around the
curve. Meet shot! Train hype! The westbound led by
the BNSF 5144 stopped well short of the signal bridge
and the conductor came through the nose door and stood
trackside to give 4806 a rollby as prescribed by rules.
Soon, we heard the whine of dynamic braking and BNSF 4806
East rolled slowly under the signal bridge and onto the
siding. The engineer serenaded us again with his horns.
Hey, what's this? The engineer is leaning out of the cab
of 4806 and taking OUR picture! Could it be? Yes it is!
BNSF Engineer Michael "Mad Dog" Sawyer is the hogger on
our eastbound train. Once I recover, I quickly snap a
shot of him in the cab as he rolls by the westbound.
Once 4806 rolls by, the signal for 5144 West immediately
changes to green and he slowly starts up the 2.2% to
It's getting on towards afternoon and 4806 is well ahead
of us now. We decide to head toward Wenatchee in the
hopes of catching him at Monitor. The scanner is
strangely silent (no detectors sounding off). Once
we get clear of the congestion at Leavenworth, there is
no sign of him. The last time I tried for this picture,
I barely caught him at Monitor. We decide to head into
Wenatchee for some lunch.
We are munching our burgers in the parking lot when
the scanner sounds off with the 1668 detector and
then the 1661 detector. Uh-oh. That must be Mad Dog.
Sorry Ben, my fault. Here's the consolation picture:
Mad Dog sees us standing in the bed of my pickup and
gives us a nice sendoff on the horns. I ask Ben,
"Where to next"? Ben says there is an old GN depot
up at Entiat so we head up there on US 97.
It turns out to be someone's home. We park nearby
and ask the lady in the yard if we can take pictures
and try to explain the historical significance of
their house. I present her with my railfan card.
Her husband ambles over and looks at us suspiciously.
Finally, they agree to let us take a picture and
we do so. For privacy's sake, I've erased the
address from the photo.
Next stop is the old GN steam engine on display in
Wenatchee. The GN 1147 is located in a park which
is used as a residence by quite a few bums. There's
safety in numbers, so together we walk around taking
our pictures of the 1147. Someone kindly placed a
rock which lifts the camera above the fence line for
a neat 3/4 view.
It's getting on into afternoon, and Ben still wants
to visit the boonie tunnel up near the Trinidad
horseshoe. We head out on Highway 28. It is a long
drive out to the curve and again the scanner is silent.
As we approach the turn off, Ben comments he sees
a train ahead. Really? Scarcely able to believe it,
sure enough, it is the eastbound we've been chasing
all day! They have stripped him of his two trailing
units and now with just the BNSF 4806 and HLCX 6090
he is struggling to climb up Lynch Coulee.
We fly down Baird Springs road slowing only when the
pavement ends and I switch it into four wheel drive.
We are ahead of the units now, but will we make it
up to the portal in time?
Through the thick dust we stomp, throwing up a great
rooster tail behind us. The road to the tunnel follows
the original GN mainline going through an obvious cut
and fill until we reach the east portal of the tunnel.
We've made it.
The light is great as the long, heavy stack train
rolls past, the new engineer from Wenatchee blowing
us a quick hello and waving goodbye. What timing.
Now we simply turn around and head back to Wenatch,
first stopping at the west portal of the tunnel for
Ben to take a quick picture.
Back at Wenatchee, we come across a crop of GN wood
chip cars. Below are pictures of two representatives,
the GN 174241 and the BN 585374.
It was Ben who recognized the BN 585374 as an ex-GN
car. I did a quick check of my "BN Color Guide" from
Morning Sun Books and that car is indeed an ex-GN
built by Gunderson in 1966 and is from the
GN 174050 to 174199 series. Other GN cars we spotted
in Big Sky Blue were 174357, 174286 and 174225.
It is now after 5pm and there is no westbound in sight to
follow back over the hill. We set off for home stopping
only at Merritt so Ben can check out the wye there and
also White Pines Road (The Slot) for his future reference.
By now, the light has gone behind the mountains making
further pictures difficult. We made it back home about
8:30pm and called it a day. All-in-all, a very enjoyable trip!