Home > About this website > GN Finding Trips > 2003 - Part 2
2003 GN Finding Trip
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Day 4, Sunday July 20: Great Falls to Havre
Today will be the first day of the GNRHS convention, and while most conventioneers will be quietly settling down in their hotel rooms, preparing to attend the Railfair starting at 6 PM, I embark on a 350 mile trip to cover the western Montana branch lines, to visit sites I missed before and, more importantly, to revisit the (GN?) wood passenger car I found last year on my way to Kevin, MT. Since I don't want to miss the first day of the Railfair either, I make sure to get going early.
Before I start heading north though, I head south out of Great Falls to Stockett, a town that lost its own depot long ago but is now home to two other GN depots; Sand Coulee and Gerber. Luck has it that I find them located next to each other; the Sand Coulee depot now being used as a residence and the Gerber depot in use as a liquor store, with the local Post Office built onto the side of it. With the town fast asleep I take my pictures and get on my way again back to Great Falls. On the way I stop in Tracy to look for the depot there, but that's gone. I do find a glacier green GN goat herald though, taken from a boxcar. On to Great Falls. I go to Black Eagle first to make sure I did not overlook that one GN caboose, but still find the same; none. Noticing the light angle, it being mid-morning by now, I decide to revisit familiar sites in Great Falls to take pictures in different light than on my previous visits, which were mostly in the afternoon. I get pictures of the Rainbow Falls bridge, the GN depot and Express Building, turntable, diesel shop and storehouse. I also take pictures of the tower in Great Falls yard, not being sure it is a GN structure, but you never know. Well, enough hanging around in Great Falls. It's time to head to Vaughn for the depot there. I find it after some looking around, now in use as part of a tire service center. A sign on the door calling it 'The Depot' confirms its heritage. I cross the highway to check on GN RPO 86, which is still there accompanied by a NP caboose. Driving west out of town I encounter many groups of people riding their bicycles on the highway. With their bikes and themselves covered in reflective yellow, they must hope that they will be safe from arrant car drivers; quite daring I think on 60 mph two lane highways! After avoiding three dozen (or more) bicyclers I reach Fort Shaw to look for the depot, which I don't find. I do take a picture of the local grain elevator though, displaying a beautiful old advertising sign painted on its side. Zigzagging between bicycles and oncoming traffic I reach the site of the Simms depot, now in use as storage on a farm 2 miles east of town. About 25 thousand bicycles later (grmmbl), with yellow spots blurring my vision, I reach Augusta, the end of this branch line. Following a report the depot is still standing I look for it at its old location and eventually all over this fairly large town, but fail to locate it. It might have been razed or moved. I've lost too much time avoiding bicycles to stop and ask about the depot, so I quickly move out of town towards Fairfield, west of which a GN caboose should be located (X272). I do see some NP boxcar hulks, but no GN caboose. Oh well, on to Choteau where I should have more luck finding the depot and caboose X302. The depot and caboose are now located at the Teton Antique Steam & Gas Museum on the southeast side of town. It being a Sunday, I find the grounds closed but manage to take pictures of the depot through the fence, but I don't see the caboose. Driving out of town I notice a visitors center and ask there. The friendly lady has no idea of what I'm talking about. I leave town guessing this was another wild goose chase. Later, when I get home, I get a email from Ed Mertes of ARCHES, with a copy of an article in their newsletter by GNRHS caboose expert Jack Porzig, who was lucky to get inside the grounds and take a picture of the caboose. So much for the value of the Choteau Visitors Center. X302 turns out to be an early wood caboose like X101 in Belt, MT. She's in bad condition though, being used as a chicken coop for years. Although I did not get to see it, this special caboose is at least confirmed now. On to Bynum and Pendroy where the reported depots cannot be found. I'm starting to run late now, so I decide to bypass Conrad and go straight to Cut Bank. A move that turned out not to save much time, since I hit road construction again (this is not Minnesota, is it?). I take another photo of the Cut Bank depot and quickly proceed towards the Kevin Hwy, hoping to find that wood passenger car again. I get lucky, the car is still there and the owners are also at home! I ask about the heritage of the car, but it turns out the current owners are not the ones that moved it there. They bought the property including this car and five(!) Great Falls Transit Railway trolley hulks from the previous owner, that moved them there. They were told that the car was used for housing in Cut Bank before it was moved there. I ask if I can check the car out to see if it is GN and they welcome me to do so, but warn me of rattlesnakes that might be hiding in the tall grass. Cautiously I walk around the car, suddenly stopping when a sharp pain hits my foot. Oh no, it cannot be... I look down and discover my shoe stuck to a board on the ground. It turns out I stepped on a rusty nail, which pierced the sole of my shoe but luckily only grazed the side of my foot. Man, the things I do for this hobby! Since there is no paint left on the car I check the castings for GN markings, and yes it is GN! The draft gear clearly says GN on it! I look the car over and find it must have been an observation with the end platform and large picture windows on the end. I manage to inspect the inside also and find that it had been heavily remodeled in the past. I also find a lot of fire damage. I can't readily identify anything original. Thinking of how nice it would be to see this car restored I continue on my way to Kevin, where I take some additional pictures of the depot and record the BN number of the caboose on display for Roger Kirkpatrick's surviving caboose list. I take Interstate 15 south to Shelby where I turn off onto the truck route into town. At the off ramp I chance upon another GN type steel water tower. I wonder where it might have came from. I drive on into town and get a picture of the backside of the Shelby depot, check on the status of the engine house (still there) and continue east towards Galata. Just west of town and off line, I find the elevator where the Galata depot has been moved to. It is now used for storage. Driving along the grass covered spur, I'm bombarded by a large population of crickets, jumping on and off the car. There are so many of them that I elect to take pictures from the car to prevent having to chase them out later. Starting to feel the time pressure, I quickly continue to Chester for a picture of the depot there. Trying to make up for lost time I take advantage of the Montana speed limit, but bog down in another road construction site. The signs say 'for the next 11 miles' (only!), and they tore up the entire road, so it's driving on dirt and gravel. So much for making up time. I get to Rudyard and try to find the depot, which reportedly has been moved and converted into a Historical Museum. I cover all the streets (I think) but can't find it. Not wanting to waste anymore time, I leave for Hingham where I find the depot fairly easy, relocated to a local elevator and now in use as storage. Ok, it's time now for the final push into Havre, where I arrive shortly before 6 PM. I check in at the Best Western - Great Northern Inn (I just had to pick this hotel; who can resist the name?), and decide to take the shuttle bus to the university campus for the Railfair, since I wasn't sure where on campus it would be held. I put my baggage in the room and check out the view (I asked for trackside). Wow, I'm right on top of the turntable. I just have to take a picture right away. After a phone call to the shuttle bus driver, I get picked up by a school bus! Cool; this will be my very first school bus ride (I grew up in Holland and it being a small country, I never lived further away from a school than a short walk or bicycle ride). After a short, noisy and slow ride I arrive at the MSU Northern campus, deciding that I do prefer my rental car and will use that for the rest of the convention. I did have a nice talk with the lady driver though, and had a chuckle reading the rules posted for the kids; weren't these rules just common sence when I grew up? I collect my convention papers, mug and shirt at the door and enter the Railfair hoping that there still will be nice things left for me. I find enough to satisfy my 'needs', while running into familiar faces and friends. It's always nice seeing everybody again at these conventions. After the Railfair closes I hitch a ride into town and after a good discussion on the GN and general world topics, over a nice dinner with old and new friends, we all leave to our separate hotels, but not before dodging a million mosquitoes that have gathered at the blue neon lighting outside the door. What a color to pick!
Day 5, Monday July 21: GNRHS Convention Havre
On my way to MSU Northern this morning, I visit S-2 2584 in the hope I might get some nice sunlit shots of the engineers side, something very hard to accomplish with the engine facing straight west, but the sunlight is already too harsh for nice photos. I later learn from Fr. Dale Peterka that this is only possible in winter (not a very appealing time of year to venture out to Havre, I think). The convention starts today with the second half of the Railfair. Additional dealers have joined the fair and I pick up more items I 'need'. The browsing is again 'interrupted' by nice talks with friends and an occasional fan of my website who recognizes me by my nametag. After a fairly nice and cheap lunch at the Student Center café it's time for the presentations made by GNRHS members. A bit warm (no air-conditioning) we enjoy listening to Fr. Dale Peterka talking about Havre and the GN, accompanied by some nice slides from his collection. He also shares information on some good railfanning spots in the area. Ray Djuff follows with a talk about the GN Hotel Operations in Glacier Park, showing proof of how advertising photos were 'enhanced' to make the park look more appealing to would-be travelers. Mountains were added and less interesting views omitted. Next Scott Tanner teaches us how to pronounce the name of Winhold Reiss, and talks about his favorite subject, a well known painter that did many of the Indian paintings used on the GN calendars and other advertising material. To round of the afternoon Mike Power gives us an interesting, but controversial, talk on the question; 'Should the New Cascade Tunnel have been built'. A presentation, I think, that should have had the title 'Should Stevens have located the original line on the other side (north facing slopes) of the pass'. Understandably this talk gets mixed reviews from GN fans and GN vets alike, but sure was worth hearing and thinking about. After a nice dinner at the 'Duck Inn' with some of the Lines West attendees, discussing Stevens Pass and their impressive modeling efforts, we return for the business meeting, which is held fairly short this year. Then it's movies time! Recorded by Anthony de Rosa, we get to see some interesting footage of a wreck-cleanup of a local steam powered passenger train. It's impressive to see the steam derricks perform their duties. Next is a movie about the moving of S-2 2584 from the east to the west side of the Havre depot, which showed an interesting sequence of laying track, moving the engine, tearing up the track and relaying it in front of the engine, moving the engine, and on and on, until it finally could be backed into its current spot. Even after so many years of sitting around, the roller-bearing equipped engine rolled along without any trouble. Next were the well known De Rosa video tapes released by Pentrex. Apparently most, if not all, conventioneers must own these tapes, since the Student Center cleared out fairly quickly during the showing. I thought it was nice to see them again though.
Day 6, Tuesday July 22: GNRHS Convention Havre
Today we have the morning off. Time enough to do some GN hunting. I have gotten information on the exact location of the Rudyard depot and decided to go look for it again. I find the depot at the mentioned location; how could I have missed it the first time! I get my pictures and when I'm about to leave, I see a SUV slowly driving by in 'railfan' mode, turning around and stopping at the depot. It's guys from the convention. They decided to skip on today's convention tour, and do some railfanning on their own along the line to Shelby. While discussing our mutual interest and plans for the day a pick-up truck pulls up. An older gentleman gets out. He had been alerted of our presence at the Historical Museum, and offers to show us around in the depot and other buildings. He likes to talk and does not let us leave until we have really seen everything, making me almost late getting back to the convention. On the way back though, I can't resist to take some nice pictures of a BNSF 'earthworm' grain train led by two matched BNSF silver warbonnet Dash 9's. I get to the convention in time for the Pitchfork Fondue held on the lawn next to the Student Center. After this unusual but tasty lunch we load up in the school busses, and private cars to go to Fort Assiniboine (John Stevens slept here!). We are greeted by our tour guide in upper 90s temperatures with little shade available. After a (very hot) tour of the grounds, and listening to some interesting stories about the history of the fort we finally find shade under some trees, where we can cool down and ask additional questions. We load up again in the hot busses and cool air-conditioned private cars and drive off to Big Sandy to see the Historical Museum located in the GN depot. Big Sandy is the end-of-the-line now of the route between Havre and Great Falls and only sees occasional service to serve its grain elevators. The museum turns out to be quite interesting, even though they have not much on the GN. Some old photo's and postcards of the town and railroad, and a REA baggage cart are pretty much it. They have some nice displays of, among other things, a general store, school room and a homestead. The homestead has wallpapering made of turn of the century newspapers in, what looks like, Slovakian, locally printed with English ads! I also find some English newspapers with one mentioning the largest order of freight cars ever, placed by the USRA. You never know where you'll find what. After admiring the collection and a beautiful mural depicting the local countryside, I go back outside to take some pictures of the train order signal and railroad crossing signal nearby. With hours to spare before the Rocky's Rails discussion starts tonight, I get back in the car with Bill Sornsin and drive back to Havre. We decide to fill the rest of the afternoon with some railfanning and head for the Buffalo Jump where there is a nice view of the mainline below. We talk about the practice of the Indians chasing the buffalo over the edge to get their supply of meat, and briefly discuss if we want to take the tour down the Jump in this heat. At that time the local tour guide appears and asks if we are interested in a tour. When we decline, she seems relieved. We don't blame her in this heat. We explain the real reason why we're here and she appears surprised about our hobby but remains interested to find out more. I'm sure she must have looked funny at us though, when we both jumped at the first blast of the horn of an eastbound train pulling around the Jump into the yard. In nice sunlight, we take photos of the train and the the yard. Then we say goodbye to the tour guide and change locations to the east side of town to look for a switcher at an elevator that Bill saw coming in on the westbound Empire Builder a couple of days earlier. We did not find the elevator right away. Then we notice a train approaching in the distance. A quick U-turn and a dirt road take us trackside, where a SD40-2 powered train is waiting in the hole. We strike up a conversation with the engineer, and find out that the approaching train will have to wait a little while before it can pull into town. We also ask for a good place for dinner (who knows better than the locals!) and are recommended a good pizza place. Waiting, we spend the time taking pictures of the SD40-2's. Then the expected westbound pulls into town. We take photos of the engines, and I also capture a brand new set of TTX 53' well cars on film. Bill notices some sheds along the tracks and identifies them as old section houses, now in use at the adjacent junk yard. More pictures are taken. Getting hungry we return to town, stopping first at the elevator to see the switcher. Sooner than expected we spot the pizza place. It turns out to be carry-out only. We order and decide to not wait the thirty minutes it will take to make them, but spend the time looking around the yard. Following a parallel road we find no Rocky's, but we do find two MOW cars, a tank car and a sand car, we think might be ex GN (they turn out not to be). After searching for Great Northern cars in a fence made out of old boxcar bodies and not finding any, it's time to get the pizza which we eat at the hotel. It sure was the best pizza I had in a while! Time now to get back to the convention and listen to the interesting and sometimes humorous personal stories of Great Northern vets at Rocky's Rails. Another day well spent, we return to our hotels and make it an early night, for tomorrow we will have to get up early for the highlight of this convention.
Day 7, Wednesday July 23: GNRHS Convention Havre
The last, but most interesting day of the convention starts early; at 7:40 AM we're expected at the Havre diesel shops, much earlier than originally planned because of the extensive program the BNSF has planned for us. This promises something! At the entrance to the shops we're greeted by the GE manager in charge of the contract maintenance on the GE units assigned to the Havre facility. He gives us a interesting account of the way GE and BNSF work together to maintain the fleet of GE units, and welcomes our many questions while we are waiting to go in. In small groups we go inside where the Havre Shops Safety Officer gives us a tour of the backrooms and shows one of the bays, where we witness a unit pulling in. It has its prime mover shut down, moving on external electric power supplied directly to the traction motors, a measure implemented because of health issues with running diesel engines inside the building. Then it's time to move upstairs for a presentation by the Shop Superintendent. An hour long PowerPoint presentation tells us about the BNSF maintenance facilities, the history of the Havre facility, the function of the separate buildings and the movement of the units through the facility depending on their needs. A very nice presentation, to say the least. We also learn that the current turntable is actually the original GN turntable, although recently moved to a location further east (so I could take pictures of it from my hotel room, I'm sure). Then we finally get to the area we all wanted to see; the engine bays. We are allowed to walk around freely in the first four bays, which were cleared and cleaned especially for us. Wow, what a hospitality! As a special treat two locomotives have been opened up for us to inspect, one of them being a GN veteran! GN passenger engine SDP40 #325 was brought in for us, and was being prepared for semi-retirement in storage. Great to see it up close inside and out. The doors to the, now empty, steam boiler room were also opened up for our viewing. For contrast a new GE C44-9W was present, also opened up and available to be inspected. After admiring the inside of the shops, we were directed to the bus to take us to the Havre Railroad Museum, a nice little museum with lots of GN photo's and memorabilia as well as some real RR artifacts. Then it's time for lunch at the Eagles. A chance to rest a little and wait for the next tour; the Havre underground. The Havre underground was established after a fire burned down the town. It allowed the town folk to continue their regular business under ground while the town was rebuilt above ground. A maze of basements was connected to house all kinds of businesses from a butchers shop and ice cream parlor (with 'Rocky' inspired ice cream), to a saloon and even a house of ill repute. Used until the late 1950's, it is now turned into a museum, rebuilt to show a cross section of the businesses that were once housed there. Back above ground in the bright daylight we find out that, due to the extended tour of the Havre shops, the planned group photo at #2584 fell through. We can still go visit her on our own though, as well as the depot next door, which some of us decide to do. With a group of conventioneers, including GN vets like Bob Downing, we await the arrival of the eastbound and westbound Empire Builder, discussing the GN and Amtrak, while listening to the nice sound of the whistle on #2584 which BNSF shop personnel operated for us using compressed air. We say goodbye to Bill Sornsin, who is leaving the convention early, to work home on the westbound Empire Builder as a National Park Service volunteer, narrating the trip through Glacier Park. Then we catch the last bus back to the hotels, to freshen up for the Banquet. The Banquet is held at the Duck Inn. After we all get settled in at our tables, it's time for the usual speeches and award presentation to some of the GNRHS volunteers for their continued outstanding work and commitment. The major of Havre also shows up for a speech, but decides to cut his 20 minute slot short to about 20 seconds. He does make us feel welcome in his town though, as had so many local people that made this convention possible. After pleading a case for preserving the (to my knowledge) last GN wood water tower standing in Des Lacs, ND and the observation car near Kevin, MT to GNRHS President Jim Larson, it was time to say goodbye to all old and new friends, hoping to see them all next year at the convention in Spokane. (Look for more photos of the GNRHS 2003 Havre convention on the GNRHS website.)
Continue to Part 3 of my 2003 GN Finding Trip.