The Grand Excursion with Milwaukee 261

The year 1854 marked the completion of the Chicago & Rock Island railroad between its namesake cities – Chicago, Illinois, and Rock Island, Illinois. It also marked the start of one of the most notable achievements in the westward expansion of US railroading – a bridge across the mighty Mississippi River to Davenport, Iowa. While the bridge wasn’t to be completed until 1856, continuous rails from the east coast to the Mississippi were notable enough. Henry Farnam, one of the owners of the contracting company that actually built the line, chartered a “Grand Excursion” of shareholders, notable citizens, and family. The excursion would, of course, take them west from Chicago over the new line, and then on from Rock Island to St. Paul, Minnesota, via riverboat. Obviously this was a boondoggle in its own right, but more importantly it was designed to familiarize these wealthy and powerful individuals with the area, hopefully to spur investment. As it would turn it, it apparently worked, with the northern Mississippi basin becoming a thriving region in the decades to follow.

In the summer of 2004, cities up and down the corridor held an anniversary celebration of this original excursion, known as the Grand Excursion of 2004. The event’s website can still be found here. As part of this, Milwaukee 261, an 1944 Alco-built 4-8-4 Northern, was to pull several special trains around the region. (Photo #1) For the sake of record, I’ve listed the various runs below.

20-Jun-2005Minneapolis, MNMilwaukee, WIVia CP Rail
22-Jun-2005Milwaukee, WIChicago, IL86 miles via CPR
25-Jun-2005Chicago, ILRock Island, ILVia BNSF through Galesburg
26-Jun-2005Davenport, IASavanna, IL116 miles round trip, via IC&E
27-Jun-2005Rock Island, ILBureau, IL134 miles round trip, via IAIS
28-Jun-2005Davenport, IADubuque, IA100 miles via IC&E
29-Jun-2005Dubuque, IALa Crosse, WI140 miles via IC&E
2-Jul-2005St. Paul, MNSt. Paul, MNBNSF/CPR via Winona, MN
3-Jul-2005St. Paul, MNLa Crescent, MNVia CP Rail

I hadn’t anticipated being home for the run at all, despite the appeal of seeing a coal-burner run up and down the Mississippi. I’d intended to use the vacation a few weeks later to come home and capture the last days of Iowa Interstate’s fist generation diesels. However, my grandmother passed away very unexpectedly on 20-Jun-2004, so everything planned just went out the window. I was headed for Memphis, TN, for work at the time, so I managed to catch Amtrak’s City of New Orleans into Chicago, and then the westbound Zephyr to Galesburg, arriving on 24-Jun-2004. The funeral was on Friday morning, 25-Jun-2004, and I didn’t get a seat home until Saturday night. That left Saturday open for something interesting, if for no other reason that to take my mind off events at hand. What better way to cheer up than railfanning, and it just so happened that the 25th would be the trip up the Iowa side of the river…

I’d actually seen the 261 on the short trip (via Amtrak’s California Zephyr) between Chicago and Galesburg on 24-Jun-2004. It was sitting in a small yard on the south side of BNSF’s mainline. A day later on Friday, it traveled from Chicago over to Rock Island via the BNSF. Friday night, it was positioned in the BNSF yard in Rock Island under the Centennial Bridge. Due to family reasons, I didn’t make it over there until later, about 1930h, just in time to shoot it in the twilight. There were hundreds of people about – fans of all ages, curious locals, etc. It’s good to see that a steam engine still brings them out! (Photos #2-3)

I started the morning in downtown Davenport, with about a zillion other fans and onlookers. The train was assembled and staged just west/south of the Centennial Bridge on the Iowa side of the river. The train’s consist, from front to back, was:

  • MILW 261 and extra water tender
  • AMTK 135 & AMTK 123 (P42DCs)
  • NSR 1615 (painted as Milwaukee Grand Canyon)
  • NSR 31 (painted as Milwaukee Minnesota River)
  • 800861 (Arizona)
  • 800725 (MARL, painted as Union Pacific Echo Canyon)
  • 800748 (MARL, painted as Southern Pacific Golden Sand)
  • 800723 (MARL, painted as Santa Fe Tolani)
  • 800726 (painted as CB&Q, California Zephyr, Silver Larch)
  • AMTK 54513 (painted Amtrak, Phase III)
  • AMTK 54578 (painted Amtrak, Phase III)
  • 800644 (painted Pennsylvania, Henry Hudson, see here)
  • 800??? (MARL, painted as Santa Fe Mohave, see here)
  • NSR 3103 (painted as Milwaukee Wisconsin Valley)
  • L&C 1202R (Lancaster & Chester’s J. Pinckney Henderson)
  • 800197 (painted Milwaukee Montana)
  • 800702 (painted Lamberts Point)
  • Some streamliner dome car
  • ?????? (painted Milwaukee Cedar Rapids)

I was running late, and only a couple minutes after I showed up, they pulled forward up to the old Davenport, Rock Island, & Northwestern (DRI Line) depot in downtown Davenport. I only managed to grab a shot or two of them starting to move (Photo #4).

My father, being much better prepared than I, was already in position to both capture it passing under the bridge and by John O’Donnell stadium (Photo #5 – It’s a great ballpark, by the way – if you like minor league baseball, go catch a game there if you’re in town…) He then also manage to best me for shots at the depot itself, waiting for the whistle off before snapping Photo #6, in order to get the people out of the way. Gee, railfanning’s like a second career to me (although one that pays very poorly), and it’s my father that rakes in the shots… Regardless, I was down a few blocks, catching the big smoke plume as they accelerated northwards, putting on a good show for the crowds. (Photo #7)

I got ahead of it again by northeastern Bettendorf, using a spot down in an industrial area that few others knew of (or at least didn’t stop for…) First came the IC&E pilot truck (Photo #8), then a few minutes late the train itself. I couldn’t pick between Photos 9 and 10, so I just threw them both in. From there, it was back on US 67 north, hopefully to catch another shot or two before Clinton. Bringing up the rear was the restored Milwaukee Road Skytop Lounge/Observation car Cedar Rapids – Photo #11.

This, my friends, is why I have a general rule against chasing mainline steam, or most other well-publicized moves. In addition to the regular crowds of onlookers, these moves always seem to bring out the worst, most annoying, inconsiderate, rude, socially inept, and irritating fans possible. Usually not more than a handful amongst the hundreds that show up, but just enough to foul up everything. I hate dealing with the line of idiots holding up everyone because they alone deserve the perfect pace shots… for a few hundred miles. Okay, maybe a few hundred miles is a bit extreme, but despite having nearly 20 miles, I never managed to get ahead of the train, nor even catch it thanks to a couple people that felt the need to pace it the whole way and ruin the day for the rest of us. (Let’s just say I hope all your video comes out blank or that your camcorder burst into flame with the tape in it…) I was perpetually pacing it from about a half-mile back or better. (Photo #12)

Let’s face it, I have an advantage on probably better than half of these foamers – I grew up here, I know the back roads, and dirt and gravel roads don’t bother me in the least. It’s how I knew about the Bettendorf spot… Unfortunately, that knowledge doesn’t help much on this run – US 67 is about the best and fastest way up the river. However, it goes around the small town of Comanche, just below Clinton. So, as the horde went right on by, I veered off into Comanche, feeling fairly certain that only a few fans, if any, would bother to shoot it there. Sure, I’d probably miss it in downtown Clinton, but at that point I was fuming and wanted a shot all to my own, devoid of other railfans. Aside from a van that sped past at the last second and kicked up a cloud of dust, I was all to myself with only a handful of locals about. That’s much better! (Photo #13)

After Comanche, I almost caught it again in Clinton, but missed it by about ten seconds. I just couldn’t get the car stopped fast enough. From there north, I decided not to risk any side trips down to the river, but rather to get decently far ahead and set up my shot on the Sabula, IA, causeway. Ahead of the main bridge across the Mississippi in Sabula, there’s a long causeway across some backwaters. It’s one of the legs of a wye – the south one going to Clinton and Davenport (where we just came from), the north one heading for Marquette and points north and west, and the east leg (the one on the causeway) heading on towards Chicago. I arrived with plenty of time, and as it turned out, they would wye the train and back across the river and into Savanna, IL, anyway. The bridge connecting the two is a through truss bridge with a swing span on the west end, constructed by the Milwaukee Road in 1906 to replace the first bridge, built in 1880. The causeway didn’t turn out to be the greatest shot, but I still happen to like it enough to include it as Photo #14. From there, I moved down to the south side of the main bridge, along with all eighteen zillion other fans, including those up watching by the drawbridge control signal (Photo #15). Still, things worked out fine, and I got my shots of it crossing the Mississippi on the Milwaukee’s old swing span (Photos #16-17).

Downtown Savanna was the northernmost point on the run for the day. The passengers would be let off to enjoy a few hours there, and then loaded up for the return trip to Davenport. (Photo #18) I certainly don’t envy the engineer on the IC&E freight in the background – he was trying to get through the crowds and head west across the river. This was also the last time I’d see the train, as I needed to get home and catch a train of my own (the westbound Zephyr out of Galesburg) back to Colorado. (Photo #19)

I leave you with three photos I couldn’t find other homes for… Savanna actually has two Milwaukee railcars sitting around town. One is caboose MILW 991933, now serving as a park office (Photo #20). The other is the Milwaukee’s passenger car, City of Savanna, which is preserved under a roof along the waterfront. (Photo #21) The other is a shot of the Cedar Rapids I particularly like, taken as the train passed through Comanche, IA. (Photo #22) I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get these posted.

I’d like to dedicate this to the memory of my late grandmother, Martha Jane Bryant (formerly Scranton) of Joy, IL, who was taken from us suddenly on 20-Jun-2004, a few days before the event and almost perfectly a year before I finished putting this together.

All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D using either a Canon 28-105mm USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.

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