The other guys had gotten a speeding ticket, unbeknownst to us. Although they had suggested our destination – a supposed steakhouse – they were nowhere to be found and just outside of cell-phone range. So we got off I-90, made a right at the ‘T’, and headed into Logan, Montana where we were really hoping to find this steakhouse.
We crawl by the lone streetlight in town, and quickly realize that all the roads are made of gravel. It’s dark as dark can be. We barely identify the Montana Rail Link line and determine that we’re in the right town. We follow the GPS’s directions and travel down another gravel road. “The destination is on your right.” echoes the GPS, to wit we say “bullshit!”. A burned out building stands to the right. Perplexed, we creep further down the street only to find an oasis in Logan: The Land of Magic Steakhouse. The parking lot is nearly empty, and we arrived just a bit before their scheduled closing time of 9:00pm.
So in we go, and a nice lady assures us we’re not too late. “Even though the other guys are 15 minutes behind?” “It’s no problem. I own the place!” That became clear to us quickly. A round of beers was quickly dispensed. Then we each got fresh hot loaves of bread, each with a big steak-knife with which to slice it. As our friends arrived, the “relish trays” came out. Rather strange, but rather tasty, the relish tray is a Land of Magic tradition. Some cauliflower, carrots, baby pickles, etc. Another round of beers. Then we got the split pea and ham soup, because we were told we had to, because it was good and we would like it. This lady (Beth, as it turned out) was going to ensure that we enjoyed ourselves whether we liked it or not. So it goes: escargot stuffed mushrooms. Then we each get a huge bowl of tiny prawns with cocktail sauce. Then some killer steaks. Lou got the ribs, and made quite a dent in them. I think most of us got New York Strip, with a twice-baked potato. After that? Your choice of ice cream: Turtle, caramel, chocolate, or raspberry. But you should get the turtle. (The raspberry was pretty good, too.)
Longtime friend Peter McGilligan established the tradition of the annual Fall Trip, with my first back in October 1991. Over the years, our social group expanded and merged and folded with others. Most years we had some sort of a Fall Trip, usually to the mountains where the leaves would be pretty – and there would be trains. The number of us on these trips grew and grew, culminating with the largest group in 2012 when three carloads of railfans came together for an epic trip on the Delaware-Lackawanna, Delaware & Hudson, and NYSW.
Peter fell ill and missed our trip in 2012, and sadly passed away shortly thereafter. That 2012 trip was at our old home base, The Station Inn in Cresson, Penn. 2013 was a crazy year and we didn’t really get together as a group. So, for 2014, we decided to make it a good one – and chose Montana as our destination. A bonus for this trip was that Montana Rail Link leased 9 venerable SD45s to the BNSF and was utilizing them in captive service between Spokane and Laurel.
But all of that is getting off-topic. Back to Logan. One hallmark of Peter’s fall trips was the intersection of rugged mountain railroading, a “proper breakfast”, and excellent dinners. Fall Trip 2014 certainly befit the tradition, especially at the Land of Magic. After dinner, we had a look at the MRL local, laid over for the evening. With full bellies and a bit of a beverage-induced “warmth” we headed back to the hotel for some rest.
The next day, we started out in Bozeman and spent the day on Bozeman Pass, then over to Lombard Canyon, and ended in Toston. Which is to say that we had planned our day to end reasonably near Logan so that we could do it all again for dinner! (And here is where I confess that the above photo was actually taken on the 2nd night.) And again we had a great round of food, drinks, and a great time. And with some eagerness we set off again for the hotel, in anticipation of another big day on the MRL.
We barely enjoyed our Hampton Inn breakfast for a second when Jon caught wind of the MRL 328 pulling out of Bozeman on his radio. Crap! SD45s! Gotta run! We made like a bread truck and got outta there as fast as we could, catching up with the MSPOLAU just out of town. We got a few shots along I-90 and then headed into West End to watch (and listen) to the MSPOLAU grind up to the top of the Bozeman Summit.
Take a listen! The fans were out in droves to catch the SPOLAU’s ascent:
and we continued the case down into Livingston and further. The weather was dismal but the sound of 60 cylinders of 645s did more than overcome that. Down we went into Livingston, Mike and I opting to shoot at the former Northern Pacific station.
We decided to press on to East Livingston, where I did some video and stills. (The East Livingston bit is the 2nd half of the video…)
We watched the MSPOLAU continue its journey east, while opting ourselves to head west again.
But with that, Mike and I headed back to Bozeman while the others made their way back to Logan. The group rejoined at Logan where we eagerly awaited the next act. Perched atop a small mound at the west end of town, we got to see the beginning of the “daily dance” at Logan. Each day, the MRL 840 local comes to Logan from Helena, where a well-orchestrated swap of cars takes place with the 844 local there. The two crews make this juggle with precise professionalism, and before an hour passes, the 840 is on its way west and the 844 begins a 25+ mile trek down the Fifth Sub to Sappington. Listen to some radio chatter as the two locals coordinate their daily swap:
It’s fun to recount the day’s events photographically, while listening to the recording:
Finally, the MRL 844 local heads out of Logan to make its way down the Fifth Sub to Sappington.
Eagerly awaiting the chase, we hurried out of Logan too, only to realize that the 844 was going to switch the first customer outside of town, an ethanol plant up along the highway.
We left Logan behind as we chased the 844 down the Fifth, photographing several times including the Imerys talc plant in Three Forks, and then again at Willow Creek where a BNSF ballast hopper was set out.
We continued along to Sappington, but my shot there isn’t worth your time. After this, we all headed back to Missoula for the next act: the westbound Night Gas Local. We perched ourselves at the Evaro Loops near Desmet, and watched the sun and the rain fight an epic battle. Before long we heard a pair of brand-new EMD SD70ACes doing the same thing – fighting the grade and the rain, dragging a big train full of logs and gas bound for Thompson Falls. Here again, I’m glad I remembered to use the audio recorder, as it makes the photos a lot more fun!
Watching this 8600-horsepower train struggle up the hill, in dramatic light? Epic. And so was the ensuing chase along MRL’s 10th Subdivision. Fast driving and quicker thinking were required to stay ahead of the train and get into some good locations. Mike’s previous trips and Jon’s studious research combined into a stellar “payoff” of rail photography. Lou, Dave, and I were really just along for the ride!
And like that – after over 800 miles of driving, we had started out in the Land of Magic and ended up in Paradise. Our group gathered up at Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort for an incredible meal, great beers, and a very relaxing night. Just as Peter himself would have intended, we enjoyed excellent food and drink, culminating in a couple rounds of bourbon while relaxing in the hot springs themselves, listening to the distant rumbling of grain trains on the nearby 10th sub. We recounted our adventures from the last three epic days, three excellent nights, with great friends and great mountain railroading, on a great railroad. And with all of that, we still had another full day of railroading ahead of us. Land of Magic, indeed!