Union Pacific Big Boy After Action Report

The Union Pacific 4014 Near Arapahoe, Colorado.
Union Pacific “Big Boy” Steam Train Passing Abandoned Grain Silos in Arapahoe, Colorado

Over Labor Day weekend, my friend Tim and I traveled to Western Kansas to chase the Union Pacific Big Boy back to Denver. It was a two day photography trip that began in the small town of Sharon Springs, KS and ended up along Interstate 70 between the towns of Deer Trail and Limon, Colorado.

I had planned this trip several months in advance. Formulating scenes in my head and then trying to recreate those scenes on the ground. As is usually the case, we had to make adjustments to the realities of the situation, but for the most part, I got what I was looking for in the way of photographs.

The weather was superb, with sunny skies and scattered white clouds. The primary route we worked was along US Highway 40 between Limon and Sharon Springs. A desolate stretch of roadway with very little traffic, until it came time to actually chase the train as it traveled West along the highway. I can’t recall a shoot in the past where there were so many people lined up along the route and chasing in vehicles.

Union Pacific had been running this locomotive for most of August on a grand tour of the Midwest and this trip was the final stretch back to Denver and on north to Cheyenne, WY where the locomotive is based.

The basic premise of the shoot would be to identify specific spots for photography along the route. Once the train passed by, we would jump in the car and then drive out ahead of the train to the next spot and wait for it to pass by for photographs. This works well if there isn’t a lot of traffic, but we found out early on Sunday morning that we weren’t the only people to formulate this approach. Today’s photo was our first scene of the day on Sunday, with the train moving west through Arapahoe, Colorado, directly in front of abandoned grain silos just off the highway. We had found this location the day before and got there bright and early at 8 am with the train expected to pass by around 9 am. We were dead on with our estimate, as the train passed by the silos at 9:01 am. We were the first people on the location and I fully expected to see a few more show up before the train got there. A few more doesn’t come close to what actually happened. Cars and pickup trucks began showing up and by the time the train got there it had turned into a traffic quagmire along the highway. This was a big deal. We noted travelers from around the country. Once the train passed by, we tried to get back on the highway to drive out ahead of the train only to find ourselves stuck in a long line of cars pacing with the train. The two most forward vehicles in the line were pacing with the locomotive and that prevented everyone from getting ahead of the train. Folks were impatient and began passing along the two lane blacktop, sometimes having to drive a long distance in the wrong lane. It took about 30 miles of road for us to finally get to a point where we could safely pass the two leading vehicles who had bogged things down. We made it to the next shooting location with about 5 minutes to spare some 30 miles up the road West from Arapahoe.

Logistically, the trip was problematic. Rural Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas is primarily farm country. Towns are generally scattered at 30 mile intervals, and almost every small town we traveled through appeared to be in economic distress. There were very few restaurants and diners along the route, and many others closed down. Folks living there have a hard life compared to the suburbs of Denver. I can see how something as interesting as a rare look of a vintage steam locomotive would attract people for miles.

Artistically, I had decided before the trip to make photographs that showed the train in motion in specific plains environments. I wanted to capture detailed and representative scenes that would show what the average person would see if they were watching the train as it passed by. The rural environment was an essential element of my compositions. I avoided capturing crowds and attempting artsy photos. Clean, clear, depictive images of the train in its environment was what I was after. My compositions reflect the scenes as I viewed them from where I was situated along it’s route. I tried to make use of the scattered grain silos that are common in this part of the country. It worked out well I think. I got what I was after.

My photographic kit for the trip was fairly simple. I used a Nikon D850 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 VR lens for the closer wide angle shots and I used a Nikon D810 with the 70-200mm f/4 VR for the longer approach photos. I never swapped a lens and I ended up taking a little over 100 photos over the two days. All of my photos were hand held in good light.

We made it home late in the afternoon on Sunday and I’ve only now begun editing the photos. It was a great trip with a good friend. Low stress travel and an exciting subject made it all worth while. I can hardly wait for my next train photography adventure. These opportunities are far and few between these days.