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Thread: Grainy Afternoon

  1. #1
    Two23 Guest

    Default Grainy Afternoon

    About a month or so ago I was working in west central Minnesota, following the BNSF's Marshall sub north of Marshall MN on Hwy 23. Where the TC&W (Twin Cities & Western) tracks cross the BNSF tracks near Hanley Falls there is an ethanol plant. I should say, yet another ethanol plant. It is serviced by TC&W which interchanges the DDG hoppers and tankers with BNSF a mile or two to the west. The TC&W tracks are the old Milwaukee's, and the BNSF is former Great Northern running from Willmar MN to Sioux Falls SD (splitting to go on to Sioux City, IA.) The plant runs 24/7 and trains can be seen about any time of day. Unfortunately, there was nothing moving at the ethanol plant when I showed up.

    Nikon F100
    Nikon 80-200mm f2.8
    polarizer


    Kent in SD
    Last edited by Two23; 12-11-2006 at 03:21 AM.

  2. #2
    Two23 Guest

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    I had to work in Redwood Falls MN, so I followed the TC&W line east. I quickly came to the tiny town of Sacred Heart. From the highway I could see there was some activity at the very small elevator on the north edge of town, so I slowly crept in for a look. At first I thought they were loading hoppers, but when I get closer I saw they were UNloading them. This is very unusual. These small elevators are the collection points for corn. The corn comes directly from the farms in either huge 1,000 bushel semi-trailers or in a string of grain carts pulled by a tractor, straight from the field. It's hard to get photos of corn being dumped from a RR hopper because this generally happens only at huge regional elevators, barge terminals, or ethanol plants. All of these are difficult to get permission to photo up close. A small grain elevator is usually a cinch to get permission, if you approach them right. Most everyone who works at a grain elevator is a Good Old Boy, small town type. Being a life long Good Old Boy, I knew how to approach them right!

    Here, they are using a John Deere construction tractor to push empty hoppers out of the way. This is a common sight at these small elevators. The same tractor that scoops up grain from the dump piles, digs out the snow, will also act as a John Deere switch engine with the rolling stock.

    Nikon 80-200mm f2.8
    Provia 100F


    Kent in SD
    Last edited by Two23; 12-10-2006 at 08:33 PM.

  3. #3
    Two23 Guest

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    Usually the tractor simply pushes the hoppers with the bucket, or pulls them along with a big 2 inch thick tow rope. This one has a pretty cool car coupler mounted though. I've not seen one of these before. Pretty fancy!

    I've seen hopper cars moved in all sorts of ways at these kinds of places. My all time favorite was the place that moved them with a Bobcat. A guy was pushing a couple of cars across a road when they got away from him. He wasn't using a rope. The cars took off down the tracks like a pair of rabbits. Fortunately there was a kid hanging on the front end of the lead hopper. He had the presence of mind to clamp down on the wheel brake, slowly stopping the hoppers. FRA would have loved to see all that, wouldn't they?
    Last edited by Two23; 12-11-2006 at 02:33 AM.

  4. #4
    Two23 Guest

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    After taking a few shots from the south, which didn't amount to much because the dust was obscuring the action and the workers were on the other side of the train, I got brave and walked across the TC&W mainline, around the hopper string, and up to where the two guys were working. I asked about the crops that were being brought in, what % was out of the field, and (most interesting to me) how come they were dumping corn out of a hopper HERE rather than loading it. They said they have another, bigger elevator about 8 miles down the tracks but the corn dryer was broken. Corn has to be dried to a uniform moisture content (14% I think) before shipping. They said the TC&W has been hauling hoppers from the Danube elevator about a dozen at a time so they can dry it, then ship it off. That's the beauty of a small regional railroad. Can't imagine BNSF fooling around with a dozen or so hoppers, can you? I asked if it would be OK if I took some shots of the corn going down, and they said sure. Woo Hoo! I took off my 80-200mm lens and stuck on my Nikon 18-35mm. I wondered how the heck I would be able to do that when I started using a DSLR, considering the thick dust in the air.

    On the original slide, you can see the date on the rail--1910. Nearly 100 years old and still working! No doubt this track was once on the Milwaukee mainline somewhere. A lot of cool steamers have gone over it. All of the TC&W is jointed rail.

    Nikon 18-35mm
    Nikon SB-28 flash
    Last edited by Two23; 12-11-2006 at 02:31 AM.

  5. #5
    Two23 Guest

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    The corn is dumped through the grate where it lands on a conveyor belt that runs down in the ground. It is then carried to a conveyor belt of sorts with little rectangular buckets on it that runs it up into the elevator (this is how elevators got the name, they "elevate" the grain) to the manifold. The manifold opens the selected pipe and the grain simply slides down it into the bin they want it in. In this case, the corn was being dropped into the dryer. The dryer is a huge upright cylinder heated by propane to take the moisture out. If you've ever driven past an elevator and seen a cylinder steaming like crazy, that was the dryer.
    Last edited by Two23; 12-10-2006 at 08:40 PM.

  6. #6
    Two23 Guest

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    Roger was using a metal bar to open the hopper door. (The tops, where the grain goes in are called "hatches" or "lids".) I asked if I could get a few shots of him doing that. At large elevators a big shaft with a 1 inch square bit connected to an electric motor is used to "drill" open the cams to open the doors.

    How close was I getting? I bumped my head on the hopper cars a couple of times. Things are pretty relaxed out here in Branchline Land as far as photographers. Shots like these show why I love ultrawide lenses, and I often use fill flash in my RR shots. More than most guys, anyway.
    Last edited by Two23; 12-10-2006 at 01:12 AM.

  7. #7
    Two23 Guest

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    Each covered hopper car contains a bit less than 4,000 bushels. Each railcar has 3 compartments, called "hoppers." Thus, this is a 3-bottom hopper, which is pretty standard. The hoppers were taking about 5 minutes each to unload. Because of the smaller, slower conveyor belt they couldn't open the doors all the way. Here, Bill comes out of the tractor to open the door using the metal bar. The underground conveyor belt mentioned earlier runs a couple of feet under the concrete slab from the grate to the main elevator behind.
    Last edited by Two23; 12-10-2006 at 08:42 PM.

  8. #8
    Two23 Guest

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    Roger went to lunch and I actually ended up helping Bill line up the hopper bottom to the grate while he pushed them with the tractor. I cranked open the last four doors for them. The cars are harder to spot than they looked because the grate is narrow and the slack between the cars makes it less than precise. I used hand signals. I did get pretty dusty though, and had to wash off my face and hands at a gas station. My camera was coated white with fine dust. Using a D80 digital will be a real challenge in these conditions!!!! Here's a close up of the grain chute. This is mostly used to load corn into semi-trailers for local use, such as cattle feed. I constantly keep my eyes open for detail shots like this. They are fun!

    Nikon 80-200mm f2.8
    Last edited by Two23; 12-10-2006 at 08:45 PM.

  9. #9
    Two23 Guest

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    Further east along the tracks there is a sugar plant in Danube, MN. This is far enough north that they grow sugar beets. These are often smelly places. The BNSF hauls coal up there to fire most of these plants. Here, I was fortunate to catch a RRV&W train. The Red River Valley & Western is a shortline that mostly operates in North Dakota servicing sugar beet plants and grain elevators. There are some BIG sugar plants in Wapehton, ND, about an hour south of Fargo on the MN/ND border. The train was being operated by a TC&W crew. I'm not exactly sure how RRV&W engines ended up on the TC&W since they don't have a direct interchange. There seems to be a lot of "horse trading" done between these shortlines out here that can mystify even a semi-local like me!

    http://www.rrvw.net/PROFILE.HTM
    http://www.tcwr.net/index.html


    And with that I went on to make my sales calls. I caught a couple of trains on the BNSF Marshall Sub on the way home, but that's another story. This was pretty much how a typical week day goes for me.


    Nikon 80-400mm VR
    Hoya SMC polarizer


    Kent in SD
    Last edited by Two23; 12-10-2006 at 03:56 AM.

  10. Default

    Kent - I like this. I believe that it is really more of an article than an essay, and that's just fine. The photos are great and I like the flow of the text. I got a little confused over the conveyor belt description - maybe that part could be a little clearer. A minor detail is that you explain the name of the RRV&W but not the TC&W. Other than that - I think it'll be ready after minor text tweaking.

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