Trip: Pilgrimage to Helper, 2001

A Look Back on an Iconic Railfan Excursion

For a period just before and after the turn of the millennium, the small railroad town of Helper, Utah became Jerusalem for Rio Grande fans. This might seem odd, a decade after the D&RGW merged into the Southern Pacific. But after the SP itself was absorbed by the Union Pacific, the managers at Helper began a campaign to corral a large number of the remaining D&RGW locomotives, gathering them from all over the SP/UP system. For several years one could find up to a dozen big six-axle locos based out of Helper, shoving heavy trains over Soldier Summit and working with the local traffic in the area.

This concentration of Rio Grande alumni drew railfans like flies to a cookout. The growing popularity of the internet in those years contributed to the fever, and it seemed that every week one read yet another trip report from someone who had gone to Helper, camera in hand, to record the action.

Unfortunately, other forces were also at work. First, these black-and-gold locomotives were all a couple of decades old or more, and were beginning to show it; mechanical issues became more and more frequent as time went on.  Second, the late 1990s saw the advent of a new technology, Distributed Power, whereby locomotives could be remotely controlled in the helper positions on a train without requiring crew on them.  As a result, many trains that formerly got a manned helper at Helper operated instead with mid-train and/or end-train remote units that stayed with them from terminal to terminal.  While not immediately eliminating the use of manned helpers, it certainly reduced it.  By the year 2000 the DRGW alumni population in Helper began to dwindle.  And the third factor was Union Pacific itself, whose management was committed to implementing a uniform corporate image system-wide.  Holdouts whose loyalties went back two mergers were not generally supported.

By the time I got around to making my own pilgrimage, it was November of 2001. The impetus was my receipt of a book contract, and I wanted to get some photos of Rio Grande equipment while it was still possible. By this point, the main job remaining for the shrunken Helper fleet was the “Dirt Train”.  This was a daily job that hauled strings of garbage containers originating in the Salt Lake area out to a landfill near Sunnyside.  Ignominious work for the classic locomotives, it is true, but it was work nonetheless. So I packed up the family and we made the evening trip up to Price, where we checked into a motel and prepared for the next day’s train-chasing.

The first thing we heard in the morning– November 10, 2001–  was the scanner telling me that Amtrak 6 was actually on time, and passed through Price while we were barely awake.  Scratch that idea…

Helper_01Leaving the kids in bed, we loaded up for the morning’s activities and headed up to Helper yard, where the train would be assembled. The sun was catching the tips of the Book Cliffs behind town but the town was still in shadow as we arrived at 7:15 AM and found a three-unit power consist getting ready for the day.  It being Saturday, the train would be taking loaded trash cars out to Sunnyside and return light (no cars).  I had managed to arrive just before the crew boarded.

And this is where my trouble with cameras began.  As you can see, I didn’t get the tripod quite level.  I was shooting slide film, and had a BAD misunderstanding about what it meant to “push” the film, resulting in me underexposing all day.  It was terribly dim anyway.  Sigh.

[By the way, you can click these pictures to get larger versions.]


In the shot above, the crew is preparing to move down to the yard throat.  The dirt train cars– large open containers (tarped) on flatcars– are visible at right.


Here we’ve moved over to the east side of the yard.  The power has moved to the south end and is preparing to back onto the train.


I have included the slightly-redundant shot above because this was the one and only time this entire day where I got any direct sunlight on the subject!  The locomotives today were SD40T-2’s No. 5390, 5401, and 5377.

As the crew assembled the train, we moved a couple of miles east (compass south) to a nice vantage between Spring Glenn and Carbonville.


This shot eventually made it into the book.  I only wish I hadn’t clipped the top of the cliffs…


Here the train rolls past us on its way south.  It was a little dim to be taking photos of moving subjects from this close, but I like the result anyway.

After that shot there was no catching the train before it got away from roads, so we just drove down to the junction of Mounds to await its climb up from Wellington.


Here the train is topping the grade and getting ready to leave the main line for the branch.  I liked the way that the cab windshield was reflecting the light (what there was of it).


The shot shows the train as it diverts onto the Sunnyside branch lead.  The main track is two over to the left.


Another perspective on the approaching train.  This image also made it into the book.

The Sunnyside branch makes several looping wiggles as it works its way to the north-east of Mounds.  Here are several skyline shots of the train during the first mile or so after leaving the main.




In the shot above, you can see (roughly) the destination of the train.  Well, in generalities, anyway.  The Sunnyside landfill operation is at the bottom of the cliffs in the far distance.

After this sequence, we drove back out to the highway and headed east to Sunnyside.  There are a few tracks at the transfer facility; normally a string of empties would be waiting for return. As mentioned, it being Saturday, no empty train awaited.  I’m still unclear about the sequencing of the movements; apparently today’s cars would be unloaded over the weekend and pulled out on Monday, but don’t quote me.


Here the train has arrived and is preparing to drop the inbound loads.

Remember me mentioning trouble with cameras? I had my wife recording things on our camcorder.  Sometime about now we discovered that the tape had broken.  We didn’t even know if we got anything at all on video.  One day I need to attempt a repair and see.

As an aside, there was another railfan out there this day, someone I was acquainted with on the email list we all frequented at the time.  He followed us around a bit, and we even had dinner together that evening.  He was kind of a strange guy– and also managed to stick me with the check for dinner!  At one point he asked my wife, “Are you also a train enthusiast?”  And she responded, “No, but I’m a Jim Enthusiast!”  Sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me!

A few years later I heard on KOA Radio that this guy had been arrested for voyeurism of a most heinous kind.  He was incarcerated for it.  Yep, it’s a weird world…

Back to the subject at hand.  After dropping the cars, the power ran around them and prepared to head back to the barn. While all that was going on, I roamed around and got a few more terrible photos, including the backlit one below.  The operators of the landfill, ECDC, rostered their own switch engine, an ex-SP SD9.


You can see by the car behind the locomotive that not every freight car out here was a trash container flat.  I didn’t see what it was hauling, though.

We decided not to chase the Dirt Train power back west, but headed into town for some lunch.  Here is my parting shot, this time of the other end of the consist where No. 5377 was positioned.


(Don’t ask me how I managed to frame that image so poorly…)

I decided to spend the afternoon west of Helper, on the climb to Soldier Summit.  We collected the kids from the motel, had lunch, and went back to the Helper yard where a westbound coal train was cutting in helpers. These helpers were Utah Railway units, mostly their unique MK-5000 locomotives that they’d picked up from SP.  The road power on the train consisted of UP units, but it was still a Utah train.


In this shot, the coal train has been cut so that the helpers (right) could cut in.  Visible through the gap was a fourth D&RGW tunnel motor, No. 5371.

After they put the train together it headed west up the hill to Soldier Summit.  We leapfrogged it for most of the climb.  Below is a look at the helper set as it exits one of the tunnels at Nolan.


By this point, everybody in the party was exhausted (or just tired of it), so we headed back down to Helper.  We went up on the hill west of downtown and got a few overviews of the yard, like this one:


By now the Dirt Train power had returned.  It was really nice to get all four of the Rio Grande tunnel motors gathered around the enginehouse.  This was the last time I ever saw so many together at once.

As of this writing, nearly 18 years have passed.  Manned helpers are nearly as rare as the dodo.  Rio Grande units no longer roam their home tracks in original colors.  One of the locomotives we saw, the 5371, ended up being the last operational tunnel motor that was not renumbered; it now resides in the railroad museum in Ogden.  Helper as a town has lost much of its railroading purpose; the rail line itself is far less busy than it once was.  Little coal ships from the Castle Valley.  I’m not even certain whether the Dirt Train still runs — the last report I have dates to 2011.  But there was a time, not that long ago, when Helper was still home to the Rio Grande tunnel motors, and we all made our trips there to do homage to them.


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