Friday, January 15, 2016

BNSF Transcon in the Texas Panhandle

Above:  Eastbound Stacks on Codman Curve
Below:  Eastbound Stacks in Codman at Dusk

There is no one left in Codman, Texas.  From the Google Maps aerial photograph, coordinates 35.644611,-100.738385, you can see the faint remnants of streets and structures.  Last time I was there, I saw one small shed still standing.  I estimate that in another 10 years, all traces of habitation will have disappeared.  In some distant future, archaeologists may dig here, looking for traces of primitive civilization.

Today, you stand on a mesa and stare into the valley where Codman used to be, and all you see is short, beige grass that never changes color except after rains in spring when it turns green.  Oh, you also see the BNSF Transcon.

Westbound Stacks Approaching Codman in Winter With Cattle Pen in Foreground
Westbound Stacks In Summer Beneath Escarpment and Windmills
Codman began as an “end-of-track” tent town used during construction of the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railroad, which built a section foreman's house plus a bunkhouse for employees. A post office was established in 1892, closed a year later then opened again in 1901 when additional homes and businesses came to town.  

If you drive to Codman today on U.S. 60, you will be in Roberts County in the northeast Texas Panhandle – High Plains country so vast, deserted and harsh that nineteenth century geographers called it The Great American Desert.  West Texas and Oklahoma are oil and gas country, and drilling rigs and oil service trucks (Halliburton and Schlumberger) are as common as dust.  But the predominate feature of this region has been and remains the BNSF Chicago-to-California main line, i.e. the Transcon.  
Eastbound Unit Train After Crossing the Canadian River, Climbing Grade Through Stabilized Sand Dunes
The primary geographic obstacle in this country is the Canadian River, crossed by the Transcon at Canadian, Texas.  The river has carved some remarkable formations in the High Plains, some of which can be seen where the Union Pacific (former Rock Island) line to El Paso crosses at Logan, New Mexico.  At Canadian, however, the flood plane is wide, the bridge mundane.  After eastbounds cross the river, they climb a shallow grade through sand dunes now stabilized with native grasses and small trees in the gullies.  This is also cattle country, and livestock roam freely across the oil field roads that criss-cross the landscape.

NS Power on Texas High Plains

Eastbound Stacks 
Westbound Stacks Leaving Miami, Texas

Eastbound Manifest Above Cattle Pen, Climbing Stabilized Sand Dunes
Westbounds leave the river valley and follow Red Deer Creek upland through rugged mesa country latticed by more oil field roads.  The views from the bluffs are spectacular, but the railroad is obscured by cottonwoods.  The only town in Roberts County is Miami, population 597 in the 2010 census, which found only 929 people in the entire county.  

Miami sits in a small valley surrounded by mesas.  The town climbs the hills in spots and presents gorgeous views.  Codman is about eight miles down the line where the cottonwoods disappear.  Here the valley is devoid of all vegetation, save short grass, small yucca and tumbleweeds that roll like bowling balls in the wind.

Above:  Westbound Stacks Roaring Through Miami, Texas
Below:  Eastbound 

Westbound Approaching Codman Beneath Windmills

Driving northwest from Pampa, you cross some of the flattest land in North America. You feel that, if you stand on a chair, you will see Mexico to the south and Canada to the north. This could have been the part of Texas that Union General Philip Sheridan was thinking of when he said, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” However, all at once, the land recedes on all sides and you gaze into the amazingly picturesque Red Deer Creek Valley surrounded by mesas and populated with cattle, windmills and rabbits, with a busy railroad line in the middle.
Eastbound Intermodal on Codman Curve in Winter at Sunrise

Codman's most infamous moment came during elections in early Roberts County history.  Citizens were voting on a county seat location, with Parnell and Miami being the choices. (Parnell is another lost town.)  When Codman's population of eight or nine citizens turned in 55-plus votes in favor of Miami, a marshal came, arrested the election judges, voided the election results, and the county records were taken back to Parnell at gunpoint.
Eastbound Stacks in Red Deer Creek Valley

I enjoy railfanning this area early in the morning, before the wind picks up.  Then, if you are far enough from the highway to lose traffic noise, you can hear approaching trains long before you see them, and depending on your location, you can often see them five miles or more away.

Hottest of the Hot Z Train
Westbound with NS Power Between Miami and Codman

The post office closed a final time in May 1902.  Codman reported a store, two grain elevators, and a population of twenty-five in 1947.  The town site can still be reached on a dirt road called Codman Lane that winds down from the flatlands through washes and gullies, over several cattle guards, past one working windmill and two non-working specimens, and directly through the middle of a cattle herd.  
Eastbound Photographed from Codman Lane 

The grade here is part of a 50 mile downhill run from west of Pampa to Canadian.  Eastbound trains usually run at track speed up to 70 MPH if they are not meeting something or following a slower train.  Westbounds can gain a little speed between Miami and Codman, as much as seven or eight MPH, after slogging up a ruling 0.6 percent grade from Canadian.
Westbound From Codman Lane
Railroad photography at Codman differs significantly from season to season.  The tracks run roughly northeast to southwest, so that in winter the sun is always, all day long, on the east side of the tracks.  Shots from west of the Transcon are available only during roughly mid-March through mid-September.  The above image was taken from Codman Lane in June 2015.  Codman Lane is approached from state highway 282, which climbs the mesas west of town and looks back into the valley.  From the west side of the valley, you can photograph the entire length of an intermodal or grain train -- if you desire.  Many excellent vantage points can be reached simply by pulling off the highway and looking out your vehicle's window.  Other images may be taken from an oilfield road that winds along the bluffs before descending into the valley.  Westbound trains whistle at Miami, giving advance warning, while eastbound trains can be heard for miles as they approach along Red Deer Creek.

Immediately below is an image taken from the oil field road, showing the many windmills that were constructed in 2015 on the plateau.  I generally find these windmills unsightly but for some reason don't seem to mind them on these high plains, perhaps because they seem to fade into the immense landscape.

Westbound at Sunset
Westbound From Codman Lane Through the Valley of Red Deer Creek
Red Deer Creek, which carved the valley through which the Transcon runs southwest after crossing the Canadian River in Hemphill County, is bordered on either side by high escarpments.  Its valley from rim to rim measures from two miles at Codman to about five miles at Canadian, Texas.  Around Red Deer Creek Valley are dry channels and washes descending from the plateau down through the escarpment, carrying much sand and debris during heavy rains in spring.  

In the area of Roberts County where the above image was taken, the top of the Great Plains has not eroded.  As the photograph demonstrates,  the top layer of the escarpment is gypsum, much like the "Gloss Mountains" crossed by the Transcon at Curtis Hill in northwest Oklahoma.  The subsurface consists mostly of beige clay mixed with thin layers of sand.  There is also a layer of caliche -- a hardened natural cement of calcium carbonate that binds with sand and clay.     

Westward Movement at Codman Curve

One of my favorite locations for photographs is high above the valley on the east side of the US Highway 60, looking north toward a huge bend in the Transcon that I call “Codman Curve.”  The Google Maps coordinates are 35.654367, -100.679913.  With a long lens, you can frame the highway out of the shot and see only the massive curve which aligns the tracks toward Pampa, Amarillo and points farther West.
Same Train as Above, But About Quarter Mile to West, With US 60 in Foreground and Rear Pushers Headed into Codman Curve

Another in the Parade of Westbounds at Codman Curve
The elevation of Miami, Texas, is approximately 2,750 feet.  The average low temperature in January is 22 degrees, while the average high in July is 92.  Miami receives, on average, 23 inches of rain per year and 18 inches of snow.   The one constant of the weather in these parts is wind.  Most of the time, you will find calm or light wind only at sunrise.  As the day progresses, however, regardless of the time of year, winds will pick up.  In the winter, with the temperature in the teens or twenties, the weather can actually be more comfortable at dawn when there is little or no wind.  By ten o'clock, the wind may be blowing twenty miles per hour or more, a "light breeze" in the Texas panhandle, and you will be wearing every piece of cold weather gear in your vehicle.
Westbound on Codman Curve
For example, when the immediately above photograph was taken, my Jeep thermometer registered 18 degrees Fahrenheit.  But the wind was calm, and I was wearing a sweater and light jacket.  When the image immediately below was taken one hour later on the same morning at the same location, the thermometer registered 23 degrees.  I had retrieved my heavy gloves and heaviest jacket, because the wind was blowing with gusts to 30 MPH!

Another Westbound at Same Location
Westbound Z Train Taken From Highway in Miami, Texas

Although the harshest season in the High Plains, winter can be the most rewarding for railroad photography.  After a front comes through, the air is as clear as fine glass, without a hint of haze, and the prairie grass glows almost golden.  The sun is low in the southern sky, and the shadows are long -- perfect light for photography.  To my eyes, even though I know this is crazy, the motive power seems cleaner and brighter.  Plus, when you are photographing from the highway, as in the case of the above image, you can wait in your vehicle with the heater running!

Clear Winter Sky at Codman Curve

Another Winter Image Taken From the Highway

The stream of intermodal traffic on the Transcon seems almost limitless.  My own unscientific observations indicate that the busiest month of the year in the Texas Panhandle is October, and the busiest days are Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  When the images in this post were taken (2012 through 2015), I would often see three to four trains per hour on a Friday or Saturday.  Often a fleet of trains will run either east or west, sometimes five or more in a row, each train immediately behind the block of the trailers and stacks ahead, all except the leader running on yellow boards.  So if you mess up a shot, which I do from time to time, or if the motive power of a particular train is filthy (an uncommon occurrence with BNSF), you generally don't have to wait long to duplicate the shot with another consist.

Another advantage of winter photography is that, because of the low sun angle, the availability of warm "sunset" lighting lasts much longer than in summer.  The image above, for example, was taken at about 3:00 p.m. in mid-December, one of the shortest days of the year.  At that time, the sun was only about thirty-five degrees above the horizon and descended slowly before setting in another two hours.  During that period, eight trains ran through the above location in almost ethereal light.  If you like these kinds of shots, winter rail fanning at Codman is perfect.

NS Power at Sundown on Transcon Near Codman

Even After the Sun Goes Down, the Afterglow on a Winter's Evening Creates Interesting Possibilities.

Although the predominant traffic through Codman is intermodal, there is a striking variety of other traffic.  Grain trains are common.  Because of their slow speed, they tend to be slotted at the back of a fleet of trailers and stacks. However, they may show up at any time of the day, their distinctive roar audible above even the West Texas wind.

Loaded Westbound Grainer at Codman Curve with Single Unit on Point and Two DPUs on Rear 

Westbound Loaded Grainer at Codman Curve

Eastbound Empty Grainer at Codman Curve
Below are a unit train and a coil steel train also at Codman Curve.

Eastbound Unit Train at Codman Curve

Eastbound Coil Steel Train with Westbound Stacks in Background 

Because of the high traffic frequency and the lack of trees or other foliage to block the view, it is not uncommon in this country to see two trains meeting at track speed within camera range.  To take these shots with any regularity and acceptable composition requires a tripod with the ability to pan without losing its relationship to the horizon and a zoom lens that allows the photographer to quickly change focal length without losing focus.  I've been taking such shots for several years, and though I do not claim to be an expert, just an interested amateur, I have learned this particular sport well enough to come up with few images worth sharing.  

West Z Train Overtaking Westbound Stacks

Meet at Track Speed of Stack Trains in Stabilized Sand Dunes North of Canadian River

When this image was taken, my dog Bear (aka Mighty Dog) was standing guard over the Jeep while cattle roamed freely across an oil field road.  Bear only weighs ten pounds but seems to think he is a match for any cow.  I have no idea what the cows thought of Bear, but his incessant barking did keep them away from the Jeep -- and from me.

Eastbound Stacks With Westbound DPU on Right

Eastbound Taconite Train Meeting Westbound Grainer at Track Speed on Codman Curve

Above:  Track Speed Meet at Codman Curve
Below:  Another Meet in the Sand Hills North of the Canadian River Bridge

Westbound Stacks Beneath Mobeeti, Potter and Berda Soils 

I have always been intrigued by the soil color around Codman.  Where the Transcon crosses Curtis Hill in northwestern Oklahoma, the soil is bright red.  At the Pecos River bridge in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, the Transcon is surrounded by a darker red soil almost blood-colored.  But as the images above and immediately below demonstrate, the soil near Codman and Miami is beige.  After research, I have learned that this soil is called Mobeeti-Potter-Berda.  The Mobeeti soils are on the mid and lower slopes.  Typically they are brownish, calcareous, moderately alkaline, fine sandy loam to a depth of several feet.  

The Potter soils are on the steeper areas of the upper slopes.  Typically, the surface layer is about nine inches thick -- brownish loam in the upper few inches and gravelly loam in the lower part.  Under this is pink caliche.

Berda soils are on the mid and upper slopes, brownish clay loam near the top, while the underlying layer is pink clay loam.  Mobeetie soil is named for the town of the same designation in Wheeler County, Texas.  The name comes from a Native American word meaning "sweet water."  Potter Soil takes its name from Potter County, Texas.  I have been unable to discover how Berda soil was named.     

Another Westbound at Codman, Showing the Beige Soils of Roberts County, Especially the Caliche

Clay Cut in Valley of Red Deer Creek

One of the largest landowners at Codman, according to records, was a gentleman named Sam Edge, who was also one of the founders of Miami.  When Mr. Edge passed, he bequeathed two sections of land at Codman to his daughter, who never married.  When she died, she willed the land to the United Nations General Assembly, which had no use for property in Roberts County, Texas. 

Eventually, the United Nations sold the property to local residents.  If you examine the abstract today, you will find a deed from the United Nations, probably the only property in Roberts County, or the rest of Texas, for that matter, that can trace its title through an international organization. 

Eastbound at Dawn in Summer

Although winter is my favorite time for photography in the Texas Panhandle, summer yields its own rewards.  Because of the low humidity, dawn of a summer day can find the air pure and clean -- at least until the wind picks up.  Because the sun positions are different, trains are illuminated at angles impossible in the winter.  The image above was taken at Codamn Curve.  Because the sun was rising behind the photographer north of due east, the entire nose of the train was illuminated.  In December, the sun rises almost directly perpendicular to the motive power so that the angled left side of the nose would be in shadows -- as is shown in the photograph immediately below.

Also, in summer when waiting for a train, one need not sit in the Jeep with the heater running!

Eastbound in Winter

Same Location in Summer

Summer also produces "fair weather" cumulus clouds that look like floating cotton bolls.  They form as water vapor condenses in upward air currents.  Even the dry Texas Panhandle can be humid enough in summer to produce such formations, which add a dramatic touch to photographs.  In the old days, cumulus clouds above the horizon were called a "Kodachrome Sky."  That film is gone now, but the images below were taken with Fuji Velvia, which does a reasonable Kodachrome imitation.  However, I don't think anyone will ever write a popular song about Velvia.  Just saying.

Westbound Manifest Beneath a "Velvia" Sky
Clouds in Background Produced Small Thunderstorm

Eastbound Stacks at Codman Curve

Sundown at Codman:  the hills glow red, the wind dies, the night insects begin their chorus and the stack trains rumble through the growing darkness.  I can sit for hours along Codman Lane, the far away highway roar from U.S. 60 reduced to nothing, watching trains roll through this isolated country.  When the sky is finally black, the stars are overwhelming, stretching from horizon to horizon.  In the distance, if you look closely, even if your eyes are as bad as mine, you can see the glow of an approaching train.
Or you may be standing on the flatlands, peering east into the valley of Red Deer Creek as the shadow of the only cloud in the sky chases an eastbound stack train toward Miami.

Or you may have climbed a mesa west of Codman as an eastbound train of auto-racks approaches, dodging its way through the shadows of a building storm.  Your cell phone rings, even in this wide open country, and it is your wife, 250 miles away in central Oklahoma, announcing that a hail storm is devouring your house, holding her phone up to the window so that you can hear the damage, and you not realizing that in fifteen minutes it will start hailing at the very spot where you are now standing, and you wondering just how much damage hail can do to a soft-top Jeep and some ancient film cameras, to say nothing of a 65 year old man. 

When I was young, I thought that everything around me was virtually permanent, that it had existed long before I was born and would last until well after my descendants were gone.  Now I know that isn't true, so I spend my time in places like Codman, listening to the wind, waiting for the next storm.

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