Saturday, April 15, 2017

Remembering old Days of Strength

The days long past - those were days of strength.  The winds blew the grasses of Montana plains and hot winds raced down the rain shadows of the Rockies in those days.  Overhead the skies were blue to the horizons or clouded over with the power of racing summer storms.  Between the heavens and the earth were the unbroken wires that made America's last Transcontinental Railroad unique in the lexicon of US transportation.

The hum of traction motors could be heard rolling tonnage west to the Continental Divide in those days.  Alongside the Northern Pacific and the Jefferson River it chased the grade laid out for it decades before.  These were days of strength: days when steel wheels rolled over the steel rails and the thought of weakness awaiting at the door seemed like something impossible.  How could the end of strength come?  How could the overhead power that supplied 5000Hp Little Joes ever grow cold?  How could a Thunderhawk no longer run, nor the hum of electric motors and blow of cooling fans ever cease?  But those were old days of strength and for everything and for each of us, it seems they are but a breath.

Rolling into Sappington (above) the Milwaukee is 1462 miles from Chicago. As the old bridge that spans the right of way clearly shows, she is under wire.  Here are the vestiges of strength in a system designed not to fail.  Designed to be better than the others, to go farther, and to achieve more.  Like a runner trained for a race, the remains still show an athlete ready to run the gauntlet.

And like an athlete, the days of strength are fleeting.  I sit as I write this in a hospital bed and remember the days of youth when, not long ago it seems, I awoke with the sun and could rely on my own strength to achieve the goals of the day.  I did not hurt, I did not stumble, and I was not thoughtful that those were days that would be fleeting.  Now I gaze upon the relics of the past that loom large in these photos and haunt my mind and ponder how days change so swiftly.  The sun rises one morning, and on that very day, everything changes in an instant.

But be of good courage dear reader, it is better to know of our weakness so that the we may seek where real and lasting Strength come from.  The Lord can and will sustain you with real Strength and real Courage even when days of strength close.  Now, I think I appreciate those days of old even more, and appreciate the gift of walking through them even as I look back and wonder at how even the mighty have fallen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Will there be any freight trains in Heaven?

The smile of a child - for them there is no other time than the now.  There is no worry of what will come tomorrow, no question of events beyond their control and out of their minds eye, no concern.  There is just delight in the present and a smile on the lips.  

I'm older, the years have held both disappointment but also joy.  Nonetheless there are a few things that still bring a smile for life in the moment.  Welcome to the KCS Meridian Speedway, two GP38s and an inbound local, finished with the switching moves for the day.  It's a simple thing that I ran across one recent afternoon, but it still makes me smile just like a child.

Maybe it's the longevity of the two-cycle diesels and the rush of the hot exhaust as the little train hustles east?  Perhaps it conjures some distant memory of a little boy standing trackside in some other place, some other time?  To that little boy, even the broken red glass of a railroad crossing that had seen better days was a thing of fascination.  Whatever the reason, the GP38s make me smile like that little boy and bring to mind the words of a long forgotten Jimmy Rogers song.

"Will there be any freight trains in heaven?"

Thursday, February 09, 2017

To Dreams that Fade in the Night

Rolling westbound with the NP line to Butte, Willow Creek MT lies just over 1456 miles from Mile 0, the place where the great journey west with the Milwaukee began.  Under wires since crossing through Harlowton, the line winds ever westward through the rain shadow of the Rockies and now past the elevator that still stands along the NP.  The rails through Willow Creek are misleading but they let the imagination dream dreams of things long departed.  

Fueled by the instant feedback and fast returns of modern culture, we sit in a world that is defined by the fast pace of change.  We gaze at the small stage presented by our phones instead of the heavens, and respond to a tweet instead of bigger questions.  A question like how the wind moves the grasses on the grand prairies, or the eternal emptiness of the skies above where the sun runs its course like a Champion each day.  

The land of the Western Extension lies spread out along this much Grander Stage, where old transcons meet and dream dreams of yesterday.  Where C/30 flatbeds are parked next to inefficient grain silos that can not load unit trains, and the dry grasses of summer sway in a hot, gentle wind.  Here the smell of old grain wafts across the passersby and it seems inconceivable that SD45s will not soon break the silence with a time freight. Thoughts and dreams of a different time, that seem somehow out of place in this one.  

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Night Moves

In the pre-dawn darkness of the last day of 2016, the rain is falling as I wander the quiet streets of a small town in the Southern US.  It's the sort of morning that feels cold even when it's 50F ... it's a damp and soaking cold and that clings to a person's body and sends chills through them as though it were much cooler than it is.  

The streets are glistening with the reflected lights of lampposts and  Christmas decorations that are hanging for just a couple more days.  Through the dark comes the haunting call of the KCS on the Meridian Speedway.  Very soon, 8000 horsepower of diesels will split this small, dark town in two.  The sounds of the approaching manifest are clear through the wet air ... and my mind casts back to the Great Lakes, an eastbound Capitol Limited on a winter night, and the tinted plexiglass windows of modern American rail travel, now two decades past....
Night time had fallen accross the flatlands of the midwest and with it had come the pelting rains of the great lakes.  Glistenning in the light of the dim streetlamps of small towns in northern Ohio, the reflections of a silver snake could be seen cutting the darkness and rain in a battle of wills:  the pelting, torrid rains pitched against the piercing headlights and moaning whistles of a Capitol Limited on a flat sprint for Cleveland.
An old El Capitan coach from decades and passenger trains long past, veered left and right as crossovers and switches slipped by beneath it.  Once a hallmark of smooth and fast service for trains like the 20th Century Limited, the old roadbed showed signs of neglect and abuse.  Maintenance deferred and standards lowered.  Still the Capitol raced on, answering the call of its famed ancestors and the lure of large eastern cities.
The Locomotive’s whistle is haunting even now years later, made especially clear because of the wet.  Its beauty resonates through the rain and memory in a mournful cry to clear the way and let it pass.  Countless times this performance has run through these little towns in the wee hours of the day, and will run again for countless more.  

Saturday, December 03, 2016

On the trail of Lewis and Clark, Willow Creek MT

With the high tension AC lines and the NP as backdrop, the mainline arrives Willow Creek, MT.

Now 1456.2 miles from Union Station in Chicago.  The Jefferson River and Vendome Loop lie ahead.  The boxcab electrics added as helpers at Three Forks stand ready to make the push across the Rockies one more time.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Eternity in the Heart of Man

It's early morning in the small town of Three Forks, MT.  The clatter of a Dead Freight is running through town just a short way across the State Highway.  It's about to make its stop in town for switching and crew change.  A small cafe sits on the southwest edge of town and a collection of hard and gritty looking trucks is collecting outside the front doors.  Working and retired veterans of the plains are gathering at the start of another day as the sun rises again and begins its race across the boundless western skies.  

The people gathered inside show the solidarity of those familiar with the land and the daily work that is required.  Their eyes are sharpened and harrowed by years in the sun, their skin is cracked and dry from the blowing of the hot winds that roll the plains.  Though the Rocky Mountains paint a backdrop, there will be no relief from them on this summer day.  They cast a rain shadow that extends from their peaks out to their east and the little towns that rest at their feet.  

While the Milwaukee Road vanishes with the sounds of scrappers in the early 80s, for decades the rest of the scene plays itself out again and again. The faces inside the cafe change with time, as one collection of people is slowly replaced by another and a few more paint chips are added to the well worn door.  Outside, the fleet of well worn but hard working trucks changes too.  The 60s and 70s variety giving way to the blockiness of the 80s then 90s.  In the kitchen, the menu remains mostly untouched and decades after the final Dead Freight heads east, real home made gravy and biscuits can still be ordered for for a buck or two.  

In 2003 the Long Horn Cafe was one of the few of its kind, a small spot on an old two lane highway that had witnessed generations of change but somehow managed to hold on.  Already as the 80s became the 90s, fast food restaurants were making the small cafe hard pressed.  By the time I began my wanders across The West, the early morning crowd had switched from the local cafe to the local McDonalds.  But not quite yet in Three Forks, though the end was coming.  When I ventured back to Three Forks in 2005, the cafe was closed and a small "For Sale" sign was hanging in the window.  A look at Google Maps shows the view across several years from 2008 and on.  

Time has played the same game here as other places along Lineswest.  Sometimes the difference of even a few years is evident in a collapsed signal or missing depot roof.  Eternity rests in the heart of man, and decay in the hands of time.  

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Threatening Days Under a Leaden Sky

There are many places in the country that quickly cover the tracks of the past.  The effects of annual rains or growth and regrowth of nature quickly hide and dismantle the evidence of what used to be.  Quickly it seems that old logging roads are forever gone, interurban lines tilled into farmland, and schoolhouses dismantled by nature growing from within.  

There are places, however, where the rains fall more slowly and arid lands make tilling more difficult.  These are places where symbols of eras past still cling - "reminders of the glory, the mystery, the sadness of life." [1]  Under leaden skies, the past meets the present in Three Forks, MT.  The station reposes as it has for almost a century, but now next to the blowing grasses of a dry open field and not the waiting presence of boxcab helpers for a push over the nearby Rockies.  

Nearby the Sacajawea Inn stands, still beckoning travelers who seek the mysteries of the West.

Three Forks in 2003 still claimed a weekly newspaper, in operation since near the time of the Milwaukee's arrival in 1908.  The Christmas decorations still hang in the window, despite the overcast day in the middle of June.

The main street itself still shows the marks of a Western town with a width that belies the original intent: space to turn a horse and wagon.

Two transcontinentals served the small town of Three Forks, today one is gone forever and the other lays dormant, probably never to see traffic across Homestake Pass again.  In the arid West, however, the paths of these great beasts still lay about for wanderers to seek.

1) Gray, Zane. "The Last of the Plainsmen" 1908

Friday, July 15, 2016

Timeless Hues in Big Sky Land

A close look at the old photo of ribside caboose 991847 reveals all of the caveats of photography from a previous generation.  No autofocus to help achieve a modern camera's clarity; slide film that saturates and leaves a tell-tale grain; no hyper-sensitive digital chip to rescue the contrasts of darks and bright whites.

But like other old photos from ages past, there is something striking.  The colors are robust and speak of a grand summer day from years ago.  The orange caboose, though faded, still captures the imagination of passersby.  Perhaps it is on its way out of town, bound for the summit of the Rockies as the tail to a westbound XL Special?  

Though the image is flawed, it seems to be timeless - at least to the one who shot it all those years ago back in Three Forks.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Chasing the Windstorm

Milepost 1449.7
Three Forks, MT

With the headwaters of the Missouri behind, the Milwaukee mainline finds aptly named Three Forks, MT ahead.  For the Milwaukee Road, Three Forks was a gateway to Yellowstone Park.  The more grand Gallatin Gateway Inn was constructed by 1927, however, which moved the formal Yellowstone destination down the branchline that departed the main here at Three Forks.  

Three Forks is also the location where the NP rejoins the Milwaukee with their own line over the Rockies.  This NP line itself is of note.  The line exists today, departing from the preferred mainline over Mullen Pass and rolls through Three Forks on its way to many of the same small towns the Milwaukee mainline touched.  The Montana Rail Link operates the line out to a local gravel pit, and formally to Spire Rock, MT.  From there, the line is mothballed and owned by BNSF for the remainder of the journey up and over the Great Divide at Homestake to Butte [1].  This was once the path of Amtrak's North Coast Hiawatha, and has not seen trains since that Hiawatha's departure in 1979.

The Milwaukee main itself is the grass field pictured above, looking back towards the Midwestern cities and all of those places between.  Not far beyond the old depot, I-90 crosses over the main just as it did when the railroad left town and the scrappers followed.  I-90 will follow the NP line over Homestake pass on its way to Butte, but will be a close companion for much of the journey further west to the coast itself.

Tracing the Milwaukee Road through Three Forks itself is a tour of haunts and memories.  The forces that have moved here seem too big to understand, like chasing a windstorm and surveying the damage that is left behind.  The depot stands as a heavily modified restaurant with white building additions and large blower fans now mounted where passengers met.  Hugs of returning loved ones, tearful departures of others are now a distant memory, and the last bus for Yellowstone departed decades prior.    The Milwaukee owned Sacajawea Inn sits nearby, a companion to the old railroad and its travelers since 1910.  Along the flat plane once occupied by steel rails and overhead catenary are grain elevators and other local industry still standing.  Even an old ribside caboose welcomes visitors from I-90 as the town's formal Welcome Center, should you want to chase the wind yourself.

1)  Welsh, D.  "Northern Transcontinental Railroad Mountain Passes" Trains Magazine, available online:

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Headwaters and Hope

Crossing the Missouri at Lombard, the Road turns and rolls down the west bank of the mighty Missouri River.  The mainline finds a much smaller river here than its mainline crossing at Mobridge, or even its secondary line crossing at Chamberlain, SD.  The river length itself is over 2500 miles long.  It begins here at the feet of the Rocky Mountains and heads east, through the open grasslands that awed Lewis and Clark, down amongst the fertile fields of America's breadbasket, and into the Mississippi at St. Louis.  The railroad itself is more than 1400 miles into its own journey, but where the river stops, and the waters no longer flow towards the Mississippi, the old transcon will push further up and further in.

The headwaters of the Missouri lie now at the very doorstep of the mainline as it makes its way to the small town of Three Forks.  The land is already more rocky and arid, approaching the rain shadow cast by the Rockies.  Three Forks was named for the three rivers that come together as the Missouri, named by the Corps of Discovery after Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison.  In some ways, the scene before the Milwaukee Road is little changed from the days of Lewis, Clarke, and the Corps of Discovery.  The seemingly eternal landscape spoke then as it did in the days of Olympians and Columbians, as it still does today.  

Zane Grey in his book, "Riders of the Purple Sage" thought of Western Lands when reflecting that the wind ...
"... was fresh, cool, fragrant, and it carried a burden of far-off things - of other places where reigned peace.  It carried too, sad truth of human hearts and mystery -- of promise and hope unquenchable."  
There is both hope and sadness in these miles and places.  There is the hope of the West, an indescribable pull of something greater than what is apparent at a glance.  There is the hope of finding the answer to some plaguing and unknown question, that perhaps the sad longings that are in the hearts of men might find the antidote to what plagues them.  And there is sadness that the times pass away, taking with them the hopes of men and their memories of what came before.  Their triumphs, trials, and stories all passing away.  The sun rises one more time, but this time, without them.  

Steeped in hope and sadness, the Milwaukee route to the Pacific presses on - further up and further in - to the rain shadows and rain forests that lie ahead.  It has outlasted the hopes and dreams of the men who built her and many who knew her, and lies now as a fading memory and fading hope for something different. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Lombard: Views for a Super Dome

In 1952, the Milwaukee Road enjoyed a Net Revenue of $47M, basking in the the glow of a postwar boom in economic activity [1].  This was the era of the Little Joe and a time of prosperity for the rail industry as a whole.  But hidden in the glow of the era was this note, "Revenue passenger miles showed a decrease of 5% (over the prior year)," with total passenger income of $18.8M [1].

In 1952 the entire passenger train market in the United States was changing.  New pressures were coming to bear on the industry that included more accessible air travel, the expansion of automobiles and the interstate highway system.  Passenger train profit, following a wartime peak, would begin a precipitous decline that culminated in the formation of Amtrak in 1971.  In 1961, the Milwaukee would pull its own transcontinental Olympian Hiawatha.  The company gave it the following epitaph it is 1961 Annual Report [2]:

The Interstate Commerce Commission approved the discontinuance of Olympian Hiawatha passenger trains between Deer Lodge, Mont., and Seattle-Tacoma, Wash., resulting in an annual saving of 485,450 train miles and estimated net annual dollar savings of $1,715,000. [2]

No longer viewed as assets, passenger trains had become liabilities in a sea of growing expenses and carrying costs.

In 1952, however, the railroad received a new type of dome car from Pullman-Standard.  Known on the Milwaukee Road as a "Super Dome," the car represented an engineering feat.  It was designed to be self contained with diesel-powered generators and a/c equipment.  The lower level was complete with a small bar area while the upper level boasted a Solex-glass equipped dome that stretched the entire length of the car [3].  The image below is courtesy of  Michael Hicks and Wikimedia.

Each car represented a significant investment by the Milwaukee, but also a final attempt to win back passengers to a slipping segment of the industry.  Despite the effort, the Super Domes plied the rails to the coast for less than a decade before being pulled back in 1961.

Although other railroads adopted full length dome designs, the Super Domes ran under wire.  They were pulled by the Rocky  Mountain Division's best: steam boiler equipped Little Joes.  The Super Domes in Olympian Hiawatha Service offered what must have been spectacular views.  The wheat fields of the Dakotas, the Badlands of East Montana, the crossing of 5 mountain ranges, and the final crossing of the Missouri River at Lombard, MT.

The crossing of the Missouri River at Lombard is seen above, the Milwaukee Road grade and bridge are still distinct against the backdrop of Montana mountains.  These were views well suited for the Super Dome, and apart from the missing bridge section, it's easy to imagine the orange and red Olympian Hiawatha slipping out of the confines of 16 mile canyon, over the NP below, and out across the Missouri headwaters even now.

Lombard, MT:  1430.4 Miles from Chicago.

Note:  The author thanks Michael Sol and the Milwaukee Road Archives for posting material referenced in this article.
1) Milwaukee Road, 1952 Annual Report
2) Milwaukee Road, 1961 Annual Report
3) Milwaukee road’s super dome cars. Railway Age, pages 68–74, 1952.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Last Look at the Bozeman Branch

Sunset along the branch.  A final look before returning to the Milwaukee's mainline.

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Land Impearled

Today, the mainlines that work west from hubs like Chicago seem to share a common thread: heavy rail and lots of trains.  The right of way is well manicured, the ballast seemingly clean and shaped uniformly for endless miles that click by beneath the steel wheels.  Today's railroads have become efficient point to point haulers which share another commonality as well:  branch lines that used to traversed the countrysides like a spider's web have vanished.  

Many of these lines were divested in the 80s and 90s as companies took advantage of the Staggers Act and sought to rid themselves of low-profit, low-density rail lines.  Some continued on as small short line railroads, others as modest regionals.  Although some of the branch lines have survived the years, the numbers are undeniable: since the total US rail miles peaked in the early part of the 20th century, nearly half have been removed [1].  

There is something special about a branch line though - even an abandoned one.  Unlike the pristine looking mainlines with modern diesel power, double-stacks, and unit oil trains, the branch lines are quiet and out of the way haunts.  They exist as little pockets of time when the landscape was impearled with local businesses, small farms, and small railroads.  As the sun sinks low on the Milwaukee's abandoned branch between Menard and Accola, the mountains and wheat fields that surround it seem overwhelming compared to the fragile rails that once rested here.  Accola itself lies silently in the midst of this vast expanse, with Montana Elevator Co still prominently displayed across the elevator siding.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Turn South to the Branchline

 As the old main vanishes into the private lands that are out of bounds for the old truck and I, our venture turns south along Dry Creek Road and towards the bigger Montana city of Belgrade and a meet with I-90.  The gravel road winds through the arid Montana landscape as the shadows grow longer and the sun dips ever lower in the summer sky.  As years drift onward, even the memories of that turn south and gravel road seem to slowly fade away.  But planted firmly in my minds eye is the arrival at Menard, Gallatin County, MT.
 At Three Forks the Milwaukee branched from the mainline and headed east toward Belgrade along what is now the I-90 corridor.  The NP mainline to Butte did the same (and still does) though the Milwaukee branch has long vanished.  Heading north and into some agricultural areas, Menard stands as the furthest most point on this long abandoned branch.  Decades upon decades have passed since the last 40 foot boxcars filed out of the few elevators located on this line.
The sun is just high enough that the elevator at Menard catches the last few rays on this peaceful day in 2003.  It's another quiet end to the daylight hours, and  stars above will soon take center stage in this drama that is the West and the Milwaukee's far-flung empire.  The truck and I will stop quickly to take one last look back at Menard, and then Accola which awaits just down the branch.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Requiem for a Time and Place

A simple gate blocks the path west 1417.4 miles from Chicago.  The path laid out by surveyors and engineers more than 100 years ago was one that crossed 5 mountain ranges, rain shadows and rain forests, wheat fields and desert badlands, and is now one blocked by a simple fence and tubular steel gate.  The transcon path proceeds from here toward another crossing with the Missouri River at Lombard, MT.  This is private land, inaccessible to most travelers who venture this way.  

Between Maudlow at MP 1417 and Lombard at MP 1430 the railroad winds its way every closer to the Missouri River headwaters.  The Belt Mountains pay it company as do old names with no places like Deer Park and Cardinal.  The ghost town of Maudlow is the gateway to these last few miles through this mountain range, and it is here that we turn south just for a time to meet the railroad further west.

On this day, the quiet times at Maudlow find the ancient school house overlooking the railroad right of way below.  Piles of catenary poles that were collected years ago lie aside the the grassy ridge in the ground that yet marks the mainline west.  The Olympian Hiawatha wasn't scheduled in Maudlow, but The Columbian had Maudlow as a designated flag stop.  This lesser train made flag stops at Maudlow, Deer Park, and Cardinal before a scheduled stop at Lombard.  Times were different when The Columbian ran through this canyon: the two story school house of Maudlow seems built for a brighter future and no one travels to Cardinal any more.

Here there is a lament for brighter days that blows through the grasses in the warm summer breeze.  A lonesome traveler is left only to consider what was, what is, and the important place of forgotten memories.