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.
Saturday, December 03, 2016
Sunday, October 02, 2016
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
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."  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
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
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 . 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
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
In 1952, the Milwaukee Road enjoyed a Net Revenue of $47M, basking in the the glow of a postwar boom in economic activity . 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 .
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 :
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. 
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 . 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
Friday, December 11, 2015
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 .
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
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
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.
Sunday, July 19, 2015
In years past it was easy to spot the fading yellow hopper cars or boxcars that still proclaimed, "America's Resourceful Railroad" as they meandered North American rails. Some were subject to the occasional over-painting that covered the slogan or even the name of the old railroad itself. Still, to the careful observer, the Milwaukee cars were an interesting and notable addition to any train rolling by.
The yellow color selected by the Milwaukee was the same as that used by the Chessie Railroad, so-called "Federal Yellow." It was a significant departure from the boxcar reds or grays that the railroad had used so often before. It was distinctive then, and remained so long after the railroad disappeared from its passes to the west coast.
In the year 2015, the old yellow cars are harder and harder to spot. In many cases, these cars have aged out of the expected 40 year life span, and are likely to be increasingly rare. Many miles from home rails, one boxcar is now serving as the local tool shed on the Grapevine Hi-Railers layout in Grapevine, TX. It still proudly flies the Milwaukee colors and gives a nod to the Resourceful Railroad even in this place far, far from home.
Friday, June 26, 2015
In Gallatin County, MT, within the confines of 16 Mile Canyon lies Maudlow. The Milwaukee Milepost here is 1417.2. Like the railroad running through it, Maudlow is a ghost of what was. It is marked by a two level school house and a few old buildings that stand within the canyon, staring out at the beautiful hills that surround the old stop along the transcon.
The days have become weeks, months, and years in Maudlow. The gas pump in town, outside the abandoned general store, still reads 98 octane for $0.32 per gallon. Those were the days before unleaded gas, and the days when electricity flowed between the tall uprights that spanned the right of way. There would be many many changes in the decades to come: the relative constant of the Cold War would end, the economic recession that saw the end of many railroads would lift, there would come more cycles of booms and busts. All the while, the clouds above would roll along casting their shadows on the hills below just as they always have. Dust to dust.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Further east than the Yellowstone and more imposing than the Missouri, the Milwaukee started its journey west along the shores of a vast lake. How different from where we find the Milwaukee's mainline here.
Carl Sandberg called Chicago, "The City of Big Shoulders." Others know it as the Windy City, and many a cold and wintry day has felt the devastating chills of driving Lake Michigan winds. The Resourceful Railroad knew Chicago as Milepost 0.
When this series of posts started in Eastern Montana, at MP 1080, how different the landscape looked. The badlands of Montana and the Yellowstone River provided the gateway to the abandoned Lines West. Then from the arid Badlands to the Musselshell river and the more fertile ag country to the west. Now, in the midst of the run to the Rocky Mountains, the railroad finds itself along the shores of a different body of water. Unlike the Yellowstone River crossings of giant steel bracings and imposing structure, the small girder bridges and trestles along 16 Mile Creek pose a stark contrast. Ironic that the Road's giant 5000 Hp Little Joe electrics called this stretch of Montana mainline home.
From the large Great Lake, to the imposing rivers of the Midwest and West, to the more subtle babbling of 16 Mile Creek on a warm summer day. It was a journey of extremes and a fearless push to the even more grand shores of the Pacific Ocean. On this summer day it is by the shores of 16 Mile Creek that the Milwaukee's mainline carefully traces. This is the entry to Maudlow, MT; 1417 miles from the shores of the Great Lake. The lush grasses have covered much of the old right of way, but the creek remains as it was. Those who called Maudlow home knew these shores better than all the others along the Road's way west. Trout fishing, hot summers, Montana winters, and the 2-D+D-2* arrangement of Little Joe electrics - all by the shores of 16 Mile Creek.
*See comments, edited from D-D
*See comments, edited from D-D
Sunday, April 26, 2015
While the Milwaukee Road is the standard fare for this collection of writings and remembrances, there are a few other railroads that occasionally make a guest appearance. In the past, the Rock Island Lines have graced these pages, as have former Wabash (Norfolk and Western) and even the Monon.
One of the lasting images of Golden Age railroading must be Superpower steam and an upper (or lower) quadrant semaphore signal. These "blades" usually collected in pairs, and stood high above the horizon lines of railroads across the country. Though they were unpopular on electrified lines because of the overhead catenary and the related difficulties of visual discernment, traditional railroads embraced them. The simple mechanical system that moved the blade itself was an effective visual aid that supplemented the poor optical qualities of the lenses of the day. As lenses improved, and visibility at distance increased, the semaphore slowly vanished from the landscape of US railroads and the horizon lines of the land itself.
In contrast to modern signals with high visibility, tightly focused optics, the semaphores at night provided almost as much ambient lighting as a streetlamp. One night as I lay awake aboard Amtrak's Cardinal many years ago, I watched intently out the darkened windows as the short train of Superliners rolled and pitched its way along old Monon trackage near Romney, IN. When we hit semaphore territory, there was no question what the bright light was that flew by outside the window at regular intervals. It was the soft white glow of railroading's yesteryear.
There are few places today where real, operating blades may be found. Though CSX took many years, the Monon blades have now been removed. In Oregon, a few years back, lower quadrants existed along former SP lines though their days were numbered even then. And Amtrak's Southwest Chief still split the blades for decades after the Superchief and the El Capitan stopped rolling across New Mexico. Today, the Raton Pass line is still home to sets of matching blades, perhaps the last few mainline semaphores remaining in the US anywhere.
Dear reader, permit me to share a few photos of the Monon Semaphores from 2002. Enjoy these relics of railroading's golden age standing tall along a Midwestern mainline, just as they were always intended.