Monday, March 17, 2014

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The foundations laid for those who lived and worked here are very visible in this last look at Loweth. The land is full of greens and foliage as this part of Western Montana comes out of spring and fades into a long, hot summer.  

Westbound trains would leave the summit of this first of five mountain crossings, heading downgrade towards the small town of Ringling some 8 miles ahead.  From the crest of Loweth, the path to the west looks directly at the Rockies and the arduous climbs that lie ahead.  Also ahead, the headwaters of the Missouri River, a rejoining of the Northern Pacific, and Butte on the far side of the pass.  

Directly ahead, a lone signal stands in the gap where the transcon passed.  Dark today, but a high green to ages past. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

If You Knew the State of the Art

Loweth, Montana lies some 1380.9 miles from Chicago at the crest of the Belt Mountains.  In some sense, it's just a place on a map with an old two-lane blacktop running through it.  But Loweth was was state of the art.

"From Harlowton to Avery three mountain ranges of the continental divide are crossed, with summit elevations of 5788, 6322 and 4150 ft.  Heavy grades and a large proportion of curvature are encountered, the maximum grade being 2 percent for 21 miles..."   [1]

It has been suggested, by the author if no one else, that the people who settled the Milwaukee's West were tough and dedicated in ways not often encountered today.  The weather was extreme with brutal colds and summer heat.  Some spots were arid country, existing in rain shadows of the mountain ranges that the Milwaukee crossed.  Yet people settled and lived in these harsh and beautiful places.  And it was to these places that the Milwaukee went as well.  Loweth exists as a reminder of the technology that it brought to these lands, and a memorial to those who built, worked, and lived here at the crest of the Belt Mountains.

On this summer day, it is the sounds of cattle slowly wandering nearby that break the gentle stillness of summer winds and rustling grasses.  But decades ago, the substation was operated by a family of employees who lived just next door.  Beneath today's hooves, the foundations of the operator bungalows rises just above the grasses and shrubs.  People lived and worked here as trains lugged by on the mainline - working hard in both directions.  This was home, even in the midst of the snowy and brutal cold, the occasional Chinook winds, the spring rains or summer droughts.  

Under their care was a centerpiece of the Milwaukee's Lines West.  Substations converted the AC power to 3000V DC (later 3500) to feed the electrics that prowled the grade.  The electrification was prominent in advertising and represented the "best" of the day.  The proof is in the fruit of the effort:  electrification across the Belt Mountains remained in operation from 1916 to 1974.  It was so good that it displaced and outlasted the steam locomotives (yielding impressive reliability improvement at the same time [1]) and then soldiered on through the first and second generations of the diesel locomotives that replaced them.  

The system was built to last; it was tough like the people that settled here to work these lands and this railroad.  Even while the cattle graze nearby, the insulators atop the old substation still thrust clean and straight into the blue skies above.  This was a way of life, and this was state of the art.

1) "Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Electrification" Engineering News-Record, 1920, 85, No 23.  

Friday, January 31, 2014

Separating East from West

Among the engineering marvels of the Western Extension were these: the many substations that dotted the Rocky Mountain division in Montana and Idaho and then the Coast Division in Washington.  Here the old mainline climbs and curves its way to the crest of the Belt Mountains with the outline of the Substation at Loweth looming on the horizon.  Mountains separated this country's east from the west, and the Resourceful Railroad crossed the first of them here. 

The grade to the top is as grueling today as it was decades ago: 1.4%.  How easy it is to imagine boxcabs lugging hard at the compound curve as they work their way westbound.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

As the Years Pass

When this blog started, the Milwaukee Road had only been gone from the West 25 years.  It had been a quarter century from 1980 to 2005 when these first writings made their way to the net.  Since then, the years have continued to pass and the Milwaukee's retrenchment to points east now approaches the 35 year mark.  Left behind was a sprawling signature that spanned states and geographies.  Towns like Lennep were left without a transcon and Montana grain growers without a second option.  

Since 2011, the postings and pictures have been slowly working west from MP 1080 in Western Montana to these pictures here, just west of Lennep, at MP 1379.  The mainline is climbing the first of its mountain passes here, on the way to the summit of the Belt Mountains at Loweth.  The original alignment of the Montana Railroad, an early Milwaukee predecessor, is seen in the background of the old Type-R signals.   The first photo was taken in the summer of 2003, the photo below only two years later.  

The weather is different, and the parched landscape of 2003 has been replaced by the verdant greens of a late spring.  Life has returned to this part of Montana, but time has taken its toll and even the scant passage of two years has left marked and lasting changes.  I have not journeyed to these ruins since 2005 and doubtless the years have continued to be unkind.  Such is the case with waxing years:  the old mainline and its haunting memory slip further and further towards whence they came.  Books have been written, stories have been shared, but the line inevitably marches toward the land of forgotten, assisted by the cold winds that torment and blow along the Milwaukee's Lines West.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Good-will to Men.

The works of Longfellow have been referenced before on these pages.  In particular, the epic poem of Hiawatha from whence the Milwaukee Road named its passenger trains.

"Swift of foot was Hiawatha"

Passenger trains and holidays seem to share a special bond.  The winter paintings of Howard Fogg, or the enumerable Christmas cards of snowy nighttime scenes and disembarking travelers come to mind.   Some memories of the season seem as fresh and wonderful as though they were from just a day ago.  Others equally sharp, but melancholy.  Old stations like the one below embody both the happy thoughts of travelers arriving home amidst fresh snows as well as times that are slowly fading, ever losing to the growing span of years.  Time, it seems, is compressing and accelerating.

Christmas is a powerful time for memories and thoughtfulness: some seem sad, some wonderful.  Longfellow penned the poem below specific to the Christmas day, amidst war, sorrow, and the bells.  Wherever the day finds you, and however you got there, Merry Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
     "For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!" [1]

1)  Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Complete Poetical Works of Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Still, Still at 1371

The little town of Lennep, MT lies at MP 1371.1, almost 1400 miles from the bustle of downtown Chicago along the Western Extension of the Milwaukee Road.  Lennep has appeared in these pages before, albeit under different skies.  On this day in 2003, the sun is baking the small town under high blue skies while the grasses crisp in the dry Montana summer months.  

The Lutheran church still stands in Lennep, along with a small collection of other buildings and homes.  Though the railroad is gone, the old station sign has been saved and the Milwaukee font is unmistakable. Behind the camera one of Milwaukee's Type R signals remains standing as well - with that blank stare that is so common.  Lennep was, and is, a quiet place out on Lines West.  

Tracking the Milwaukee Road westbound visits places where we've been, but no longer wish to go.  The country has a different soul in these places:  Twitter seems unimportant, 24 hour NFL coverage seems excessive, and fights in Walmart parking lots are somehow unfathomable.  Maybe it is the big skies that put everything in perspective?  Perhaps the shadow of history has helped create a lasting stillness?  For whatever the reason, these places are different and it's not all bad.  

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Rest in Peace

Increasing train speeds meant something to the Milwaukee Road, and the Feds.  In the late teens, a few years following the completion of the mainline to the Northwest Coast, the railroad was required to invest in a signalling system to maintain its increasing passenger train speeds.  The signals selected were some of the first to successfully use new lens technology that focused the lights for long distance viewing.  Called "Type R" signals, these Automatic Block Signals (ABS) were manufactured by US Switch and Signal and remained in operation along Lines West from their installation to abandonment.

Near Lennep, MT these Type R ABS devices were in continuous use from 1917 until 1980 when the rails were pulled and vandalism began to take its toll.  The original investment for the signals that spanned Harlowton to Lennep was $72,173.31 as reported in November 1917.  96 years have passed now, and the equivalent (inflation adjusted) 2013 dollars is $1.3M.  Clearly, speed meant something to the Resourceful Railroad.  Similar investment was taking place all the way west, wherever passenger trains plied the rails.

Interestingly, this did produce one left-over piece of unsignaled mainline.  Known as "dark territory," the mainline went dark from Plummer, ID to Marengo, WA.  Passenger trains left the main at Plummer and veered north to Spokane on joint Milwaukee-Union Pacific trackage.  They rejoined the Milwaukee main at Marengo.

This is another one of the places along Lines West where it's easy to imagine the orange and black of the old railroad splitting the signals.  The remains of these Type R's dot the old mainline through this section of Montana.  They cast an eerie, industrial shadow of times past out across the modern day.  Where a high green signal used to welcome the mighty electrics and diesels of years ago, sky blue now stares unrelenting down the old right of way.  As Mr. Fred Hyde has observed, these are lasting gravestones of the Milwaukee Road.

Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Moment in Time

"The cattle industry gives The Milwaukee Road a considerable amount of revenue: Cattle are hauled to feed lots and markets; fresh and processed meats are shipped all over the nation; other by-products are hauled, as well as goods related to the raising of cattle … This fall The Milwaukee Road will haul a lot of steers bearing the reverse L D Bar [of the Cottonwood Ranch near Harlowton, MT] and the Milwaukee family at many places will eat steaks from the Cottonwood Ranch's yearly crop of good steers."
-- D. Rue, "The Mark of a Good Steer."  Milwaukee Road Magazine, July, 1950 

In 1950, the Milwaukee expected to haul a good amount of cattle to markets around the West and Midwest.  In that year, 5.4% of the revenue was generated via livestock and animal products.  That was almost the same amount as contributed by the passenger services which generated 4.3% in coach and 2.6% in sleeper and parlor sections [1].  Cattle movements by rail would steadily decline over the coming decades, however.  By 1960 "Animal products" contribution was 2.9% with cattle only .4% of that total [2].  Even in the 50s and 60s, the transition to haulage by truck was well underway.  Today the system has completely transitioned to modern feed lots and massive production facilities that use techniques that would probably have made members of the Cottonwood Ranch shudder.  

Just like grain shipments and other commodities, the modern livestock and meat markets concentrate on bulk to achieve efficiency.  Just like forty foot grain boxcars, the small sidings with stock pens spread along the mainlines of the Western railroads have vanished as well.  But like the old wooden grain elevators that can occasionally be found in the heart of small Western towns, every once in a while, a lonely stock pen emerges from the tall grasses.  This old pen is near Lennep, MT, just about 1370 miles west of Chicago's Union Station.  The old gates are still in place and it's easy to imagine a set of boxcabs making a quick set-out or pickup from the siding that existed here.  Indeed, fabulous photos exist of Little Joes operating the industry tracks in this area, doing just that.

No Little Joes to photograph on this day though, that was a brief moment in time like the livestock trains they pulled and the industry they served.

1] Milwaukee Road Annual Report, 1950
2] Milwaukee Road Annual Report, 1960

Friday, September 20, 2013


There is a place where the great plains begin their recession to the east and the first mountains rise into the big Montana skies.  On long and hot car rides many, many years ago the first sight of mountains rising from endless plains marked progress for a young boy on family vacations.  Dual a/c units that aided the front seat and the rear were not considered mandatory then, neither was 'in flight' entertainment.  Instead, entertainment was the view outside the square windows of vehicles from another time.  But mountains meant progress: national parks, changing scenery, destinations.  Years later, the arrival of the mountains still marked progress riding the Empire Builders across the Montana Plains.  Though only small and in the distance, they meant an end to 79mph and the start of Glacier National Park with its verdant forests and long snow sheds.  

Through the mid 1960s the view above greeted similar travelers who had ripped across the Great Plains of Montana and were now looking at the first sign of mountain ranges on the Milwaukee's Western Extension.  Only one tunnel had been encountered since leaving milepost 0 in Chicago:  Tunnel City, WI and Tunnel Number 1.  50 more would be pierced on the way to the West Coast terminals of Seattle and Tacoma.  This was the Milwaukee Road's Rocky Mountain Division, home of great electric locomotives, high mountains, tall bridges, and trains like the XL Special, Thunderhawk, and Olympian Hiawatha.  

The picture above was taken from a summer now more than a decade ago.  Two sentinels from the period of Olympian still stood watch over the Western Extension at their feet while lineside poles and AC power lines marched dutifully toward the horizon line.  The remains of a graded transcon stretched to the west, toward the mountains to come, the high deserts, and the ocean beyond that.  Do the sentinels yet stand?  Perhaps.  Is the fading signature of the mainline still present?  For yet awhile longer.  By contrast the mountains of the West, and of the Western Extension, last forever.  

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Watchman, what of the night?

Heading west from the ironies of Two Dot, the grade steepens and the railroad begins a climb toward the summit of the Belt Mountains.  This will mark the first of five mountain ranges for the Resourceful Railroad, a hallmark of its pathway to the ocean.  

Several small outposts exist along this rising plain, the first is Martinsdale shown looking east in 2005.  It is a classic scene of railroad abandonment and the small towns that are left behind in the wake of progress.  This is old Montana Railroad country, purchased by the Milwaukee as it pushed westward and included in its mainline routing across the Belt Range and through 16 mile canyon yet to come. 

AC power lines are never far away in this land, and the old train order signal still stands watch above the grasses at its feet.  Decades have passed since a westbound headlight climbed the grade to Martinsdale, yet captured within the scene is a seeming anticipation that at any time, beneath the huge granite sky, through the swaying grasses there could come a piercing headlight at any time... 

grinding up the hill, by the station and the Watchman that yet stands.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Milwaukee Road's Goodnight

"As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return."  Job 7:8-9

The year is 1972.  GE has released a proposal to the Milwaukee Road to close the electrification 'gap' between Avery, ID and Othello WA while supplying new electric locomotives to handle trains across the expanded Harlowton to Othello electrified lines.  Perhaps the most intriguing part of this arrangement is GE's offer to finance the deal itself.  Significant unknowns lie ahead for the nation, a fuel crisis looms and an economic downturn as well.  The best of Milwaukee's electric locomotives in service entered their roles more than two decades prior.  The oldest date from the teens.  Out on the mainline, away from the decision makers, the trains continue to move, benefitting from the port and operating agreements spawned by the BN merger conditions.  But back in the midwest, far from places like Two Dot or Harlowton, decisions are being made, future directions decided, and a watershed moment is coming.

Although many have said similar things, Chuck Palahniuk recorded this simple line, "We'll be remembered more for what we destroy that what we create."  Now, nearly 40 years after the Milwaukee pulled down its wires above the Rocky Mountain Division, that action and those memories continue to resonate.  The last remaining Little Joe rests in Deer Lodge, with pantographs stretching towards an empty Montana sky.  The boxcab in Harlowton exists well off the original right of way and the yards it patrolled with regularity.  Two lasting pieces of a memory that is hard to erase.

Digging through the contents of the actual GE study reveals interesting contents and formal responses from the railroad that stood to benefit.  Even early in the decision making process, the position of the railroad seems fairly obvious.

We presently estimate that 63 diesel units of SD-40 six
axle 3,000 H.P. rating can handle the main line proposed operation
Harlowton to Tacoma .... It is our opinion that the flexibility of the diesel
to run freely on the main line of our entire railroad and also interchange 
with diesel power on the various branch lines (particularly in
the Seattle-Tacoma area) affords for the diesel a utilization advantage
that is not reflected in the G.E. 3-20-72 proposal

... we do not anticipate any of the substantial cost reduction
benefits for new motive power or in maintenance of motive power 
which a large scale electrification should generate ... We anticipate that
... "custom bui1t" characteristics of the proposed new electric units
will "spillover" into our maintenance costs ... We will probably be the only railroad 
in the United States who will use the 3,000 volt D.C. units to be designed and
built exclusively for us. ... 

In closing, I wish to state, we are looking forward to handling
an electrified operation, if it is concluded to be desirable

Even in 1972, the railroad's position seems well established to let this uniquely engineered and operating system fade into history.  Nonetheless, important evaluations from within the company were not necessarily in agreement with the formal responses to GE.  Mr. Wylie, who had many times in the past improved the operations of the Milwaukee's electrics (including their ability to control and operate with the Road's diesel locomotives) noted that:

A six axle electric locomotive with 900 HP traction motors and 
25% working  adhesion will provide about 5,200 HP at the rail at 20 HPH. 
this is double the rail horsepower that can be obtained from the SD-40 
diesel units ...

Despite the qualifications of those on the ground, voicing concern over the rejection of GE's offer, rejected it was.  Electric operations would continue through 1973 and into 1974.  By 1974 the effects of the combined energy and economic crises were being felt.  The operation of the electrics over the Rocky Mountain division had already been extended once.  A bump in copper prices in the 1973-74 years may have been the final 'kick' the railroad management needed to end the railroad's electrification.

Historical Copper Prices ($/mt),
Unfortunately, crude oil became somewhat more expensive at the same time.

The Milwaukee Road would face an increasing shortage of motive power moving forward as units died and were parked.  The best locomotives were pulled back to the lines in the Midwest during the final period of the Western Extension, and those that were left suffered on without the help of any overhead wires.  Unscheduled Dead Freights would be the last trains to run through places like Two Dot, but even those would seem preferable to what is left instead.  Somehow, the immortal words of Job seem fitting:  

The eye that now sees me will see me no longer; 
you will look for me, but I will be no more.  
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, 
so one who goes down to the grave does not return. 
Job 7: 8-9

Good night Resourceful Railroad.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Varnish Vanishes

In "The Milwaukee Road Olympian - a Ride to Remember," author Stan Johnson recalled the transition from steam to electric power of the Milwaukee's varnish in the Harlowton Yards:  the train glided silently away from the station and yards, under the quiet pull of the electric locomotive.  Feeding the electric lines that ran above the train were the brick substations located at intervals along the line west of Harlowton.  Here at Two Dot, MT was Substation One, 1347.5 miles from Chicago.

Two Dot (or Twodot as it is known by some sources) was named for a local cattle ranch and first established as a station by Milwaukee Road predecessor, the Montana Railroad.  Following the acquisition by the larger transcon, the location was selected for the first of the railroad's substations that would accompany the line from here to Avery, ID and the termination point of the Rocky Mountain Division electrification.  The Two Dot substation suffered a fire prior to the abandonment of electrification, and newer transformer equipment was built outside the confines of the original brick structure.  Some of these old workings are still visible many years later in the photo above though the building itself is long removed.  The AC power lines that originally fed the substations are visible here as well.  They rise above the fields and often mark the approximate location of the transcon itself through Western Montana.

This is rattlesnake country, and crews that walked and worked the rails were continually aware of what might lie atop the hot ballast under a high Montana sun.  Walking the rails was common place in yesteryears.  This visual inspection of the rail joints and ties was conducted regularly -- a far cry from modern pick-up truck based inspections of today.  Atop these rails road the Milwaukee's Varnish, the Olympian and later the Olympian Hiawatha, as well as the interstate freight traffic the Milwaukee shuttled to and from ports on the coast.  

It is traditional to refer to premiere passenger trains as "The Varnish" due to the polished interior and high class status.  Out along the Rocky Mountain Division, the electrification was its own polished pride and symbol of the railroad.  It was frequently used in Milwaukee advertising literature or company logos that proclaimed "To Puget Sound Electrified."  The Olympian was itself credited as being the "Electrified Olympian."  Even as the traditional passenger varnish began to fade, the electric system was maintained.  Faced with daunting financial odds and lack of funding, the employees maintained and operated it with pride until the end in 1974.   There is significant mystery to the railroad's decision to pull the wires, especially in the face of the financed GE offer to upgrade and extend it.  In the final analysis, perhaps it was a piece of old varnish that was too unique and poorly suited to management's desire to merge with another railroad system in the 1970s.  Clearly they had little use for the system that had previously served the transcon as one of great efficiency and significance, energy crisis be damned.  

The Milwaukee's Olympian name was vanquished when the passenger train was pulled back from Seattle to Deer Lodge, MT in 1961.  Stan Johnson's ride to remember was dead.  In 1964 a coach only version was then scaled back to South Dakota. The dramatic and unique electrification was pulled down in 1974. The rattlesnake country of Twodot remains but the varnish has most certainly vanished.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Down the Yard Throat

The view above is the last one of Harlowton, for now.  The image looks east, down the throat of the large yards that once held the lands here.  The old station and signal stand just to the left of the plow and Deer Lodge's yellow mule.  The skies overhead are gray, and the day is one of a cool spring where the sun struggles to break free, highlighting just a few square feet for only seconds a time.  

Railfans and photographers traveled from near and far to this place to capture the 'lasts' that included the Little Joes and western electrification.  Then there were the last Dead Freights, and the last of the salvagers that passed this way.  On this day there is only one photographer here though, looking down the yard throat and gazing backwards at what was, wondering what could have been.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Before Erie

In 1953, a partnership between Alco and General Electric was ended and GE began the development of their first independent diesel locomotives.  The partnership had produced some memorable products like the Alco PA and FA as well as a number of the famous Alco road switchers.  The builder's plate on one of the first 'independent' GE products shows the build location of Erie, PA.  The U25B plate represents just one of thousands of locomotives manufactured within the Erie facility, destined for service at locations around the world.

Before these plates read "Erie," however, they read "Schenectady."  Such is the case with the last electric locomotive to operate on Milwaukee rails.  This is boxcab electric, E57B.  She rests in a small lot by US 12 on the way through Harlowton, MT.  She isn't styled like the famous GG1s that ran for years in the Northeast and she lacks the streamlining of the Milwaukee's own Little Joes.  By contrast, rivets are easy to spot in the sheet metal and the wooden framed door is clearly from a different period in manufacturing history.  Ironically, E57B served a longer career than either of those streamlined relations.  

Atop the many coats of faded paint on E57 is one more mark of its age and longevity: the builder's plate prominently displays Schenectady, NY.  The casting itself puts to shame the stickers that serve as today's builders plates.