Saturday, September 27, 2014


In the days before the Milwaukee's retrenchment to the Midwest, small roads like this Maudlow Road were the connections from one isolated outpost on the transcon to another.  Over modest passes, through fields where cattle wander aimlessly without fencing, and beneath the big skies above.  In good weather the roads were passable, in more difficult times of year they were treacherous.  The Milwaukee Road itself must have been the preferred means of access to the lost places like Francis that exist west of Ringling and within the traces of 16 Mile Creek.

This is the American West in many respects: isolated, alone, dangerous, and indescribably beautiful.  On this June day, in a picture now well dated, the little road from Maudlow continues to survive and meander its way from one small settlement to the next.  If there are specific times or places where one can fall in love with the West, this must be one of them for me. 

ps - Speaking of the West, the new book from Big Bend looks fantastic. Well done Dan.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Last Run of the Wheat Line

Most often, this site considers the "real" Milwaukee Road in images that record what it left behind.  On occasion, however, the focus drifts to the world of a re-created Milwaukee Road in the form of models that bear the Resourceful Railroad insignias.

Recently, my own Wheat Line (Warden, WA to Marcellus, WA) hosted its final run because of an imminent move to a larger scale.  The outbound run out to Marcellus is just a caboose hop, with the final cars being pulled from the line as the train works its way back to the transcon at Warden (all locations simulated ... poorly). Unlike the real Wheat Line, 100 ton hoppers were allowed as far as Ruff, WA in this version.  For the most part, however, the 40 foot grain boxcars still ruled the branch line, resplendent with rib sides and Billboard lettering.

For your enjoyment, the documented final run of the Wheat Line:

Milwaukee 534 and 5054 leave the mainline at Warden and head north and east out along light rail:

The elevators of Ruff, WA loom ahead and the approach of Dry Coulee:

 Passing through Ruff:

Arrival in Marcellus and the pulling of the final 40 footers from the branch line eastern terminus:

 The train arrives back in Ruff to collect the remaining ribsides and 100 ton hoppers:

 40 footers languish over the crossing at Ruff

With the train assembled, it returned to Warden and the Wheat Line story is concluded as salvage operations remove any useful light rail and switches.

The real Wheat Line was salvaged amidst the fallen ash of Mt. St. Helens and today, sage brush rules the old right of way.  Elevators stand along the line at places like Marcellus, Packard, Ruff and Laing as reminders of that old era of light rail and grain by worn ribsides.  Just like the real line, the model exists now only as memories and photos too - happy trails Wheat Line.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

These Things Remain

 Leaving the small outpost of Ringling, the Resourceful Railroad travels through large tracts of private ranch land where visitation can be difficult.  In the midst of these wanderings, the railroad runs through infamous locations like "Eagle's Nest" tunnel and into the 16 Mile Creek canyon.  For now, Eagle's Nest is a missing element to my wanderings of Milwaukee miles.  In similar fashion, the old substation remains and cattle platforms at Francis are notably missing as well, but perhaps that blank can be filled sometime in the future.

Leaving Ringling by road, one turns South to a meeting with the railroad once again at Maudlow, while the railroad heads West and then Southwest.  With the Rocky Mountains ahead, the road to Maudlow reveals exactly where the transcon must head, and the crossing that it will face.  The single lane dirt road through these hills and canyons makes no effort to traverse the relatively flat confines of 16 Mile Creek.  As such, the mountains ahead loom ever larger.

Though away from the right of way for a few miles, the land the Milwaukee traversed is no less wondrous.  The vistas extend far and away beneath Kodachrome skies while wandering cattle, open ranges, and farm lands keep company.  This was the Milwaukee Road's West, passed by and hard to access, but ever present and ever beautiful.  Even as the times pass and the old Railroad fades, there is something lasting in this West.  It is these places that put a call on people's hearts, a tug, a whisper, a longing.  Time will pass and beauty will fade, but His Love remains.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Captivating Expanse from a Distance

Distance was a word with which the Milwaukee Road was familiar.  In fact, Western US railroads in general crossed exceptional distances that their Eastern counterparts would never match.  The old NYC "Waterlevel" mainline from New York to Chicago was 961 miles and the PRR counted its "Broadway" route as 908 [1].  The longer Erie (Hoboken to Chicago) was 976 [2].  By contrast, the Great Northern line to Seattle was 1782 miles, and started in St. Paul [3].  

1392.8 miles into its own push west, The Resourceful Railroad rolled through Ringling and below a captivating expanse of Big Skies.  Ringling itself was named after John Ringling, one of the brothers of the Ringling Bros. Circus who had purchased land in the area [4].  Small yards were at one time placed at Ringling for interchange with the White Sulphur Springs Railroad.  This line diverged to the north, serving the small town of White Sulphur Springs.  In later years, the line provided forest products to the mainline at Ringling, though the tourism boom that had been predicted with the arrival of the Milwaukee Road never materialized [1].  The line is abandoned like the transcon that was its life blood, and the yard that was at the feet of the Ringling depot have long given way to the grasslands of the area. 

From this distance, just a little south of town, the layout of small Ringling is clear.  The depot lies along a flat and graded mainline with a few small buildings scattered nearby.  In this photo, taken several years ago, even the AC power lines cut through the picture as though all is well.  The wear on the depot, so evident up close, isn't obvious as the corners remain square and true.  The expanse of green fields lend a picture of health to the scene, and the year might as well be 1972 but for the missing catenary.  The arrival of a Little Joe, or perhaps an SD40-2 set with Locotrol seems imminent.  From this distance, it's not hard to imagine a healthy transcon alive and well today.
2) "The Phoebe Snow - December 1964,"
3) "GN-NP Comparison,"
4) "Ringling - Russell County"

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Those Magnificent Quads ... in Iowa

Those Magnificent Quads were a distinctive feature of Milwaukee electric locomotives.  Even now, the remaining Little Joe in Deer Lodge sports a lighted quad as part of the static display of Milwaukee Road motive power.  The Joe rests north - south, 180 degrees (and a few city blocks) out of place from the mainline it ruled.  The headlight shines only on low power, and the dimly lit scene before it never changes.  It is a far cry from the glories of times past when high power lumens cut through miles of dark tunnels or charged up the formidable grades of the Rocky mountains.  But the Quad exists still today, and even in static form, is something quite special.

1100 miles to the east, another set of quads yet roams.  The Iowa Traction Railroad runs the quad arrangement on its own electric locomotive, #54.  54 was built in 1923 by Baldwin Locomotive for the Southern Iowa Railway [1].  Interurban lines once criss-crossed the Midwest, Iowa Traction is essentially the last and runs switching services around Mason City.  The full roster of electrics includes various small motors from a variety of original lines, all collected here in the heart of corn country.  Not all have been so nicely equipped with a set of magnificent quads, but 54 proudly sports them just like her larger orange sisters that once called the Rocky Mountains home.

1)  "Iowa Traction",, visited 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

Spaces of the Past

"Who plundered those wide open spaces of the past, and how can we get them back?" [1]

Just down the gravel trail mainline from the US89 crossing, the depot at Ringling stands next to the old right of way.  This picture dates from 2003, more than 20 years following the demise of the Milwaukee Road.  Now, an additional 10 years have passed, and as noted in the comments to the prior post, the power lines are gone.  These old telegraphy poles that stood in the lush grasses of this early summer day have faired no better.  The gaping windows of the abandoned depot seem to suggest that the building itself has defied all expectation.  Even the photograph speaks of a different time and an old technology: the vibrant colors of Fuji's Velvia slide film are difficult to replicate, even in this day of modern technology and digital processing.

In the intervening decades from mainline to gravel road, there has been an onslaught of technology and progress. In the past 10 years even, the connectedness of the world and the culture has grown geometrically. When the old suburban and I were in Montana taking these photos, it was with a single cell phone (that was usually off), an old camera that made a loud 'thunk' sound whenever the shutter button was pressed, and rolls and rolls of slide film from Fuji and Kodak. Today, these words are written on an iPad with a touch screen while I shuttle back and forth between email checks and text message updates. And even that itself is old tech, twitter and other social media having replaced emails as the cultural standard some time back. 

But the Milwaukee Road exists in the wide open spaces of the past.  Out in these spaces, old depots still reside in tall grasses, an old tender sits in the plains at Ingomar, a substation atop a mountain grade. Before progress collapsed the size of the world, we could hear the wind and its peaceful music in these places and had time for things that aren't summarized on backlit touch screens. For a brief while, the Milwaukee road itself was progress: making small the large spaces that separated the West with new technology that promised a better world.  Small towns like Ringling were the outposts of this empire where people lived, worked, and loved. 

But progress has no heart for things that become old tech, and doesn't stop to reflect upon what was. Little Joes, sd40 locomotives, boxcabs, and even passenger trains are all relics now. The depot at Ringling is just one of the reminders that is easily ignored via apps and the Information Age.  It takes effort to overcome these distractions but to know places like Ringling is worthwhile. It means hearing the sounds the wind makes once again, or thoughtfully pondering the story that has played itself out across the Milwaukee's West. Once overcome, there is a still small voice that yet calls out, even now through the backlit touchscreen of the iPad. 

[1] Swenson, R.  "Margin" Revised edition, NavPress, 2004

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Long Road to Ringling

Leaving the mountain pass of the Belt Range behind, the Milwaukee begins a slow descent toward a meeting with 16 Mile Creek and the Missouri River in the miles ahead.  While the old transcon has closely followed two lane highways for most of its trip west of Miles City, it now veers South, working down the side of the Belt Range and through sparse grazing country typical of this part of the West.  In the photo above, only a thin, straight line laid out along the hillside speaks to the old railroad that claimed the land as an active mountain pass.

Coming off the Range itself, the line approaches the small town of Ringling, MT.  US 89 travels north-south by Ringling, the picture above looks east from the crossing.  Times have changed the view significantly: US 89 used to pass over on a small bridge while electric wires and Little Joes passed beneath.  Today, the old AC power lines that mark the electrified railroad still show a rising profile lofting up and over the ghost of the old elevated crossing.

Ringling itself lies at MP 1392.8, almost 1400 miles from Chicago's still busy Union Station.  While the passage of years seems to have compressed the time, nothing can compress the expanse of miles.  Out beneath the big skies, so far from towering skyscrapers and distracting noise, the magnitude of what was done and then undone is inescapable.  Each step west along the old railroad seems more difficult than the one before, adding more miles and places to the list of "what used to be."  To continue west will yield only more names with no places, forgotten stories, and cold wind.  Out in this land, along the Resourceful Railroad, there is no shelter from it.

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