It's a perfect summer day in 2004 as the Milwaukee's former mainline pushes west past Jefferson Island (MP 1474). On this early summer day, the grasses are still mostly green, the sky a Kodachrome Blue, and the line-side poles still mark the way west along with remains of overhead catenary. The Rockies await just a few miles beyond, shrouded in a purple haze that hides their splendor and size. Beneath these big skies, even the Rockies seem small.
Only 15 miles separate these two photos. The first, near Jefferson Island at MP 1474. The second, near Vendome, MT at MP 1489. The former path of the transcon is clear even in the shifting sands of years that have long passed by.
The Milwaukee Road ventures into one of the rain shadows of its path West here. On the east side of the Rockies and Pipestone Pass, the land is parched for much of the year. The vast State of Montana resembles more of a high desert here than the rich and productive Golden Triangle where wheat grows miles to the northeast. Today, BNSF moves 100 car unit grain trains out of those fields. These are filled by enormous concrete silos housing the State's grain, but that's not the way it used to be. Though the summer days are long in this part of the country, the years are short: Federal Yellow hoppers and Ribside boxcars used to be common sightings in the movement of wheat toward ports on the west coast. In 1977, this traffic accounted for about 11% of the total tonnage moved west of Miles City .
Now, everything including the transcon itself just vanish into that consuming purple haze.
1) Sol, M. "Cars and Tonnage West of Miles City" http://milwaukeeroadarchives.com/EconomicStudies/EconomicStudies.htm