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Making the Turn

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A fight awaits the push west as the long sweeping turn at Vendome comes into view, showing the rise that will take the transcron around Vendome Loop and to the crest of the Rockies and Continental Divide.  These are not the Cascades, and the grandeur of the land is different.  In the Cascades, a sub-tropic rainforest covers snow covered cliffs and magnificent edifices that separate the West Coast from the inland.  By contrast, here the vegetation is sparse and marked with sage brush and summer heat that yields a thirsty land, scorched by blistering sun.  
The Milwaukee's course across the Rockies is less visible than the NP's Homestake Pass which closely follows the well-traveled I90 to Butte.  Old trestles and rusted rails still mark that line.  Still, its fate seems little different than the Resourceful Railroad's own ascent.  Homestake pass seems chained and destined to be a question mark in the minds of those that choose to look from the 4 lanes of concrete.  In-vehic…

The Long View

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A summer day in 1956, and it's a long road from Chicago to the West Coast.  The Olympian Hiawatha covers 2189 miles to reach Seattle, then 38 more to reach Tacoma.  Total time:  45 hours and 45 minutes.  If on schedule, it reaches this location, Vendome Mt, at about 3:45 in the afternoon of the second day.  Behind it lie the foothills and smaller ranges already crossed as it makes it way west.  In front, a sharp turn and attack on the Rocky Mountains directly.  On this summer day, the Oly Hi is in classic Milwaukee Road colors of Orange and Black, the UP Armour Yellow will come later. I've got the camera set up, it's ready.
I know the train should have pulled at Three Forks on-time, 3:00pm.  It should only be a matter of minutes before the headlight of the approaching streamliner comes into view, still many miles distant.  It will approach silently, born westward by electric power.  The shear scale of the distance makes judging its speed difficult, but it will arrive with …

Related Relics

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1,490 miles of mainline - the distance from Chicago's Union Station to Vendome, MT.  The picture above, taken a decade ago, shows Union Station resplendent in its ornamentation and elegance.  It was a majestic entrance to a grand city established by five railroads including the Milwaukee Road.  The statue holds a rooster and looks to the horizon, the rising sun and start of a new day. 
From Chicago the Resourceful Railroad mainline heads north and then west, out across the Midwest and through the prairie lands of waving grasses and American pronghorns.  From Union Station to electrification at Harlowton, it was 4-6-4 Baltics that raced passengers across these lands.  These were impressive machines in their own right:  one completed 10 round trips in 30 days between Minneapolis and Harlowton ... with no days off or out for maintenance.  Each round trip distance was 918 miles [1].

1490 miles on from the horizon-gazing statue in Union Station lies the grade to Pipestone Pass.  Balti…

Uncrossable Desert

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In January 1978, G.A. Kellow offered this report on the Milwaukee's plant rationalization efforts as it moved into its final bankruptcy [1]: Traffic patterns over the past 30 years, and probably longer, show that the total transcontinental rail market is not a strong growth market; that the Milwaukee Road's share has always been small; and that the share of the market is in fact diminishing.

Given the small present market share, the strong rail competition and the apparent limited total market, the Milwaukee Road cannot expect to increase its share of the traffic enough in the future to justify maintaining transcontinental service.

On the basis of this study and analysis, the following conclusions are drawn:
The railroad probably should not have extended its line to the Pacific Northwest at the time it was done.
There is no economic justification in continuing transcontinental service to the West Coast.A long-range objective should be to phase out most, if not all, operations west…

Into Shadows and Purple Haze

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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…

Something to Ride Against

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"In Montana they have blizzards that freeze cattle standin' in their tracks.  An' horses freeze to death.  They tell me that a drivin' sleet in the face with the mercury forty below is somethin' to ride against"Light of the Western Stars, by Zane Grey

There are hundreds and hundreds of miles that now lay behind us in this journey to the Milwaukee's West.  Alcazar is located 1467.5 miles from Chicago's Union Station, along these shores of the Jefferson River, winding along with the remains of the Northern Pacific.  Like many of the haunts that have rolled by in the run west, it is a name with no place - lying both in the shadows of the Rockies and the fading memories of a Nation.  
Here the Rocky Mountains loom ever closer and rise ever higher.  They are aloof and unattainable but ever present and mighty.  The Continental Divide lies ahead and so does the inevitable throttle-up that will hoist tonnage to the top.  

In 2003, America's Resourceful Ra…

Remembering old Days of Strength

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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 bl…