Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Long View

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 a whoosh of blower motors.  Following quickly behind, the extended vista of a Milwaukee Superdome and a few passengers who have taken residence in the great atrium of glass.  I will marvel that the Superdome itself is almost a self-contained city: on-board diesel generators for the heavy duty air conditioning and its own galley.  

Quickly the observation car will slip by, round the turn to my back and follow its electric leader up Pipestone Pass and the famous Vendome Loop.  What time is it now?  It seems like a headlight should come into view at any moment.  It's already 3:50 in the afternoon.  Now 4:00.  Where is she?

1956 "Official Guide"

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Related Relics

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.  Baltics gave way to electrics in Harlowton, and those eventually gave way to diesels in the last days of the Western Extension.   A few relics have hung on though - perhaps like Union Station itself.  In an open field near the mainline rests one of the ribside boxcars (MILW 34641) that were so ubiquitous for so many years.  It isn't impressive in the grand style of lasting stone masonry and elaborate decoration, but it is a survivor that looks back to a different era and is impressive all the same.  Somewhere under that top coat of boxcar red paint is likely a "Route of the Hiawathas" slogan too.  

1) "Milwaukee Road 4-6-4 Hudson Locomotives in the USA"

Monday, October 16, 2017

Uncrossable Desert

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 of Miles City (a difficult assignment).
Now with the advantage of hindsight, it's interesting to note that though the long range objective was achieved and the track removed, some of the predictions were not [2 with data from AAR]:

Many have noted that the line planted by the Milwaukee Road over 100 years ago avoided many of the population centers of the day.  Perhaps, in some final irony, that reduced congestion would play even better with the long haul intermodal traffic that has sprung to life so distinctly in the decades since the railroad's departure.

In the image above, the Milwaukee's mainline is taking dead aim at Vendome, MT and the pass over the Rocky Mountains.  In the rain shadow of this high desert area, an impending storm gives the promise of rain for these barren heights.  But as the years accumulate and the memories of what was slide faithfully away like a mist in the morning sun, this high desert becomes one that no one can cross.  And as with all great mysteries, who can explain this?

1)Kellow, "Rationalization of the Plant: Study of the Line between Miles City, MT and Portland, OR" 1978.

2)"Freight Railroad Traffic & Intermodal Volumes (1890 - Present)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Into Shadows and Purple Haze

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 [1]. 

Now, everything including the transcon itself just vanish into that consuming purple haze.

1)  Sol, M.  "Cars and Tonnage West of Miles City"

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Something to Ride Against

"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 Railroad could be found here by its line side poles and catenary supports that still remained.  It isn't hard to imagine thundering EMDs and GEs howling through a bitter cold sleet.  It's still easy to picture a little Joe pushing through the scene with both catenary raised to knock the ice and improve the electrical contact.  It must have been something to ride against - the real grade will soon come and with it the famous Vendome Loop.  Then the unattainable, aloof Rockies will be topped again.

Aside:  Thanks to everyone who has checked in to see how I'm doing.  I'm doing well these days, thankful for it, and I appreciate you all.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Remembering old Days of Strength

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 blow of cooling fans ever cease?  But those were old days of strength and for everything and for each of us, it seems they are but a breath.

Rolling into Sappington (above) the Milwaukee is 1462 miles from Chicago. As the old bridge that spans the right of way clearly shows, she is under wire.  Here are the vestiges of strength in a system designed not to fail.  Designed to be better than the others, to go farther, and to achieve more.  Like a runner trained for a race, the remains still show an athlete ready to run the gauntlet.

And like an athlete, the days of strength are fleeting.  I sit as I write this in a hospital bed and remember the days of youth when, not long ago it seems, I awoke with the sun and could rely on my own strength to achieve the goals of the day.  I did not hurt, I did not stumble, and I was not thoughtful that those were days that would be fleeting.  Now I gaze upon the relics of the past that loom large in these photos and haunt my mind and ponder how days change so swiftly.  The sun rises one morning, and on that very day, everything changes in an instant.

But be of good courage dear reader, it is better to know of our weakness so that the we may seek where real and lasting Strength come from.  The Lord can and will sustain you with real Strength and real Courage even when days of strength close.  Now, I think I appreciate those days of old even more, and appreciate the gift of walking through them even as I look back and wonder at how even the mighty have fallen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Will there be any freight trains in Heaven?

The smile of a child - for them there is no other time than the now.  There is no worry of what will come tomorrow, no question of events beyond their control and out of their minds eye, no concern.  There is just delight in the present and a smile on the lips.  

I'm older, the years have held both disappointment but also joy.  Nonetheless there are a few things that still bring a smile for life in the moment.  Welcome to the KCS Meridian Speedway, two GP38s and an inbound local, finished with the switching moves for the day.  It's a simple thing that I ran across one recent afternoon, but it still makes me smile just like a child.

Maybe it's the longevity of the two-cycle diesels and the rush of the hot exhaust as the little train hustles east?  Perhaps it conjures some distant memory of a little boy standing trackside in some other place, some other time?  To that little boy, even the broken red glass of a railroad crossing that had seen better days was a thing of fascination.  Whatever the reason, the GP38s make me smile like that little boy and bring to mind the words of a long forgotten Jimmy Rogers song.

"Will there be any freight trains in heaven?"

Thursday, February 09, 2017

To Dreams that Fade in the Night

Rolling westbound with the NP line to Butte, Willow Creek MT lies just over 1456 miles from Mile 0, the place where the great journey west with the Milwaukee began.  Under wires since crossing through Harlowton, the line winds ever westward through the rain shadow of the Rockies and now past the elevator that still stands along the NP.  The rails through Willow Creek are misleading but they let the imagination dream dreams of things long departed.  

Fueled by the instant feedback and fast returns of modern culture, we sit in a world that is defined by the fast pace of change.  We gaze at the small stage presented by our phones instead of the heavens, and respond to a tweet instead of bigger questions.  A question like how the wind moves the grasses on the grand prairies, or the eternal emptiness of the skies above where the sun runs its course like a Champion each day.  

The land of the Western Extension lies spread out along this much Grander Stage, where old transcons meet and dream dreams of yesterday.  Where C/30 flatbeds are parked next to inefficient grain silos that can not load unit trains, and the dry grasses of summer sway in a hot, gentle wind.  Here the smell of old grain wafts across the passersby and it seems inconceivable that SD45s will not soon break the silence with a time freight. Thoughts and dreams of a different time, that seem somehow out of place in this one.  

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Night Moves

In the pre-dawn darkness of the last day of 2016, the rain is falling as I wander the quiet streets of a small town in the Southern US.  It's the sort of morning that feels cold even when it's 50F ... it's a damp and soaking cold and that clings to a person's body and sends chills through them as though it were much cooler than it is.  

The streets are glistening with the reflected lights of lampposts and  Christmas decorations that are hanging for just a couple more days.  Through the dark comes the haunting call of the KCS on the Meridian Speedway.  Very soon, 8000 horsepower of diesels will split this small, dark town in two.  The sounds of the approaching manifest are clear through the wet air ... and my mind casts back to the Great Lakes, an eastbound Capitol Limited on a winter night, and the tinted plexiglass windows of modern American rail travel, now two decades past....
Night time had fallen accross the flatlands of the midwest and with it had come the pelting rains of the great lakes.  Glistenning in the light of the dim streetlamps of small towns in northern Ohio, the reflections of a silver snake could be seen cutting the darkness and rain in a battle of wills:  the pelting, torrid rains pitched against the piercing headlights and moaning whistles of a Capitol Limited on a flat sprint for Cleveland.
An old El Capitan coach from decades and passenger trains long past, veered left and right as crossovers and switches slipped by beneath it.  Once a hallmark of smooth and fast service for trains like the 20th Century Limited, the old roadbed showed signs of neglect and abuse.  Maintenance deferred and standards lowered.  Still the Capitol raced on, answering the call of its famed ancestors and the lure of large eastern cities.
The Locomotive’s whistle is haunting even now years later, made especially clear because of the wet.  Its beauty resonates through the rain and memory in a mournful cry to clear the way and let it pass.  Countless times this performance has run through these little towns in the wee hours of the day, and will run again for countless more.  

Saturday, December 03, 2016

On the trail of Lewis and Clark, Willow Creek MT

With the high tension AC lines and the NP as backdrop, the mainline arrives Willow Creek, MT.

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.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Eternity in the Heart of Man

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

Threatening Days Under a Leaden Sky

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." [1]  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

Timeless Hues in Big Sky Land

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

Chasing the Windstorm

Milepost 1449.7
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 [1].  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

The Headwaters and Hope

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.