Today, the mainlines that work west from hubs like Chicago seem to share a common thread: heavy rail and lots of trains. The right of way is well manicured, the ballast seemingly clean and shaped uniformly for endless miles that click by beneath the steel wheels. Today's railroads have become efficient point to point haulers which share another commonality as well: branch lines that used to traversed the countrysides like a spider's web have vanished.
Many of these lines were divested in the 80s and 90s as companies took advantage of the Staggers Act and sought to rid themselves of low-profit, low-density rail lines. Some continued on as small short line railroads, others as modest regionals. Although some of the branch lines have survived the years, the numbers are undeniable: since the total US rail miles peaked in the early part of the 20th century, nearly half have been removed .
There is something special about a branch line though - even an abandoned one. Unlike the pristine looking mainlines with modern diesel power, double-stacks, and unit oil trains, the branch lines are quiet and out of the way haunts. They exist as little pockets of time when the landscape was impearled with local businesses, small farms, and small railroads. As the sun sinks low on the Milwaukee's abandoned branch between Menard and Accola, the mountains and wheat fields that surround it seem overwhelming compared to the fragile rails that once rested here. Accola itself lies silently in the midst of this vast expanse, with Montana Elevator Co still prominently displayed across the elevator siding.
As the old main vanishes into the private lands that are out of bounds for the old truck and I, our venture turns south along Dry Creek Road and towards the bigger Montana city of Belgrade and a meet with I-90. The gravel road winds through the arid Montana landscape as the shadows grow longer and the sun dips ever lower in the summer sky. As years drift onward, even the memories of that turn south and gravel road seem to slowly fade away. But planted firmly in my minds eye is the arrival at Menard, Gallatin County, MT.
At Three Forks the Milwaukee branched from the mainline and headed east toward Belgrade along what is now the I-90 corridor. The NP mainline to Butte did the same (and still does) though the Milwaukee branch has long vanished. Heading north and into some agricultural areas, Menard stands as the furthest most point on this long abandoned branch. Decades upon decades have passed since the last 40 foot boxcars filed out of the few elevators located on this line.
The sun is just high enough that the elevator at Menard catches the last few rays on this peaceful day in 2003. It's another quiet end to the daylight hours, and stars above will soon take center stage in this drama that is the West and the Milwaukee's far-flung empire. The truck and I will stop quickly to take one last look back at Menard, and then Accola which awaits just down the branch.
A simple gate blocks the path west 1417.4 miles from Chicago. The path laid out by surveyors and engineers more than 100 years ago was one that crossed 5 mountain ranges, rain shadows and rain forests, wheat fields and desert badlands, and is now one blocked by a simple fence and tubular steel gate. The transcon path proceeds from here toward another crossing with the Missouri River at Lombard, MT. This is private land, inaccessible to most travelers who venture this way.
Between Maudlow at MP 1417 and Lombard at MP 1430 the railroad winds its way every closer to the Missouri River headwaters. The Belt Mountains pay it company as do old names with no places like Deer Park and Cardinal. The ghost town of Maudlow is the gateway to these last few miles through this mountain range, and it is here that we turn south just for a time to meet the railroad further west.
On this day, the quiet times at Maudlow find the ancient school house overlooking the railroad right of way below. Piles of catenary poles that were collected years ago lie aside the the grassy ridge in the ground that yet marks the mainline west. The Olympian Hiawatha wasn't scheduled in Maudlow, but The Columbian had Maudlow as a designated flag stop. This lesser train made flag stops at Maudlow, Deer Park, and Cardinal before a scheduled stop at Lombard. Times were different when The Columbian ran through this canyon: the two story school house of Maudlow seems built for a brighter future and no one travels to Cardinal any more.
Here there is a lament for brighter days that blows through the grasses in the warm summer breeze. A lonesome traveler is left only to consider what was, what is, and the important place of forgotten memories.
In years past it was easy to spot the fading yellow hopper cars or boxcars that still proclaimed, "America's Resourceful Railroad" as they meandered North American rails. Some were subject to the occasional over-painting that covered the slogan or even the name of the old railroad itself. Still, to the careful observer, the Milwaukee cars were an interesting and notable addition to any train rolling by.
The yellow color selected by the Milwaukee was the same as that used by the Chessie Railroad, so-called "Federal Yellow." It was a significant departure from the boxcar reds or grays that the railroad had used so often before. It was distinctive then, and remained so long after the railroad disappeared from its passes to the west coast.
In the year 2015, the old yellow cars are harder and harder to spot. In many cases, these cars have aged out of the expected 40 year life span, and are likely to be increasingly rare. Many miles from home rails, one boxcar is now serving as the local tool shed on the Grapevine Hi-Railers layout in Grapevine, TX. It still proudly flies the Milwaukee colors and gives a nod to the Resourceful Railroad even in this place far, far from home.
In Gallatin County, MT, within the confines of 16 Mile Canyon lies Maudlow. The Milwaukee Milepost here is 1417.2. Like the railroad running through it, Maudlow is a ghost of what was. It is marked by a two level school house and a few old buildings that stand within the canyon, staring out at the beautiful hills that surround the old stop along the transcon.
The days have become weeks, months, and years in Maudlow. The gas pump in town, outside the abandoned general store, still reads 98 octane for $0.32 per gallon. Those were the days before unleaded gas, and the days when electricity flowed between the tall uprights that spanned the right of way. There would be many many changes in the decades to come: the relative constant of the Cold War would end, the economic recession that saw the end of many railroads would lift, there would come more cycles of booms and busts. All the while, the clouds above would roll along casting their shadows on the hills below just as they always have. Dust to dust.
Further east than the Yellowstone and more imposing than the Missouri, the Milwaukee started its journey west along the shores of a vast lake. How different from where we find the Milwaukee's mainline here.
Carl Sandberg called Chicago, "The City of Big Shoulders." Others know it as the Windy City, and many a cold and wintry day has felt the devastating chills of driving Lake Michigan winds. The Resourceful Railroad knew Chicago as Milepost 0.
When this series of posts started in Eastern Montana, at MP 1080, how different the landscape looked. The badlands of Montana and the Yellowstone River provided the gateway to the abandoned Lines West. Then from the arid Badlands to the Musselshell river and the more fertile ag country to the west. Now, in the midst of the run to the Rocky Mountains, the railroad finds itself along the shores of a different body of water. Unlike the Yellowstone River crossings of giant steel bracings and imposing structure, the small girder bridges and trestles along 16 Mile Creek pose a stark contrast. Ironic that the Road's giant 5000 Hp Little Joe electrics called this stretch of Montana mainline home.
From the large Great Lake, to the imposing rivers of the Midwest and West, to the more subtle babbling of 16 Mile Creek on a warm summer day. It was a journey of extremes and a fearless push to the even more grand shores of the Pacific Ocean. On this summer day it is by the shores of 16 Mile Creek that the Milwaukee's mainline carefully traces. This is the entry to Maudlow, MT; 1417 miles from the shores of the Great Lake. The lush grasses have covered much of the old right of way, but the creek remains as it was. Those who called Maudlow home knew these shores better than all the others along the Road's way west. Trout fishing, hot summers, Montana winters, and the 2-D+D-2* arrangement of Little Joe electrics - all by the shores of 16 Mile Creek.
While the Milwaukee Road is the standard fare for this collection of writings and remembrances, there are a few other railroads that occasionally make a guest appearance. In the past, the Rock Island Lines have graced these pages, as have former Wabash (Norfolk and Western) and even the Monon.
One of the lasting images of Golden Age railroading must be Superpower steam and an upper (or lower) quadrant semaphore signal. These "blades" usually collected in pairs, and stood high above the horizon lines of railroads across the country. Though they were unpopular on electrified lines because of the overhead catenary and the related difficulties of visual discernment, traditional railroads embraced them. The simple mechanical system that moved the blade itself was an effective visual aid that supplemented the poor optical qualities of the lenses of the day. As lenses improved, and visibility at distance increased, the semaphore slowly vanished from the landscape of US railroads and the horizon lines of the land itself.
In contrast to modern signals with high visibility, tightly focused optics, the semaphores at night provided almost as much ambient lighting as a streetlamp. One night as I lay awake aboard Amtrak's Cardinal many years ago, I watched intently out the darkened windows as the short train of Superliners rolled and pitched its way along old Monon trackage near Romney, IN. When we hit semaphore territory, there was no question what the bright light was that flew by outside the window at regular intervals. It was the soft white glow of railroading's yesteryear.
There are few places today where real, operating blades may be found. Though CSX took many years, the Monon blades have now been removed. In Oregon, a few years back, lower quadrants existed along former SP lines though their days were numbered even then. And Amtrak's Southwest Chief still split the blades for decades after the Superchief and the El Capitan stopped rolling across New Mexico. Today, the Raton Pass line is still home to sets of matching blades, perhaps the last few mainline semaphores remaining in the US anywhere.
Dear reader, permit me to share a few photos of the Monon Semaphores from 2002. Enjoy these relics of railroading's golden age standing tall along a Midwestern mainline, just as they were always intended.
There are a few pictures that didn't make the "Railfan Five Challenge" that I thought would be nice to share nonetheless. In my quest to find 5 pictures for the 'Challenge,' I unconvered these as well. Though time has compressed these events and days into a blur, there was a time, many years ago, when a young man just wandered with a few trusty companions: an old Pentax LX, Velvia film, and the Lord.
In the middle of the Iowa countryside, a few memories of yesteryear can still be found. Here, not far from the abandoned M&St.L railroad line, the single room school house rises above the browns of mid-winter and into the blue skies of cold, Canadian high pressure:
There have been a few times when I have been awoken from slumber suddenly and without immediate cause. Still, more often than not, it seems my wakefulness has been just at the right time, for the right reason. It can be something like a phone call that needs to be answered, as the phone will start ringing. Riding the Portland section of the Empire Builder one night through the deserts of Washington State I was awoken to simply gaze outside at the moonlight landscape. There, with the blue shadows cast by the full moon, were all the elements of Central Washington: sage brush, treeless hills, and the old pillars of the Milwaukee Road's Western Push at Lind, WA. They glowed in the moonlight, and I was immediately thankful that I had been roused at just the right time. Just a couple of hours later, the Builder pulled into the Pasco with the hues of the rising sun shaking the darkness from the skies to mark the start of a new day.
Before I new the transcons of the Milwaukee Road (or the NP upon which the Builder was riding that night), I spent time along the ATSF's old transcon across Illinois. Through the seasons I spent many good hours under the big skies of the Prairie State. In the summer months, the sunsets were unforgettable.
As 16 Mile Creek meanders down the canyon that bears its name, some 1400+ miles from Chicago's Union Station, the give and take between the water and the Milwaukee Road right of way continues its graceful play. While the creek wanders back and forth between the canyon walls, the railroad transcon lofts itself over and across again and again. The surveyors and engineers laid a smooth path down this canyon, evident even 100 years after the line was plotted.
Today the canyon and the old railroad through it are likely best known for fly fishing. Fishermen can be seen gracefully placing their flies in and amongst the eddies and pools that dot the flowing stream. Instead of Thunderhawk freight trains, bridges like the one above play host to rubber waders and fishing tackle - especially in beautiful Montana summer weather.
Like many places the line traverses, modern amenities seem woefully out of sorts. The texting of a touch phone or the glow of a tablet are revealed instantly as superficial distractions - robbing us travelers of precious time, and the surrounding depths of life. Here in the canyon, out with the fly fishermen and ghosts of Little Joe electrics on a beautiful summer day, there seems to be so much more to the story. Times and places like these are doorways to something bigger and something lasting.
Location: 16 Mile Creek
MP: ~1416 Miles from Chicago Union Station
16 Mile Creek and Canyon were favorite spots for Milwaukee Road photographers to capture some of the best "varnish" the Resourceful Railroad had to offer. Along with all of the dramatic photos of Eagles Nest tunnel, are images of Little Joes pulling Olympian Hiawathas resplendent in crimson and orange, Super Domes, and Creek series observation cars. Of course, over the years even while the railroad was operating, contrasts were stark.
As orange gave way to armour yellow, passenger Joes gave way to poorly suited Bi-Polars relocated from the Cascade Division. These would run out their final miles across the Rockies. Then the passenger trains stopped running altogether followed by the Joes, Boxcabs, and then the front-line power. Finally the trains and then the rails were gone as a final pull-back was completed. Each December 19th that passes notes the last bankruptcy of the railroad and hopelessness in a season of hope. Harsh winters would follow, and silence after that.
Is it time that presents the continual reality of contrast, or is it something else? The what is and the what was, the restored and the broken down, the old and the new, the have and the have not. Even the photo above is full of contrasts that range from lights and shadows to the objects that have been captured on the old slide film. The tranquility of an empty Montana road and a babbling 16 Mile Creek stand in contrast to the mainline railroad that once ran the gauntlet through these canyon walls.
The small outpost of Maudlow lies ahead as the Milwaukee Road continues its run westbound. It has been, and will continue to be, a run full of harsh contrasts and stark reality.
The path back to 16 Mile Creek and America's final transcon has led south out of the small town of Ringling and up and over small passes where cattle roam and the road is single track. On this little path, it is easy to feel alone and lost - even if just for a moment. The mountains that climb around a sole traveler seem too high, the dirt road too infrequently passed, and there are none of the sounds that mark civilization: no car horns, no cell phone coverage, no slamming doors - just all-encompasing quiet. In some ways this makes it easy to see the land the Milwaukee built through in its push west.
Pushing on and through the doubts, past little pieces of Americana along the way, the road empties into a wider valley where, once again, the Resourceful Railroad lies in pieces. Far across the valley floor, a brace of wooden trestle bridges loft the smooth right of way between fills on timbers that seem too spindly for the likes of a Little Joe. At their feet is the remains of an old homestead resting next to the creek. A few trees provide it some shade in hot summer months just as they were designed to do by those who settled here long ago. They have outlasted the little farm, the hearty folk that planted them, and even the transcontinental railroad. Living in this little valley, I wonder if the railroad provided that sense of connectedness and civilization that seems so distant?
"What if" is a dangerous question to ask, but perhaps this scene is just a little too quiet? For years the state of Montana has complained that it is held captive by a single railroad that seems isolated from free market pressures. With the growing trend in oil by rail shipment, these problems have worsenned. Automobiles sit on manufacturer lots insterad of dealer lots, other freight like grain sits due to motive power and crew shortages, and passenger trains run hours off the mark on a regular basis. What if the Milwaukee's exit from the West hadn't been so complete and thorough?
In the enlarged scene above, the old house and trestle bridge are marks of an alternative reality, perhaps the road less taken. On this day, in the late June sun, all is quiet and these are just pieces of history lying in the shadows of times past. The storm that came here was decades ago, but the damage it incurred is felt daily in ways both seen and unseen.
The challenge: share five photos that visualize my introduction to and development as a ferroequinologist. This is a difficult challenge: actually choose 5 photos (I have included 5.5) that show my journey as a rail "enthusiast." Perhaps this is made easier for me only because many of the formative pictures are still kept by my parents so I am left with a smaller selection. My choice of 5 spans the decades and leads to a future second installment, picking up where this series leaves off.
Picture 1: CPR 374, Vancouver BC ~1982
CPR 374 was the first locomotive to pull a train into Vancouver. The date is pre-1983 when she was removed from her park setting (where children liked to play on her) for restoration as part of Steam Expo '86. Our hero looks back at his mommy in the picture below who is capturing the moment with another relic from a bygone era, the Pentax Spotmatic. Growing up in BC, it was the Canadian National that I really loved, however. Perhaps it was because its mainline was only a mile or two from our house and the old house would shake each time a train rolled by. Other photos from the period show the young lad wearing train hats and playing with some indestructible Lionel trains. I have often wondered if all small boys go through a period of loving trains, but a few of us never outgrow it?
I would cross paths with the 374 again many, many years later when attending a conference in 2010. It wasn't until I uncovered this earlier photo that I realized the old girl and I actually had a history.
Picture 2: Amtrak's Hoosier State in 1992
In the late 80s my family moved from Vancouver to Iowa. Though I started life in Vancouver, BC and still feel at ease in the Pacific Northwest, in many
respects, I grew up in the Midwest. Instead of mountains, it was big skies and
fields that provided the backdrop for the boy's upbringing. For a brief period of time before I acquired my own Spotmatic gear, I was the proud owner of an old Kodak Brownie of one sort or another. It loaded film easily and with the click of a button captured images like the one above: the local Hoosier State making its daily call in Lafayette, IN. It's interesting to note that Horizon cars and Amfleets were in use then just as they are today. I reckon they had a few less miles on them then though, just like me.
My grandparents lived in Lafayette and I would eagerly await early morning walks down to Lafayette's 5th street to see the trains through. During these years the Hoosier State was daily while the Cardinal operated on its normal 3 days per week schedule. Unlike the Hoosier State (above), the Cardinal had a diner and sleepers and would arrive just a bit earlier in the day with breakfast being served. The smells of breakfast from the diner were always a special treat.
My grandpa and I spent quite a few mornings wandering the length of 5th street, hoping for a Family Lines locomotive to slowly meander down the middle of the road. It was still early enough in the CSX era that Family Lines were not difficult to spot. Not far away were the former Wabash tracks that would host many, many trains per day including the new and strange looking Roadrailers. Grandpa would point out the old Monon station on 5th street (being used as a performing arts theater) as well as the old Wabash station that looked decrepit even in those days. These were memorable experiences and still stick in my mind as I reflect on the railroads and times that were formative.
Picture 3: Iowa Interstate in Iowa City, IA in 1997
While this blog is normally focused on the Milwaukee Road's Lines West, it was the Rock Island which formed an initial and lasting bond through my years in Iowa. The large bridge over the Iowa River still held Rock Island logos, and daily interchanges with the local CRANDIC Railroad were always fun to watch. Locomotives like the 401 would come charging up the interchange track from the lower CRANDIC line to the main yards on the old RI main. The speeds were slow, but the noise and action was fierce. These rebuilt Paducah GPs were the mainstay of the IAIS fleet during the 1990s and their distinctive headlights still make me smile.
As my interests in photography expanded, my attentions began to focus more on the "remains" or "left behinds" of prior state of the art. One evening in the summer of 1998, a friend and I were doing some railfaning around the state of Indiana and I happened to glance right to the old Monon mainline that was running parallel. Standing out against a low setting sun was this lone blade, 130.6.
We stopped and took about a roll's worth of film and set about the next day to find as many other blades as we could. I would return to these signals different times to capture them before they were removed from service by CSX. As with many of the holdovers and remains I've come to seek in my wanderings, I am always amazed and humbled a bit by how much history has passed during the tenure of these old signals. They were originally placed by the Monon and saw countless freights and passenger trains (like the Thoroughbred) that spanned the steam and diesel eras. They were a lasting presence out on those Indiana planes and the sunset captured that day is just one of thousands that cast its light on the silver sides of the old blade. One day, I'll put together a blog posting about semaphore signals. These Monon signals are among my favorites: upper quadrants, captured in active service in a time period that has long since passed them by.
Picture 5: CTC signal on the Rock Island at West Liberty, IA, 2003
The final photo finds a dismantled CTC signal at West Liberty, IA. This is the north-facing interlocking signal along the North-South line which protected the crossing of the East-West Denver main. The signals were controlled, as I recall, by the operator who was stationed in the West Liberty depot. Over the years I had found the late light of evening and sunset to produce some very interesting photos and, just like the blades along the Monon, the old CTC signal stands out well against the planes of the MidWest. It is winter time in the photo above, and I had spent the day out and about looking for relics just like this one. The days of Rock Island passenger trains like the Zephyr-Rocket are gone as is the railroad that operated them, but the lone signal remains as a standing reminder of what once was and what we've lost along the way.
A few decades from now, I wonder if any young railfan will attempt their own Railfan 5 Challenge? Will the images be filled with Amtrak Genesis units and a sense of nostalgia over bygone Horizon cars? Perhaps even a photo of a GE "Toaster" will make it in?
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.
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.
Lost Rail is pleased to share a first publication. This is a collection of photographs taken over the course of a year spent in the Palouse. The photos are broken into the distinct and beautiful four seasons of the country. Photos are sourced from the pages of this blog as well as others taken around the Palouse and Inland Empire of Washington State.