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Not Here Long

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Approximate Milepost:  1491

Many years ago, I knew a child who gazed out the windows of an old Chevy Suburban at the passing landscapes of the West, straining to see tracks and trains.  Big bridges and trestles, old brick buildings, little towns, and massive coal drags heading east with Cascade Green monsters pulling at them.
Then I knew a young man, and a different Suburban.  He pointed it west, slept in its back in parks beside the Missouri River in Montana, and traversed the old trails of Hiawathas.  There were the abandoned brick buildings, high bridges, little towns forgotten.  A gravel path that extended across the Big Sky country, grain elevators standing in fields, and moments that were a gift.





One day there were no more Suburbans, no more mountains crossed, and a lot of memories.  Then I knew a man who wasn't so young anymore.  
So I close my eyes and think about this and I know that we're not here very long.

Hard Climb

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With the day gone and sun setting, blue shadows start to filter across the mainline in its climb to the top of the Rockies.  It is a relentless climb up a mountain grade that to this day has never changed its standard.  The view from the climb is best captured in the images themselves - a view that looks across the wide expanses left behind and the hurt of a pass sheltered from rain but never from the hard memories.  
Approximate milepost 1489.7



Sagebrush and Sky

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Relentless is the climb around Vendome Loop and the Rockies as the transcon continues its push west.  Above, the skies show signs of nighttime and the end of day, and the valley floor is increasingly left far below and behind.  The Great Northern crests the Rockies near Glacier National Park, with high peaks and evergreens that are draped in thick blankets of white during winter months.  But to the south, the Milwaukee plies a high desert with Butte still on the far side of the ascent.
This is full scale, serious mountain railroading.  Heavy rail marked these grades accompanied by the hum of hardworking traction motors and whoosh of cooling fans that pulled power from overhead catenary.  In later years, it was the deep throb of EMD 20 and 16 cylinder 2 cycle diesels that reverberate in your chest that ruled these grades.  It is too easy to forget the scale of what was done here.  The sage now encroaches all around the transcon and its assault on the Rockies.  Only where wheel ruts ha…

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…