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Across the Great Divide

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The Rockies have loomed on the horizon for the Milwaukee Road for miles and miles.  Glimpses of them could be seen coming and going even as the mainline approached the Missouri heading for Three Forks.  At Three Forks, helpers were added for a looming battle, but even then, miles would pass before Vendome and the sweeping curve that seemed to formally announce the strain to come.  

Now, after churning through the engineering feats of a different time, the transcontinental pushes to the top at Pipestone Pass, more than 1500 miles form Chicago (1505.4 by Milepost).  Above, the remnants of an old trolley pole stands as a watchful sentry on the western approach. Its guy wire still holds faithfully, resisting a missing and long vanished catenary pull force.  This is the final approach to the tunnel, the peak of the Rockies, and the Continental Divide.  Elevation:  6348ft.  Tunnel length:  2290ft.

Peaking out of the trees on the eastern side, the eastern face of Tunnel 11 shows its face, a…

The Great Paradox

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"You look at once happy and sad.  You see something that I can't see.  Your eyes are haunted.  I've a feeling that if I'd look into them I'd see the sun setting, the clouds coloring, the twilight shadows changing." Zane Grey, "Heritage of the Desert"

To explore Lines West is to explore a great paradox: like a joy in finding lost treasure, and sorrow in the tale of Wisdom that has spread out across these landscapes.  The treasure is great and priceless, pointing to a time forgotten and a hope from times long past.  It speaks of depths of history and tales of those who went before and if you could look only into its face there would be haunting, sun setting, twilight shadows advancing and restless quiet.  The Wisdom calls aloud from above where the paths meet, imploring the explorer to look closely and learn, to watch a sunset over the Rockies and consider, and see the advancing grade to the top and know of the former things that no longer come this w…

Fire in the Sky

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From Max Lowenthal's Personal notes of the ICC hearings, July 6-7 1927.   Walter Colpitts is the senior author of the Coverdale and Colpitts study.  [1] "It will be disastrous to the Lines East if the Puget Sound were separated. [There are] possible connections for the Puget Sound [to receive and deliver traffic] ... [but there are] no likely connections for the Lines East." [Vol 2, page 292, Colpitts testimony, Lowenthal notes]. Milwaukee Road's chief financial officer, W.W.K. Sparrow, had independently analyzed the question. "Any breakup in the St. Paul system would be very bad for both east and west" [although] "there are several lines with which the Puget Sound Lines could make connections ..." and do good business. Well before the benefits of Burlington Northern merger concessions added to Milwaukee's ability to 'receive and deliver traffic,' the idea of splitting off a Midwestern 'core' railroad was considered .... and cal…

Ghosts of Christmas Eve

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Though lodged deep in the Southern States, in my minds eye, I see snows flying and Christmas lights twinkling from times long ago.  Strange that there are times and places that stick with a man, sometimes seemingly without choice.  Many are small things that become unforgettable, treasured, and ghostly in their vivid details that remain so fresh.  
Christmas Eve, 1986: NPR was reading Forsythe's 'The Shepherd' which left an indelible impression upon me.  The blue lights of the old Kenwood Receiver are clear as day in my mind just like the small Christmas tree in a rental house - now thousands of miles away and decades past.  The walls of the house were trimmed in rustic wood paneling, the carpet grey with a hard knit pile that was unforgiving to those who scurried over it on all fours.  Electric wallboard heaters lined the rooms with thermostats that seemed to either be 'on' or 'off.'  The next day would bring Christmas, but for me, it is the Eve that haun…

Like a Desert Wind

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Location:  Rocky Mountains.  1493 miles from Chicago's Union Station.  
Climbing now higher and approaching the Continental Divide the forgotten transcon ascends the grades that made full use of the Boxcab Helpers added in Three Forks.  Looping around and ever climbing, the miles click slowly by while time hastens, blown along like a desert wind.  With electric locomotives scrapped and wires pulled, and with new diesels called back to the Midwest "core railroad" this warrior would fall.  It would not muster its strength, it would not save its life.



It Lies where it Falls

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As 1979 drew to a close and 1980 loomed, different parties were negotiating and debating the future of the transcontinental line across the west.  It had long lived under the "understanding" of being a money pit, losing dollars to the corporation at large, and worth more dead than alive.  The ICC would later uncover accounting practices that double-counted maintenance expense across Lines West, and that contrary to the narrative, the mainline to the West Coast was one of the few pieces of the Milwaukee Empire that added positive cash to the beleaguered carrier.  
In 1980 the state of Montana was desperately trying to secure funding to save the mileage from Miles City west.  The prospectus report authored in the early part of that year offered this look at the future operation and fate of the line, with a cost to the State of Montana of $55M payable to the Trustee:
"On February 29, 1980 the reorganization court ruled to allow an immediate embargo on Montana lines west of…

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.