Sunday, December 11, 2005

So Many Miles

Chicago's Union Station is a busy place, especially around the holidays. Passenger trains from the local regions intermix with the last long-distance trains that come from such far away places as L.A. or Washington D.C. People on their way to visit family for Thanksgiving or Christmas still bustle through the giant Great Hall, where the granite and tall columns can still impress even in this age of micro technology.

Passenger trains still deapart Chicago and head north on The Milwaukee's old mainline to Milwaukee, WI; a line that still sees a lot of freight traffic and quite a few passenger trains too, some still called Hiawathas. Chicago's Union Station was labeled as MP 0.0 for The Milwaukee's line to the West Coast. The miles kept adding all the way to 2192.7, the location of Tacoma, WA. Beyond the Dakotas, through the Montana plains, high atop the Rocky Mountains, over the incredible St. Paul Pass, out across the Washington Palouse country and high desert, over the Cascades, and finally to the Pacific Ocean. The shear scale of what The Milwaukee and the other lines to the West Coast accomplished is breathtaking.

In the above photo, winter has returned to The Milwaukee's signature, still sprawed across the west, seen here near Kenova, WA and Rock Lake. Telegraphy and ABS signal poles still mark the abandonned route of America's final transcontinental line. All is quiet now, but 1887 miles to the east, Union Station still bustles at milepost zero.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Following the Call

Is it possible that things can be put on your heart on purpose? That there is some reason we love the things we do, or feel compelled to search out and seek the unknown?

As a young kid, my family lived in Vancouver, BC and we'd drive across Washington to visit relatives in Sand Point once a year or so. I have vivid memories of staring out the window of our old Suburban at the tall curved trestles on the west side of Snoqualmie and then straining for a view of anything on the east side of the pass. I always suspected, but as a five or six year old never knew, that the huge trestle over the interstate east of Ellensburg was the same railroad and somehow I seemed to know it wasn't used anymore. It seemed so huge, so towering, and even in the mid-eighties, somehow sad.

It wasn't until years later that I would come into contact with the story of The Milwaukee Road. America's final transcontinental, and the first and only to be wiped off the face of the west. After moving to the Midwest in '87, the trips back to Idaho would come from the east, and there in the valley east of Missoula was the strange brick building with broken windows and large electric insulators on its roof nestled in amongst the trees: Ravenna Substation. I still knew little about the railroad or its history, but was fascinated by the old substation the few times we would drive by it over the course of many years and several trips to the west.

Years later, now entrenched in a graduate degree program at Washington State, the story of The Milwaukee had become something of a legend in my mind. In the summer of 2003 I pointed a different old Suburban east and tracked and photographed as much of the old line as I could across the great plains of Montana up to The Bitterroot Mountains and the long dark tunnel of St. Paul Pass. The following year would find me working across the state of Washington and coming full circle with the realization that the bridges that I remembered as a five year old were actually part of the story I was currently immersed in. It was a shocking realization: to uncover the old memories and put them in their proper context. The old railroad and its story had been on my heart a long time, building and growing as the years passed and I had finally returned to the place where it had started.

One day in the late summer, before the cold sets in across Washington's high desert, I was biking The Milwaukee's daunting 2.2% grade out of the Columbia River Valley west of Beverly. I had heard many stories about The Milwaukee's assault on the Saddle Mountains and found that as I pushed hard against the grade, that even now, the steepest grade on the Western Extension could still require a lot of effort and a lot of determination. Up through the sage-brush and sand I pushed along. The old Substation at Doris is long gone, but the foundation is there as is the old roof from an operator bungalow. Fifteen miles up the grade I arrived at the crest, Tunnel 45.

Tunnel 45 lies at the top of the 2.2% grade at Boyleston, WA. Like so many other Milwaukee Road hauntings, Boyleston itself is long gone and not much remains except for a few out of place trees that were planted back when Boyleston had a station and passing siding. Tunnel 45 itself is dark and ominous. As I stood outside the entrance and marveled at the total black that was in front of me, I listened intently to the rustle of bats and birds that wafted out of the tunnel with the cold air that felt so different from the desert heat I had been working in all day. I hadn't realized the tunnel was as long as it was, nor did I figure on it being curved toward the west end. I had no flashlights that day and so I stood and pondered the decision that lay before me.

To continue would require a literal act of faith that somehow, I was supposed to enter in. After tracking so much of the railroad across the west and feeling the beauty and stillness of what was and what is, I wondered aloud if perhaps everything had been put in motion for a reason? Could the memories of a five year old, the fascination with a substation, the feeling that I should go to Montana and begin a journey to the west all have been purposefully put on my heart to lead me to Tunnel 45?

Thinking back over the miles of big sky and beautiful mountains, the stories and people I had met, could there be any doubt? I put my faith in The One that had, unbeknownst to me, guided me all along. I stepped into the blackness of the cool whispering tunnel and as I stepped in, I knew I was not alone. God had revealed Himself in a purposeful and undeniable series of events and love that floors me every time I think about it. The journey of the heart was just beginning and for me, it will be forever and indelibly marked with mileposts of The Milwaukee Road.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Thousand Miles From

On The Milwaukee Road, east of electrification lay the flat plains of Montana and the Dakotas. In 1980 near a small town in eastern Montana scrappers began their work to undo what had been done 70 years before.

The passenger trains had been gone since 1967 and had not traveled to the Pacific Coast since 1961. Freight trains with fast schedules had continually evaporated since 1974 and the reliable power that headed them had been shepherded off to other parts of the troubled empire as the seventies closed. To look at photos of SD40-2s leading trains across the Montana plains in the last couple years of service is shocking: the track looks as rough as on some little used branch line. The line had come full circle: expensive and well-engineered to begin with and derelict and accident prone at its death.

In eastern Montana, near the town of Terry, today's saga begins. This is where the Western Extension's removal starts and goes all the way to Tacoma. The original milepost still marks Terry, MT: 1080 miles from Chicago.

Friday, October 28, 2005

That Sad and Lonely Feeling

It was a December day on Sunday morning, I remember that well. I sat in Church and looked out the window at the world outside. I was a dark shell of a man that day, weighed down by things that seemed to strike deep at the heart. Outside, a snow began to fall, and fall, and fall. The dormant browns of winter were being replaced by a beautiful white blanket that covered the muddy spoiled banks of the nearby housing construction projects. As I stepped outside into the gathering whiteness, I was struck that there was something that should be done. I returned home and gathered my camera gear and pointed the old truck north and out of Pullman.

The Milwaukee Road's last winter was in 1979/80, having been in bankruptcy for two years already. I've been told that winter was a brutal and cold one; one that seemed to punish the crews and the people who worked so desperately to keep things rolling across Lines West. Snow has an uncanny ability to beautify and mystify a scene, and the photographs of old freight trains trudging through Central Washington and into oblivion haunt me. That was why on that cold and snowy Sunday morning, with a heart already heavy about other problems that life seems to send our way on occasion, I headed north to Rosalia to find an old friend who had seen it all before.

The large concrete arches of the bridge at Rosalia are striking at any time of year. Looking carefully one can still find an old Milwaukee Road sign painted on the concrete next to the road. Through icy roads and continuing snow I had arrived beneath the old bridge. Graffiti on the bridge from 1954 still read "RHS" for Rosalia High School clearly enough. Sometimes feeling small is the best cure for feeling bad, all of a sudden things aren't all about you. The cold winds and blowing snow that surrounded Rosalia and the ghosts of The Milwaukee Road can make me feel real small. As I've said before, it is a journey into the heart indeed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sign Posts on the Journey

What evidence exists that yesterday actually happened? I suppose if yesterday had a big enough event, people are still talking about it today, but how often does that really happen? Most yesterdays seem to be made up of normal everyday life. The sun rises, life continues much as it did the day before, the sun sets, and the world prepares itself for tomorrow.

At some point, however, enough yesterdays have added up that looking around at the world brings to life a startling revelation: life has changed. The kids have become grown-ups, the things that were new seem outdated, and all of those days that seemed so similar to one another have been relegated into the lands of distant memory.

How much looking does it take to start finding evidence of real yesterdays? On an old brick building in Butte, Montana are signs posted high on the walls that read "Danger High Voltage" but there are no wires anywhere near them. Across a two lane blacktop nearby is an old bridge that has a faded orange sign affixed to it. Pipestone Pass is the old highway pass to the east of Butte over The Continental Divide. It has been for years, but there's something else there too. Looking out across the valley to the south of the highway is a huge black trestle that looms high over the trees called "Blacktail." Small towns like Lennip still dot the Big Sky Country just like they always have. And just like always, there's a stock pen that seems strangely out of place. A ghost town called Vananda sits beside US 12 and its large 2-story brick school house is as vacant as it always is.

In Miles City there's a highway underpass that carries three different highway signs. US 12, US 10, and MT 32. Normal enough, except US 10 hasn't been a US highway through Montana since 1987, there haven't been electrical lines held aloft next to Butte's Milwaukee Road Station since 1974, and Blacktail Trestle has seen no trains since the last one rolled east in the spring of 1981. Everyday seems like the one before, yet change continually happens and leaves signposts behind. Sign posts like these point you in a common direction leading back to different times, different people, different journeys, and history itself.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

State of the Art

Milwaukee Road Substation Number 2. Location: Loweth, Montana.

If you were to travel west along the Rocky Mountain Division from Harlowton it wouldn't take too long to find Substation 2. Beyond the abandoned depot at Martinsdale, through the small town of Lennip, and up a winding grade to the crest of the Big Belt Mountains lies Loweth and Substation 2. Next to the substation lie the foundations for the operator houses built for the people who lived and worked in the shadows of the lage brick building, but today the residents are cattle and a few trees that have grown up inside the old concrete foundations. Still, the substation itself is an imposing figure as it sits solemnly at the crest of the grade, still tall, still square, still proud even in its silence. The name above the window is hardly readable, and the windows have been shredded by vandals and time but it doesn't take much to let the mind drift back to a different year, when the old Substation was state of the art.

Seeking a solution to slow transit times and mountain ranges that were unexpectedly costly to pull freight over, The Milwaukee turned to electrification in the late teens on a scale that had not been seen on any western railroad past or present. Over 450 miles were electrified through Montana and Idaho, another 200 across the Saddle and Cascade ranges in Washington. It was truly state of the art and, depending on who you ask, either bankrupted the company which would never fully recover, or saved it from extinction as long as it could. The electrification itself was promoted in ads that extolled the benefits of fast and smooth electric engines and luxurious travel unlike any other transcontinental railroad could offer.

Too many, it must have seemed that electrification was The Milwaukee Road. The huge four or five unit electrics, the long freights, the elegant and powerful Little Joes, the miles and miles of wooden catenary poles that looked like an interurban line, and at the heart, the people and the large brick substations that converted AC power to DC and fueled the electrics that roamed the rails. The Milwaukee was "America's Resourceful Railroad" and it proclaimed it on the sides of all of those bright yellow grain hoppers it purchased in the early 70s.

But what started with a bang and title "State of the Art" ended quietly when the last boxcab electric lowered its pantograph in Harlowton, MT in 1974. The broken windows of Substation 2 are quiet reminders of the price of progress. Slowly nature is taking The Milwaukee's Lines West back, but in some places, the heart of the old line still stands in tribute and defiance of what seems inevitable.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Journey Beneath Big Skies

It's been said every journey begins with a single step. Perhaps a small spark of inspiration or an inexplicable urge in the heart to seek the unknown and discover the world that exists beyond the shelters of routine. What really exists out there? Where will it lead you?

Maybe to the top of high mountain passes where early snows blanket evergreens and tall trestles that seem to inexplicably hang in the sky. Then to the meandering rivers of the big plains where large bridges traverse waters named Yellowstone and Missouri. Into darkened tunnels that sigh with cold air and the rustling sounds of birds and bats, where the light at the far end seems brilliantly bright but too far away. Through rain forests and rain shadows. Beyond places named Garcia, Corfu, and Eagle's Nest. All the way to a roaring metropolis and then back again to the serenity of big blue skies and forgotten towns.

Somewhere along that journey into the past and into the heart is a place like Waltham, MT: two elevators that solemnly stand on the flat plains of central Montana along one of the abandoned portions of The Milwaukee Road's Lines West. The railroad and town have been gone for a long time, but the journey never ends.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Cold Shivers

I guess somebody once looked at The Milwaukee's Pacific Extension and thought it looked more like a branch line than a real transcontinental route. I suppose that's understandable since for many of its later years weeds and derailments seemed to define the old line. What is remarkable is that the railroad functioned at all in its final years as money and locomotives were pulled away from the Western Extension to be used elsewhere on the sinking system.

Because the route's path to the West Coast avoided many of the population centers that exist in Montana and Washington, The Milwaukee set up shop in small towns from where it ran much of its business. Othello, WA was a Milwaukee sponsored railroad town that was a center of activity when trains switched out electric locomotives as they traveled east or put them back on the point as they moved west to Seattle. Similarly, Avery, ID was a mountain railroading town buried deep in the valleys of The Bitterroot Mountains whose only points of access were via the railroad itself or a winding and narrow 2-lane that paralleled it down the opposite shore of the St. Marries River. Still, it was a center of activity for The Milwaukee with yards and engine house that kept the Little Joes and Box-cab electrics turned and heading east back over the mountains to Harlowton, MT.

At Harlowton, the story is the same. A small town on the plains of Montana, north of the major population centers of Bozeman and Livingston, but an important town for The Milwaukee. Electric engines were added or removed here, the yards were of decent size, and the station was a large wooden structure that seemed to boast about the importance of the railroad. The Milwaukee was also the major employer in towns like Harlowton and the devastation that bankruptcy had on the local economies of these towns isn't hard to see. Houses are vacant and for sale, downtown businesses are gone, old gas stations are boarded up, and there is a quiet and somber feel that surrounds the town. Like the railroad itself, the towns and people that it left behind are very silent. In a park nearby the old mainline the wind blows through the tall trees kicking up dust in the warm afternoon sun and though it is a warm summer's day, the quiet of all but the trees in the wind sends shivers down the spine.

Lying in the weeds in the Harlowton yards is an old signal that was moved in for part of a static display honoring the people that defined the railroad and the old station that still stands there. Its vacant expression is like everything else the railroad left behind it: very very quiet.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Orange Canaries

When it came to mining, canaries were often thought of as barometers of safety, keeling over dead because of bad air in the mining shafts before any of the miners succumbed. To an extent, one can say the same of the 12 Little Joe electric locomotives that were owned and operated by The Milwaukee from the early 1950s to the termination of Rocky Mountain electrification in 1974. Originally manufactured by GE as exports to Russia but landlocked in the US after the State Department annulled the contract due to rising Cold War tensions, The Milwaukee ended up with 12 of them after a fair amount of haggling, feet-dragging, and modifications to the original design. These modifications included a re-gauging to standard American gauge, a re-ballasting to improve tractive effort, and a boost in the over-head catenary wire's operating voltage from 3000 volts DC to 3500 to accommodate the 5000hp output of these new units. With these modifications in place, the locomotives were turned loose on the Rocky Mountain Division between Harlowton, MT and Avery, ID. Although the Milwaukee classified them as EF-4 or EP-4 type locomotives (dependent on whether they were destined for freight or passenger service), their more popular name was Little Joe, a dig at Stalin and the locomotives he never got.

The 1950s were a relatively happy time on The Milwaukee which was in the midst of a track upgrade program and huge tie-replacement project all along the Western Extension. Passenger service was not going well, however, and was curtailed in 1961, then eliminated completely shortly thereafter. The two Joes that were passenger haulers were put in the freight pool and worked on with the 10 others until 1974.

What is an interesting study is the operation of the railroad as the early seventies rolled into the mid-seventies and the electrification ended on The Rocky Mountain Division. At this time, the railroad ran two premier freight trains: train 261 and 262 or the Thunderhawk and XL Special. Both were Tacoma-Chicago runs that kept a tight schedule that commanded a shipping premium but also repeat customers due to the Milwaukee's fast handling of the trains. When the trains reached the electrified section of rail between Avery and Harlowton a Joe was added to the train's diesel power to help keep the schedule across the mountain ranges. This was a system that seemed to work quite well as the Joes had been modified with a special controller (called a 'Wylie Controller' after its inventor) to control the diesel units that trailed behind the Joe. With the exception of a few sets of slow and lumbering electric locomotives left over from 1917 (called box-cabs), the Joes were THE electric power on The Rocky Mountain Division and with so many miles of overhead wires and just a few electric locomotives it is understandable that management was at least interested in eliminating the fleet. Nonetheless, the Joes were needed to keep the 261/262 on schedule and always proved capable of moving the lesser priority trains across the division as well.

Things began to change dramatically with the BN merger of 1970. The Milwaukee was granted access to Portland as well as other improved access points on the west coast. At the same time, traffic levels started to rise as increased shipments from Asian began hitting the docks in Washington. The Milwaukee was actually experiencing a traffic up-swing through the mid-seventies and the electrics proved very capable of saving money especially as the energy crisis hit. Nonetheless, the physical plant (the track, the overhead wires, and almost everything else a railroad needs to operate) were in declining health. Very little money had been put back into the system and as traffic levels increased, the railroad was falling apart with increasing velocity. Management didn't seem much interested in making the necessary improvements for the increased traffic: it was estimated that 100 million dollars would re-vamp the Western Extension in the early 70s but management passed on that opportunity, and passed again when GE offered to re-work all of the electrification, close the gap between Avery and Othello, provide new electric locomotives, AND finance the entire operation.

As traffic levels rose, the track fell apart, slow orders increased, 261/262 started arriving 8 hours late or later at their destination points, and as one would expect, traffic levels began to fall off dramatically. With traffic down and train schedules non-existent, the Little Joe was no longer needed and electrification ended in 1974. Six years later, the railroad ended as well. With the railroad dead and dying, the Joes were gone. Today one Joe still survives in Deer Lodge, MT and is pictured above. You may never hear anybody else call these locomotives canaries, but they seemed to be an excellent barometer of the railroad's health and a testament to the hardworking men and women who kept the railroad operable even in the face of total collapse.

If you'd like to read more about the demise of The Milwaukee Road I'd encourage you to check out the following article, "What Really Happened" by Todd Jones where I have taken some of the information presented in this post. You can find it here:

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Palisades

It doesn't take much research of The Milwaukee to come across the interesting electrical "gap" that existed between Avery, ID (the western terminus of the Rocky Mountain Division) and Othello, WA on the Coast Division. The gap in The Milwaukee's western electrification existed for various reasons and was the stomping ground for many of the Milwaukee's large S3 4-8-4 Northerns that hauled tonnage between the electrified portions of the line.

The line between Othello and Avery was and is still a very isolated section of the Western Extension that proves just as difficult to track today as it was thirty years ago when orange and black locomotives still roamed the line. In the center of this isolation lies Rock Lake. A deep and beautiful lake that remains undisturbed and much as it was before a young America's push for the west started in the 1800s. To walk the abandoned rail line along the lake puts you in the company of only a few deer and large hawks that inhabit the steep and rocky cliffs along the shore.

Rock Lake sits at an interesting geographic division point itself. To the west of the north-south lake lies Washington Scab-land country, to the east; fertile fields of the Palouse. When the sun sets over Rock Lake and bathes high-desert country in golden light I have found few places to be more beautiful. Old railroad mileposts still dot telegraphy poles and wide spots in the gravel roadbed are remnants of passing sidings and a few towns that never really got started. At the north end of the lake lies the land plots for Rock Lake City. Of course one would never know that now. At the south end, an old passing siding named La Vista sits beside milepost 1900 with a view of the huge grain elevators at Ewan just a mile away.

In the middle of The Milwaukee's run down the ragged cliffs along the lake the roadbed again widens and fields of wheat run up to the right of way. An old electric meter stands on an old telephone pole and nearby is milepost 1894, still affixed to an old telegraphy pole. This is Palisades, WA. A non-existent town on a non-existent railroad in one of the most isolated stretches of the railroad anywhere on the Western Extension. It's beauty is matched only by its solitude. Just to the west, the deep and silent Rock Lake watches the years pass and marvels at how the things that were supposed to last forever proved just as transient as everything else.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Current State of Affairs

In the late winter of 1977 (December 19 to be exact), the last transcontinental railroad that was built in America filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. Its lines across the mid-west and west lay in ruins as a result of a complicated and inter-twined series of events that, at best, are difficult to understand. The winter of 1979 would be its final winter and in 1980 The Milwaukee Road sold its Western Extension to scrapers from Terry, MT to Tacoma, WA. The company that emerged (with track only in the Midwest) would last only five more years before being sold to The Soo Line, thus completely ending the granger railroad that never really came to grips with being a large transcontinental route.

As a matter of fact, the 1970s weren't a happy time for railroads in general. At least up until the Enron fiasco, the record for most money lost in a single day by a corporation was held by the Penn-Central Railroad. The Rock Island Railroad would, like the Milwaukee, file for bankruptcy protection and be gone as a corporation by March 1980 and its occasionally rumored merger partner to the east, the Erie-Lackawanna, would be bankrupt and put under the wings of Conrail in 1979.

So what makes The Milwaukee Road special? Perhaps it is its bold and scenic route across the upper Mid-west and West that pits it against five mountain ranges. Perhaps it is its storied love affair with electrified operations through the Rockies and Cascades. Or perhaps it is the people and towns that it has left behind to wonder at its passing and marvel at the scale of its failure. For whatever the reason, the old road is fascinating to me and I'll post some more thoughts and history as I feel led.