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Showing posts from 2005

So Many Miles

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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 …

Following the Call

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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 t…

A Thousand Miles From

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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 mar…

That Sad and Lonely Feeling

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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 photog…

Sign Posts on the Journey

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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 o…

State of the Art

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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…

The Journey Beneath Big Skies

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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 elevat…

Cold Shivers

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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 …

Orange Canaries

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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 Palisades

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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 inhab…

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 …

the chief

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thoughts anyone?