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.