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: