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.