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.

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