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Showing posts from 2006

Before the Storm

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In the warm glow of an afternoon sun, standing at a small place named Straw, MT, and knowing that it's all about to change... That's the calm before the storm, the last look at a nice summer day before it is overtaken by the fury of darkness that is quickly descending. The two silver elevators at Straw glow intensely, still lit by the sun, while the sky blackens behind them. The wind begins to rush, and the sun fades. Before the storm.

The old Milwaukee line from Harlowton to Lewistown used to be right here, just in front of those elevators. It was the link that pulled the grain harvests from Central Montana down to the east-west mainline. The little elevators spread out along those windy granger lines would ship their grain south through Straw to the bigger rail of the transcon line. Early on it was trains of boxcars carrying grain, then the days of yellow hopper cars. Cars that had, "America's Resourceful Railroad" emblazoned on their sides. It was the …

The Old World

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Is there something magical in a name? The old world had plenty of them, places that we remember from Biblical stories where prophets foretold events of the future and the love of a fatherly god. Places where kings ruled, walls fell, and earthquakes parted the lands. These were places of the old world.

As the Milwaukee Road pushed west from the Bitterroot Mountains the names that sprung up along the way hearken back to these old cities, towns, and the events of long ago. Tekoa, the Biblical home of a shepherd and prophet named Amos. Jericho, and the infamous walls of the city. Smyrna, where the church will receive "the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again." (Rev 2:8). Old world names that live on across the Western Extension, some as small towns that exist out on the farming ranges of The Palouse like Tekoa. Others as simple plots of ground along the abandoned right of way with no markers to tell their tail, like Jericho (pictured…

What was Left Behind

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One of the fascinating things that the Milwaukee Road did was leave behind a loyal following of people. These people look very different from one another, live in places thousands of miles apart, have jobs that span the worldwide market, and lives that run the gauntlet from the young 'uns to the retired folk.

I've written before on this effect, referring to it as the "and The Milwaukee Road" effect. It's the call that sends people traveling to a collapsing passenger station at Martinsdale or wading through tall grasses near a place called Pandora. There's a tug at the heart to go there, to experience what's left, to feel time and God's hand at work.

Some of us take it even a step further. Not content to simply look at old photos or travel the abandoned trails of the Hiawathas, we rebuild what was. In the photo to the left, it's a late summer day in September 1979 and 534 switches grain at Three Forks, MT. It's just a small piece of what wa…

In the High Desert

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On the high desert of Central Washington one of the last remaining stretches of Milwaukee Road mainline still runs toward the Cascade Mountains and the West Coast just as it did when laid in 1910. The 1970s images of Dead Freights in frigid cold and blowing snow roll through my mind as I stand at an old place named Corfu. Those were images captured during the last winter the Milwaukee operated here, and by all reports it was a brutal winter.

Today, though, it's a brutal sun that bakes the desert country and the steel lines that still ply the landscape. Images and stories in books tell of a time when Corfu had a passenger station and was the sight of great jack-rabbit hunts. Passenger trains pulled by Bi-Polar electric engines rolled through here in the orange, red, and black colors of their owner and the nation marveled at "America's Resourceful Railroad."

Then the long decline, the management mis-steps, the bankruptcy, and the brutal winter of 1979. This piece of…

Late to the Party

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When the decision was made to push the large, but modest, Midwestern line known as The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad to the northwest the year was 1905. Already 22 years after the Northern Pacific had driven its golden spike at Gold Creek, MT. Still, the railroad looked at its Western Extension with optimism, electing to electrify large sections of its line across the mountains to the west.

Still, despite this optimism, it's hard to argue the Milwaukee wasn't late to the party. While some of its extension tapped the fertile wheat fields of central Montana (and over time these central Montana lines would prove to be its most profitable of the entire extension), most of the extension entered into environments already well developed with rails. In the wheat fields of Eastern Washington this scenario was played out with the NP and UP both vying for supremacy among the rolling hills of The Palouse. Secondary players contributed to the juggernaut of rails that encomp…

Fading Signatures

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It was a clash of timelines.

The year was 2003, on a hot Montana summer day in late July. I had risen early that day and pointed the truck west along dirt back roads to follow the abandoned Mussleshell Division of the Milwaukee Road as it ventured west toward Harlowton. I joined US12 at Forsyth and continued my trek through old towns named Vananda and Sumatra. The fading signature of the Milwaukee followed closely, marked by a continuous dirt rise in the ground or occasional bridge that was left in place when the tracks were removed.

I veered from US12 at Harlowton, now following the old electrified Rocky Mountain Division. Toward Ringling we ventured, through the towns of Martinsdale and Lennip on the way. A few miles west of Lennip, where the old railroad closely follows the state highway, I found two signals standing alone and neglected. I stopped and took this photograph that seems to looks across and through periods of time. Seen here are the remnants of America's fina…

Through the Sweet Grass

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As I-90 winds its way down the east side of Lookout Pass a cut in the trees becomes visible high up on the sides of the lush Bitterroot Mountains. It's not much of a clearing, but it is marked by the continuous presence of seemingly out of place high-tension power lines. Winding further east and down-grade, the cut in the trees gets closer to the road and at a small town called Saltese, an enormous black trestle spans the Silver Creek valley and the houses that have been built up around its large pilings. For east bound travelers, they have met The Milwaukee Road and it will travel with them to Butte as they blast eastward on the modern four lane supher-highway, I90.

On a day back in July of 2005 I sped east past the silent bridge at Saltese and toward Missoula and Butte. I marveled at the old substation at Ravena, a remnant of Milwaukee's much publicized electrification of the late teens, but continued to push east. The miles were adding up and I arrived in Butte in the ear…

The High and the Mighty

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June 15, 1974. A Little Joe lowered its pantograph for the final time and the Rocky Mountain division was de-energized forever. For weeks the day had loomed; a derailment at East Portal on St. Paul Pass had removed several feet of catenary, but knowing the end was near no fix was authorized. The final days saw electric locomotives lowering their pantographs across the broken section, then raising them on the other side. Now, on June 15, no more electricity would flow through traction motors anywhere on Lines West.

So here we are, 32 years beyond electrification and 26 years beyond Lines West. More than a quarter century has passed between us, and the hands of time have left places like Rock Lake, shown above, quiet and alone as before all of this happened. From high-iron and named freight trains to a gravelled rise in the ground, running a shockingly long distance from eastern Montana to the Pacific Coast.

Aboard an airline flight on the evening of Memorial Day 2006 I looked down …

Gentle on My Mind

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The subtle tones of an evening sun cast warm light on an old drive-in sign near Miles City, MT on a mid-summer day in 2003. 100 feet away the remains of the Milwaukee rest beside the still used NP line that got here first, and has outlasted its rival as well.

The time of day that casts these subtle tones, a dramatic shift from the harshness of midday sun, is perhaps my favorite time of day. Gusting winds have given way to gentle breezes that rustle the grasses while the gentle beauty of the land cries out to be noticed.

As I traveled home from Spokane yesterday evening the sun was dropping low in the sky and the green fields of wheat rolled off into the distance in all directions. To the east, they rolled toward the Bitterroot Mountains, resplendent in the golden light of evening. To the south lay Rosalia, WA, where the wheat fields were cut open by Pine Creek and the roadbed of the Milwaukee, still closely following the cut as it always had. The arched bridges that carried the ol…

The Tie that Binds

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What is the fascination with The Milwaukee Road? Here on this Lost Rail blog, I've talked at length about my own fascination with the old road, recalling times as a small child where our paths crossed, relating the feelings of a cold and dark tunnel atop the Columbia River grade, and pondered the mystery of abandoned towns in Montana. But that's just me, or is it?

There exists a large group of true fans that follow the railroad through history and cross terrain, relating stories and encounters of how the old line affected them. There's an even larger group who at least wonder at The Milwaukee's lengthy stretches of electrified mains and love to see pictures of orange and black diesels rolling across flat plains or snowy mountain passes. An editor of CTC Board magazine once answered the question, "why do another issue on The Milwaukee Road" with the response that if you asked railfans what their favorite line was, many of them would list a couple of lines a…

Renslow Revisited

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The big black trestle, the one that spans I90 just east of Kititas and Ellensburg. Or the one that sits close to the top of Ryegrass summit on the way up from the I90 crossing of the Columbia River at Vantage. It has a name you know. Its name is Renslow.

If you take a few minutes and get off the interstate you can drive up the old two-lane highway that parallels the interstate through this part of Washington and go visit the old girl. I think the old two-lane might be a remnant of US 10, but I'm not sure.

Renslow trestle still sits just where she has for a long long time, back all the way to when The Milwaukee draped electrical wire along its Rocky Mountain and Cascade crossings and proclaimed itself as being "Electrified to the Coast." A ticket purchased in Seattle would loft eastbound travelers up and over the Cascades, out into the Kititas valley, and over Renslow Trestle on their way to the Rockies and the plains that lay beyond them.

Today she remains as more of a…

Quiet Isolation

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The first day I visited Pullman, WA in late January of 2002, I found Rosalia half way between Spokane and Pullman on US-195. Laid out across the small valley were the concrete arch bridges that carried the Milwaukee's Western Extension not just over the small creek and Steptoe Battlefield, but over the old Great Northern (Spokane and Inland Empire) and Northern Pacific as well.

The Extension was constructed in record time with a record price tag and the bridges at Rosalia still reflect that high degree of engineering and building. With its conquest of The Bitterroot Mountains behind it, The Milwaukee set out across the rolling landscape of Palouse country, through small towns like Tekoa where the skyline is still dominated by an enormous black trestle spanning the valley there, beyond Pandora, where views of Steptoe Butte can be seen around the high hills of grain country. Through Rosalia and Malden, Pine City, Rock Lake, and out into the Washington Scab Lands. In central Was…

Hidden Past

In the waning hours of a hot July day, I parked the truck next to I90 on a small fisherman's access to the Clark Fork River. Drexel, was the name listed on the exit sign and after quieting the large Suburban and letting it rest in the shade, I wandered down the short distance to the bank of the River. I had arrived at my destination, but saw nothing except forrest and some power lines that were still strung through the area, paralleling I90 just a short distance away. 25 years ago, on the other side of the small river America's final transcontinental railroad packed up its bags and went back to the Midwest, where it had come from 70 years before. It had left behind it a thousand miles of towns, people, and history that now appeared to be overgrown in the Montana woods that surrounded me. I could feel the history as the sounds of the rushing water filled the air and I knelt down and prayed. I thanked God for bringing me to this place, seeing me through nights with little sleep,…

Into the Grasslands

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One of the most profitable portions of the entire Lines West was the line into central and north-central Montana. Departing the east-west mainline at Harlowton and heading north, The Milwaukee found itself in the heart of Montana's grain country where it met the Great Northern which had already staked a claim years before. Building from Lewistown west over giant trestles that span Spring Creek and Judith Gap even to this day, The Milwaukee set out across the plains toward Great Falls.

Although these lines were feeders to the main at Harlowton, the original vision was one of a second mainline running east-west across Montana north of the original. Large stations were built along the line at Lewistown and Great Falls in anticipation of a traffic boost that never came and the lines were left with only their north-south connection to Harlo.

Today the connection to Harlo is lost and the second main line (seen above as it rolls lazily through Denton, MT) is gone west of Geraldine where t…