Thursday, November 30, 2006

Before the Storm

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 slogan for the late Milwaukee Road, and has clung on just like Straw, even though the years are wearing on.

When you come across one of the old yellow grain hoppers, which is probably more gray than yellow by now, with faded markings and graffiti, know that it came from here. Grain country, in the days before the storm.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Old World

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 above amid the backdrop of the tall Saddle Mountains).

As seekers and travelers move along these places of old, I wonder if their significance ever calls out across the centuries? Do the messages recorded in those ancient times, in those old places carry forward to the present times? Does the fatherly god still call out to a lost people, hoping to catch their attention and reveal himself? Does the one who is first and last really come along side and walk with us as we journey - and would we recognize him if he did? Do the fallen walls of a city still hold a message about the power of faith? Under the open skies of Lines West, among the ancient names of the past is a good place to stop ask.

Friday, October 13, 2006

What was Left Behind

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 was, even smaller considering the true 1:87 scale, but it lives again nonetheless. The Milwaukee left behind a legion of modelers too, who all seek to recreate what was lost and bring it back to life.

Friday, September 15, 2006

In the High Desert

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 railbed was saved because it connected to the nearby agriculture of Royal City. A rockslide closed the line years ago, however, and this piece of the Western Extension's future is probably no different than the empty right of ways that exist to the east and west of it. Corfu itself is best known as the name of the road through the adjacent wildlife area.

What is it about these places that even in the heat of desert sun, they somehow feel cold? That the years of history cry out across the decades and demand attention. Is it simply the imagination that brings these things out in the deserted places like Corfu, or is it something else? Something greater?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Late to the Party

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 encompassed the region as well. The small interurban named the Spokane and Inland Empire built lines south from Spokane to Colfax, WA and Moscow, ID. As the little interurban entered financial hardship, the mighty GN supported it, making The Palouse a virtual battleground of the large western railroads. This was the environment The Milwaukee entered as it raced to the Pacific. The older lines had the region gripped in a power struggle whereas The Milwaukee built a mainline that bypassed Spokane, the region's largest city (the Milwaukee would later rectify this via trackage rights over the Union Pacific).

Today, many many years beyond the economics of 1905, evidence of this old regional conflict can still be seen out among the hills of The Palouse. The bold and expensive bridge of America's final transcon still lofts itself over the old SIE at Seabury, WA. History has been kind to neither and both stand silently, a generation beyond their last trains. Like so many other places that are off the beaten paths, Seabury has a fascinating story; it looks back to an era when egos were laid across the landscape in ribbons of steel and the Milwaukee Road was late to the party.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Fading Signatures

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 final transcon, once proclaimed state of the art, now battered and decrepit. From a startling contrast to the dry and desert scenery around them to a perfect compliment to the deserted and quiet landscape. It's not difficult to see what the future holds, and still the link to what the past was is undeniable. In one place, in one image, so many emotions and so much time.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Through the Sweet Grass

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 early evening under broken clouds. Two years before I had tracked the Milwaukee through Butte, now I had returned to find its crossing of Pipestone Pass, old US 10, and the rain shadow that the Rocky Mountains cast to the east of Pipestone. The land to the east was the land of sweet grass and big skies.

As it did when it was a major cross-country road called US10, SR 2 still climbs out of Butte headed for Pipestone pass. I90 drifts north to cross the divide on Homestake Pass, path of the original railroad to the northwest, the Northern Pacific. As old US10 climbs boldly up the mountain side in a series of sharp turns, the Milwaukee meets it and cuts underneath at the summit. To the east, the landscape quickly changes; the trees thin, the grasses begin to grow more thick, and the valley that opens up in the rain shadow cast by the Rockies shows the beauty of Big Sky Country. In these plains to the east of Pipestone the land still stretches out through the prairie country and the old railbed still runs alongside elevators like the one at Sipple, shown above. I had followed the call that day and found myself in the heart of the Milwaukee's Montana; away from the interstates, away from fast food, and into the land of sweet grass and the heart of something else entirely.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The High and the Mighty

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 from on high at the rolling Palouse that spread out to the east on our starboard side. Small towns with elevators slipped by beneath us and then, for a brief moment, the ground split, revealing the quiet and reclusive Rock Lake and to the east, Pine City and Malden. Old Milwaukee towns that were bathed in the soft light of a setting sun. Malden; a crew-change point 26 years now without any crews. It pains me to actually consider the magnitude of what was done and then undone. So many places and so many miles and it seems we're left with only fading memories and small towns far off beaten paths. It's a bleakness that cries out, begging for explanation, begging for reconciliation, but knowing all the while that time has passed by and left me only to wonder and wander. So wandering I go under the big skies that no longer watch over Lines West, wondering at the gravity of it all.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Gentle on My Mind

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 old line over the creek and its competitors, the NP and GN, looked beautiful in the fading light. It was that special time of day again, where the beauty of the world jumps out with the remains of America's final transcontinental taking a dramatic role in the scenery as it always does in my mind.

Gentle light, rolling wheat fields, and The Milwaukee Road. Beautiful.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Tie that Binds

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 and then say, "and The Milwaukee Road."

"And The Milwaukee Road." Is it the shear scale of what was left behind? Lines vanished across 5 mountain ranges but leaving behind intriguing scars cut along cliffs, old stations in small forgotten towns, and all of those high-tension AC power lines that fed the old electric substations. The occaisional tilted emblem that still emblazons an old bridge like the one above in Rosalia, WA? Perhaps it is the tales of people who kept the line running to the bitter end. Left with locomotive rejects that were parked instead of maintained and deferred track maintenance that ended Lines' West fast freight schedules, somehow the band of people who worked the line kept it going. What about the mis-steps of management who were bent on destroying what they no longer wished to maintain and pushed to justify their aims even to the extent of double-counting maintenance expenses on Lines West? Maybe also the thought that had it survived beyond 1980, there would be a lot of traffic coming off of container ships from the Eastern Rim?

Yet we live on without The Milwaukee and its following continues. People who knew the real thing pass along stories and information to those like myself, who never saw a single train operate over the Pacific Extension but pursue its ghost across the west as though it still holds a secret worth finding. I think it does, and I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Renslow Revisited

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 question than anything else. Many travel beneath the huge black structure and wonder about it. Those who identify it as a railroad bridge even wonder why they never see a train on it. I always marveled at it as a young kid traveling beneath it's great height, and guessed that it was abandoned. I'm not sure why I came to that conclusion, but it was true, even back in the early 80's. She's been abandoned since The Milwauke Road pulled out in 1980 and left landmarks like Renslow behind to stand and exist as a lasting question, 'why?'.

Renslow, WA. More questions than answers here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Quiet Isolation

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 Washington, the line met with Othello and turned west toward The Columbia River and Beverly.

From Beverly the line began its ardurous assault on the Saddle mountains, a grueling 2.2% climb to the crest at Boyleston. Then out across the Kittitas Valley, through Ellensburg, and up to Hyak at Snoqualmie pass were it burrowed beneath the mountains to emerge in the sub-tropical rain forest of the west slope and the ports and cities of the Northwest.

With a flair for high bridges and good engineering, the line is truly remarkable. Also remarkable is how little of the state's population is accessed along its route. The Milwaukee tried to correct some of this problem via trackage rights over UP into Spokane, but for much of its Pacific Extension, it simply went where few people were. The result was a point to point line with much traffic originating on the coast and terminating in the yards near Chicago. It was a unique operating model to be sure, and I am amazed that 25 years later, it seems to be the model adopted by the remaining transcons: UP and BNSF.

While the big railroads that are left remove and sell branch lines and concentrate on point to point business, The Milwaukee rests in quiet isolation. Away from the cities, away from the lawsuits about congestion and whistle blowing, on a beautiful point to point line that management decided they no longer wanted.

Monday, February 13, 2006

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, smashed middle fingers, and broken cruise controls to end me up here at a place The Milwaukee Road named Drexel.

As I arose, still in disbelief about how little of Drexel was left apart from the bank on the other side of the river which marked the old Milwaukee right of way, my attention was focused on a small trail that wound down toward the water. A trail I had previously over-looked but now followed through the trees atop and brush beneath until I reached its end on a bank above the river. At my feet lay two timbers, moss grown and rotten, left from a time when Drexel was home to one of the Milwaukee's electric substations that powered their large locomotives up and over St. Paul Pass to the west. The substation was gone, the houses of those who worked there were gone, the people were gone, but these timbers that held the walking bridge over the river remained as silent history.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Into the Grasslands


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 today's Montana Central ends. Beyond Geraldine is the all too familiar sight of a grassy rise in the ground, an occasional telegraph pole, and abandoned grain elevators that still stand tall above the plains. Slowly nature is reclaiming what is its own and leaving only the sounds of rustling wind through the grasslands of central Montana where The Milwaukee once rolled.