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.