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.

2 comments:

Sarah said...

Nice blog Leland! I miss those rolling hills.

Sarah said...

I linked to your site on mine, http://thetimebeing.blogspot.com, hope that's ok!