Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Great Halls

Someone once suggested that the enormous train stations located in the hearts of America's great cities were gifts from the railroads who built them. They have been lasting gifts in many cases and many that remain have outlasted any remnant of the companies who originally built them.

In 1925, Chicago's second Union Station was built through the agreement of five different railroads: The Pennsylvania; The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy; The Michigan Central; The Chicago and Alton; and The Milwaukee Road. The twenties were roaring and the bold station reflected the importance of the railroad companies in American society. The Pennsylvania Railroad proclaimed itself, "The standard railroad of the world" and the Milwaukee proudly billed the "Electrified" Olympian and Columbian passenger trains that left daily for the Northwest Coast.

Now, more than 80 years later, the grand Union Station still stands in downtown Chicago and finds itself at the heart of passenger rail just as it always has been. Vestiges of the past still cling to the present here: leaving from the North Concourse, the commuter line is still called the Milwaukee District. This despite the fact that the Milwaukee itself has been gone since 1986 and no electrified Olympians have departed for Tacoma since 1961.

It's easy to feel the depth of history in places like Union Station. So many people have walked beneath the tall statues and beneath the arched entrances. Through times of depression, war, and dramatic social changes places like Union Station seem to remain a relative constant. Inside the Great Hall waiting area, where the celestory roof lofts itself high above and the arched entrances grace the walkways, travelers today are still lost in the grandeur of the old building just as they always have been. The gold and bronze colors that trim the hall still seem stately as though the building itself is a doorway to things far greater just beyond.

Wandering through the Great Hall this Christmas Eve I had to wonder at it all. The birth and death of so many great trains and enormously powerful companies seems ironic compared to the monolith they left behind. Leaving out of the North Concourse onto old Milwaukee rails, travelers this holiday can't ride in Superdomes but they can still get to Seattle by train. Amtrak can get you there even if the old orange and red colors of the Milwaukee's passenger equipment are lost to the decades absorbed by Union Station.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Small Rails and Big Boats

In the lands to the west of the great Cascade Range, beneath the watchful peak of Mt. Baker, lie the rich farm lands that exist in the heavily watered region of Washington State. A far cry from the high desert of the center of the state or the bleak rain shadows east of the Rockies, this pocket of land is known for its corn fields and dairy farming. To this land, the Milwaukee went as well.

The rails the Milwaukee owned in this country near the Canadian border were somewhat unique in that there was no direct connection to the rest of the Milwaukee system. Early in the years of the Pacific Extension, the Milwaukee had purchased the system from a local railroad who had constructed lines from Bellingham north to the Canadian border. For many years the Milwaukee accessed these far flung rails via ferry in the Bellingham harbor. As a concession of the BN merger in 1970, trackage rights were granted to the Milwaukee to access them via the BN line from Seattle to Bellingham, thus making the ferry runs unnecessary.

While the isolation of these lines from the rest of the system made them unique, as the seventies wore on another claim to fame arose. It was on these lines, with small rail laid at the turn of the century, that the Milwaukee operated some of its biggest and heaviest equipment. Perhaps deemed too unreliable to make the trek across the mountainous grades of the mainline, the Milwaukee set some of its General Electric-made 6 axle diesels to the chore of shuttling small trains up down the branch lines near Bellingham and Linden. GE designated these diesels as U-33C or U-36C (U standing for 'Universal') types depending on their horsepower. U-33's were outfitted with 3300 HP while the U-36's housed 3600 HP power plants. More than enough power to slowly ease down some of the line's small, small rails. They carried more than enough weight too. Each so-called U-boat weighed about 395000 pounds.

Today much of this isolated system is still intact. The bankruptcy of the Milwaukee led the BN to purchase the line and today rails still connect Bellingham with the border towns of Linden and Sumas. The days of massive U-boats and small trains of boxcars are history, but the memory of this unique practice of the Milwaukee lives on in a few photos taken in the dark days of bankruptcy and decline.

Monday, November 12, 2007

By the Shores of Rock Lake

Where the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse run into the high desert scablands of Eastern Washington and the tall grasses become dry sage brush lies the deep and quiet Rock Lake.

Even today, in this era of vacation homes, it remains much as it always has. Perhaps because of its remoteness and isolation it remains this way. Or perhaps, it has just been forgotten by developers who have concentrated on more hospitable environments like Cheney. Whatever the case, to travel to Rock Lake requires effort and to see the path that the Milwaukee laid out along its shores requires more still. Even when America's final transcon was still running trains, those who journeyed here to photograph them were few in number. Now there seems little reason to travel the grassy paths along farmer's fields to reach the reclusive lake, and with private property sprinkled along the lake's banks, little opportunity as well.

Still, those who make the journey are treated to what few have seen. A deep lake nestled between high cliffs and an old railroad grade that often clings to the walls along the eastern banks. Tunnels and trestles still stand along the line and the right of way still clearly shows the old passing siding at LaVista near the lake's southern mouth. At sunset, the western cliffs present a dark silhouette against an orange sky while a lone pine stands over the scene and keeps watch. These are the times when deep calls to deep.

The crews that operated the gap knew these scenes well, but few others have experienced the awesome quiet of Rock Lake. The paths there are not well known and the journey is one of solitude. Today, as before the railroad's arrival, the lonesome cry of a circling hawk falls on silence below. Time marches forward putting another day between us and what was undone so many years ago. Happy trails Rock Lake, may you be forever reclusive.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Other Wheat Country

While many Milwaukee road enthusiasts, myself included, think of Northern Montana as the Milwaukee's foray into the wheat fields of the west, there was another. In the center of the state of Washington, the Milwaukee plotted a course through the Rocky Coulee and up onto the grain producing lands of the Evergreen State. Occasionally called the "Wheat Line," it was small rail, 40 foot boxcars, and sagebrush to the very end. And, unlike some other wheat branches, it lasted to the very end.

The boxcar unit trains that plied the weeds through the coulee in the late seventies must have been a site to behold. A few pictures remain in some publications, but overall, the line seems to have lived in relative obscurity. Like the central part of the state itself, it was largely ignored by fans of mountains and electrification.

At the end of the line stands the elevator of Marcellus, WA. At one point, Marcellus boasted a locomotive wye and water tank. Now, it is almost impossible to discern the right of way that comes into this old place through the sagebrush of the coulee. There's one resident who still calls Marcellus home, but apart from a nearbye road named for this old town, it has slipped into the past just like the railroad that founded it. All around, the fields of grain that beckoned to the Milwaukee in the first place still produce the wheat that is shipped out of ports on the coast. Even though the yields are higher today, and the prices higher still, the wheat is shipped out on trucks and the strings of old forty foot boxcars have been relegated to scrap.

A mile or so from the elevators at Marcellus stands another monument to the changing times along the Wheat Line and along Lines West in general. From gaping windows and darkness beyond the front door, this abandoned homestead still resides with a view of the Milwaukee. This was a place where families lived, screen doors slammed, and life moved forward. The old kitchen, center to so many homes, is hardly discernible through the haunting black windows. The days of watching a GP switch boxcars from out a bedroom window are over but I wonder if anybody still remembers them? Do the people who came from here still remember the Milwaukee's other wheat country, or have they, like the railroad itself, been gone for too long?

This was the Milwaukee's other wheat country.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Black and Whispery

In my mind, I can see them: the pictures taken so many years ago of snow-blown dead freights struggling across the Central Washington desert. Some with lashups of tired old GP-30s and U-boats. Others stopped short of their goal when crews ran out of hours to be operating the train. The cold wind seems to blow right out of the pictures along with the icy needles of the driving snows.

Here at Taunton, you can find old pictures of trains sitting and waiting for a relief crew to arrive and ferry them to Othello. Sometimes they'd sit for a long, long time. These photos come from the Milwaukee's final winter in the west. It has been rumored that the winter of 1979-80 was a harsh one. The Railroad had been in bankruptcy since late 1977 and the gradual slippage of its condition throughout the early seventies had worsened considerably. Perhaps that winter felt all the more cold and heartless because of the railroad that ran through it and the sad and dilapidated state it found itself in. Somehow, operating with junk, the people made the line run until the early spring of 1980 but then it was over for good.

A few decades later, there's a lot that looks the same around Taunton. The rails are still here amongst the weeds and the old substation still stands as one of the few that remain. The skyline hasn't changed - the dry Saddle Mountains still dominate the horizon line. And while it seems that not much has changed, in some sense, everything has changed. The quietness of the line can attest to that as can the ominous clouds that have rolled off the Cascade range in the skies above. The clouds are black and whispery, just like the scene they overlook below.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Early Sunsets on Lines West

Many years ago a small town existed at the base of the Saddle Mountains along the shores of the large and powerful Columbia River. It was named Beverly and it marked the Milwaukee Road's crossing of the mighty Columbia across an enormous bridge that only Western Railroads could envision. The station and crew houses were well kept and a set of boxcab electrics was kept ready to assist trains to the top of the Saddle mountains.

The climate was harsh in this small Central Washington town. Breathtaking winds raced through the Columbia River Valley and across the brutal desert that surrounded it. The saddle mountains loomed tall and dark around the town and sage brush spotted the dry earth on all sides. But there was a pipeline to the outside world. It brought people to Beverly who lived and worked there and was a link to the world that didn't live in the shadows of the mountains. The world beyond Beverly was the world that didn't exist in the lonesome high desert. It was the world that was fed by technology and discovery, arts and people. The pipeline of the Milwaukee Road brought it into Beverly and supported it in the small town.

But Beverly always lived in the shadow of the mountains and the sun always set early there. In the late seventies as the Milwaukee accelerated its death march, the helpers and crews were pulled out of Beverly and the railroad's presence began to recede. It was dusk for the small town as what seemed unthinkable became unavoidable. Sunset occurred in 1980 with the end of the mighty transcon and the dismemberment of the pipeline that fed the small town of Beverly.

Today Beverly has closed shops, wind blown streets, and an occasional angry dog that wanders through the quiet. The high desert has resettled in the small town on the shores of the Columbia. The link to the world beyond the tall Saddle Mountains is quiet - as though it had never existed. The sun has set here and just like the railroad and its other hauntings, the sunset came early.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Location: Pendroy, MT

The solitude of the Milwaukee Road's transcontinental mainline is, at times, breathtaking. Perhaps all of the western transcons are the same in this respect, but the Milwaukee seems to have selected a route that is particularly removed from people and towns. To feed its mainline with wheat from the golden triangle, it sent lines north from Harlowton to reach the fertile fields of Northern Montana. At one of the furthest outposts from the mainline, at the literal end of the branch line from Great Falls, rests the small town of Pendroy, MT. A sign along US 89 directs the vacationers from Glacier National Park to "Visit Pendroy," though from the looks of it, few travelers do.

The main street of the old town hangs on by a thread and the local saloon with its flickering neon seems the only open business. Where the Milwaukee came into town stand the remains of a few small stock yards and that's it. There's barely a rise in the ground to show where this far flung remnant of the old empire laid claim. The wind picks up and the sky darkens on this summer day. The tall grasses whistle as a summer storm approaches from the Rockies just to the west. In the dimming light, the windows of the old school seem stark and barren. When it was built in 1919, there must have been much optimism. The twenties were roaring, and the newest transcontinental railroad had recently reached the town. Then the world changed and left places like Pendroy off the new map of progress and prosperity.

Today, those who venture off US 89 and visit Pendroy find a town that's been forgotten, at the very edge of a railroad empire that has suffered the same fate. As went the Milwaukee Road, so goes the small towns it touched. Pendroy, replete with the remnants of youthful optimism, isn't unique in this respect and the many ghosts that haunt Lines West show this to be an all too real truth. Standing in the presence of these places that harken back to years past, one can't help but wonder at the changes that have taken place and the direction of things to come.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Where the AC Flows

With the crossing of two mountain ranges behind it, the Milwaukee pushed west toward the Bitterroot mountains along the Clark Fork River. Nearbye the Northern Pacific, its rival and original line to the Pacific Northwest, traveled as well. Envisioned in a time where travel was by rail and not air or blacktop, America's final transcontinental railroad boldly executed a plan to transform itself from its modest Midwestern status.

Somewhere along the timeline of history, things began to go poorly for the railroad. Perhaps it was a lack of maintenance or quesitonable leasing practices designed to impact the bottom line at the expense of long term viability. Or perhaps it was simply that folks in the offices back in Chicago got tired of their western reaches, packed up, and went home.

But not before they sold everything and anything of value. From the rails, old substations, and lands, to the trestles that spanned the enormous gorges of the western mountain crossings, all were sold for whatever could be negotiated. Scrappers and salvagers removed most of what was of value, while land owners laid claims to that valuable right of way that still carves its way across the western states. The railroad sold the land beneath the AC power lines too, to the electric company which to this day uses it as part of their network across Montana. What was initially the pipeline to the electric locomotives survives today as just a little reminder of a very unique railroad.

In places like Jens, MT (above), the right of way is being taken back by wild grasses and wildflowers. The old highway bridge that crossed the line here has been removed and filled in. But two things remain as reminders of the past. The old Northern Pacific line is still just a few feet away, and the AC power still flows in those lines that parallel the route of the Hiawathas.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Silver on the Journey

181 Miles from Lewistown, out among the rattle snakes of the hot Montana Plains, on the abandoned portion of the Milwaukee's "Northern Montana Lines" sits an old milepost, a dismantled trestle, and more of the remains of America's last transcontinental. The green grasses and wheat fields of the Red Coulee area belie the heat on this June day, but my full-length snake boots that are tied tight against my legs constantly remind me that it is just plane hot.

The journey to Red Coulee has been an interesting one. In fact, the journey along the abandoned corridors of the Milwaukee these past several years has been loaded with amazing and deep experiences. My partners on the journey have been few, but consistent. As a wind begins to blow across the coulee and a red wing black bird chatters from atop the old telegraphy pole, the cold chills I feel remind me of one of my traveling partners - the one who put this old railroad on my heart to begin with. The One.

From an early age, sitting in the back seat of an old '76 Suburban I would stare out the windows. My goal was to see the big trestles that spanned valleys on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass. Around Ellensburg I'd catch another glimpse of an old railroad as a large bridge crossed the Yakima river, then a final encounter at Renslow, where a high black trestle spanned the interstate. It seemed immense and imposing, the sort of thing that makes a strong impression on a young kid. I stored these memories away for a long time, but they were never forgotten. When I arrived back in the West they came back like a flood. I was inspired to search out these things of my youth, and fill in the story around them - the story of the Milwaukee Road.

My travels would lead me across the great plains of Montana, to the tops of the Bitterroot Mountains, and out across the very trestles that I remembered as a child. Finally, the full picture was becoming more clear. When I wandered into a darkened tunnel atop the Saddle Mountains I felt something. It was the presence of something far bigger and far more comforting than I had ever experienced and the implications of my memories and ongoing journeys out across the Milwaukee became just a bit more focussed. It wasn't just a journey to find the Milwaukee, but to find the One that searches for us all.
And so, as I stand among the blowing winds of Red Coulee and feel the coolness of God's hand in the high heat of the day, the immensity of the moment overtakes me and I'm filled with love and passion.

A ways up the old right of way, my second companion on this ongoing journey sits and waits for my return. It's newer than the old red '76, but the gracefully aging 1990 suburban has seen as much of the Milwaukee as I have. Just as with the thousands of miles before, the silver beast rests patiently as I follow the call. On this day, the call has led me to Red Coulee, but the old girl was with me on the day when I traversed the darkness of tunnel 45 atop the Saddle Mountains too. On the day I found and drove Vendome Loop, the suburban was doing the work and it was her headlights that lit the evening scene as we rounded the darkening curve of the massive Rocky Mountain crossing. At Drexel (left), an old substation used to power trains on their way up the Bitterroots. Now, just a lonely photographer and his companions share in the visions of how things used to be.

Years before, during one of my first journeys along the Milwaukee Road I stumbled upon a great breakfast for $3 at Three Forks. The place was run by an older lady with curly silver hair who did all of the cooking at the back along a large grill. She was the only one cooking there and it seemed like her eggs, potatoes, sausage, and biscuits were well known around the area. It was like stepping into a different time, isolated from the outside world. The old truck was newer then when I parked it outside the cafe, but still the same girl. The dirt on her flanks shows the trials of the previous day's journey to Sixteen Mile Canyon and the area around Lombard. The cafe was closed when last I was in Three Forks. Like so many other things we've seen, time takes its toll on the small towns that still remember the Milwaukee and it looks to have caught up to that great little cafe. Silver and I won't park there again for that time has past. It is never forgotten though.

Near the forgotten town of Bonnefield we trekked across dry creek beds and beside old telephone poles. Poles that used to power ABS signals along a big transcontinental railroad, now just standing among the parched grasses of the Montana Badlands. To places like these we journeyed as well. The loneliness and beauty of a sunset on the badlands of Montana is a sight to remember forever.

The journey has been amazing, and the journey into the heart of something far bigger continues to this day. The inspiration for a journey of your own will come to you, have no doubt about that. The same companion that puts that inspiration in you, he'll give you the other companions needed to complete the journey - don't doubt that either. The experiences will be intense and deep, and the memories will be something to be treasured and passed along. The suburban isn't as new as she used to be, her paint is peeling these days, and the a/c hasn't worked for a long time. But she's ready to go whenever the call strikes. That's what's nice about your longtime companions, the ones that are sent along by the man upstairs, they're always ready to go.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Way it all Would Go

How could it all just be gone? How is it possible that something so big would simply disappear into the shadows of history? I've traveled and photographed almost every part of the Western Extension, and the thing that hits me most is the scale of what they did and then, 70 years later, what they undid. From Terry, MT in the east, to Seattle and Tacoma in the west. It is all just gone.

I've shared a lot of stories and photos now that this blog is about two years old. I've reminisced about the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse, the huge trestles of the Bitterroots, the silence of a day spent in Harlowton, even the lonesome winds that blow across the Northern Montana Lines. But every once in awhile, the scale of this beast just gets to me. The hundreds and hundreds of miles that are marked by little more than a gravel path, or an old telephone pole are haunting. To come across an old milepost still fixed to a lineside pole and actually think that milepost 1899 means that I'm 1899 miles from Chicago makes me feel really small. To know that there's no way to get back there makes me really sad.

One day, perhaps I'll understand why I continue to head out to these quiet places to look for the lost. Perhaps one day, God can explain why it sits so heavily on my heart. Perhaps one day, He can explain why it all went this way and why a few of us care so much about it.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Remember the Milwaukee

The year was 1917. That was the year the Milwaukee sent its first electrified trains out across the Rocky Mountain Division. It was a system designed to be state of the art, and it incorporated so many advanced features that people from around the world traveled to see it in operation.

Twenty-two substations were built across the system to convert 110kV AC to 3000V DC and feed power to the overhead catenary. The first few decades of electrification had several operators stationed at each substation for continuous 24 hour operation. Those off duty lived with their families in small houses located next to the large brick substations.

Today there are few reminders of the Milwaukee's great electrification. Most substations have been torn down and removed. Of the 22 originally constructed, only a handful survive in various states of repair. Some are used for private businesses, others are subject to vandalism and decay. Most sit in out of the way places where their names have been long forgotten and time continues to erode the remains of the railroad that was once at their feet.

Here at Ravenna, the old substation still sits with vandalized windows and saplings growing from its brick work. The operator houses beside it have long disappeared into the surrounding forest. Easily spotted from I-90, its presence offers more questions than answers and its future in this remote area seems doubtful. The old Northern Pacific line, just 100 yards away, still rolls trains by the old substation, but no Milwaukee train has passed this way since 1980 -- and no electrified train has passed this way since 1974. The once immaculate interior is decimated with shards of window glass and broken insulators. The motor-generator sets are long removed, and a few holes left in the walls are what remains of the large control panels. Overhead, the remains of a gantry crane still reside, but the missing chains and motors mark this as a memorial. Even the vacant stare of broken windows reflect what this old substation is: a piece of history that casts its shadow now 90 years beyond its inception. I wonder if people then could have imagined what could happen in the course of 90 years. What will happen in the next 90? Will places like Ravenna have anything to remind us of The Milwaukee Road? Or will the shadow of history fade completely away?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Naturally Beautiful

The Milwaukee Road built through some rough and pristine country when it headed west to the coast. Its route was, arguably, the best and fastest from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. It was engineered to the highest standards of the day, and among the first lines to adopt block signals to protect the movement of trains. Its electrification of vast sections of mainline are storied, even today. The railroad was proud of its technology and its powerful electric motors that hauled trains across the Cascades and the Rockies. Tall and spindly trestles were built to vault the line across huge expanses. Long tunnels burrowed under the tallest peaks on the line. Yet it was a late comer, and surrounded by legendary competitors like the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific. The markets were unkind to the line, and its multiple bankruptcies stand in contrast to the magnificence of the initial vision to build the best line to the west. So delapidation set in, schedules faltered, and derailments soared. In 1980, it was over and the following couple years would see the finest engineered railway removed from the face of the west. No more mountains to climb, no more valleys to traverse, no more high deserts to cross, no more prairie winds to run with.

But the story hasn't ended because what the railroad was built into survives. The serene and beautiful lands it crossed exist still, many just as they were when the first rails were laid. I guess that's what keeps the Milwaukee Road so beautiful so many years after its demise. Although the old line is gone, a new day brings fresh and beautiful life to blossom. It stands in sharp contrast to the graveside it grows along, but somehow, they're both beautiful.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Standing in the Gap

Location: Near Rock Lake City, in The Gap

Far from the prying eyes of railfans and the glamour of Little Joes. Between the hundreds of miles marked for their bold electrification and beautiful mountain passes. Away from the passenger trains that veered north to Spokane. In a place where the only signals were for rock slides. Welcome to the Gap.

Once the place to find big 4-8-4 locomotives pulling freight, then in later years SD40-2s and flared SD45s, and finally a last resort for whatever junk could be assembled to pull a train. Railroading in the electrification gap between Othello, WA and Avery, ID was, if nothing else, off the beaten path. Look through a book on the Milwaukee, chances are good you won't find too many pictures from the gap. From Avery? Sure. From Three Forks? You bet. Othello, Seattle, Tacoma? Yep. Revere? Ewan? Seabury? Malden? You won't find many. There weren't very many trains, and there were even fewer people who ventured out to capture them as they rolled across the continually changing face of east-central Washington and the Idaho Panhandle.

As with the rest of Lines West, today there's quiet in the beautiful places like Rock Lake. The right of way is mostly owned by the state, and it survives its run through the gap in the same obscurity its always enjoyed. Near the plotted town of Rock Lake City, evidence lies by the side of the roadbed, left alone after all of these years. With seven trains left before all was done, a dead freight derailed and left two boxcars behind. What was useful and easily taken was removed, the hulks that still read "The Milwaukee Road" were left in the quiet to tell the tale to those few who might venture into the gap.

If you go into the gap, enjoy the beauty of the rolling landscape, the seclusion of Rock Lake, and the quiet of a few lone elevators scattered along the line. Marvel at what always seemed to play second fiddle to the electrified mainlines that were the concert masters. Take a couple of pictures, in time we'll appreciate having them around even if there are no trains to photograph. Welcome to the gap.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Sea so Big

I know a girl. She's a good kid who grew up in Eastern Washington and has spent most of her years somewhere in the eastern region of the state. She can be silly or serious, engaged or wandering, rooted on the ground or have a head in the clouds. She knows Jesus and follows him even when things tells her not to. She's a good kid.

She's listened patiently to my ramblings about the disgraces of The Milwaukee's abandonment; how I perceive the management to have acted inappropriately and in the face of obvious facts. She's listened to me pine for a better alternative than driving across the state of Washington on I90, or hopping on a passenger train in Spokane at 2 in the morning. She's listened and been fascinated by my recounting of the tale when I stepped into a darkened tunnel #45 in the Saddle Mountains and found myself to be in the presence of something far bigger than myself. All of these things she's listened to and internalized, but she'd never been to the graveside itself.

Then, on a cool spring day, we were there at a place called Pandora. The grasses of the Palouse had yet to awaken from their winter slumber, and a harsh wind cut across the prairie toward the Bitterroot Mountains. Old telegraphy poles stood near the bottom of the fill and a hawk circled far away on the powerful currents of the wind. The feelings of solitude and loneliness were strong as we walked the grade. She said, "I feel anxious."

I felt it too, as I had many times before. There's a sadness here and among the ruins of other places where time has long past them by. A friend of mine described the feeling as a "quiet reverence" that seems to cry out from these lonely places of old. The girl I know had found the real Milwaukee Road and witnessed what's left of it. To me, it represents a truth far larger than we like to admit. We try hard to convince ourselves that we're in control, to cover up the obviousness of our smallness with noise, lights, and technology. But we can't escape forever. The quiet solitude and cutting winds of the places we've forgotten quickly point out our folly. We're constantly reminded that, "Lord, your sea is so great, and my boat is so small."

I know a girl and she's a good kid.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Another Long Hard Lesson Learned

Several years ago I sat in the back seat of a small sedan, headed west on I90 across the state of Washington. The rolling wheat fields of the palouse gave way, as they always do, to the harsh scablands and desert of the arid center of the state. Sagebrush and harsh sun mark the summers in this part of the country, and mock Washington's "The Evergreen State" slogan.

As I90 began its descent into the Columbia River Valley, my thoughts turned to an old friend we'd soon see again. Just as I90 plows its way up the grueling west slope out of the Columbia River Valley, the Milwaukee Road begins its assault on the Saddle Mountains just a few miles to the south. The old roadbed passes names with no places, like Doris and Cheviot, and crests its 2.2% grade at Boyleston, then crosses I90 at Renslow as it parallels the interstate into the Kittitas Valley. In different times, passengers aboard the Columbian or Olympian were treated to views of Mt. Rainier as the lush Kittitas Valley region welcomed them into the land of the Cascades.

Now travelers are treated to the same view, but from the independence of a 4 lane superhighway. The interstate exits at Ellensberg reflect the times: a background of beautiful mountains - drowned out by the noise of fast food chains and gas stations. The Resourceful Railroad sits as an underused bike trail while people crowd the asphalt with cars.

Standing on the abandoned right of way near Cheviot and looking back over the sagebrush and sand, the quiet and solitude of the moment screams out against the noise we build up around ourselves. To me, there is a sadness that these choices reflect and it's all summed up in the loneliness of this old Saddle Mountain grade. As the world fills up with suburbias and parking lots, little pieces exist to remind us that it doesn't have to be that way. Beautiful mountains don't have to be lost in the noise of fast food chains, interstates don't have to be the only way to travel and see the country, and the quiet of the Milwaukee's corridor across the west doesn't have to be a finality. But as long as it is, and as long as they are, then I guess it's just another long hard lesson learned.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pandora's Box

On a beautiful early summer, beneath an amazing sky of blues and whites, surrounded by rolling wheat fields still in their spring coats of green, by a lone pine tree and an old concrete foundation lies Pandora.

Pandora has a marred history, although from the quiet breezes that blow through the grasses on this summer day, you'd never know. It is located at MP 1866 on the Pacific Extension and the site of a lengthy passing siding used by the Milwaukee's transcontinental freight trains. This piece of the transcon existed in the "gap" between the electrified portions on the Rocky Mountain Division to the east and the Cascade crossing to the west. It also existed in the gap of block signals. This was dark territory where trains moved on the authority of written instructions only, without the safety net provided by signals along the line.

On February 19, 1977, in the days before bankruptcy, the westbound train #200 ran through its designated point for a meet with an eastbound. The two met on the mainline near Pandora with fatal results.

Now, thirty years later, the tragedy and chaos of that day seems surreal. Grasses and wildflowers cover the railroad, slowly taking back the old right of way and covering its history. The tracks are long gone and the peace of early summer stands in stark contrast to the grey days of a winter so many seasons ago.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Old Ribbons

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, several things became clear. First, like the Rock Island (another large Granger road), the Milwaukee Road had been attempting to make itself more attractive to merger partners by maximizing short term profits. This translated into reduced money spent on such things as track, freight cars, and locomotives. It was a plan that, while slightly underhanded, seemed to make good business sense for a management that was becoming increasingly tired of railroading as an independent company. Simply take some of the money that would have gone into infrastructure and apply it to the profit statement instead. Within a couple of years, a different railroad would buy the 'very profitable' Milwaukee Road and none would be the wiser.

The second thing that became clear was that there existed a slight problem with this strategy for, also like the Rock Island, no merger partner came forward. So after many years of neglected maintenance, derailments and travel times soared across the west. What had been a strategy for merger had become a very big snare. The business increase across Lines West during the 1970s only served to magnify the problem, beating the few remaining years out of the tracks even more quickly. A rebuild was possible, with independent analysts showing that the only way for the Road to be profitable was through an extensive upgrade to its western extension (interestingly enough, counter to what management was claiming at the time). But the stomach to make that kind of investment had long evaporated in the headquarters building, and the bankruptcy judge agreed.

Today, little actual Milwaukee rail exists across the west. But in Palouse, Washington, a grim reminder of those final days still exists on the Milwaukee's wholly owned subsidiary, the WI&M. Although purchased and upgraded by BN after the Milwaukee's implosion, the line through town still shows some of the old effects of a failed merger strategy and failed upper management.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Armour Yellow in Hiawatha Land

There are few pieces of the Milwaukee's Western Extension that exist beyond the huge stretches of barren rights of way that run across the landscapes of the west. Small pockets do linger, like the logger operation in St. Maries, the Central Montana Railroad north of Harlowton, or the bit of mainline that still serves old shops in Miles City. But with few exceptions, the rails and ties are simply gone from the vistas of the west. In their place stand eerie bridges and concrete viaducts that loft over rivers and coulees.

Spokane has a few interesting pieces that are the exception. Expo '74 did its damage to many of the structures that graced the downtown (although it did do its part to help clean-up the city), but if one looks closely, the ghosts of the Milwaukee's extension to the west are still there -- and some are still being used.

To the east of downtown, behind a large Home Depot and Costco store, lie the Union Pacific Railroad yards. Trains come and go, freight cars are shuffled and in the cool sun of a Northwest winter day, locomotives in famous armour yellow paint rest between jobs. But the armour yellow hides a secret; these yards are the Milwaukee's former Spokane yards. Still used every day, just as they were intended, this piece of the western extension holds on and plays an important roll. It's been many years since orange and black colors were flown across the west, but the Milwaukee's system lives on in a select few places nonetheless.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Darkest Hour

The electrics had been gone for nearly 6 years, the other big and reliable diesel locomotives had been forcibly returned to points east in November of the previous year, and the harsh winter of 1979 had brutalized everything that remained. Locomotives were parked instead of fixed, the increasing burdens of the car fleet rental drained the company's pockets, and the amount of deferred maintenance to the tracks and right of way was showing itself in the slow orders and derailments. On average a train derailed somewhere on the western extension once every day. These were the Road's darkest hours.

Occasional bright spots were quickly blotted out. The state of Montana's interest in purchasing the line was quickly abated by the many strings management and the lenders tied to the sale. Interest from other rail lines like Southern was documented, but came to nothing. And the traffic continued to fall, travel times continued to rise, and the company started double-counting maintenance costs across its Lines West. Then the final days of dead freights, only one each direction every day. And then it was over with the rails sold to scrappers and the land sold to ranchers or the government. Day laborers living in RVs began disassembling by hand what was America's final transcontinental.

In Ringling Montana, the old station still stands as a memory of the better times. For now the old building manages to hold herself up in the shadows of the nearby power lines. Like a few other leftovers scattered across the west, her memories are long enough to remember the darkest hours too.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Difference of Decades

In the winter of 1995 I stepped aboard a set of mis-matched Superliner cars and began a journey that would go on for many years. In 1995 the Capitol Limited, and other Superliner trains as well, still sported the occasional El Capitan coach as well as the standard "transition sleeper" for the crew. The locomotives being used were F40's, and the paint was faded candy striping that was slowly giving way to the more stylized blue-band with small white and red stripes. Things that have now passed into history.

I remember well the trips between Pittsburgh and Mt. Pleasant, IA where I'd escape between semesters. The sunrises across the Midwestern plains were amazing. Occasionally fresh snow would be kicked into the air as we raced along at 80, turned a brilliant orange with the rising sun. Telephone poles rolled by outside the windows as we blasted through small towns that came and went, bearing only a silent testimony to our travels. In the darkness of night and lake-effect rains, the stainless steel glistened as we curved toward big cities like Cleveland.

Holiday trips were always fun, and this year I logged one more. Like so many others before me, I boarded a train at Chicago's Union Station and headed north along with the ghosts of the old Hiawathas. Rain greeted us as we emerged from the station's catacombs and Chicago slipped away outside the big Superliner windows. The Milwaukee roadbed still carried marks of its original owner: vertical mileposts on the old telegraphy poles. Canadian Pacific has augmented them with a more standard reflective sign, but many of the originals are still there, buried in the trees that have grown up along the right of way.

The daylight quickly faded as we made stops at the old Milwaukee town of Columbus and I was left to ponder the difference time can make. We're left with memories of how things were, even an occasional glimpse wrapped up in an old milepost or station sign, but the reality of change is undeniable. I looked at my reflection that stared back at me in the tinted window as darkness fell outside and I pondered the extra lines on the stranger's face, the gaunt expression, and the receding hairline. Now no longer a young under-grad, several years of a real job and grad school have changed that. And change keeps happening. As I look forward another decade and ponder how jobs, marriage, and family will alter the young traveler even more - who will stare back at me when I look into a darkened window in another ten years? Will there be old mileposts as a few leftovers, or just memories of different times?