Showing posts from 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 passe…

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 …

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…

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 impossibl…

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 foun…

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 wa…


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 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…

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 ear…

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 mean…

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 be…

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, …

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 capt…

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 neve…

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…

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 ea…

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 trav…

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 c…

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 mai…

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 lak…