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.