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.

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