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.