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.

4 comments:

Cupcake said...

I was there!

LinesWest said...

Yes, you were.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late commenting here but I just want to say "thank you" for the wonderful blog.

The Milwaukee is special to me. I was born in Deer Lodge a few months after the abandonment so all my memories are post mortem. But my grandfather (Frank Turner) was a pipefitter in Deer Lodge for a long time. He told me all about it, most of which I've forgotten or was too young to truly understand. I played in the Deer Lodge yard as a boy, biked up and down the ROW, and watched a once solid middle class town fade into poverty after the mighty Milwaukee folded. My childhood home was a half mile from the yard and I crossed the mainline almost every day to go downtown or to school.

I now live in Everson, WA and live a quarter mile from the Sumas-Bellingham branch north of Everson. The line has been abandoned south of Hampton Junction (south to Everson then Bellingham, west to Lynden, north to Sumas) for decades. BNSF still runs from Sumas to Lynden but access to Sumas is through the SR 9 corridor, not Bellingham. The line from Sumas to Limestone Junction, Maple Falls, etc is long gone.

I drive about the county for my work and always look for the ROW. I often daydream of it in place and what it was like to see it run. I see that Deer Lodge yard as a boy playing in the desolation. I think of my grandfather and all the other employees who were let down by a company that just couldn't keep its act together. - Ben Wood

LinesWest said...

Ben, thanks for the addition to the blog here even if it is "late." No worries, it is much appreciated.

Your thoughts echo many of my own - a company that just couldn't keep its act together for whatever reason, a huge economic and social loss, an enormous opportunity left to history.

-Leland