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.

Monday, November 12, 2007

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 deep lake nestled between high cliffs and an old railroad grade that often clings to the walls along the eastern banks. Tunnels and trestles still stand along the line and the right of way still clearly shows the old passing siding at LaVista near the lake's southern mouth. At sunset, the western cliffs present a dark silhouette against an orange sky while a lone pine stands over the scene and keeps watch. These are the times when deep calls to deep.

The crews that operated the gap knew these scenes well, but few others have experienced the awesome quiet of Rock Lake. The paths there are not well known and the journey is one of solitude. Today, as before the railroad's arrival, the lonesome cry of a circling hawk falls on silence below. Time marches forward putting another day between us and what was undone so many years ago. Happy trails Rock Lake, may you be forever reclusive.