Showing posts from 2008

White Christmas

It was a cold winter day in Eastern Washington one Sunday morning, now several years ago. Loading the old suburban up with camera gear, I headed out to one of my favorite photo subjects, just to see a bit of snow fall on The Milwaukee Road. The snow was heavy and thick at Rosalia, but thinned as I worked my way west toward Rock Lake. At Pine City, the clouds broke and the weak winter sun glinted for just a few moments off the old Pine City elevators.

It was a peaceful and quiet morning along the lines of America's Resourceful Railroad, I hope your holiday season finds moments of the same.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

In the cold winter months of 1977, it was announced that the Milwaukee Road would file for bankruptcy. The date was December 19.
The path to bankruptcy had been one in the making for many years, seemingly unavoidable, and without any large government loans or bailouts forthcoming. Perhaps the government was simply not in the mood to form a "Conrail West" made up of the struggling Rock Island and Milwaukee Road. Perhaps the lobbyists that seem to play such a prominent role in the workings of money and policy were simply better funded at the Milwaukee's major competitors.History records that the line's final winters were cold indeed. Locomotives were borrowed to supplement a dilapidated fleet and movements across the system reflected the deteriorated condition of the lines. The announcement of bankruptcy must have been a crushing blow to the people who relied on the Road to make a living. Perhaps it was expected, but the announcement from the managers to their emp…

Big Iron

There's not much argument when it comes to one aspect of the Milwaukee Road:  it built things on a large scale and to a high degree of quality.
Spanning the valley at Tekoa, WA is an enormous steel trestle that bears witness to this fact.  For decades it lofted the Milwaukee's freights across the valley floor and the tracks of the Union Pacific in this small Eastern Washington town.  Here, and in many other locations like Tekoa, the Milwaukee "simply" built across the valley, dwarfing the small town and the Union Pacific branch in the process.
Today the big iron of the Tekoa trestle stands as the easternmost portion of the John Wayne trail, although it is closed to the public.  The Union Pacific that existed beneath the Milwaukee's Pacific Coast Mainline is gone as well, leaving the old railroad town of Tekoa without any of the lines that supported it for so long.  The past isn't forgotten by this little town, however, as signs sporting large black silhouettes …

The Recurring Question

What really happened out there?  In 1974, at the peak of traffic on Lines West, what really happened?  In the waning years of the seventies, what really happened?  I'm not sure, I wasn't there.
My first brush with the Milwaukee Road came in the early 80s, from out the backseat window of an old red Suburban that occasionally crossed the Cascade Range on the way to Sand Point.  I knew nothing about it, except those trestles sure were neat.  One trip, I remember the trestle at Renslow had ties strewn about its approaches and I wondered 'why?' even as a small child.  
The question still remains and remains unanswered - why?  From my chair in front of the computer, now a few thousand miles and a few decades away I try to imagine all of the forces that played on the fallen transcon.  Double-counted maintenance expenses in the last years of operation.  Maintenance left undone in 1975.  Electrics scrapped whose value to operation was well established.  A marathon of derailments …

Days End

Location:  Ruff, Wa.  
It's the end of a warm fall day in Central Washington and the heat of the day belies the cold night that lies ahead.  It has been a day of wandering the old Marcellus Branch of the Milwaukee Road, and as the sun sets at Ruff, I think about how it has been a day filled with sagebrush, coulees and ghost towns.  These are common occurrences in the land of Hiawathas, although it seems as though I never quite get used to the feeling.  The quiet invites time for reflection, while the vast openness of the dry plains makes even the biggest of us feel very small.  
Progress seemed to come slowly, or not at all, along this old line.  When the line was removed after the final bankruptcy, the rails were still original 65lb material and it seems as though more than a few ties never saw a tie plate.  Vintage 40' ribside boxcars roamed the rails here to the bitter end even in places like Ruff with its high capacity elevators.  Unit trains were common on the line, but tra…

Blowing Desert Winds

There are a few places along the Milwaukee Road that seem to hold special significance in the hearts of Milwaukee fans.  Places like Harlowton, where the famous Rocky Mountain Division began, as did all of those amazing mountain passes.  Places like East Portal, where the enormous substation and Bitterroot Mountains are etched in so many Kodachromes of the day.  Places like Othello.
Today, there's not much Milwaukee Road to see in Othello.   Rails come in from Warden, stopping along the way at a few local industries, then head out of town under state route 26 before finally disappearing from view, rolling west into the dry desert lands.  Large and vacant plots of sagebrush are scattered to the west of downtown where the Road once had an expansive yard and engine terminal.  Here in Othello, in the days of electrification, trains would swap their steam or diesel power that assisted them across the electrification gap between Othello and Avery for Boxcabs and Bipolars headed to the co…

Times of Optimism

It's easy to think of the Milwaukee Road and its Pacific Coast Extension as the place where the Little Joes toiled on Montana mountain grades, or as the stomping grounds of Boxcabs and Bipolars.  Images from the line's glory years reveal a cross-country mainline and company that seems undaunted in the face of famous names like Great Northern and Northern Pacific.  There's an optimism associated with these photos and memories.  Perhaps the passing of time has added a veneer of romance to the entire affair - maybe the BiPolars weren't always shiny or the Joes always ready to head a freight up St. Paul Pass, but it's hard to see that in those amazing photos of Olympian Hiawathas and freights like the XL Special.  This optimism could be found off the beaten path of the mainline as well.  Hopes were high when the Milwaukee built its Northern Montana line.  Its east-west line from Lewistown to Great Falls was envisioned as a second mainline to parallel the original.  A l…

Majesty of the Cascades

Some of the most famous Milwaukee Road photos have come from its beautiful crossing of the Cascades via Snoqualmie pass. Like most everything else on the Western Extension, the workmanship remains second to none and the lasting power of the old line in this wet climate is a tribute to those who built it nearly 100 years ago. Old catenary supports still grace many of the trestles on the west side of the pass, recalling old publicity photos with new Bi-polar electrics or box-cabs pulling varnish east toward the big cities in the Midwest. Even though it's been more than 45 years, it's easy to imagine some of the last Olympian Hiawathas behind yellow e-units making their charge up the hill here as well.

Like the Bitterroot crossing, Snoqualmie pass is popular with mountain bikers and is not nearly the lonely outpost that are places like Boyleston and the Saddles. The proximity of I90 on the far side of the valley offer continual glimpses of "civilization" from the lin…

The Saddles

Washington is called the "Evergreen State," but there are parts of it that defy that title. The Milwaukee Road's path across the Saddle Mountains is situated in one such high desert where the rains rarely fall and the sage brush tumbles with the blistering hot winds.

After climbing the Bitterroots and descending into the St. Joe River valley, the Milwaukee Road blazes a path out across the Eastern Washington Palouse where some of the most fertile soils in the world support an amazing bounty of grain. As the line works its way west, however, the grasses give way to dry scab lands and the annual rain fall decreases until the line finds itself in the Central Washington high desert. It is here, in this desert country, travelers on nearby I90 are warned to turn off their car a/c as they climb the grueling grade from the Columbia River Valley towards Kittitas. After crossing the mighty Columbia at Beverly, the Milwaukee Road climbs the same mountains to finally crest the Sa…

Journal Boxes on the STMA

Nestled in the Idaho Panhandle, along the Milwaukee Road's old western extension mainline, lies St. Maries, ID. St. Maries isn't so far from the famous Milwaukee Road 'hotspot' of Avery. Today, however, St Maries is a very different place from Avery. As the electrification ended in 1974, Avery withered. The engine facilities became unused and the yard was gradually pulled up for scrap. Trains no longer added Little Joe locomotives for their climb up St. Paul Pass and Avery was no longer a designated crew change. The formal abandonment and dismemberment of the early 80s saw all tracks gone across the pass and through Avery. The high iron that had been nestled in the Bitterroots was replaced by a blacktop highway. Where the substation stood, a simple memorial now rests.

The old crew change at Avery moved to St. Maries, just a few miles down the St. Joe river, for the final years of the Milwaukee Road's western operations. Unlike the yard and facilities at Av…

Dust of the Bitterroots

Spring comes late to the Bitterroot Mountains and St. Paul Pass. While much of the country begins to warm beneath summer suns, the mountains slowly begin to show the signs of spring in full bloom. The small meadows that dot the slopes between dark forested slopes awaken in full color.

A few hundred feet below St. Paul Pass, and the old substation foundation at East Portal, lies the area known as Taft. Taft was a small town built as the railroad pushed its way westward across this third mountain range. In its prime Taft was fully a Hell on Wheels town, filled with railroad workers and liquor. In later years, it quietly dwindled and was a stop along old US-10 at the base of Lookout Pass. The coming of the interstate saw Taft paved over with concrete and forgotten but for an interstate exit sign that says "Taft Area." After the interstate's arrival, even the small cemetery was seemingly buried by the interstate's grade and its location remains somewhat of a myste…

Bitterroot Crossing

One of my first adventures shooting the Milwaukee Road was several years ago on its breathtaking Bitterroot Mountain crossing. There are few other places where the Milwaukee's original vision and commitment are displayed so boldly. The shear scale of this mountain pass is humbling, made all the more so by the many trestles and tunnels that dot this mountain range.

There were several routes considered by the Milwaukee as potential crossings into the Idaho Panhandle. The route up the Clark Fork had been claimed by the NP many years previous and the potential crossing into the Clearwater River valley posed problems as well. Although I've never come across this, I suspect the presence of the UP and NP in the form of the Camas Prairie Railroad may have weighed heavily in the decision to leave the Clearwater Route alone. In the end, it was reported to Milwaukee management that a potential crossing of the Bitterroots south of Wallace, ID showed the most promise and it was this …


There are many places where the Milwaukee's Pacific Coast Extension seems so well kept that rails could be relaid today and trains could run tomorrow. Vendome, MT is one of those places.

As the Milwaukee pushed west, it began its climb out of the Jefferson River Valley and up one of the famous loops of western railroading: Vendome Loop. On this stormy day in 2005 the old path of the right of way is still clear beneath the bridge of highway 41. The first of many sweeping curves begins the road's assault on the mountain grade as it heads toward the summit of the Rocky Range. Old AC power lines are still in place here and the surroundings look little changed from days when boxcabs pushed trains up and over the pass. This area on the east side of the Rockies lies in a rain shadow, and trees are sparse just as they were 30 years ago when the last dead freights fought their way upgrade.

Old US-10 closely parallels the line and they both climb the slopes of the Rockies togeth…

Loweth and the Belt Mountains

The sweeping compound curve of the Milwaukee's attack on the Belt Mountains is as obvious today as it was 30 years ago when some of the last trains passed this way. In better times, telegraphy and catenary poles dotted the right of way through here while Little Joes and Boxcabs plied the rails between them. At the crest of this, the first of five mountain ranges, the ancient substation at Loweth still stands watch over the now silent right of way. Cows quietly munch the grasses at its feet as they pick their way carefully through the foundations of the crew houses that remain here as well.

Loweth, and the crest of the Belt Mountains, stand in the quiet Big Sky country of Montana. Here the rainy season is short and the summers are hot and dry. This is rattlesnake country. Track crews would often walk the line with snake sticks to fend off the wildlife. Even without the ghosts of an abandoned transcontinental railroad nearby, there is an undeniable loneliness to the landscape. …

True Grit

If nothing else, the decision to push the modest granger railroad, known at the time as the St. Paul Road, west to the land of the Pacific Northwest was bold. Very bold.

In its path were two well established competitors in the form of the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. Both had already laid vast claims to coastal traffic before the Milwaukee Road even considered its Pacific Coast Extension.

Not only were there two established competitors, but between the Midwest and the Northwest lay several mountain ranges that would require enormous engineering and construction efforts to cross. By the time the route was finally selected, the Milwaukee would cross five ranges.

Yet, in spite of these obstacles, the decision was made to go west and then undertaken with all practical speed and the best construction techniques available. To accompany the push west, the Milwaukee established an all out marketing blitz to encourage farmers and others to move west along its new lines. The bui…

Places and Spaces

Transcontinental. For some, the word conjures up visions of black and white photos at Promontory where the CP and UP met, linking the nation by rail. For others, its mention recalls the big cities of the west coast like San Francisco and LA - destination points of a country increasingly on the move.

These are just a couple of things that might come to mind when thinking about transcons. What doesn't come immediately to mind for many (myself included much of the time), is what the transcontinental lines actually crossed to join the nation together. For every glistening end-point like LA or Seattle, there are thousands of small little towns clinging to the same steel link. Between these small towns are miles and miles of open space.

Out in these spaces, time takes on a different meaning. There's no escaping the vast distances that these transcon lines crossed, nor the time it takes to move through them. As we journey the wilderness these lines traversed, little towns flic…

Cold Winters

The last two winters that gripped the Milwaukee's system before the abandonments of 1980 were harsh. Leased units from the B&O and Canadian National were used to fill in for disabled Milwaukee locomotives in 1978. This was driven by the need to maintain some semblance of system fluidity.

As 1978 wore into 1979 and the first traffic embargoes on Lineswest in October, 1/3 of the locomotive fleet was out of service. Ordered to reactivate the Western Extension soon after, the Milwaukee limped forward with strings of dilapidated GE locos and worn out GPs. The winter across the west was no less inviting than the year before and the best locomotives were forcibly held to points east, away from much of the transcontinental traffic. How sad, to ponder the "Electric Way Across the Mountains" in these final hours, in this final state.

Along the logging branch to Bovill, ID, a few rails remain in the remnants of the yard that still remembers those last cold winters. A classi…

Prairie Towns

One of the fixtures on prairie landscapes for the past 100 years has been the local grain elevator. In many places it is stationed next to a railroad line that has seen better, or in many other places, next to an old right of way that no longer hosts rails at all.

While harbingers of efficiency in their day, these old elevators are quickly falling silent as they find themselves surrounded by huge shuttle elevators, capable of loading 100 car unit trains. The days of loading just a few cars at several small elevators along the route seems destined for history books and small photographs adorning a wall in some forgotten museum. In many places, this has already come to pass.

Along the Milwaukee's Northern Montana Lines, this story is unfolding as I write this. Two giant shuttle loaders are being constructed north and south of the old line, promising to quiet many of the remaining grain bins on this old line. At Square Butte, the old Northern Montana line from Great Falls to Lewis…

Two Steps Back

It was a decade of paradox along America's Resourceful Railroad. In the early 70s, the creation of the Burlington Northern had allowed the Milwaukee Road access to new ports on the west coast. These were a few concessions given the railroad which found itself surrounded by a large and driven competitor. Some would argue that these concessions were far from enough, nonetheless, new markets were opened for the Milwaukee.

The mid-seventies saw traffic along Lineswest on a significant uptick. Shippers were fans of the Road's schedules across the plains and mountains of the west and rewarded the line with traffic for their priority freight trains. The fuel crisis hit, but the Milwaukee seemed to be in good position to weather the storm by relying on its efficient and capable Little Joe electric locomotives. Record grain harvests in the late seventies should have bolstered the bottom line as well, given the Milwaukee's access to west coast ports and grain growing country a…

Dead Freight

Perhaps even before the mid-seventies wore into the late seventies it was obvious that things along America's final transcontinental railroad were headed in such a backwards direction that salvation might be near impossible. Not because salvation was an impossibility, but because no one with the ability to change things for the better was allowed to. The final years of the Milwaukee are wrapped in the sort of corporate mystery and intrigue that add layers to its story and depth to its misery.

Out along the line in this period, the scheduled trains disappeared as schedules became increasingly difficult to maintain. Thunderhawks and XL Specials were gone, replaced during the renumbering program of the mid seventies. Then gone completely as traffic began to dry up along the transcontinental line and across the decayed eastern half of the Milwaukee empire. The final days of the Milwaukee Road saw Dead Freights rule the high iron.

Traditionally the Dead Freights had been made up of …

Land of Hope and Dreams

The overwhelming quiet of America's historical ghosts stand in stark contrast to the loud and bright comforts we surround ourselves with. Not very far from the interstates with 4 lanes of unending concrete, not so far from the enormous super shopping centers with their acres of blacktop, lie the remains of America's forgotten places. Not so long ago these old towns and homesteads were the centers of activity that pushed the development of the West. Now, their quiet underscores an ending that their founders never envisioned.

Small single-room schoolhouses sit abandoned in ghost towns or along the country roads that used to feed small farms. Nearby, a rise in the ground extends horizon to horizon. It's covered with dry weeds and rolls for miles and miles between these small towns. At one town, an old station stands beside it with a roof caved in and windows broken out. The station, like the town and the railroad, are no longer links to a growing world or the romance o…