Wednesday, December 24, 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.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

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 employees on that day 31 years ago must have been hard to swallow. The cold winter, the dilapidated railroad, the uncertainty of a bleak future, all at a time of year marked by hope and supposed joy. In the warm glow of Christmas trees across small Milwaukee towns in the West sat those who were most effected by the line's bankruptcy, caught in the irony of the season.

That season was a dark one in the history of America's Resourceful Railroad. In towns like Harlowton and Othello, where the job losses were crippling, the shadow cast lingers to this day. This was the Milwaukee's final bankruptcy from which it would never fully recover. The company that proceeded forward would be without it's Western Extension, a so-called "retrenchment" of it's Midwestern core lines. It would also be without it's most profitable lines and its balance sheets reflected the poor performance of the new Midwestern core immediately. A final irony from a railroad that seemed to exist on them.

31 years later, these ghosts of Christmas past haunt other industries in times of financial turmoil and bleak outlooks. Bailouts are available to some, but many people feel the crunch of an uncertain future. Nonetheless, there is something that can transcend the darkness of the moment in the brightness of a holiday season. The Bitterroot Mountains, shown on a cold and snowy day above, no longer echo with the passing of Milwaukee freights, but their beauty and presence remains today as it has since well before the Milwaukee hung its first electric wires over the line. There are reasons for Hope, even amidst the ghosts of Christmas past.

Monday, November 24, 2008

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 of the Milwaukee trestle still encourage travelers on nearby US 95 to stop by for a visit.

Out in the rolling hills of the Eastern Washington Palouse, the abandoned Milwaukee main finds itself in good company with many other lines that have fallen to scrappers and "progress."  The Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific, and the Great Northern all had lines that split the rolling wheat fields through here.  Most of them have suffered the same fate as the Pacific Coast Extension and now lie as reminders of times past.  In places like Tekoa, however, the reminders of the Milwaukee remain larger and more impressive.  Just like when they were built.

Friday, November 07, 2008

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 in the Bitterroots.  An unfriendly and corrupt politician in Seattle.  Derelict lines of locomotives in the cold winters of '78 and '79.  Reports that showed the promise of the line for modest repair costs that were never invested.  Unsuccessful attempts at mergers.  Poor accounting.  Political positioning.  And still, at the very end, it seems Lines West actually made some profit in spite of this list of sufferings.  

So we're left with a whole lot of nothing.  No silver-bullet answer and a 1200 mile scar across 3 western states where an American icon used to roam.  There is a depth to the death of this line that makes it difficult to understand while my own passions make it difficult to stomach.  I can only imagine what it was like for the people who actually were there and saw it happen.  The brief periods of hope when rumors of government bailouts or interested buyers surfaced.  The encouraging reports of rehabilitation costs.  But in the end, it's gone and the question remains.

Today, there is a sadness out along those lines.  I've noted before in other posts the restlessness you can feel in the gentle breezes that accompany the quiet of the old line.  The feelings of anxiety and unresolved tension.  The story that comes from out along this line begs telling, but the story has no clear outline and the resolution is disquieting and concerning.  And always that one question remains.  Always.  

So much potential, so much quiet.  Why.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

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 trains of weathered ribside boxcars and not today's high capacity hoppers.  Despite this, it seems the line contributed significant revenue to the Milwaukee's struggling balance sheets even in the final years of operation.  The grain harvests were large and outbound loads would sometimes have to double or triple the grade out of Ruff on their way to Othello and the coast.

With night falling along the Wheat Line, it brings this day to a close.  The elevators at Ruff are slipping into another cool night of quiet out on the Washington plains and soon darkness will envelope them.  The drive out of the Milwaukee's wheat country will be under a full array of stars.  Such is days end on the Wheat Line; quiet and beautiful, memorable, and more than a bit humbling.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

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 coast.  Switch jobs like the Mosey Local called Othello home, as did employees who were based out of the old depot long after the days of the Columbian and Olympian.  

Othello survives today without the jobs of a transcon or the continual sounds from a working rail yard.  Quiet is the order of the day around the foundations of the roundhouse and a few old spurs that cling to the Central Washington dust.  Othello holds a special place in today's Milwaukee Road, however:  in a rare occurrence, the mainline is preserved through town.  Though the majority of the yards are gone, the path of the main artery still exists, curving ever so gently on its way out of town beneath Route 26.  Ground wires still bond the rails together here and its easy to find oneself stepping back in time, imagining the way things were.  As a final nod to what has been, old rusting signals stand like sentinels along the mainline.  Their targets long removed, they wait quietly for whatever will come in the blowing desert wind.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

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 large and magnificent station was built in Great Falls, replete with an unforgettable tower to watch over the Milwaukee's expansion.  Grand trestles spanned large coulees while tunnels linked the line together in the same style as the mainline to the pacific coast.  The wheat poured from the line to feed the original main at Harlowton while oil was pulled from the ground around Lewistown.  These were grand times.

Somewhere along the way, however, the optimism gave way to a stark reality.  Later pictures of Little Joes and Boxcabs show dirty paint and countless miles.  Hiawathas were discontinued to the coast by 1961, the Bipolars leaving the property shortly thereafter.  Fast freights like the XL Special would first lose their name, then lose their schedule as the east-west traffic became the home of Dead Freights and worn out locomotives.  The second mainline across Montana was never completed; the Northern Montana line destined to be a feeder for the original main its entire life.  Light rails and tall grasses would mark its final years as tired locomotives hauled ancient boxcars to small elevators lost in the enormity of Montana skies.  

To know the Milwaukee is to know the duality of optimism and reality of the lines and the places it served.  Today, along the Northern Montana lines, the quiet reality of places like Red Coulee (above) shout out this duality.  Here, the promise of progress and early optimism have faded.  They are replaced by a quiet reality filled with the sounds of swishing grasses or the call of Red Wing Blackbirds.  Old telegraphy poles still dot the right of way through here, gray with age and leaning precariously.  The darkness of Tunnel IV at Red Coulee no longer holds the promise of a locomotive headlight and we're stuck with the uncomfortable idea that times change and optimism can give way to quiet.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

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 line's many trestles. It was these west-side trestles that I spied as a young child from the rear windows of an old Suburban. I didn't know a thing about the Milwaukee Road, but the trestles always fascinated me whenever my family headed east over Snoqualmie Pass. Often obscured by rain and mist, their looming presence high on the hills is still seared in my mind, now many years later.

While trestles and wet, dark forest dominate the west slope of Snoqualmie pass, the east side is approached with relative ease as the Milwaukee's mainline makes its way up gentle grades to the old substation and town of Hyak. Though the substation has been removed, some operator houses remain near the large parking lot for those biking the line.

East of Hyak, along the quiet shores of lake Keechelus, evidence of the line's old automatic block signals can be found in the ditch by the right of way. Nature is taking this old sentinel back, but its ladder and old silver paint are unmistakable. It's easy to miss this relic, I found it by accident, but it recalls some of the finest times and highest hopes in the Western Extension's history. Before the first bankruptcies, while the railroad was considered one of the wonders of the age and its bold mountain crossings and electrification were admired around the world, these signals kept company with the newest transcon. As time wore on, they saw the demise of Bi-polars and boxcabs, the arrival of SD40s, the predominance of Dead Freights, and finally the end itself.

The crossing of the Cascades stands in stark contrast to its other mountain crossings. The mountains are high and unparalleled in their sheer vertical reach toward the sky. Rains pelt the landscape around the pass much of the year and snows here are measured in feet instead of inches. Across the great pass lies the Emerald City and the end of the line for the Milwaukee. While the other passes were "on the way" to the Northwest's ports, Snoqualmie pass was in some sense the arrival and welcome. This is where we leave this series on the Milwaukee's mountain crossings. The bold undertaking is undeniable and the railroad's vision and strategy to go west remain impressive. Though it has been gone for over a quarter century, I can't help but wonder whether the line's Pacific Coast Extension still holds some promise for the future. Grain and doublestacks across the country's best constructed transcon? In a world of high energy costs, well, I can't help but wonder. Maybe, just maybe, the final chapter has yet to be written.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

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 Saddles at Boyleston.

There is so much that can be written about this pass. I've pondered my experiences here before, and perhaps for another perspective, you may revisit my first writings about the Saddle Mountains from the archives, called "Following the Call." In Milwaukee Road lore, it's a pass known to be the steepest on the entire Pacific Extension, 2.2 %. The line snakes its way from the Columbia Valley floor through sand, sagebrush, and high heat during the west's long summer days. The torture of trains climbing the line can be experienced first hand should you decide to bike the ascent: the sandy roadbed clings to bike tires.

This pass was also the home of the Milwaukee Road's Bipolar fleet that towed the road's crack passenger trains out across the desert in a streak of orange and maroon. The old substation at Doris has been demolished, but the foundation still sits on one of the line's many curves. Ancient barbed wire and the remains of operator houses still lie at rest here as well. On the way up the grade, old names with no places go by. Names long forgotten like Cheviot and Rye.

At the crest of the grade, tunnel 45 sits silent and dark. I met the Lord here once. Perhaps that sounds quite insane, and even now as I write this, I must agree that it doesn't sound "normal." Still, the experience sent me down one of life's great journeys and the Milwaukee has played an important part. It's funny that in places like this high desert, one can actually feel history, feel a certain heaviness about times past and a world that has moved on. I've learned over the years since my encounter with tunnel 45 that God really seems to care about history and there's significance to be found in remembering that which came before.

The sunsets can be amazing atop the crest of the Saddles. The eerie oranges of desert heat and dust make the landscape seem all the more daunting and huge. It's easy to feel small here in the Saddles and, for me, that's one of the amazing things about the Milwaukee. Just how big it is and how many different passes and places the old line still traverses. For each of the 5 mountain ranges the line crossed, there seem to be an infinite number of quiet old places that rest silent and still.

Next time: the Cascade Mountain's best crossing and the final mountain range crossed by the "Resourceful Railroad."

Monday, July 21, 2008

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 Avery, St. Maries still bustles with the activity of railroad operations courtesy of the St. Maries River Railroad. Even more interesting is the prevalence of old Milwaukee rolling stock, locomotives, and employees who can trace a seniority date back to the days of orange and black SD40-2s. The mainline from St. Maries to Plummer still exists to serve the local forestry industries and the connection with the UP at Plummer remains as a sole connection to the outside world.

South out of St. Maries, the Milwaukee line to Clarkia still exits under the STMA RR. Today's railroad carries logs for Potlatch Corp on ancient flats that boast 'R'age markings - cars too old to be interchanged off home rails. Like the classic log hauler it has always been, the trains head south full of empty flats with journal boxes, clanking down the jointed rail as they head for loading at Clarkia. Once dropped in the yard at Clarkia, loads head slowly north, back to the mill at St. Maries. Power is supplied by a pair of ex-Milwaukee GPs that ply their old home rails every trip.

The St. Maries River Railroad is an amazing operation through magnificent mountain country. It is appropriately known as the last full logging operation left in the US. With the mill and log reload still operating, the STMA continues to operate as the Milwaukee intended. As has been the case with other logging operations, however, one can't help but wonder how long this can last. Hopefully it lasts for a long time as it remains one of the last Milwaukee outposts in the West. The abundance of old Milwaukee equipment makes it even more special.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

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 mystery to this day.

Not far from the old site of Taft, along the narrow gravel road that takes travelers up to East Portal and the site of the old substation, lies another cemetery of sorts. Old wooden catenary poles, grey with age, lie at the base of the grade to East Portal among the wildflowers that bloom in the late mountain spring. These are just a few leftovers from the Milwaukee's assault on St. Paul Pass, now discarded and left to history. It isn't clear how they ended up near the old site of Taft, perhaps they were piled up to be disposed of, then left to age on their own. Whatever the reason, they rest here quietly just like the old railroad that lurks high on the forested slope behind them. Taft, the Milwaukee's Pacific Extension, and its bold electrification: all silent and standing in strange contrast to the warmth of the sun and the color of nature around them.

This, perhaps, is one of the most disturbing things about these old places. As they turn to dust, the world continues to move on without them. What was once a "wonder of the world," is now history in a small mountain field or gravel between tall fir trees. The thunderous roar of trains on an ascent to St. Paul pass is but a cold shiver on a beautiful spring day and a memory of times long past.

I must now take a break from this journey through the Milwaukee's mountain passes. Unfortunately, I find myself away from my photo collection. The next entries will focus on some more recent outings, perhaps along the St. Marries River Railroad. Nonetheless, this quest to travel the Milwaukee's 5 mountain ranges is not forgotten. It will return -- the Saddle Mountain pass is a most interesting mountain crossing, for many reasons.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

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 route that was selected to cross this third range.

For many years, the largest substation on the entire extension sat at the top of the pass at East Portal, MT. Just to the west, the line plunged into the depths of St. Paul Pass and the 1.5 mile long tunnel that bore the line into the state of Idaho. Today, on the western edge of the tunnel at Roland, there remain a few foundations of the station and houses that once stood beside the line. Scattered remains of catenary poles still dot the right of way through the mountains as the line descends from its crest to the St. Joe River at Avery. An old boxcar door rests beside the right of way near mile 1751. Perhaps the remains of one of the many derailments that plagued the Road toward the end of its life?

While the pass hasn't seen a train since 1980, it still sees plenty of traffic in the form of mountain bikers who ride the old road bed over the high trestles and through the many dark tunnels. It was the biking of this old line that really convinced me to pursue the entire Milwaukee story across the West, launching five years of pursuit and thousands of pictures.

As I think back to my first adventure on this pass I'm still torn apart by how big the line was and how gone the line is. Perhaps that seems a recurring theme in my writing, however, there is little escaping the gravity of what happened, nor the magnitude. There are two places where the sadness of this old railroad really hits me. The first: under the enormous skies of Central Montana or Central Washington. The second, atop the grand mountain passes now all too quiet.

The quiet is even more amplified by winter snows. The bikers and sightseers are gone, leaving the mountains to await warmer weather. St. Paul Pass is beautiful during these times, although difficult to access. At Falcon, one of the old passing sidings and small towns along the line, the deep blue of a winter sky stands in contrast to the dark trees that cover the mountains. The wind blows and those who journey to this lonesome place quickly find themselves alone on one of America's great mountain passes. Alone with their thoughts, and with the old memories of times past. This is the Bitterroot crossing, where the Milwaukee Road showed true grit.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


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 together to a summit at Pipestone Pass. Today traffic on the old highway is sparse for, just like the railroad, both have been replaced by the I-90 crossing just a few miles north. However, it is interesting to ponder these once prominent overland routes, now bypassed and overlooked. As US-10 snakes its way down from the summit on the west side of the range, the Milwaukee's own tunnel marking the summit crossing is just visible through the trees. How long has it been since a "Super Dome" laden Hiawatha plunged into the depths of the old tunnel? Since the iconic 4-beam sealed headlights of an electric locomotive split the darkness? It's been too long.

The Milwaukee Road left behind a sprawling signature that, even today, is obvious across the face of the West. Through mountains, across canyons, along rivers and through prairies the signature remains. Nonetheless, memories of the "Electric way across the Mountains" keep fading and so-called progress keeps pushing us forward. Forward and away from a time when Pipestone Pass echoed with Thunderhawk freights and Boxcab electrics.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

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. The railroad has indeed left its share of hauntings through here though. The right of way still sports occasional track side signals. Now with their lenses shot out, they seem hollow and sad. As the wind gently blows through this hot summer day, the faint electrical hum of a substation can be heard as well. It's eerie to imagine it comes from the old brick structure with its broken windows and gaping dark interior. Its source, however, is across the two-lane asphalt road where a more modern substation sits behind a decidedly modern chainlink fence. Loweth is one of those places where it's easy to feel small and lost.

On this summer day in 2003, there are no friendly Milwaukee crews to wave to or substation operators to chat with. The struggles of westbound freights up the compound curves is lost to the past. As this was never helper territory, their struggles were at times quite heroic. This was mountain railroading -- the roars of superchargers and traction motor blowers would have been amazing, especially compared to the silence that rests here now. To the west of the summit the line begins its decent toward Ringling and 16 mile canyon. A lone ABS signal peaks through the cut in the photo as the giant Rocky Mountains lay waiting in the distance. This is the next crossing the Milwaukee would have to make on its way to the Puget Sound. Beautiful on this day, but tall and challenging. Here we leave the Belt Mountains behind and set our sights, just as the Milwaukee did, on the Rockies that lie beyond.

Friday, May 16, 2008

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 building of Lines West led to a renewed interest in the railroads in general as well as the relocation and settlement of farmers from the Midwest. Today the left overs of this push west can be seen along the abandoned right of way in the small ghost towns that dot central Montana.

And it is at this point the story becomes a bit cloudy. There are many who suggest that the costs of the Pacific extension greatly exceeded the original estimates (including myself at one time) but the reality is a bit unclear. What is clear, however, is the number of bankruptcies that dotted the company's history including the final one in late 1977. Perhaps it was a poor decision to build the line, perhaps not. Nonetheless, built it was and when it was completed, it was amazing.

This was a serious, serious railroad built to high specs and built to last. The quality of its construction is still obvious today in the many bridges and miles of road bed left in relatively good states of repair. It was also a serious mountain railroad, crossing five ranges on its way to the coast. Over the next several blog entries I'm going to explore each crossing beginning with the Road's crossing of the Belt Mountains at Loweth, MT.

In the picture above, the old substation at Loweth still stands. This is the summit of the Milwaukee's first mountain crossing and it is here that we will begin a look at the Milwaukee Road's True Grit.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

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 flick by quickly as only minor outposts. In places like Seabury (above), the Milwaukee's transcontinental line rolls through the green hills of Washington's Palouse country far from the glitz of port cities or grandeur of mountain crossings like the Cascade Range. Even today, the line is dwarfed by the vastness that surrounds it just as when rails crossed these rolling hills. I think it's a vastness that is cause for reflection and one that characterizes the Milwaukee's transcontinental link. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that its abandonment in 1980 remains so shocking - how much was taken away and the sheer vastness that was left behind. For me, it's a vastness that seems all the more poignant simply because of the silence of this old transcon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

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 classic Milwaukee switch stand leans to the right in the low sun of a cool winter day. A time to reflect on those cold winters, now almost 30 years past.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

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 Lewistown still bakes in the hot summer sun (above), but its only purpose is to support these small elevators that still stand ready.

So far, this portion of the Milwaukee has escaped the fate of its larger transcontinental line to the south, but time marches on and with it, change. Change will leave these old elevators and the small prairie towns they have served for decades alone with history and the ever diminishing remnants of a failed empire.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

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 across the Western US. In many respects, it really seemed as though the Milwaukee could make a significant step up, rebuilding and reinventing itself as a significant hauler in the changing American economy.

Despite these advantages, however, something seemed to go wrong. The increased traffic across Lineswest had the beneficial effect of added revenue, but little effort was made to improve the tracks to support this heavier tonnage. As the trains increased in number, the track began to come apart. Schedules lengthened, shippers went elsewhere.

In the midst of the fuel crisis, the Milwaukee management assessed their railroad's electric operations as outdated and inefficient. This despite engineering reports that indicated the opposite and pointed instead to the failing condition of the track. In 1974 the electrics were pulled and scrapped. The valuable copper wire that hung above hundreds of miles of Western Extension track was taken down and sold as well. It is interesting, as an outside observer, to note that this decision came at the same time as a temporary spike in copper prices. By the time the wire had been pulled, however, supply had caught up with demand and the recycled copper the Milwaukee turned in was worth relatively little.

In the place of the retired and scrapped Joes, the Milwaukee purchased new diesel-electrics. The lengthening schedules across the west, however, quickly proved they had purchased too few and the economics of the fuel crisis quickly proved that they were no match for the Joe's efficiency. As the wheat rush of the late seventies boomed, the Milwaukee found itself with 1/3 to 1/2 of its locomotive fleet unavailable. Locomotives from the transcontinental line were "stolen" to run grain hoppers out along the branch lines of Central Montana in an effort to move the grain to ports. The spiraling decline, spurred on by decision after decision, was reaching the end.

And now, on a summer evening in 2005, the haunting decisions that doomed an empire reverberate across 25 years of time. The air has begun to take on the cool flavors of nighttime in the flatlands of Montana. Just as before it arrived, silence is what's left along much of the old Hiawatha trail. Silence, and a few small pieces of rail that perilously cling to the present. One small section that remains is along the old Northern Montana grain lines near Lewistown. On this brilliant evening at Judith Gap Trestle, the summer sky fades to black and that old song drifts to mind, "one step up and two steps back."

Monday, February 18, 2008

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 cars left over in the yards after scheduled secondary trains had departed with maximum tonnage and priority shipments. These leftover low priority cars were herded together and headed out as extra trains, tagged as dead freight. In time, these Dead Freights were all that remained along the transcon. They became aptly named as the system crumbled. In some sad sense, their name was prophetic.

Under a full moon in January 2008, nearly 30 years after the Milwaukee retreated from the West, the headlights of a modern day dead freight highlight the expansive Benewah trestle. This is one of the last, possibly the last, outposts of Milwaukee Road activity in the West. Now the St. Maries River Railroad, the line still traverses the old transcon main between St. Maries and Plummer, ID. Its business is forestry products and it uses an amazing collection of old Milwaukee locomotives and log cars as part of its daily operations. On this cold, cold night, it even recalls the lonesome headlights of the Milwaukee's final Dead Freights during the winter months of 1979 and 1980. The brutal cold of the night is highlighted by the blue cast of the moon and deep snow of Idaho's beautiful panhandle.

With only the headlights and moon to light the scene, it's easy to think about a different time when the rails continued east of St. Marries and across the Rocky Mountain Division to the great plains and big Midwestern cities. To times when the line rolled west of Plummer, across the Palouse, the dry Saddle Mountains, and the rich wetness of the Cascades. But those were different times of unending rails, even if the headlights that illuminate the trestle look the same and the moon overhead is just as it was 30 years ago.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

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 of travel now long forgotten. Where passenger trains named 'Olympian' and 'Columbian' roared, weeds grow and the old station creeks in the brutal sun of a hot summer day.

This was the land of hope and dreams. This was the place where homesteaders started anew and the now quiet lifelines raced with people and commerce. Time has taken its toll in these places, everyday a little bit less is left. The abandonment of the Milwaukee is more than just a story about a failed corporation or a study in corporate missteps. It's the same deep story that grips so many of these small places that are sprinkled about the West. Where there was hope there's now desolation and where there were dreams now exists a stark, quiet reality. There's a sadness here in these places and along this railroad. It seems to be a sadness of what was but no longer is. You can feel it when you listen to the quiet and the rustle of the wind. While the world passes these memories by they cry out a warning that what we assume will last forever is, in fact, just as temporary as everything else. This is a real sadness and it's tempered only by a hope that it doesn't have to be this way and perhaps, it was never intended to be.

With restored steam locomotives like the 261 in action across the country we're reminded of the hope and dreams from a long time ago. Perhaps we're offered a glimpse of the alternative as well.