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.