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.

2 comments:

Rich Cunningham said...

You're doing a very fine job with the blog, capturing the heart of the MR and the sense of both its grandeur and its role as the Symbol of Loss, which the West is and has been experiencing since the War.

I pay attention to the short stretch of the old road between Deer Lodge and Saltese with the same sense of wonder, mystery, and respect that you carry for the entire Western Extension. I don't know how you do it - I am humbled by just the little part I know well.

I'm haunted by the recurring idea that in the end it really was a giant, overstepping mistake to build it in the first place. There were two roads already there and they had grabbed the easiest engineering routes, which left the MR with enormous construction and maintenance costs.

What were they thinking?

Nevertheless, they brought innovation with the electrification (which would be oh so valuable with today's fuel prices); they brought sexiness and flair in the form of the Little Joes; and they brought guts, which is what it took to run the Western Extension. Just plain guts.

And people remember and respect guts, even in defeat.

Keep up the good work.

LinesWest said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, some interesting perspectives there. The MR did bring 'guts,' no denying that. I was actually thinking about doing a blog series on that coming up here, basically a blog on each mountain crossing they made (all 5 of them).

I've also wondered about the question of 'why?' I don't like to think that maybe it shouldn't have been done, but it's probably a question worth thinking about some. I know that some of their initial plan fell apart with the opening of the Panama Canal, which cut their traffic base so perhaps that is at least part of it. Probably a good question for another blog.

Again, thanks for your thoughts.

Regards,
-Lineswest