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.
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