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.