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.