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 Today traffic on the old highway is sparse for, just like the railroad, both have been replaced by the I-90 crossing just a few miles north.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.
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