Monday, July 21, 2008

Journal Boxes on the STMA

Nestled in the Idaho Panhandle, along the Milwaukee Road's old western extension mainline, lies St. Maries, ID. St. Maries isn't so far from the famous Milwaukee Road 'hotspot' of Avery. Today, however, St Maries is a very different place from Avery. As the electrification ended in 1974, Avery withered. The engine facilities became unused and the yard was gradually pulled up for scrap. Trains no longer added Little Joe locomotives for their climb up St. Paul Pass and Avery was no longer a designated crew change. The formal abandonment and dismemberment of the early 80s saw all tracks gone across the pass and through Avery. The high iron that had been nestled in the Bitterroots was replaced by a blacktop highway. Where the substation stood, a simple memorial now rests.

The old crew change at Avery moved to St. Maries, just a few miles down the St. Joe river, for the final years of the Milwaukee Road's western operations. Unlike the yard and facilities at Avery, St. Maries still bustles with the activity of railroad operations courtesy of the St. Maries River Railroad. Even more interesting is the prevalence of old Milwaukee rolling stock, locomotives, and employees who can trace a seniority date back to the days of orange and black SD40-2s. The mainline from St. Maries to Plummer still exists to serve the local forestry industries and the connection with the UP at Plummer remains as a sole connection to the outside world.

South out of St. Maries, the Milwaukee line to Clarkia still exits under the STMA RR. Today's railroad carries logs for Potlatch Corp on ancient flats that boast 'R'age markings - cars too old to be interchanged off home rails. Like the classic log hauler it has always been, the trains head south full of empty flats with journal boxes, clanking down the jointed rail as they head for loading at Clarkia. Once dropped in the yard at Clarkia, loads head slowly north, back to the mill at St. Maries. Power is supplied by a pair of ex-Milwaukee GPs that ply their old home rails every trip.

The St. Maries River Railroad is an amazing operation through magnificent mountain country. It is appropriately known as the last full logging operation left in the US. With the mill and log reload still operating, the STMA continues to operate as the Milwaukee intended. As has been the case with other logging operations, however, one can't help but wonder how long this can last. Hopefully it lasts for a long time as it remains one of the last Milwaukee outposts in the West. The abundance of old Milwaukee equipment makes it even more special.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Dust of the Bitterroots

Spring comes late to the Bitterroot Mountains and St. Paul Pass. While much of the country begins to warm beneath summer suns, the mountains slowly begin to show the signs of spring in full bloom. The small meadows that dot the slopes between dark forested slopes awaken in full color.

A few hundred feet below St. Paul Pass, and the old substation foundation at East Portal, lies the area known as Taft. Taft was a small town built as the railroad pushed its way westward across this third mountain range. In its prime Taft was fully a Hell on Wheels town, filled with railroad workers and liquor. In later years, it quietly dwindled and was a stop along old US-10 at the base of Lookout Pass. The coming of the interstate saw Taft paved over with concrete and forgotten but for an interstate exit sign that says "Taft Area." After the interstate's arrival, even the small cemetery was seemingly buried by the interstate's grade and its location remains somewhat of a mystery to this day.

Not far from the old site of Taft, along the narrow gravel road that takes travelers up to East Portal and the site of the old substation, lies another cemetery of sorts. Old wooden catenary poles, grey with age, lie at the base of the grade to East Portal among the wildflowers that bloom in the late mountain spring. These are just a few leftovers from the Milwaukee's assault on St. Paul Pass, now discarded and left to history. It isn't clear how they ended up near the old site of Taft, perhaps they were piled up to be disposed of, then left to age on their own. Whatever the reason, they rest here quietly just like the old railroad that lurks high on the forested slope behind them. Taft, the Milwaukee's Pacific Extension, and its bold electrification: all silent and standing in strange contrast to the warmth of the sun and the color of nature around them.

This, perhaps, is one of the most disturbing things about these old places. As they turn to dust, the world continues to move on without them. What was once a "wonder of the world," is now history in a small mountain field or gravel between tall fir trees. The thunderous roar of trains on an ascent to St. Paul pass is but a cold shiver on a beautiful spring day and a memory of times long past.

I must now take a break from this journey through the Milwaukee's mountain passes. Unfortunately, I find myself away from my photo collection. The next entries will focus on some more recent outings, perhaps along the St. Marries River Railroad. Nonetheless, this quest to travel the Milwaukee's 5 mountain ranges is not forgotten. It will return -- the Saddle Mountain pass is a most interesting mountain crossing, for many reasons.