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.

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