Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Times of Optimism

It's easy to think of the Milwaukee Road and its Pacific Coast Extension as the place where the Little Joes toiled on Montana mountain grades, or as the stomping grounds of Boxcabs and Bipolars.  Images from the line's glory years reveal a cross-country mainline and company that seems undaunted in the face of famous names like Great Northern and Northern Pacific.  There's an optimism associated with these photos and memories.  Perhaps the passing of time has added a veneer of romance to the entire affair - maybe the BiPolars weren't always shiny or the Joes always ready to head a freight up St. Paul Pass, but it's hard to see that in those amazing photos of Olympian Hiawathas and freights like the XL Special.  

This optimism could be found off the beaten path of the mainline as well.  Hopes were high when the Milwaukee built its Northern Montana line.  Its east-west line from Lewistown to Great Falls was envisioned as a second mainline to parallel the original.  A large and magnificent station was built in Great Falls, replete with an unforgettable tower to watch over the Milwaukee's expansion.  Grand trestles spanned large coulees while tunnels linked the line together in the same style as the mainline to the pacific coast.  The wheat poured from the line to feed the original main at Harlowton while oil was pulled from the ground around Lewistown.  These were grand times.

Somewhere along the way, however, the optimism gave way to a stark reality.  Later pictures of Little Joes and Boxcabs show dirty paint and countless miles.  Hiawathas were discontinued to the coast by 1961, the Bipolars leaving the property shortly thereafter.  Fast freights like the XL Special would first lose their name, then lose their schedule as the east-west traffic became the home of Dead Freights and worn out locomotives.  The second mainline across Montana was never completed; the Northern Montana line destined to be a feeder for the original main its entire life.  Light rails and tall grasses would mark its final years as tired locomotives hauled ancient boxcars to small elevators lost in the enormity of Montana skies.  

To know the Milwaukee is to know the duality of optimism and reality of the lines and the places it served.  Today, along the Northern Montana lines, the quiet reality of places like Red Coulee (above) shout out this duality.  Here, the promise of progress and early optimism have faded.  They are replaced by a quiet reality filled with the sounds of swishing grasses or the call of Red Wing Blackbirds.  Old telegraphy poles still dot the right of way through here, gray with age and leaning precariously.  The darkness of Tunnel IV at Red Coulee no longer holds the promise of a locomotive headlight and we're stuck with the uncomfortable idea that times change and optimism can give way to quiet.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Majesty of the Cascades

Some of the most famous Milwaukee Road photos have come from its beautiful crossing of the Cascades via Snoqualmie pass. Like most everything else on the Western Extension, the workmanship remains second to none and the lasting power of the old line in this wet climate is a tribute to those who built it nearly 100 years ago. Old catenary supports still grace many of the trestles on the west side of the pass, recalling old publicity photos with new Bi-polar electrics or box-cabs pulling varnish east toward the big cities in the Midwest. Even though it's been more than 45 years, it's easy to imagine some of the last Olympian Hiawathas behind yellow e-units making their charge up the hill here as well.

Like the Bitterroot crossing, Snoqualmie pass is popular with mountain bikers and is not nearly the lonely outpost that are places like Boyleston and the Saddles. The proximity of I90 on the far side of the valley offer continual glimpses of "civilization" from the line's many trestles. It was these west-side trestles that I spied as a young child from the rear windows of an old Suburban. I didn't know a thing about the Milwaukee Road, but the trestles always fascinated me whenever my family headed east over Snoqualmie Pass. Often obscured by rain and mist, their looming presence high on the hills is still seared in my mind, now many years later.

While trestles and wet, dark forest dominate the west slope of Snoqualmie pass, the east side is approached with relative ease as the Milwaukee's mainline makes its way up gentle grades to the old substation and town of Hyak. Though the substation has been removed, some operator houses remain near the large parking lot for those biking the line.

East of Hyak, along the quiet shores of lake Keechelus, evidence of the line's old automatic block signals can be found in the ditch by the right of way. Nature is taking this old sentinel back, but its ladder and old silver paint are unmistakable. It's easy to miss this relic, I found it by accident, but it recalls some of the finest times and highest hopes in the Western Extension's history. Before the first bankruptcies, while the railroad was considered one of the wonders of the age and its bold mountain crossings and electrification were admired around the world, these signals kept company with the newest transcon. As time wore on, they saw the demise of Bi-polars and boxcabs, the arrival of SD40s, the predominance of Dead Freights, and finally the end itself.

The crossing of the Cascades stands in stark contrast to its other mountain crossings. The mountains are high and unparalleled in their sheer vertical reach toward the sky. Rains pelt the landscape around the pass much of the year and snows here are measured in feet instead of inches. Across the great pass lies the Emerald City and the end of the line for the Milwaukee. While the other passes were "on the way" to the Northwest's ports, Snoqualmie pass was in some sense the arrival and welcome. This is where we leave this series on the Milwaukee's mountain crossings. The bold undertaking is undeniable and the railroad's vision and strategy to go west remain impressive. Though it has been gone for over a quarter century, I can't help but wonder whether the line's Pacific Coast Extension still holds some promise for the future. Grain and doublestacks across the country's best constructed transcon? In a world of high energy costs, well, I can't help but wonder. Maybe, just maybe, the final chapter has yet to be written.