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.