Thursday, October 16, 2008

Days End

Location:  Ruff, Wa.  

It's the end of a warm fall day in Central Washington and the heat of the day belies the cold night that lies ahead.  It has been a day of wandering the old Marcellus Branch of the Milwaukee Road, and as the sun sets at Ruff, I think about how it has been a day filled with sagebrush, coulees and ghost towns.  These are common occurrences in the land of Hiawathas, although it seems as though I never quite get used to the feeling.  The quiet invites time for reflection, while the vast openness of the dry plains makes even the biggest of us feel very small.  

Progress seemed to come slowly, or not at all, along this old line.  When the line was removed after the final bankruptcy, the rails were still original 65lb material and it seems as though more than a few ties never saw a tie plate.  Vintage 40' ribside boxcars roamed the rails here to the bitter end even in places like Ruff with its high capacity elevators.  Unit trains were common on the line, but trains of weathered ribside boxcars and not today's high capacity hoppers.  Despite this, it seems the line contributed significant revenue to the Milwaukee's struggling balance sheets even in the final years of operation.  The grain harvests were large and outbound loads would sometimes have to double or triple the grade out of Ruff on their way to Othello and the coast.

With night falling along the Wheat Line, it brings this day to a close.  The elevators at Ruff are slipping into another cool night of quiet out on the Washington plains and soon darkness will envelope them.  The drive out of the Milwaukee's wheat country will be under a full array of stars.  Such is days end on the Wheat Line; quiet and beautiful, memorable, and more than a bit humbling.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Blowing Desert Winds

There are a few places along the Milwaukee Road that seem to hold special significance in the hearts of Milwaukee fans.  Places like Harlowton, where the famous Rocky Mountain Division began, as did all of those amazing mountain passes.  Places like East Portal, where the enormous substation and Bitterroot Mountains are etched in so many Kodachromes of the day.  Places like Othello.

Today, there's not much Milwaukee Road to see in Othello.   Rails come in from Warden, stopping along the way at a few local industries, then head out of town under state route 26 before finally disappearing from view, rolling west into the dry desert lands.  Large and vacant plots of sagebrush are scattered to the west of downtown where the Road once had an expansive yard and engine terminal.  Here in Othello, in the days of electrification, trains would swap their steam or diesel power that assisted them across the electrification gap between Othello and Avery for Boxcabs and Bipolars headed to the coast.  Switch jobs like the Mosey Local called Othello home, as did employees who were based out of the old depot long after the days of the Columbian and Olympian.  

Othello survives today without the jobs of a transcon or the continual sounds from a working rail yard.  Quiet is the order of the day around the foundations of the roundhouse and a few old spurs that cling to the Central Washington dust.  Othello holds a special place in today's Milwaukee Road, however:  in a rare occurrence, the mainline is preserved through town.  Though the majority of the yards are gone, the path of the main artery still exists, curving ever so gently on its way out of town beneath Route 26.  Ground wires still bond the rails together here and its easy to find oneself stepping back in time, imagining the way things were.  As a final nod to what has been, old rusting signals stand like sentinels along the mainline.  Their targets long removed, they wait quietly for whatever will come in the blowing desert wind.