The Recurring Question

What really happened out there?  In 1974, at the peak of traffic on Lines West, what really happened?  In the waning years of the seventies, what really happened?  I'm not sure, I wasn't there.

My first brush with the Milwaukee Road came in the early 80s, from out the backseat window of an old red Suburban that occasionally crossed the Cascade Range on the way to Sand Point.  I knew nothing about it, except those trestles sure were neat.  One trip, I remember the trestle at Renslow had ties strewn about its approaches and I wondered 'why?' even as a small child.  

The question still remains and remains unanswered - why?  From my chair in front of the computer, now a few thousand miles and a few decades away I try to imagine all of the forces that played on the fallen transcon.  Double-counted maintenance expenses in the last years of operation.  Maintenance left undone in 1975.  Electrics scrapped whose value to operation was well established.  A marathon of derailments in the Bitterroots.  An unfriendly and corrupt politician in Seattle.  Derelict lines of locomotives in the cold winters of '78 and '79.  Reports that showed the promise of the line for modest repair costs that were never invested.  Unsuccessful attempts at mergers.  Poor accounting.  Political positioning.  And still, at the very end, it seems Lines West actually made some profit in spite of this list of sufferings.  

So we're left with a whole lot of nothing.  No silver-bullet answer and a 1200 mile scar across 3 western states where an American icon used to roam.  There is a depth to the death of this line that makes it difficult to understand while my own passions make it difficult to stomach.  I can only imagine what it was like for the people who actually were there and saw it happen.  The brief periods of hope when rumors of government bailouts or interested buyers surfaced.  The encouraging reports of rehabilitation costs.  But in the end, it's gone and the question remains.

Today, there is a sadness out along those lines.  I've noted before in other posts the restlessness you can feel in the gentle breezes that accompany the quiet of the old line.  The feelings of anxiety and unresolved tension.  The story that comes from out along this line begs telling, but the story has no clear outline and the resolution is disquieting and concerning.  And always that one question remains.  Always.  

So much potential, so much quiet.  Why.


SDP45 said…
I've read that then Washington Governor Dixie Lee Ray was in Burlington Northern's pocket, and someone at BN wanted the MILW gone. She did not support saving any of the MILW as a result.

I missed the MILW entirely, moving to Moses Lake long after the BN had taken over tracks once trodden by the MILW Mosey Local. I did see the BN hand off that part of the line to the Washington Central, which was populated by old hoggers from the MILW. I befriended one, Chuck Grow. He still lived in Othello. That was in 1986. I don't know what has happened to him since. Perhaps he has gone, just as the MILW did.
LinesWest said…
Thanks for the comment Dan. I've read the same about Dixie Lee Ray. It's hard to know how much influence she really had, but it certainly didn't help the Milwaukee's cause any. There were reports that Montana had shown a great deal of interest in saving the line, perhaps with support from Washington, we'd have a different ending to the story.

Thanks for the memories of the old hoggers.

Kurt Clark said…
I'd be interested to find out if there is any truth to Dixie Lee Ray being on the take, so to speak. I was in junior high and high school during her tenure, and only recall that she handled herself more like a tactless scientist than a politician. But being it was the Seventies, there may be some truth to SDP45's question of corruption!
Anonymous said…
Nicely put.

Best regards, Michael Sol
I for one would place the Dixie Lee Ray conspiracy theory up there with the Grassy Knoll and Satchquatch, who by the way, was recently seen behind a Motel 6 in Belmont California.

Milwaukee Road was conflicted between being electric or diesel and had a Gap that provided confusion. Great Northern, who also ran electric trains, came to their senses sooner than later, put doors and fans in the Great Tunnel, and turned a sweet piece of change selling the copper trolley.

Plus that, the timeline doesn't add up between the shuttering of the Road and Ms. Ray's governorship nor is there any mention of her in the several documents I've read on the death of the Road.

Rather, it was poor management.

Of the three transcontinental lines, Chicago Milwaukee St Paul & Pacific was always the lame duck. She suffered through four bankruptcies over her tortured but colorful history.

The first bankruptcy lasted from 1925 to 1927, followed by the Great Depression and subsequent lack of business.

That resulted in the second bankruptcy that lasted from 1935 to 1945. Someone else was hauling the goods during the Second World War, and Dixie Lee Ray was a teenager!

The third bankruptcy in 1968 and a national recession got the funeral procession in standby mode.

A fellow by the name of Todd Jones has written a highly detailed tome on the demise of the Milwaukee Road, in which he writes:

Worthington Smith became President of the Milwaukee Road in 1972, replacing Crippen who moved up into the vice-Chairman's seat. Smith came over from BN and knew Quinn well from his short term at the CB&Q. Smith was brought in to revitalize the Milwaukee's marketing efforts and he seemed an excellent fit as he had been both regional vice president in Seattle and vice president of marketing at BN. However, some odd things happened shortly after his arrival. Things that would put the final nails in the Milwaukee's coffin.

Worthington Smith, the VP of Operations, the VP of Finance, the VP of Planning, the Chief Purchasing Officer, the Mechanical Officer and Electrical engineer a score of other members were assembled into a committee determine the future of the Road.

Among the choices considered – beside the much debated DC to AC conversion – was even a plan to merge with the Burlington Northern, decided not to burden themselves with the red ink.

Losses continued each year to the point that by the end of 1977, Milwaukee filed for voluntary reorganization under the railroad bankruptcy law. That would be number four.

When Dixie Lee Ray, Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission became Governor of the State of Washington in 1977, the Road was already building its coffin.

The last train left Tacoma on March 15, 1980 and by 1983, much of the Western Extension was converted into a hiking, horseback riding, and nature trail.
Todd Jones on the Milwaukee Road downfall:
Anonymous said…
I guess everyone missed that "third" bankruptcy in 1968.
Anonymous said…
Milwaukee had a superior operating ratio to Great Northern in 1967, and just about the same as the GN in 1968 and considerably better than the Northern Pacific. Why Milwaukee might have been declaring a "bankruptcy" in 1968 is a complete mystery.
LinesWest said…
Thanks for the interesting comments everyone. I'll tell you what makes things murky for me about this whole bankruptcy and falling apart (not that you asked, but what the hey?):

Based on the basic health of the Midwestern and Northwestern RRs of the mid 70s, it seems hard to argue that any one of them were actually in good shape. Some were a bit better than others, but really, not a thriving industry at this point. So what made the Milwaukee so "special" that of the poorly performing NW railroads, it is gone? I'd have to agree that management plays a key role here, but can we even quantify that apart from a "feeling" that they coulda/shoulda done better?

I was thinking yesterday that the Milwaukee of the mid-late 70s kind of reminds me of a sports team with a lot of talent and potential, maybe even some innovation thrown in for good measure, that just never "shows up" to play. In sports I would consider that a coaching failure. Should we consider it a management failure in the Milwaukee's case? And as the blog notes, there was a lot going on beyond the management. So who knows? Management + Conspiracy + Bad Luck (hard winters?) + ........ = Milwaukee Gone. So complicated.

Obviously a lot of generalizations in there. I welcome your thoughts.
Have you read this analysis?
LinesWest said…
Hi Robert,

Yeah, article's one of my favorite presentations on what was going on as the 70s wound down. The "double counting" of maintenance costs is quite amazing on a variety of levels.


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