Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

In the cold winter months of 1977, it was announced that the Milwaukee Road would file for bankruptcy. The date was December 19.

The path to bankruptcy had been one in the making for many years, seemingly unavoidable, and without any large government loans or bailouts forthcoming. Perhaps the government was simply not in the mood to form a "Conrail West" made up of the struggling Rock Island and Milwaukee Road. Perhaps the lobbyists that seem to play such a prominent role in the workings of money and policy were simply better funded at the Milwaukee's major competitors.

History records that the line's final winters were cold indeed. Locomotives were borrowed to supplement a dilapidated fleet and movements across the system reflected the deteriorated condition of the lines. The announcement of bankruptcy must have been a crushing blow to the people who relied on the Road to make a living. Perhaps it was expected, but the announcement from the managers to their employees on that day 31 years ago must have been hard to swallow. The cold winter, the dilapidated railroad, the uncertainty of a bleak future, all at a time of year marked by hope and supposed joy. In the warm glow of Christmas trees across small Milwaukee towns in the West sat those who were most effected by the line's bankruptcy, caught in the irony of the season.

That season was a dark one in the history of America's Resourceful Railroad. In towns like Harlowton and Othello, where the job losses were crippling, the shadow cast lingers to this day. This was the Milwaukee's final bankruptcy from which it would never fully recover. The company that proceeded forward would be without it's Western Extension, a so-called "retrenchment" of it's Midwestern core lines. It would also be without it's most profitable lines and its balance sheets reflected the poor performance of the new Midwestern core immediately. A final irony from a railroad that seemed to exist on them.

31 years later, these ghosts of Christmas past haunt other industries in times of financial turmoil and bleak outlooks. Bailouts are available to some, but many people feel the crunch of an uncertain future. Nonetheless, there is something that can transcend the darkness of the moment in the brightness of a holiday season. The Bitterroot Mountains, shown on a cold and snowy day above, no longer echo with the passing of Milwaukee freights, but their beauty and presence remains today as it has since well before the Milwaukee hung its first electric wires over the line. There are reasons for Hope, even amidst the ghosts of Christmas past.

3 comments:

SDP45 said...

Leland,
Very moody tone. You sure hit the mark, though.

While stunning to the towns mentioned, I bet you can ask any 20 people in Othello today about the Milwaukee Road, and less than 5 will have a clue what you are referring to. It has been forgotten

Anonymous said...

This may be true, but much of Othello's growth has come since the abandonment of Lines West. Go down the main street there, like I did four years ago...many new businesses, chain stores and restaurants, streets in good repair, and a busy main highway from Warden to the west. The MILW left Othello before it's boom and that boom is only slightly fueled by the short line that retains operations on a weekly basis to Othello.

LinesWest said...

Some interesting comments here. Dan, you're absolutely right that these things are forgotten now by so many. The anonymous poster kind of hints at this too - that Othello has survived and become something else with just a few vestiges of what was. I'm not sure Othello is experiencing a boom, but perhaps in some sense. Regardless, its past is clearly not a well remembered one by those working the chain restaurants and stores. The Milwaukee memory is growing dim and life moves ever forward.