Thursday, April 24, 2008

Places and Spaces

Transcontinental. For some, the word conjures up visions of black and white photos at Promontory where the CP and UP met, linking the nation by rail. For others, its mention recalls the big cities of the west coast like San Francisco and LA - destination points of a country increasingly on the move.

These are just a couple of things that might come to mind when thinking about transcons. What doesn't come immediately to mind for many (myself included much of the time), is what the transcontinental lines actually crossed to join the nation together. For every glistening end-point like LA or Seattle, there are thousands of small little towns clinging to the same steel link. Between these small towns are miles and miles of open space.

Out in these spaces, time takes on a different meaning. There's no escaping the vast distances that these transcon lines crossed, nor the time it takes to move through them. As we journey the wilderness these lines traversed, little towns flick by quickly as only minor outposts. In places like Seabury (above), the Milwaukee's transcontinental line rolls through the green hills of Washington's Palouse country far from the glitz of port cities or grandeur of mountain crossings like the Cascade Range. Even today, the line is dwarfed by the vastness that surrounds it just as when rails crossed these rolling hills. I think it's a vastness that is cause for reflection and one that characterizes the Milwaukee's transcontinental link. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that its abandonment in 1980 remains so shocking - how much was taken away and the sheer vastness that was left behind. For me, it's a vastness that seems all the more poignant simply because of the silence of this old transcon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cold Winters

The last two winters that gripped the Milwaukee's system before the abandonments of 1980 were harsh. Leased units from the B&O and Canadian National were used to fill in for disabled Milwaukee locomotives in 1978. This was driven by the need to maintain some semblance of system fluidity.

As 1978 wore into 1979 and the first traffic embargoes on Lineswest in October, 1/3 of the locomotive fleet was out of service. Ordered to reactivate the Western Extension soon after, the Milwaukee limped forward with strings of dilapidated GE locos and worn out GPs. The winter across the west was no less inviting than the year before and the best locomotives were forcibly held to points east, away from much of the transcontinental traffic. How sad, to ponder the "Electric Way Across the Mountains" in these final hours, in this final state.

Along the logging branch to Bovill, ID, a few rails remain in the remnants of the yard that still remembers those last cold winters. A classic Milwaukee switch stand leans to the right in the low sun of a cool winter day. A time to reflect on those cold winters, now almost 30 years past.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Prairie Towns

One of the fixtures on prairie landscapes for the past 100 years has been the local grain elevator. In many places it is stationed next to a railroad line that has seen better, or in many other places, next to an old right of way that no longer hosts rails at all.

While harbingers of efficiency in their day, these old elevators are quickly falling silent as they find themselves surrounded by huge shuttle elevators, capable of loading 100 car unit trains. The days of loading just a few cars at several small elevators along the route seems destined for history books and small photographs adorning a wall in some forgotten museum. In many places, this has already come to pass.

Along the Milwaukee's Northern Montana Lines, this story is unfolding as I write this. Two giant shuttle loaders are being constructed north and south of the old line, promising to quiet many of the remaining grain bins on this old line. At Square Butte, the old Northern Montana line from Great Falls to Lewistown still bakes in the hot summer sun (above), but its only purpose is to support these small elevators that still stand ready.

So far, this portion of the Milwaukee has escaped the fate of its larger transcontinental line to the south, but time marches on and with it, change. Change will leave these old elevators and the small prairie towns they have served for decades alone with history and the ever diminishing remnants of a failed empire.