Sunday, May 25, 2008

Loweth and the Belt Mountains

The sweeping compound curve of the Milwaukee's attack on the Belt Mountains is as obvious today as it was 30 years ago when some of the last trains passed this way. In better times, telegraphy and catenary poles dotted the right of way through here while Little Joes and Boxcabs plied the rails between them. At the crest of this, the first of five mountain ranges, the ancient substation at Loweth still stands watch over the now silent right of way. Cows quietly munch the grasses at its feet as they pick their way carefully through the foundations of the crew houses that remain here as well.

Loweth, and the crest of the Belt Mountains, stand in the quiet Big Sky country of Montana. Here the rainy season is short and the summers are hot and dry. This is rattlesnake country. Track crews would often walk the line with snake sticks to fend off the wildlife. Even without the ghosts of an abandoned transcontinental railroad nearby, there is an undeniable loneliness to the landscape. The railroad has indeed left its share of hauntings through here though. The right of way still sports occasional track side signals. Now with their lenses shot out, they seem hollow and sad. As the wind gently blows through this hot summer day, the faint electrical hum of a substation can be heard as well. It's eerie to imagine it comes from the old brick structure with its broken windows and gaping dark interior. Its source, however, is across the two-lane asphalt road where a more modern substation sits behind a decidedly modern chainlink fence. Loweth is one of those places where it's easy to feel small and lost.

On this summer day in 2003, there are no friendly Milwaukee crews to wave to or substation operators to chat with. The struggles of westbound freights up the compound curves is lost to the past. As this was never helper territory, their struggles were at times quite heroic. This was mountain railroading -- the roars of superchargers and traction motor blowers would have been amazing, especially compared to the silence that rests here now. To the west of the summit the line begins its decent toward Ringling and 16 mile canyon. A lone ABS signal peaks through the cut in the photo as the giant Rocky Mountains lay waiting in the distance. This is the next crossing the Milwaukee would have to make on its way to the Puget Sound. Beautiful on this day, but tall and challenging. Here we leave the Belt Mountains behind and set our sights, just as the Milwaukee did, on the Rockies that lie beyond.

Friday, May 16, 2008

True Grit

If nothing else, the decision to push the modest granger railroad, known at the time as the St. Paul Road, west to the land of the Pacific Northwest was bold. Very bold.

In its path were two well established competitors in the form of the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. Both had already laid vast claims to coastal traffic before the Milwaukee Road even considered its Pacific Coast Extension.

Not only were there two established competitors, but between the Midwest and the Northwest lay several mountain ranges that would require enormous engineering and construction efforts to cross. By the time the route was finally selected, the Milwaukee would cross five ranges.

Yet, in spite of these obstacles, the decision was made to go west and then undertaken with all practical speed and the best construction techniques available. To accompany the push west, the Milwaukee established an all out marketing blitz to encourage farmers and others to move west along its new lines. The building of Lines West led to a renewed interest in the railroads in general as well as the relocation and settlement of farmers from the Midwest. Today the left overs of this push west can be seen along the abandoned right of way in the small ghost towns that dot central Montana.

And it is at this point the story becomes a bit cloudy. There are many who suggest that the costs of the Pacific extension greatly exceeded the original estimates (including myself at one time) but the reality is a bit unclear. What is clear, however, is the number of bankruptcies that dotted the company's history including the final one in late 1977. Perhaps it was a poor decision to build the line, perhaps not. Nonetheless, built it was and when it was completed, it was amazing.

This was a serious, serious railroad built to high specs and built to last. The quality of its construction is still obvious today in the many bridges and miles of road bed left in relatively good states of repair. It was also a serious mountain railroad, crossing five ranges on its way to the coast. Over the next several blog entries I'm going to explore each crossing beginning with the Road's crossing of the Belt Mountains at Loweth, MT.

In the picture above, the old substation at Loweth still stands. This is the summit of the Milwaukee's first mountain crossing and it is here that we will begin a look at the Milwaukee Road's True Grit.