Monday, November 24, 2008

Big Iron

There's not much argument when it comes to one aspect of the Milwaukee Road:  it built things on a large scale and to a high degree of quality.

Spanning the valley at Tekoa, WA is an enormous steel trestle that bears witness to this fact.  For decades it lofted the Milwaukee's freights across the valley floor and the tracks of the Union Pacific in this small Eastern Washington town.  Here, and in many other locations like Tekoa, the Milwaukee "simply" built across the valley, dwarfing the small town and the Union Pacific branch in the process.

Today the big iron of the Tekoa trestle stands as the easternmost portion of the John Wayne trail, although it is closed to the public.  The Union Pacific that existed beneath the Milwaukee's Pacific Coast Mainline is gone as well, leaving the old railroad town of Tekoa without any of the lines that supported it for so long.  The past isn't forgotten by this little town, however, as signs sporting large black silhouettes of the Milwaukee trestle still encourage travelers on nearby US 95 to stop by for a visit.

Out in the rolling hills of the Eastern Washington Palouse, the abandoned Milwaukee main finds itself in good company with many other lines that have fallen to scrappers and "progress."  The Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific, and the Great Northern all had lines that split the rolling wheat fields through here.  Most of them have suffered the same fate as the Pacific Coast Extension and now lie as reminders of times past.  In places like Tekoa, however, the reminders of the Milwaukee remain larger and more impressive.  Just like when they were built.

Friday, November 07, 2008

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.