Thursday, December 24, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Sunday, November 01, 2009
It’s almost midnight in Pittsburgh this brisk November evening in 1996. My breath hangs in the air as I step out of a cab and walk quickly into Penn Station. The single escalator is moving the wrong direction so I take the stairs up to the old platforms. A lonely Amtrak diesel, number 310, is idled peacefully on a spur, retired for the night. As I wait on the platforms of Pittsburgh’s Penn Station I stare eastward, looking for the late Capitol Limited. Snowflakes slowly drift down through holes in the old train shed.
The Capitol pulls into the station one hour late lead by a new Genesis locomotive. 838 is its number and it leads a set of double-decked Superliner cars on an 800 mile sprint from the nation’s capital to the capital of the heartland. The stop in Pittsburgh is just one of many scheduled throughout the night before arrival in Chicago. The Capitol is nothing like an airplane or bus. You never meet the engineer, reasons for delays are guarded secrets, and the passenger is usually wrong or in the way. But to some, train travel still has its magic.
The Pittsburgh skyline and Golden Triangle slip away as 838 heads us west along the Ohio River and beside old US highways. Near Sewickley the falling snow makes the lights of Conrail’s massive Conway yard soft and diffuse.
The Capitol’s next stop comes at Alliance in the wee hours of the morning. No one is there waiting. Only a few parked cars, a tool shed, and a sign that reads “Chance takers are accident makers” greet the train. With no passengers on or off the Capitol is ready to head west but the snow has become too deep. The automatic switch machines are frozen and one of the crew must wade through the snow and throw them manually. His comment is well received, “someone owes me a cigar for that.”
Cleveland’s distinctive skyline rolls into view as the Capitol creeps its way into the city. Speeds are usually faster here but tonight there are twelve inches of snow on the ground, frozen switches, and long slow freight trains. Leaving town two hours late, we cross “Bridge 1.” This old lift bridge has seen many snowy nights like this one. Fifty years ago, a crack passenger train named the 20th Century Limited waited for a half hour at Bridge 1 while a novice bridge operator let a barge pass beneath it. Those were the days when trains like the 20th Century didn’t wait for anything and the operator was fired. Those were also the days when trains had sleeping cars called Pullmans and didn’t stop in Toledo or Pittsburgh for half an hour to unload mail and packages. But such is the progression of time and there are few on this train who know how different it used to be anyway.
The train is late enough out of Toledo that dawn breaks in western Ohio. The countryside is now distinctly Midwestern, full of harvested cornfields and gently rolling hills. The sun is rising and as the train races along at 80 it kicks fresh snow up and into the orange sky. For me, this is the romance and magic of railroading; a connection to the past and a forgotten soul of a nation. Chicago is still five hours to the west and we’ll pull in 3 hours late but it doesn’t matter, the trip has already been worth it.
Nighttime in Chicago is a beautiful collage of color and people. In Union Station the scene is more subdued. The stately marble and granite give the old Grand Concourse an impersonal and intimidating feeling, recalling times when the Pennsylvania Railroad called itself “The Standard Railroad of the World” and its pride was the Pullman only passenger train named the Broadway Limited. In 1902 the train was premiered in New York as the Pennsylvania Special just a short distance from the New York Central’s own premiere festivities, kicking off the storied 20th Century Limited. And so a great rivalry and race was born as the two legendary trains ran the gauntlet between New York and Chicago. The Century ran along the Water Level Route via Buffalo, Cleveland, and Toledo. By contrast the Broadway headed out across the Alleghenies to Pittsburgh and Ft. Wayne. The rivalry lasted until the late sixties when the Century was pulled from service, leaving only the Broadway to soldier on. Amtrak inherited the train in 1971 making it their own premiere eastern train and benchmark for quality service. It was the first train to get matching passenger cars in the seventies; a symbol of progress over the rainbow of colors Amtrak collected from the freight railroads. It survived Penn Central, Conrail, and the rise of the Capitol Limited to the position of “premiere eastern train.” But it couldn’t survive the budget cuts of 1995 and after 93 years of continuous service, the operation ended quietly in 1995.
A million years from streamlined Centuries and Broadways and just off the Grand Concourse in a small waiting room with worn brown carpet and plastic foliage, I stand with a small group of people. We are waiting for the call to board the last train in the station. Yesterday this train wasn’t here, in fact, not since The Broadway has there been a train to New York via Pittsburgh. Even though this train isn’t named the Broadway Limited, the schedule and train numbers are the same. Traditionally train 40, The Broadway, was the last train to depart Chicago and this new train, The Three Rivers, is set to pick up where the Broadway left off. Most passengers waiting with me aren’t aware this is a first run. Fewer are aware that it is the second coming of a railroad legend. I guess it’s understandable since unlike 1902 New York, there is no fanfare.
The train is going to make only one stop between Hammond and Pittsburgh in a little town called Nappanee, Indiana. With so few passenger cars and so many express cars, it looks more like a freight train than an old benchmark for quality service. Leaving Chicago on time behind two venerable F40 locomotives we make our quick stop in Hammond and leave Lake Michigan behind.
The single level Amfleet cars pitch and roll as we outpace the schedule across the dark northern Indiana countryside. The Three Rivers turns out to be a little train with an attitude all it’s own. People stay up all night and play cards in the cafe car but never ask for names; it doesn’t seem important. Farm houses with lighted windows and dark vacant towns with single blinking four way stops slip by outside the window, bearing silent testament to our passing. Unlike the previous night, snow is no problem and the Three Rivers pulls into Pittsburgh twenty minutes early. It’s good to have this train with us again. Pittsburgh is cold and gray and the first flakes of the next snow blow through the station platforms, hurried by a sharp and cutting wind. Only thirty hours have passed, but the ride on the Capitol Limited seems years away as I walk the length of the Three Rivers back into the station. Hailing a cab we pull away from Penn Station and leave 1000 miles and a new beginning behind.
Epilogue: The resurrection of a disbanded railroad icon is a rare thing indeed, but the Three River's time proved as limited as everything else. The abandonment of mail contracts in 2005 led to its demise in March of that year. I wasn't able to share in the last run as I had in the first; time had placed me far away in the lands of the western Hiawathas. Still, the memories of that snowy night and the crisp coolness of the Pittsburgh platforms remain vivid and heartfelt. God, has it really been 13 years?
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Friday, September 18, 2009
Sunday, September 06, 2009
In the late winter of 1977 (December 19 to be exact), the last transcontinental railroad that was built in America filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. Its lines across the mid-west and west lay in ruins as a result of a complicated and inter-twined series of events that, at best, are difficult to understand. The winter of 1979 would be its final winter and in 1980 The Milwaukee Road sold its Western Extension to scrapers from Terry, MT to Tacoma, WA. The company that emerged (with track only in the Midwest) would last only five more years before being sold to The Soo Line, thus completely ending the granger railroad that never really came to grips with being a large transcontinental route.It was an introduction to something I felt passionate about sharing: The Milwaukee Road and the journey it has been. Long dark tunnels, abandoned schools, old elevators, and lonely sunsets across the West. Again and again I found myself out along the line these past few years, desperately trying to photograph what was left behind. It has been a journey of a thousand miles, started with a single step.
As a matter of fact, the 1970s weren't a happy time for railroads in general. At least up until the Enron fiasco, the record for most money lost in a single day by a corporation was held by the Penn-Central Railroad. The Rock Island Railroad would, like the Milwaukee, file for bankruptcy protection and be gone as a corporation by March 1980 and its occasionally rumored merger partner to the east, the Erie-Lackawanna, would be bankrupt and put under the wings of Conrail in 1979.
So what makes The Milwaukee Road special? Perhaps it is its bold and scenic route across the upper Mid-west and West that pits it against five mountain ranges. Perhaps it is its storied love affair with electrified operations through the Rockies and Cascades. Or perhaps it is the people and towns that it has left behind to wonder at its passing and marvel at the scale of its failure. For whatever the reason, the old road is fascinating to me and I'll post some more thoughts and history as I feel led.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Friday, August 07, 2009
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
The station at Boylston was small and modest, like many others scattered along the rails of The Milwaukee Road. Old photos show Boxcab electrics and infamous Bi-polars climbing the grades here through the Saddle Mountains where Boylston marked the apex. Later photos show SD40-2's pulling hard up these same slopes, the electrification deactivated in the early 70s. The trees are bigger in these later photos and stand in obvious contrast to the desert landscape that surrounds them. This was an outpost on America's Resourceful Railroad, and much like the railroad itself, seemed to exist in spite of the obstacles around it.
Summer in the Saddles still brings hot and dry winds that suck the water out of any creature who braves the midday sun. Tumbleweeds roll across the landscape as they make their way to destinations unknown. The trees planted long ago by a small station named Boylston are tall and remain defiant creatures in this land of sage and sand. But those are the only constants from those old photos. The depot and the railroad have been relegated to memories and that thick feeling of history that beckons from this high outpost above the Columbia River. The sunsets and lonesome sagebrush have returned to the way things were before the railroad got here and that lonseome quiet has returned as well.
But we've got some memories and pictures of a once upon a time, when the sun sank in the west on the old electrified line.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Monday, February 23, 2009
The Milwaukee Road's journey across the West had all of these elements as well. Long and unbroken expanses of prairie grasses that were separated by small collections of houses and buildings. These little groupings, like Lennep, MT as seen above, made up the prairie towns on the Western Extension. Lennep had a small industry track for the collection of livestock, a school, church, and a few people. The snarl of large electric locomotives and the clickity-clack of transcon freights on jointed rail were what broke the quiet here, but quiet would always return.
Today, old signals stand along parts of the old right of way near Lennep. They have dark faces and unlit lenses that stare blankly at the gravel path left by America's final transcontinental. The Church still stands in Lennep and the remains of the old stock yard and industry track remain as well. The snarl of electrics is gone though, as is the sound of steel wheels on jointed rail. Now the quiet remains unbroken in this small little town and the stark difference of life on the prairie and those big cities is all the more dramatic. Despite the noise and action of the big cities, I feel the pervasive quiet of these small and forgotten towns along Lines West is of greater depth and great reality. It is a reality that is challenging to come to grips with simply because it is so encompassing and so vast. It is a reality that we don't control, one that seemingly exists without us and that, in itself, is difficult to grasp.
Lennep, MT. A small town on a big Railroad.