Monday, February 23, 2009

Small Towns, Big Railroad

The hustle and noise of big cities seems a far cry from the lonesome quiet that pervades the vast spaces between. Perhaps one of the greatest ways to experience this today is to ride one of the few remaining passenger trains across the great expanses of the West. Chicago bursts with activity on a early afternoon weekday departure. By next morning, trains like the Empire Builder find themselves out in the great seas of open prairie. The expanse under big skies is incredible, broken only by grain elevators and the small towns they stand over.

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.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


There's a sign at the airport in Spokane, WA that welcomes travelers to the "Inland Northwest."  Spokane must be the heart of this country as it's by far the largest city in the region.  It's a major stopping point for today's travelers along I-90 and a fascinating focus point for a great deal of the area history.  

Spokane seemed the logical waypoint for many of the western railroads on their way from the Midwest to Seattle.  Among many other things, Spokane became a cross-roads for these companies.  The Northern Pacific, Great Northern, Union Pacific, and SP+S all had a presence here at one time.  That doesn't even take into account the various lines that were absorbed into the larger companies (like the interurban 'Spokane and Inland Empire' which became GN or the 'Spokane International' which rolled into the UP).  Railroad history is thick here in the heart of the Inland Northwest.

There was a late entry into the city of Spokane as well:  America's Resourceful Railroad, The Milwaukee Road.  Its original line (and mainline) across the state of Washington bypassed Spokane, choosing to remain south of the city.  This brought it through the small towns of Rosalia, Pine City, and along the shores of Rock Lake.  While this line remained the mainline for transcon freight operations to the bitter end, early in the life of the Pacific Coast Extension, the Milwaukee realized the need to access Spokane.   Trackage rights were worked with Union Pacific to allow access to the bypassed city and Milwaukee yards were located to the east of downtown.  

All of this was long, long ago.  The yards the Milwaukee plotted are still used by the Union Pacific today, but little is left of the Milwaukee in Spokane itself.  The passenger station where the Olympian and Columbian called was removed for the World Exposition of 1974 as was the monster steel trestle that carried the UP/Milwaukee across the Spokane River.  The long trench that was dug to accommodate the line out of Spokane to the east of the station has also been slowly filled in.  Just recently one of the last remaining sections has been filled as part of a Washington State University campus project.  Time has a way of changing things, and Spokane has seen some dramatic changes.

A Birds-eye view of downtown Spokane on a lovely summer evening in 2008 shows the city as it exists today.  The UP/Milwaukee route is gone, the Great Northern has been lifted as well.  Trains now share the Northern Pacific line through the city and Amtrak's Empire Builder calls at the old NP station - now also the Greyhound station.  Few vestiges of the old railroads that joined in Spokane's downtown remain while the city itself continues its drive to renew and reinvent.  This view of Spokane can conjure up a host of emotions ranging from the heaviness of history and change to the hope of a city trying to find its new place in the world.  Progress is not always beautiful even if hope is.