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.


So once the rails were laid, it was up to the promoters to "fill in the blanks." The Milwaukee Road advised farmers in 1908, “The land is there. It is excellent for general or mixed farming, and Uncle Sam gives you a cordial invitation to go out and help yourself to a 160-acre farm. No drawing is necessary; first come, first serve.” According to the Great Northern in a 1900 pamphlet, one should not spend one’s life “renting high-priced eastern land” when there were free homesteads for the taking — conveniently located, of course, near the railroad tracks. In 1889, the Union Pacific extolled the Columbia River in a brochure entitled Western Resorts for Health and Pleasure: “. . .along the River Rhine, or Rhone, or the Hudson, there is nothing that will compare with the stately palisades of the Columbia, with their cool recesses, kept sunless by the overhanging rocks, and watered by the melting snows of their own summits.”

So who could resist?
LinesWest said…
Robert, thanks for the information. You're right, that sounds good to me even now! Who could resist?

Kurt Clark said…
I love that area. We drove through - and stayed in - nearby Harlowton in 2003 on the way back from visiting relatives in Minnesota. It's desolate but beautiful in its own way. The Pentrex Milwaukee Road 3-tape series is a great one to see this part of the country up close.
Anonymous said…
You know, as a former MILW MOW employee, I've enjoyed this website totally, but you have touched a nerve about small towns suffering at the hands of the demise of the MILW...towns such as Tekoa, Pine City, Ewan, Ralston WA...all these towns COULD have been future MAJOR shippers of grain had the rails remained in that we know how trucks on a yearly basis tear the crap out of the roads getting the harvest to the next closest avenue of transport....shame of Washington State for being so stupid...
LinesWest said…
Good thoughts and I agree. So many of these small towns are now essentially ghost towns and sit on a wealth of grain that could be shipped out by rail. Washington State had an opportunity and chose not to follow up on it (I believe there's a famous governor of questionable integrity that's linked to this decision...). The state's more recent purchase of the old BN lines out of spokane (NP to Wilson and GN to Coulee City) have at least tried to preserve what's left, but they certainly let a lot get away. And of course there's the ongoing trouble replacing a burned trestle on the old UP line they purchased out of Colfax. Such a shame, and what a mess.

Thanks for the comments and feel free to share any of your recollections working on the MILW any time.
Anonymous said…
I'm not going to pretend to have a PhD in transportation...but it's been bloody interesting (and that's putting it NICELY) to be the eyes, ears, and a firsthand witness to the REDICULOUS decisions that have been made in rail transportation in WA state. And the roads are equally as guilty as the politicians. Farmers have a cashcrop in hay to markets overseas...BNSF doesn't want to be BOTHERED with the shorthaul from Quincy to Seattle. There were science reports that lowering the Snake River was absolutely NECESSARY to preserve the salmon runs...which would cripple the barge traffic...again the railroads played strong arm tactics and said they WOULDN'T persue crews/power/equipment to cover the additional grain traffic that would have come off the exCamas Prarie. You mention the CW and Marshall shortlines...funny how Watco was stripped of those operations after the state bought those lines, plus the Palouse... but Watco is still in rail operations on the Hooper line...I'm certain politics is playing on that situation because if you're guilty of negligence I don't know too many ppl that are given a 2nd chance of this magnitude. Which now brings me back to Milw ROW...there's little argument about the quagmire of traffic (WHEN the economy is healthy!)coming out of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Stevens Pass can only accomodate so many trains a day...and maybe now that megamergers have subsided, and the state of WA has decided they LIKE the money produced with their port districts, maybe the three parties (and no harm meant to Sounder & Amtrak but they bloody well have a voice in the matter too!) can figure out the BEST answer to move all that tonnage in and out of that area is with SOME of the MILW back in place. Washington State STILL has room to grow as far as port room...Vancouver BC down to LA/Longview has long ran out. We'll see how strong the power of the almighty dollar dictates the direction the state wants to go, and how much the railroads are willing. Railroads make money, despite themselves! But GROWTH is a pretty good prerequisite to success. Right now, there's been serious speculation about double trackage between Fife and Black River...who on the MILW would have seen that one coming?! Right now there's a donkey match (again putting it nicely!)with the roll of ex NP Stampede Pass. I do know from a few years experience on the other side of the fence that the RAIL CUSTOMER is nieve as heck. As long as they get their carload, they are a happy camper. IF they ever got an education about how some of these cars end up taking the LONG WAY "home"...contract negotiations could take an interesting turn of events! So in closing...I'd be honored to dig out some MILW pics in the PNW and toss a MOW story or two!
LinesWest said…
Feel free to contact me off-line at r67northern@hotmail

If you've got a couple of pictures and a story or two to share, I'd be pleased to include them as an entry one of these days.

Take care,

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