Friday, August 28, 2009

Fading to Quiet

I remember well my first trip to see the logger in operation on the Milwaukee Road Elk River Branch. It wasn't so long ago, just a few years. Leaves on the bushes and deciduous trees were turning to shades of orange and red. The tamaracks adopted brilliant yellows against the green canopy of evergreens around them. The sky was blue and crystal clear and the crispness of a fall day was at hand.

The outbound train to Clarkia that day glinted off the St. Maries River as empty log cars made their way south to be loaded. It was a small, out of the way railroad located in beautiful Idaho wilderness on an amazing fall day. My slides from the day still show the brilliant colorful hues of the West at its finest.

The railroad itself was in immaculate shape. Heavy rail, rescued from the original Milwaukee mainline along the St. Joe River, was placed on the line's many curves. The trestles and bridges looked fantastic. This was a railroad that dripped Milwaukee history as well: Milwaukee crews still waved from the power and caboose. The sound of GPs that echoed from the canyon walls were the same that had plied the line when wearing black and orange many years before.

Now, just a few years beyond my first encounter with the logger, it seems that life may be coming to an end for these old trains. Rumors have swirled for awhile that Potlach was going to stop using the log trains and give up on the Milwaukee's Elk River Branch altogether. Recent activities and newspaper articles seem to bear this out. Storage cars have been removed from the line between Clarkia and Bovill and, it has been said, that the last loaded log trains have left the Clarkia log deck.

This summer was my most recent, perhaps last, visit to the Milwaukee's branchline to see it in operation. As always the track and equipment were immaculate, the crews friendly. The image above captures the power and caboose heading home in the long rays of a western evening sun. It was a warm day in the Idaho mountains, but the Kodachrome skies were most welcome. It was a nice way to say goodbye to another piece of the Resourceful Railroad. The railroad will continue to haul finished products from St. Maries to Plummer along the old Milwaukee mainline and that will keep some of the equipment and employees around. Perhaps, if the rails to Clarkia and log cars make it through the recession and into another diesel fuel spike, the final chapter may not yet be written. As it stands now, however, another piece of Lines West is quickly slipping away. The aged Milwaukee equipment, the waves from the caboose, and all of those journal bearings rolling down jointed rail are becoming memories and images of the past. It has been a pleasure and blessing to see them as they were.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Interesting Time

It is an interesting time we find ourselves in. Consider this: we are still able to look back at some of the things that defined the nation's growth and see them as they were. In another 50 years, these relics of past people, past towns, past lives will be truly gone. Another generation, perhaps two, will grow up in these old places and move out into the rest of the world. This movement has been ongoing for decades, but it has an accumulating effect. Little by little, many a bustling little town slowly becomes a quiet field of memory across America's frontier.

In 50 years, a trip along The Milwaukee Road and its Western Extension may still run along US 12, but how many more bridges will be missing? How many more miles of right of way tilled into the fields? How many old grain elevators will be left to mark an old settlement? How many will remember what was?

The photo shows the Handel elevator as it looked in July of 2003. Located near the town of Musselshell, MT the elevator stands on this summer day as the Milwaukee's mainline to the west lays dormant at its feet. You can still see the elevator name painted near the top, still see the tall silhouette from afar much as it was when 40 foot boxcars parked near its loading chutes. Days like this summer present an interesting time: the past is visible here, but only for now. The accumulation of years will see to that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

And the One that Remains

Only a block or so away from the old yards and station of Deer Lodge, MT rests one of the few tributes to the Milwaukee Road and its Lines West electrification. Resplendent in freshly painted orange and maroon, Little Joe E70 sits in the shadow of the old Deer Lodge prison, welcoming visitors from nearby I-90.

The Joe still reflects the power of the Milwaukee's electrification. The lead pantograph is raised and it looks ready to apply 5000 HP to the point of a transcon freight bound for the mountain crossings of Pipestone Pass or perhaps the Bitterroot Range.

This Joe is the only Milwaukee Joe to escape the torch, although examples of this design still exist in Brazil and Illinois from the other lines that acquired them. The spoked drivers are evident on the unit as are a few nods to its original Soviet Union destination. If one looks closely, the mount points for the bumpers that are so prevalent on European rolling stock are still there, nestled behind the large snow plow on the Joe's pilot. These units reflect a unique time in U.S. history: mounting tensions of the cold war, propaganda and fear at home, and a unique railroad that hung wires along its western mountain lines. It is fascinating to consider the journey that this Joe has been on and what the men and women who worked in and around it were a part of.

Compared to its original scope and ambitions, there are few reminders of the Milwaukee's Western Extension. The freshly painted Joe is certainly prominent among its remaining highlights and worthy of some thoughtful consideration.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Joe that Never Was

The Milwaukee Road was famous for its Western electrification. The wires were strung between wooden poles much like an interurban line and images of Boxcab electrics and Little Joes can be found all over the web. Especially photos of the Little Joe electric locomotives. These 5000+ hp monsters plied the Rocky Mountain Division from their purchase in 1950 until the wires came down in 1974.

The story of their arrival on Milwaukee property is well known, but interesting. Originally destined for the Soviet Union in 1946, they found themselves stranded state side due to mounting Cold War tensions. Legend has it they were named "Little Joe" as a reference to the dictator they almost knew. They sat for 2 years at GE's plant in Erie PA before finding homes. Some were taken to South America, 3 others to the South Shore Electric Line, and the remaining 12 to the Milwaukee Road in 1950. It is ironic that one of the problems the Milwaukee faced with its electrification in 1974 was a lack of electric locomotives. They had the opportunity to purchase the entire lot of electrics from GE in 1948 but passed, and as such, lost a few to the other lines. It seems as though the price was right from GE -- they really just wanted them off the lot, but the demo locomotives proved "slippery" on mountain grades and the power supplied through the overhead wire needed a boost from 3000 to 3300V DC to take full advantage of their pulling power. With these modifications made, the 12 the Milwaukee finally obtained in 1950 proved exceptional units until 1974 and the demise of western wires.

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away from the Milwaukee's Western Extension, America's other electrified railroads on the East Coast were dabbling with their own variety of electric locomotives. Among them the famous GG1 of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Amazingly these GGs worked for up to 4 railroads during their very long lifetime: The Pennsy, Penn Central, Conrail, and Amtrak. Another entry from GE was the EP-5 electric, nicknamed "Jets" because of their loud blower motors as they raced along the New Haven railroad's lines north of New York City.

As the toy train industry boomed in the 1950s, models of the PRR GG1 and N.H. EP-5 were both well represented by the iconic Lionel corporation. Both models took a few liberties with length (or in the case of the EP-5, length and axle count), but certainly captured the look of the real units. In Lionel's history, it was the N.H. EP-5 that came first in their line of EP-5s, but it was not the last. While the real world limited the use of the Jet to the east coast and the New Haven RR specifically, Lionel saw no need to limit its model to that one particular niche. Proudly following on the heals of the N.H. model, came the Milwaukee Road EP-5 and the Great Northern EP-5. Both pretty models but fantasy in the tradition of toy trains of the period. Instead of Jets, they were even referred to as Little Joes.

Hence, we have the Little Joe that never was. There are some similarities between the Jet and Joe: the cabs have a similar GE style, and at first glance they appear to be quite similar units overall with their dual pantographs and streamlined stylings. The Jet was just a few years newer (1955) and, like the Joe, had ceased being used by the mid 70s. By 1977 all examples were scrapped. They remained thousands of miles apart in the real world: one chewing through miles and miles of mountainous, lonesome terrain and the other on sprints between the big cities of the East Coast. In Lionel world, however, lashups were common.