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.

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