Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Look Back

There are few places west of the Dakotas where the rails laid as part of the Milwaukee Road's expansion to the coast are still in place.  When found, they tend to be in small segments like the small portions found across the Idaho panhandle or around Othello, WA.  Out in the grain fields of Montana, the story is much the same.  

In this "Golden Triangle," where the Milwaukee pulled a great deal of traffic in its times before retrenchment, most of the old lines are relegated to photographs and memories.  There are, however, a few segments left in operation.  The Central Montana Railroad operates part of the old line that linked Lewistown and Great Falls.  The line now stops well short of Great Falls at Geraldine.  West of Great Falls, the BNSF operates a few miles of old Milwaukee trackage as well.  It is here, just south of a small town named Fairfield, we find some remains that look back at what the Milwaukee left behind.

Broken ties and frost heaves are common on this little used section of the old empire.  BNSF has made some repairs to the line north of Fairfield, but here, on this section that is relegated to overflow storage for the local grain elevators, there has been no such effort.  We see a line that, in many ways, echoes the final conditions of the Milwaukee itself.  The Golden Triangle lines were some of the most important sources of online traffic along the entire Western Extension.  Like everything else, however, the final few years of neglect and deferred maintenance are easy to see in the old steel ribbons.  These were the stomping grounds of ribside boxcars and decrepit SD7s.  Using these old rails to look back, it's easy to imagine the conditions that existed at the end.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Legacy in the Canyon

Under wire since leaving Harlowton, the Milwaukee Road mainline to the Pacific Coast began working its way through a series of mountain passes and river crossings.  The Belt Mountains were the first to be crossed and from there the old Pacific Coast Extension dropped south and west toward Three Forks and the Rocky Mountains that lay beyond.  

The country in this part of Montana is stunning.  From the Belt Mountains, the Rockies rise solemnly in the distance as the mainline bends and twists its way down toward the Missouri River.  The old line follows (for the most part) the path laid out by Montana's Jawbone Railroad that was purchased as part of the Milwaukee's push west.  Small towns like Lennep and Ringling are plotted along the line before it turns into 16 Mile Canyon.

16 Mile Canyon is famous for some of the Milwaukee's publicity shots.  It is here in the canyon that Eagle's Nest tunnel is located.  This was often a favorite photo location due to the close proximity of tunnel and trestle:
As the canyon and railroad wind south toward the Missouri the foundations of the old substation at Francis can be found.  Further south the small town of Maudlow appears around a bend in the creek and the railroad.

Like many other places along America's final transcontinental railroad, Maudlow is a quiet place without easy access to the world that lays beyond.  An old two-story school still stands here along with a collection of other old buildings that remember better times.  A small general store and gas pump remain in the weeds while a few fly fishermen work their way up and down the old right of way and 16 mile creek.  The AC power lines that still traverse much of the old Rocky Mountain Division still wind their way through Maudlow as do a few remaining catenary poles.  Both remind us of the Milwaukee's bold vision - but also serve as testimonies to the reality that befell it.  From growling motors of boxcabs and little joes to the uninterrupted, quiet burbling of 16 mile creek.  From the sounds of gas pumping and activity at the old general store to peeling paint and broken windows.  The demise of America's Resourceful Railroad was more than the loss of a transportation corridor and industry giant.  

On a beautiful summer day like the one in the above photo, all seems peaceful.  The sun is warm and the creek wanders through the canyon like it has since long before the Milwaukee Road arrived along its banks.  In places like Maudlow, however, there's an unmistakable tension and need to remember what has happened here.  As we watch the unfolding and dismemberment of other industrial giants in the current recession, the lessons and outcomes of the past seem especially relevant.  This is the legacy that exists in the canyon, the legacy of Lines West.