Monday, May 25, 2009

The Sun Sets West

There was a time, not so long ago, out in the high deserts of Central Washington when the lonesome sagebrush and eerie sunsets weren't quite as alone. Nestled high above the Columbia River in a place named Boylston a railroad built a small station, planted trees, and went about the business of running trains to the West Coast.

The station at Boylston was small and modest, like many others scattered along the rails of The Milwaukee Road. Old photos show Boxcab electrics and infamous Bi-polars climbing the grades here through the Saddle Mountains where Boylston marked the apex. Later photos show SD40-2's pulling hard up these same slopes, the electrification deactivated in the early 70s. The trees are bigger in these later photos and stand in obvious contrast to the desert landscape that surrounds them. This was an outpost on America's Resourceful Railroad, and much like the railroad itself, seemed to exist in spite of the obstacles around it.

Summer in the Saddles still brings hot and dry winds that suck the water out of any creature who braves the midday sun. Tumbleweeds roll across the landscape as they make their way to destinations unknown. The trees planted long ago by a small station named Boylston are tall and remain defiant creatures in this land of sage and sand. But those are the only constants from those old photos. The depot and the railroad have been relegated to memories and that thick feeling of history that beckons from this high outpost above the Columbia River. The sunsets and lonesome sagebrush have returned to the way things were before the railroad got here and that lonseome quiet has returned as well.

But we've got some memories and pictures of a once upon a time, when the sun sank in the west on the old electrified line.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Under a Watchful Gaze

In the Pacific Northwest, the Milwaukee Road had an interesting collection of branch lines with equally interesting histories.  Some were not connected to the rest of the system via Milwaukee rails, but with ferries.  Among these isolated lines was the old Bellingham Bay and British Columbia.  This was purchased by the Milwaukee to increase its footprint in the lush Pacific Northwest.  The line operated 25 miles from Bellingham to Sumas on the border with Canada.  Merger conditions that resulted from the Burlington Northern allowed the Milwaukee to do away with its car ferry and access these lines directly.  Despite the light rail, this line was known to be home to some of the Milwaukee's heaviest diesel locomotives as the fleet wore down and the seventies wore on. 

The BNSF still maintains a presence here along these old Milwaukee Lines.  Now that the paint on their locomotives has adopted an orange and black motif, perhaps one could say that not much has really changed.  Compared to other parts of the western extension, I suppose that not much has:  the rail is still in place here, and the sounds of freight trains can be heard echoing across the corn fields as they roam the small north-south line.

On a beautiful summer day like the one pictured, the watchful gaze of Mt. Rainier watches over the cornfields and old Milwaukee rails.  All along the Western Extension, it is the elements that exist beyond the Milwaukee that remain truly constant and seemingly unchanging.  Where rails have been pulled, towns have vanished.  In many places there remains very little evidence that the railroad was ever there.  In many places there is even less evidence of the people who lived along side it.  Nonetheless, constants like Mt. Rainier continue to dominate breathtaking scenery with which the Milwaukee shared space.  Some have argued that the Milwaukee Road traversed the most beautiful scenery on the continent.  Even off the mainlines and away from the haunts of the old electrics, scenes like this seem to bear this out.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Intervening Years

It's a warm July day in the Idaho Panhandle.  In the yards of the St. Maries River Railroad sits a collection of old cars that could easily be at home in a museum.  Old snow plows are lined up with an old ribside caboose and Hiawatha baggage car that still faintly reads "The Milwaukee Road."  A few ancient log cars are stored here in the yards as well.  They're old beyond the point where interchange is allowed and are restricted to St. Maries track as a result.

Other relics sit about the yards as well - in various stages of livelihood.  What makes them so unique is that they have not journeyed very far from their original stomping grounds.  These yards go back to the time of the Milwaukee Road's western extension and its vision to access the west coast.  The original mainline through town is still used several times a week as forrest products from St. Maries, ID make their way to Plummer and interchange with the Union Pacific.  Large mainline trestles, like the one at Pedee, are still used - a stark contrast to the many others that lie dormant across the rest of the Pacific Extension.

Tucked into a corner of the old Milwaukee yard are the remains of an outside braced boxcar.  Today, it is a tool shed but its paint and markings belie its history.  Still legible on the old boxcar door:  Automobiles.  The old car dates back to a time of large 4-8-4 steamers and mallets that roamed the mainline through town.  Bridging the sections of electrified mainline, these large steamers ruled the St. Joe River Valley and the wandering prairie lands of the Palouse that lay beyond.  Tucked in behind them:  scores of forty foot boxcars like the old one in the photo above.

On this warm July day, the passage of time seems thick with significance.  The old auto carrier tells of a time of fresh new Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths, and other marks that have vanished from the landscape.  The events that have played out in intervening years have left us reminders in the absence of these storied companies and the presence of faded and flaking paint.  Instead of fresh Detroit iron in a new outside braced boxcar, we're left looking at the remains from those old days gone by.  In many respects, relics like this one are a real historical marker.  It's a nod to the past and the ways of those that came before.  It's also a nod to the significance of all of those years that have come and gone between.