Friday, September 18, 2009

Montana Skies

Skies tell a remarkable story in their ever changing features and moods. Sunsets in the summer often speak of a long day's field work in hot weather. Wintery moon rises in a clear sky speak of cold infinities. At one point the sky seems happy and celebratory, at another, somber and moody. The skies over the Milwaukee Road's west have revealed all of these and more.

Few remaining stretches of Lines West show their ties to the Milwaukee's unique early 20th century signature. While all of the western roads can boast of high bridges and long tunnels, the Milwaukee created a unique calling card in the form of its catenary. While the Northern Pacific was never far from the Milwaukee's western extension, it was never difficult to tell the two lines apart. As they made their way across Montana's ever changing landscapes, the wooden poles supporting the electric lifeline to Milwaukee power were a clear sign and symbol of the Resourceful Railroad. Railroad legend often links the electrification with the health of the railroad in general. Many associate the Milwaukee's ultimate demise with its decision in the mid seventies to eliminate electric operations. A review of fuel economy and fuel prices adds significant credibility to this argument: the electrics posed a significant cost savings compared to the diesels that replaced them. This author has noted the correlation in the past, referring to the Little Joes as Orange Canaries.

On a cool summer day, unlike may of the hot afternoons felt across the wide plains of Montana, one of the few catenary poles still stands. 35 years have passed since the last Joe passed beneath it. Almost 30 have passed since the railroad passed. With the old lineside poles keeping it company, it stands still as a signature left behind. The skies above on this cool day take a somber and quiet tone, fitting well the events that have transpired here.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

4 Years of Memories

From the archives, now four years back:
In the late winter of 1977 (December 19 to be exact), the last transcontinental railroad that was built in America filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. Its lines across the mid-west and west lay in ruins as a result of a complicated and inter-twined series of events that, at best, are difficult to understand. The winter of 1979 would be its final winter and in 1980 The Milwaukee Road sold its Western Extension to scrapers from Terry, MT to Tacoma, WA. The company that emerged (with track only in the Midwest) would last only five more years before being sold to The Soo Line, thus completely ending the granger railroad that never really came to grips with being a large transcontinental route.

As a matter of fact, the 1970s weren't a happy time for railroads in general. At least up until the Enron fiasco, the record for most money lost in a single day by a corporation was held by the Penn-Central Railroad. The Rock Island Railroad would, like the Milwaukee, file for bankruptcy protection and be gone as a corporation by March 1980 and its occasionally rumored merger partner to the east, the Erie-Lackawanna, would be bankrupt and put under the wings of Conrail in 1979.

So what makes The Milwaukee Road special? Perhaps it is its bold and scenic route across the upper Mid-west and West that pits it against five mountain ranges. Perhaps it is its storied love affair with electrified operations through the Rockies and Cascades. Or perhaps it is the people and towns that it has left behind to wonder at its passing and marvel at the scale of its failure. For whatever the reason, the old road is fascinating to me and I'll post some more thoughts and history as I feel led.
It was an introduction to something I felt passionate about sharing: The Milwaukee Road and the journey it has been. Long dark tunnels, abandoned schools, old elevators, and lonely sunsets across the West. Again and again I found myself out along the line these past few years, desperately trying to photograph what was left behind. It has been a journey of a thousand miles, started with a single step.

These travels, however, have led me to more than just the Milwaukee itself. On occasion, I have been confronted with the realization that we are much smaller than we like to think, that there is something larger, something deeper beyond the noise that surrounds us. It remains a small quiet voice. It is a voice that lurks on the inside, pointing us onward or prodding us to look more closely at what we would normally miss. It is the voice that adds depth, character, and an important sense of reverence for things passed.

These travels have also found me taking in old sights and sounds beyond the scope of Lines West itself. Off the forgotten trails of the Hiawathas and Columbians lie the remains of other places from similar times. The photo above is one such place along the old Rock Island in Eastern Iowa. A wintery day and a cold sunset for a desolate CTC signal, left behind in the aftermath.

Now, with four years of Milwaukee Road under the belt, I am going to expand the scope of the blog for awhile. The Milwaukee will still be present without doubt, but other fallen flags and fallen places will join it in the coming months and, hopefully, years ahead. I hope you will enjoy the continuing journey for there is much to discover. The still quiet voice leads on.