Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bleak of Winter

In winter, snowfalls and low temperatures are normal throughout the Milwaukee Road's West.  Single digits and negative numbers are common across Montana and the great plains as snows blanket plains and mountain pass alike.  Small towns that dot America's final transcontinental line take shelter in this weather.  They seem more silent, more deserted, and more isolated than at any other time.  The few people who inhabit these places hide behind walls and curtains that try to seal out the cold and the bitter winds that blow just beyond.  

In the final years of the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Extension, the quiet of these blistering winter nights was shattered, on occasion, by the passing of a Dead Freight or the descendant of a fast hotshot like the Thunderhawk or XL Special.  Time and weather took their toll on these fast trains, and the names were dropped in favor of numbers as the economic slump of the time made itself known across the industry as a whole.  These were cold times, and dark days.

The suffering wasn't limited to the small towns and hotshot schedules.  Many General Electric locomotives met their end traversing the lonesome mainline beneath the Big Skies of Montana.  In the bitter cold, these locomotives were recalled from the West Coast, but sent west "dead in tow" and without the draining of their coolant lines.  As trains moved from Palouse Country of Eastern Washington out across the Bitterroot range and into Montana, the coolant froze in the bitter winter temperatures.  The old GEs and their ruined engines wouldn't see the west again and the Milwaukee would rent power in the final winters as their fleet numbers declined precipitously.  It has been said this destruction of the old GEs was done under orders.  Perhaps it was.  Whatever the reason, they never had a chance against those bitter Montana winters and the cold journey back to the Midwest.

Today, many of the small towns out on the old transcon cling to existence through the cold winter months and passing years.  As in decades past, the cold seems to intensify their silence but unlike times past, it is an unbroken silence.  The orange and black that traversed the wintry landscapes is relegated to memory - often faded and fuzzy as the passing years take their full effect.  Still, the air feels cold on those nights just like it always has and the stars shine brilliantly in crystal clear skies above.  It is a winter scene that is played out again and again, both bleak and brilliant in the same brushstroke.  It's haunting to think of those old GEs in a silent death march out across the cold plains, as it is to consider the long silence of what followed shortly thereafter and remains entrenched to this day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Other Way out of Town

In Seattle, the Milwaukee Road called Union Station home.  The famous trains named Columbian and Olympian called there until 1961 when the passenger trains were cut back to Deer Lodge.  Eventually the last Hiawathas would never make it further west than the Twin Cites.  Union Station still served the Union Pacific, but there was another way out of town as well.

Just across the street from Union Station, the NP and GN called King Street Station home.  Famous trains called here as well, and to some extent, at least one still does.  The North Coast Limited and Empire Builder were just some of the top of the line passenger trains that left from the sheds of King Street.  Unlike the Milwaukee Road, UP, and NP, the GN left town heading north out along the Pacific coast.  At Everet the line to the Midwest turned east and headed over the Cascades and Stevens Pass.  It was there that the GN had a small electrification project of its own, and varnish like the Empire Builder was headed by powerful electric locomotives until the advent of dieselization.

Amtrak's Empire Builder still leaves King Street on a daily basis, still in close proximity to Union Station and the haunts of old Olympians.  Just like the original Builder, she heads north and the modern streamliner rolls through the ever expanding Seattle area and small coastal towns along the shores.  In the photo above at Mulkiteo, a beautiful winter morning is at hand along the old GN main.  The air is crisp, the leaves have turned, and fresh snow tops the distant mountains.  This is still the other way out of town, although for rail passengers heading to the Midwest for holidays and family, it is also pretty much the only way out.  How times change.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Author's note:  it is possible to leave King St. on a southbound Coast Starlight or Cascades for points south, and eventually east, if desired. 

Monday, November 01, 2010

Trans Missouri

Miles City, Montana was a point of activity for the Milwaukee Road's line to the Pacific Coast.  Company shops were located here as was the division headquarters for the line's Trans Missouri division.  The Trans Missouri linked the Milwaukee's famous electrified Rocky Mountain Division in the west with Mobridge and the crossing of the Missouri River in the east.  Here, in the Trans Missouri, the line plied the plains of the great American West.

Comprised of both fertile ground and desolate badlands, the Trans Missouri wrestled directly with the vast distances and big skies that greet westward travelers to this day.  While many seem appalled at the boredom of traversing this land, it offers unique opportunities to witness the true scale of the world in which we live.  Out on the Trans Missouri, it is difficult to hide from the sobering reality that we are, in fact, quite small.

Trains arriving in Miles City were subject to 500 mile inspections.  Great hotshot freights with names like Thunderhawk paused here in Miles City as they made their sprint across the plains.  Miles City saw the Milwaukee Road's passenger power show true grit across these plains:  a single locomotive held point on the line's varnish for the entire distance from St. Paul to the start of wires over the Rocky Mountain Division.  Miles City was also a home to the rival NP, and the two railroads left town heading east within a stone's throw of each other.  Miles City was a real point of activity.

Today in Miles City, much of the old Milwaukee Shops still stand.  Via their connection with the old NP (now BNSF), they're even in business as a private corporation, Transco.  The salvage of the shops has led to another interesting remnant here on the Trans Missouri:  mainline.  From the crossing of the Tongue River on the west side of town, to the shops and connection with the old NP on the east, the mainline rails of the Pacific Coast Extension still hold ground.  Standing on the Tongue River bridge and staring west, it's not difficult to imagine the rails continuing out across the flatlands ahead.  It would be another 200 miles to electrification and the Rocky Mountain Division.  200 miles out across a vast landscape looked over by the big skies of the Trans Missouri.  Although famous for its electrics and mountain ranges, this too was Milwaukee Country.  Land of the Resourceful Railroad.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I've Missed You

There has been an expanse of decades that have passed since the last wheel turned on Lines West.  America has been without her Resourceful Railroad, without her best engineered path to the Northwest, without orange and black in a sea of Washington wheat or mountain green.  Others, employees and observers, share their memories of the last days while pictures of dilapidated locomotives and a torturous winter in 1979 tell their own story.

But I missed all of that.  My first memories of the Milwaukee Road's west involve the ever changing scenery of I90 as viewed from the second row of an old suburban.  The seats were vinyl and sticky on hot days, but the old truck always made the trip.  The cascades offered brief glimpses of high black trestles on the west slopes, then the occasional bridge on the east side of Snoqualmie.  The massive Renslow trestle near Kittitas spanned the 4 lane and loomed large outside the confines of the suburban, especially for this 6 year old who strained to see the roadbed above.  I strained my head to keep the bridge and road bed in view as long as possible, looking for evidence of tracks and trains.  The ties scattered down the side of the embankments during those years told the story even for this young child:  something bad happened here.

Many years later, my Milwaukee Road wanderings would find me in Potlatch, ID.  Here, the Milwaukee's own WI+M railroad had left behind a small yard and large depot.  The years had not been kind to the depot, but they had spared it.  Such a fate is not often repeated across the western reaches of Milwaukee Country.  The WI+M itself was a shadow of its former life in these wanderings.  The line connecting Bovill, ID to the old Northern Pacific at Palouse, WA had been severed for several years.  In the gradually softening economy of early 2007, double-stack well cars had been situated in amongst the old yard tracks and station.  

There's an irony here:  the Milwaukee's extension to the west coast offered some of the best travel times and fewest interchanges of any western line.  The transcontinental travel times were enviable, even as the system began to fail in the late 70s.  If the Milwaukee had made it a few more years, or the value of Lines West had been noted and embraced, well cars like these might be rolling on other parts of Milwaukee rails, hauling double-stack containers across the continent much like the transcon survivors do today.  But on this day, these cars sit and bask in a cold setting sun that blankets them and the old WI+M depot in a low light.  Soon the temperatures will plummet and a cold winter night will settle across the Palouse country.  

The beauty and quiet of the scene is cause for reflection:  I missed the Milwaukee Road in the West.  Still, my memories and photographs only confirm what that small child from decades ago already knew:  something bad happened here.

Author's Note:  The WI+M depot has since been restored through the tireless work of dedicated volunteers and donations from various organizations and individuals.  It is a beautiful restoration, and a wonderful tribute to much of the old Inland Northwest, including the Milwaukee Road.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hangman Creek Trestle: Brownfields Part 2

After a little prodding from Lost Rail's good friend, Oil-Electric, I've put together a link to the bridge abutment's location on the western edge of Spokane:

View Larger Map

The abutment stands, more or less, at the point where W. Ohio Ave and N. Summit meet and points south-east in the above photo.  From here, the old trestle in question would have crossed the Spokane River and Hangman creek on its way across the valley.  A walking bridge now spans the River in the approximate location of the old trestle piers.  When the water level is lower, these are still visible just east of the walking bridge, however, seem covered in the image above.

Also of interest, to the north and east of the abutment are the remains of the old UP round house, still visible from above.  Spokane was quite the railroad town...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Brownfields and Open Spaces

There's a term used to describe abandoned industrial sites:  brownfields.  Across the expanse of the United States these places exist as reminders of hustle, industrial might, and a growing country flexing its industrial muscles.  In Pittsburgh the old steel mill sites dot the river banks that make the city famous.  In Birmingham, it's old iron works and furnace sites.  The remains of old industry are scattered out across the Midwest rust belt with empty fields or rusted and mangled machinery dotting old sections of small and large cities alike.  The West has its share of brownfields too.  The city of Spokane has extensive stretches of land once occupied by a bustling railroad yard that stretch from near downtown west to the canyon that marks the city's western edge.  

A massive trestle spanned the Spokane River here, carrying trains from the shared UP/Milwaukee Road trackage across the chasm and into the heart of the city.  The leftovers today consist of a few embedded foundations in the river valley below, and the concrete form that anchored the trestle's eastern edge.  This was the route of the Milwaukee's transcontinental passenger trains, and the shared UP trackage was the company's access to the Inland Northwest's capital city.

The World Fair of 1974 changed all of that for the UP, the Milwaukee, and the other railroads and industry that made up much of downtown Spokane.  The downtown was thoroughly reconstructed and cleaned for the exposition.  The UP/Milwaukee depot was removed as was the GN depot, save for the clock tower that still stands in Riverfront Park.  The leftovers of this massive reconstruction have existed ever since:  giant brownfields and a few concrete remnants of the old industrial downtown.  The anchoring pier of Hangman's trestle rests at the edge of the Spokane River in the picture above, glowing in the setting sun of a cool spring day.  It ends abruptly, leading only to the open spaces above the river far below.  Here, as everywhere else, time changes things.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Today, change continues in this part of Spokane.  A brownfield reclamation project is underway and redevelopment is in the cards.  Given time, even these remnants will be forgotten but for a few old photos.  Such is the story of so many of America's industrial places.  The Milwaukee Road can certainly count itself among them.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Answers to Questions

In the years that have spanned the Milwaukee Road's "retrenchment" from the Pacific Coast, there have been more than a few questions posed.  There have been more than a few answers offered.  There have been more than a few arguments started, and more than a few facts misinterpreted.  The common thread is the quest for answers to the question, "What happened out there?"

Although it was Lines West that seems to be the most memorable scar from the Milwaukee tragedy, perhaps because of its seemingly inherent value, all across the Milwaukee empire things were not well.  Travel times across the Midwest were high, slow orders abounded.  Harsh winters reduced the locomotive fleet to the point where Canadian National and Baltimore and Ohio units made guest appearances.  Out on the Pacific Extension, worn U-boats old GPs trudged through the snows and dilapidation of what was left of a modern engineering marvel.

I don't pretend to have the answers to the questions the ghosts of the old railroad conjure.  But on an early spring day out along the transcon, the questions howl like the bitter Palouse wind.   The bridge at Seaburry, WA still stands and carries the vacant right of way across the old interurban line in Eastern Washington.  The photo looks east, toward the Bitterroot mountains and famous Rocky Mountain electrified division.  Beyond that, the plains and badlands of Eastern Montana.  Then the Dakota plains and grand Missouri River.  Farther still, the big Midwestern cities of St. Paul, Chicago, and the rest.  The distance seems so unfathomably vast from the forgotten outpost of Seaburry  --  yet that is what we are left with.  Big distances, big questions, and the cold winds of Eastern Washington.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Haunts of Shadows, Great Rivers, and Hiawatha

     Ye who love the haunts of Nature,
Love the sunshine of the meadow,
Love the shadow of the forest,
Love the wind among the branches,
And the rain-shower and the snow-storm,
And the rushing of great rivers
Through their palisades of pine-trees,
And the thunder in the mountains,
Whose innumerable echoes
Flap like eagles in their eyries;-
Listen to these wild traditions,
To this Song of Hiawatha!
From:  "Hiawatha," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

'Fleet of foot was Hiawatha.'  America's Resourceful Railroad had a stable of Hiawathas that ran through the Midwest; in the shadows of the forest, out across the rushing rivers.  In late June of 1947, the Milwaukee added a transcontinental Hiawatha to its passenger streamliners:  The Olympian Hi'.  Initially pulled by iconic FM diesels, later by Little Joe electrics on the mountain passes of Montana, and then sets of streamlined boxcabs and rebuilt Bi-Polars.   Armour yellow E units marked its final days of transcon running.

Grand stations were built by the Milwaukee through the state of Montana.  These stations, like the passenger trains that called there, showed the importance and prestige of rail travel and railroads in previous generations.  Large towers graced the buildings in Butte, Great Falls, and Missoula.  Other stations, like Miles City, had simple but grand entrances that welcomed travelers to the experience of passenger rail.  

The great trains like the Olympian Hi' were fitted with full-length Super Domes and the Milwaukee Road's unique Skytop Observation cars.  Out on the long runs of the Pacific Extension, the special fleet of Skytops included cabins for first class travelers.  Passengers could watch the ever changing landscape of a large country slip by from the flatlands of Illinois to the sheer faces of the Washington Cascades.  Under the wires of the electrification, the view included some of the country's most unique motive power like the Little Joes or Bi-Polar electrics.

The original station in Butte was built as a "stub end" station:  trains backed into the station tracks and left by pulling out forward.  The station was situated in the downtown of one of Montana's largest mining boom towns and matched the grand houses of the downtown wealth.  As the railroad aged, however, the passenger trains faded.  Little Joes were moved to freight service and replaced by older streamlined boxcab electrics.  By 1961 the Milwaukee ceased transcontinental operation of passenger trains all together.  The final runs were made by E-unit diesels operating beneath the wires of the Cascades and Rockies much like the old FM diesels had many years before.  

The final incarceration of passenger trains west of Miles City called in Butte, but ran only as far as Deer Lodge before readying for a return trip to the east.  The grand Butte depot was substituted by a small structure located directly on the mainline, requiring no complicated backing moves.  The old station with large tower became a TV station and the grand days of passenger trains were clearly ending.  What started as 'Fleet of Foot' would end quietly and without much fanfare on the rails of the Western Extension.

Today, both depots in Butte still stand and recall distinctly different eras of travel by rail.  The original grand depot recalls one more uniquely Milwaukee aspect, however.  Still anchored to the ends of the old brick structure are the mounts for the electrification guy wires.  And a sign that warns of the high voltage overhead.  Looking up from beneath the sign, only the high blue skies of a summer day in Montana stare back.  No catenary, no high voltage, no more Olympian Hi.  Decades have passed and the world has changed, but small haunts of a different time remain across the Milwaukee's west -- the song of the Hiawatha.  

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Building Forward and Onward

Often, it is the things just below the surface that make a history or place interesting.  Old stories of personal sacrifice or challenge that make up the big history are often quite special.  These things lie just below the surface of what is normally seen, weaving the fabric of history into what is now casually observed as "current."

The piles of rock and filler that abound in the picture of Deer Lodge, MT lie atop one of those intriguing old stories.  In the distance, a few poles jut into the sky between the trees.  They are a reminder that this is a special place.  This is a place where America's final transcontinental railroad pushed west toward the mountains in the distance.  This is a place where Little Joes pulled time sensitive Thunderhawk and XL Specials up for crew changes at the nearby depot.  They rolled out beneath those old poles, from between the trees and into the rails of the Milwaukee's Deer Lodge yards, now home to large piles of DOT filler and debris.

Beneath those piles, just beneath the surface, lie the ruins of a company that pushed forward and onward.  It has been a long time since a headlight pierced that space between the trees, even longer since electric wire provided the potential to drag Thunderhawks across the challenging Montana landscape.  These were the visions of progress carried out in their day.  It's not difficult to look at the old poles and mountains in the distance and imagine a scene from yesteryear.  It was a different time:  building and expansion that feels more incredible with each passing year.  It was a bold vision, a bold execution, and a quiet end to the push onward.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Summer Times

One of the things that often strikes me is the cost of growing up.  We move from a child's simplicity to an adult who is full of stress, strain, and the burden of too much information.  From relaxed summer days of fun and few cares to gripes about heat and humidity, the endlessness of yard work, and the ever present journeys to and from our 'real' jobs.  As another summer unfolds in the Northern Hemisphere, allow me to journey back in time to a few fond memories of summers many years ago.  Perhaps it is the lack of adult work loads and stress that makes these memories stand out and seem so pleasant.  

I haven't always been an avid photographer.  My real love for the hobby started in high school, but my first pictures come from the summer of 1990.  As with many summers through the mid 90s, I spent a couple of weeks in Lafayette, IN with my grandparents.  That summer an old Brownie camera was unearthed and film scrounged from a local photography shop.  In general, summer days there were always fun for a railroad buff like myself.  Lafayette sits at an intersection of several significant railroads:  the Wabash, the NYC, the Monon, and even the Nickel Plate.  By 1990, only two were making much noise through the city limits near the grandparent's house.  These were the Norfolk-Southern version of the Wabash and the CSX version of the Monon Lines.  Still, traces of predecessors were everywhere.

One of the best photos taken by the old Brownie camera was of a NW General Electric running one of the few stretches of double track on the old Wabash main.  A recent summer thunderstorm has passed, leaving everything looking clean and shiny.  

While the Wabash was most easily viewed from my grandparent's house, the old Monon lines through town were always of particular interest.  My Grandpa and I would take early morning walks downtown to see what action there might be on this most unusual piece of street running.  Although relocated off of 5th street in the later part of the decade, 1990 still saw trains operate as they always did:  right down the middle of the street.  Speeds were slow and the traffic tie-ups could be quite impressive if a long freight was caught meandering through town.  The old camera again caught some CSX predecessor action that summer:  A Family Lines GE is entering the street running, pulling freight through the heart of downtown Lafayette.

In those days, other predecessor roads were easier to spot in the mix of freight cars.  A GN box drifts down the street somewhere behind the old Family Lines GE.  There's a lot of history in these two old pictures:  mergers, abandonments, corporate struggles, and lost identities...although a child's view through an old point and shoot camera reveals none of those.  It's takes years, travels, and the sights and sounds of abandoned Pacific Extensions to bring all of that into focus.

The old Monon line was also Lafayette's link to the national passenger rail network.  The Chicago to New York Cardinal called there in the 1990s, and still does today.  A couple of summers after my initial work with the old Brownie, I found myself upgraded to a Pentax Spotmatic.  Loaded with film on another Indiana summer day, a trip was made with Grandpa downtown to watch the passenger train through.  On the point that day, another image of the times:  Amtrak's venerable F40PH locomotive.

The cardinal was always an interesting train.  It operated, as it does today, tri-weekly.  On days off, it was substituted by a local Chicago to Indianapolis only run.  Days where the Cardinal called at Lafayette were special because it was the "long distance" train, complete with diner and sleeping car equipment.  I recall several interesting things about the train in those days.  The roar of the F40 is one of them as it continued providing electrical power to the train even during the stop.  The diner exhaust fans and smells of breakfast were another:  the morning schedule into Lafayette put breakfast at just the right time for french toast on 5th street.  I always thought the passengers were a lucky group. 

On many days, the Cardinal would be incorporated with equipment heading to or from Amtrak's main shops in Indianapolis.  As such, locomotives with paint patches, extra passenger cars, even dead heading commuter cars, all saw their way down 5th street at one time or another.  Amtrak's prototype Viewliner sleeping car was another frequent guest on 5th street.  This car, produced by the Indianapolis shops, served as the model for all the subsequent Viewliners purchased for use on the single level trains of the East.  Here, the cardinal slips down 5th street with the Viewliner nestled in to the usual long distance consist.

Of course, the CSX version of the Monon can actually be noted for something else that is quite interesting.  Even after the street running was removed, many upper quadrant semaphores still spanned the single track main south of Lafayette.  In 1990 I had no idea that these were there, but by accident, in the summer of 1998, I found a several beautiful examples.

My grandpa had passed by that time, but a friend and I visited the old Lafayette stomping grounds nonetheless.  Our fortune took us to these old relics, still in service out among the cornfields of the beautiful Indiana countryside.  CSX has been slowly removing these old mechanical signals, but they still evoke a strong reaction from me.  They literally span decades of political, economic, social and world change.

As with many memories, time seems to bring fondness and we are blessed that even those experiences which seemed terrible are oft mellowed by passing years.  As another summer unfolds across the U.S., these are just a few of the old memories that occasionally churn through my mind in the midst of all my responsibilities that take over life's perspective more than they should.  I'm always thankful for these images and memories of another time, and strive to keep a perspective that even in the midst of being a grownup, there are wonderful benefits to a healthy and humble view of life.  

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Long Standing

As the days drag into weeks, oil continues its rush from the Gulf floor to the ocean above. The politicians point fingers, the residents along the Gulf Coast question response times and commitment, and the coastline waits for the slick to make landfall.

Amidst the chaos and noise, the economy of the region hinges on the effects and success of the spill containment. Oyster beds dot the area, shrimp fishing is common place. These are the economic realities that coexist with the environmental impacts.

The world economy thrives on readily available oil products that move cars, heat homes, even form the backbone for the many plastics that are relied on every day. In 2008 the U.S. Department of Energy reported that 28% of the U.S. energy use was consumed by the transportation sector alone [1]. Much of the transportation sector consists of internal combustion engines operating on the Otto or Diesel cycle. The staggering consideration is that many of these engines are only 35 to 40 % efficient [2]. For every gallon of gasoline consumed, nearly two thirds is wasted.

The remnants of one alternative is a long standing one, found out under the big skies of Montana. Now just a relic left in only a few places, the Milwaukee Road's electrification represents a different choice. In the photo above, the old line-side poles coexist with the catenary poles along an old stretch of mainline. Trains have not passed this way since 1980. Electrified trains have not passed this way since 1974. To many, the Milwaukee's decision to cease electrification cost the company its existence: on the eve of the fuel crisis of the 70s, the highly efficient electric lines were turned off, the powerful locomotives sidelined and scrapped.
This brought America's Resourceful Railroad back into line with all of its competitors and counterparts, ending the alternative means of propulsion at a time when it was, perhaps, most critical.

There are decades that span the gap between the crisis in the Gulf and the Resourceful Railroad's path to the west coast. Yet, at least in my mind, the events are linked in some strange way and the decisions that have been made have unarguably led us to this point. What will the next several decades hold? Is there any room for the long standing alternative still seen in lonely stretches of the West? Perhaps. Although it is unlikely that a Little Joe will be under wire any time soon.

1)EIA. Annual energy review 2007. Technical report, Energy Information Administration,, 2007.

2)C. Ferguson and A. Kirkpatrick. Internal Combustion Engines. John Wiley and Sons Inc., second edition,


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rock-a-bye bye bye?

There are footnotes to history and there are chapters. Dependent on your perspective, sometimes those footnotes deserve a book unto themselves.

As the economy sagged in the seventies, railroads were hit hard. The East saw a general collapse in the form of Penn Central. As the seventies wore on, the PC would be combined with several other bankrupt roads to form Conrail, a government backed corporation who's sole goal was to save rail transportation in the eastern half of the country. Collapse worked its way through the western lines during these years as well.

The Milwaukee Road pulled out of the West just over 30 years ago at the beginning of March. Bankrupt and reeling, its retreat to the Midwest would last only a few more years until its absorption by Soo Line. Its competitors in the West and Northwest managed to hang on, but healthy balance sheets were not to be found in the board rooms of the Cascade Green lines in those years.

The Rock Island had a long flirtation with the Union Pacific through the 60s. Merger was oft discussed and seemed inevitable at points in the late 60s. To boost the attractiveness of the company (i.e. its bottom line), decisions to delay maintenance and physical plant spending were made in the Rock's Chicago offices. As the seventies hit with an economic thud, the railroad found itself poorly managed and without an interested merger partner. Exploration of a true transcontinental merger with the Erie Lackawanna was conducted, but no deal was consummated. Given the collapse and deteriorated mess of the PC, perhaps a combined Rock-Erie would have done no better. In an attempt to re-invent itself, a new logo and look was established as part of the "Capitol Rebuild Program" that rebuilt parts of the old locomotive fleet in an attempt to keep trains moving. The light blue applied to the rebuilds and new rolling stock seemed to fade quickly and, just as quickly, became known as Bankruptcy Blue. An ill timed labor strike would be the final straw.

And so the seventies did to the Rock Island what they did to the Milwaukee and all of those Eastern lines: relegated them to historical studies, barren right of ways, and old grain elevators that stand over small quiet towns across the Midwest. The elevator above still stands at Downie, IA along the Rock Island's former mainline to Omaha and points west. It has been 30 years since the Rock Island rolled up, in the company of its faltered competitors who proceeded it.

"Rock-a-bye bye bye" was a title given to a brief D.P. Morgan article in Trains Magazine in July 1975. On the cover was a picture of the Rock Island's E-6 locomotive #630. It seemed inconceivable that the "Route of the Rockets" could actually collapse so completely, yet in 1975 the writing was on the wall. As Mr. Morgan noted, "The Rock Island Line became a might sad road." The beautiful lines of the streamlined E-6 recalled a profitable and exciting time for the railroad, nearly 4 decades previous. As pictured in 1975, beneath the night lights of the Chicago skyline, it was a gritty museum piece in forced labor. It was a time of tumultuous change, of economic unease, and an unsure future. Five years later the unthinkable would happen and another railroad legend would sign off and lower its flag. Bye bye Rock Island Lines, now thirty years on.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Those Magnificent Quads

It was the electric motors on the Milwaukee Road's Lines West that received them: those beautiful quad headlights.

The original lamps that adorned the famous electrics, from the Bi-Polars to the Little Joes, seemed average
enough. Pictures posted across
various pages on the internet show a single headlight centered in a larger reflective housing, just like the steamers and diesels of the same era. Somewhere along the way, however, during the rebuilding that kept those electrics in service for decades and decades, a modification was made. A 4 sealed beam
headlight was installed, making the electrics instantly identifiable. Even the Little Joes received them, and their slightly smaller headlight housing made them all the more distinctive. The photo of the Joe shows the quad light arrangement, slightly truncated on the edges.

But then, it wasn't just the electrics that got this treatment. On a beautiful sunny summer day, tucked away in the back of the yards in St. Maries, ID, a distinctive non-electric resides with that beautiful quad on full display. The plow was a home-built for the Milwaukee, number X900109. The rib sides recall other Milwaukee projects like their distinct cabooses or ribside box cars. It was a construction technique used to bolster the strength of the side walls and it resulted in some very unique Milwaukee equipment.

The paint is badly faded on the old plow and rust resides around many of the weld joints. When needed, however, it has seen a recent call to action. The winter of 2007-2008 required its services on the Elk River branch. Shop crews spent a few days readying the plow and then pushed it out of town using a pair of the St. Maries River Railroad GPs. Perhaps the only disappointment of the trip was the lack of light from that fabulous quad: no power hookup was available from the locomotives to turn it on.

It appears that there will be no further calls to action for X900109. As noted in previous postings, the Elk River Branch is silent and the log cars that roamed there are cut into scrap. For now though, that quad headlight still rests atop the old plow in the yards at St. Maries. It's a nod to the Milwaukee's uniqueness, its home shops, and to those distinctive electric locos that ran the electrified mountain divisions for those many many decades. A magnificent quad.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Firsts and Lasts

The year was 1827, the date February the 28th. American railroad history was made with the incorporation of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad through an act of the Maryland Legislature. It was a date that would begin an era of expansion and industrialization in the New World. With the explorations of Lewis and Clark only two decades before, the entire country was opening before an onslaught of settlers and progress moving west.

For its part, the B&O would remain one of the dominant forces in the railroad and transportation industry for more than a century. In the era of streamliners and profitable eastern lines, its slogans proclaimed its stature with memorable lines like, "Linking 13 Great States with the Nation" or, "Timesaver Service."

The era of expansion across the American frontier would eventually see the construction of several transcontinental railroads spread out over key northern, central, and southern corridors. Famous lines like the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were first, however, others soon followed. Out across the Northwest came the Northern Pacific and Great Northern. To the Southwest rolled the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific. The Milwaukee Road was built firmly as a Midwestern Granger line but made an appointment with the West Coast as well. It became America's final transcontinental railroad early in the 20th century with vast stretches electrified across the western mountain ranges by 1919 (although many parts were electrified prior).

The Milwaukee Road would adopt several corporate slogans over the years of its run to the Pacific. These included the "Route of the Hiawathas," and later the memorable, "America's Resourceful Railroad." Indeed it was. The long stretches of electrification stood as the only long distance electrified route west of the densely populated east coast lines. By many estimates its electrification saved it millions and was so well built it lasted with relatively few changes until 1974.

By 1974, however, the Resourceful Railroad was clearly in decline. Reinvestment in the lines had been minimal over the past several years and the struggling economy of the mid and late seventies did little to help. The more profitable western extension, with its long runs and efficient routing, was continually plagued by the money losing Midwestern lines and a management that did little to support it as the seventies wore on. In 1977 the company would declare bankruptcy, its final of several spread out over its tumultuous existence. While other western lines around it would face similar economic hardships, the Milwaukee focussed on retrenchment and a pull back to its Midwestern routes.

As February 28th dawned in 1980, a long and bitter winter was finally ending across the Milwaukee Road's west. The line had been run to the ground, surviving on virtually nothing but the will of its people to keep it moving. Locomotives were dead and out of service, derailments were a daily occurrence, and the end was upon the Western Extension. What had started life as America's final transcontinental route was ending life as the first one abandoned. It would leave behind it more questions than answers, a legacy of poor management, and the best engineered route to the Northwest coast. The magnitude of the failure is matched only by the lines potential.

February 28th: a day of firsts and lasts, now 30 years on.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


On a quiet Sunday afternoon, a small group of worshipers gathers in a small traditional looking church. The A-frame design bespeaks years of expectation and American church culture. The singing inside follows a tune that is familiar to some, albeit mostly those from older generations. Words ring out with a chorus of, "This is my savior, this is my song. Praising my savior, all the day long." The old hymn's title: "Blessed Assurance."

The small group concentrates on the harmony of the old hymn and memories of Sundays that have played out over the many years before. "This is my song," they sing as the chorus again rolls around. It's a scene from countless churches sprinkled out across the great landscape of the American countryside. It recalls similar gatherings sprinkled back across the years of the small American churches as well. Little has changed in many of these places. Change seems reserved for a few added creases in the bindings of the hymnals and faces of the congregation. Outside these walls, however, change has been unstoppable.

It has been nearly three decades since the Milwaukee Road packed up its bags and left its Pacific Coast Extension to the annals of history. Left behind are lonely places like Acola, MT shown in the photograph above. Once part of a small grain branch operating off the mainline, the grain shipments in 40 foot ribside boxcars have long ceased. The plains and mountains play a give and take in this part of the Milwaukee's haunting grounds. Beautiful sunsets and gentle colors mark the area and nearby are the headwaters of the Missouri River. Cold nights are common here as well. The sky is so clear, the heat of the day - even a hot summer day, seems quickly lost to the black expanses of night overhead. It was to places like these the Milwaukee called home to its Lines West. When it left them, it left depth and reverence. These two elements seem common accompaniment to the memories and stories of those who came before. Acola is just one of many lonely places that exist in juxtaposition.

The old hymn remembers those old times though. Those were the times the Milwaukee Road was marveled around the world for its bold electrification and well engineered route. The one to whom the songs are sung remembers them too. The juxtaposition runs deep: praise inside in a way that seems unchanged over decades, quiet reverence and reflection outside amidst a sea of change and history. Yet the two were never meant to be separate. The inside versus outside defies the original intent and forwards a juxtaposition that should not exist.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Great Plains and Big Sky

The world is a big place...but on some levels it doesn't seem so large any more. Communication has made contact with other cities, states, and countries unremarkable. Yet 100 years ago, the system we take for granted today was unthinkable and unheard of. In 1910 roads were poor, autos were for the wealthy and well-to-do, and telegrams were a normal means of fast communication. Many rural stations had Western Union offices for that very reason. 100 years ago, the world was a very big place indeed.

Interestingly, the world itself hasn't changed all that much. The wind blows across the plains of the West, the tall grasses whisper and bend beneath its howling, the clouds still roll quickly across the big skies. While much of the country has connected itself to everything, the land it inhabits still shows many of the constants it always has. We've done our best to carve it up and parcel it out but that original beauty of what was is still there somewhere. Somewhere beneath the glitz and glamor, somewhere out there.

Great plains and big skies give perspective to these things. They give perspective on where we actually stand and our tenuous grip on "control." They remind us of how small we are, and that what was here before is much bigger than we ever consider. Away from cozy confines of office buildings or comfortable reclining seats, these spaces represent something very very different. This is apparent in places like Mozart, Saskatchewan shown above. The grain elevator stands as the tallest thing for miles on the great expanse of plains. The wind rushes an oncoming front across the sky above. The roads are bad, the people are few and far between, and loneliness is a frequent companion. There is no glitz or glamor here, just wide open beauty that imposes itself on you, just as it always has.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A Joe Photo Study

I had a special request for a few more detail shots of the Milwaukee Road's only surviving Little Joe. If you can, she's worth a visit in Deer Lodge, MT, but plan on spending some time around her. She's loaded with interesting features and dripping with stories. I could write something for each of these shots, but for now, I'll let them speak of their own accord. Enjoy.