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.

2 comments:

Ole M. Amundsen, Jr. said...

Between this blog and "oil-electric," this reader from New England gets a wonderful view of the great NW waters,rails,land and internal vistas of the same years as I have lived. Thanks for the generous and well written work. I was aboard the City of New Orleans several years ago and met a fellow who was just retiring from the Illinois Central(CN), former Wisconsin Central, former Milwaukee accountant who fessed up to having done the analysis which led to the final dissolution of the Milwaukee Road...he was not happy about it, but it was what the Board apparently wanted to hear..so sad. Thanks again for your generous sharing.

LinesWest said...

Thanks so much for the nice comments. I love the work by O-E on that blog too.

Thanks also for the story of the accountant. It's sad but true that it's not always the reality that makes its way into the final decisions, but the reality of what "people want to hear." Sad on many levels.

All the best,
-Leland