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.