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.