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.