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.