There has been an expanse of decades that have passed since the last wheel turned on Lines West. America has been without her Resourceful Railroad, without her best engineered path to the Northwest, without orange and black in a sea of Washington wheat or mountain green. Others, employees and observers, share their memories of the last days while pictures of dilapidated locomotives and a torturous winter in 1979 tell their own story.
But I missed all of that. My first memories of the Milwaukee Road's west involve the ever changing scenery of I90 as viewed from the second row of an old suburban. The seats were vinyl and sticky on hot days, but the old truck always made the trip. The cascades offered brief glimpses of high black trestles on the west slopes, then the occasional bridge on the east side of Snoqualmie. The massive Renslow trestle near Kittitas spanned the 4 lane and loomed large outside the confines of the suburban, especially for this 6 year old who strained to see the roadbed above. I strained my head to keep the bridge and road bed in view as long as possible, looking for evidence of tracks and trains. The ties scattered down the side of the embankments during those years told the story even for this young child: something bad happened here.
Many years later, my Milwaukee Road wanderings would find me in Potlatch, ID. Here, the Milwaukee's own WI+M railroad had left behind a small yard and large depot. The years had not been kind to the depot, but they had spared it. Such a fate is not often repeated across the western reaches of Milwaukee Country. The WI+M itself was a shadow of its former life in these wanderings. The line connecting Bovill, ID to the old Northern Pacific at Palouse, WA had been severed for several years. In the gradually softening economy of early 2007, double-stack well cars had been situated in amongst the old yard tracks and station.
There's an irony here: the Milwaukee's extension to the west coast offered some of the best travel times and fewest interchanges of any western line. The transcontinental travel times were enviable, even as the system began to fail in the late 70s. If the Milwaukee had made it a few more years, or the value of Lines West had been noted and embraced, well cars like these might be rolling on other parts of Milwaukee rails, hauling double-stack containers across the continent much like the transcon survivors do today. But on this day, these cars sit and bask in a cold setting sun that blankets them and the old WI+M depot in a low light. Soon the temperatures will plummet and a cold winter night will settle across the Palouse country.
The beauty and quiet of the scene is cause for reflection: I missed the Milwaukee Road in the West. Still, my memories and photographs only confirm what that small child from decades ago already knew: something bad happened here.
Author's Note: The WI+M depot has since been restored through the tireless work of dedicated volunteers and donations from various organizations and individuals. It is a beautiful restoration, and a wonderful tribute to much of the old Inland Northwest, including the Milwaukee Road.