Wednesday, December 29, 2010
In winter, snowfalls and low temperatures are normal throughout the Milwaukee Road's West. Single digits and negative numbers are common across Montana and the great plains as snows blanket plains and mountain pass alike. Small towns that dot America's final transcontinental line take shelter in this weather. They seem more silent, more deserted, and more isolated than at any other time. The few people who inhabit these places hide behind walls and curtains that try to seal out the cold and the bitter winds that blow just beyond.
In the final years of the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Extension, the quiet of these blistering winter nights was shattered, on occasion, by the passing of a Dead Freight or the descendant of a fast hotshot like the Thunderhawk or XL Special. Time and weather took their toll on these fast trains, and the names were dropped in favor of numbers as the economic slump of the time made itself known across the industry as a whole. These were cold times, and dark days.
The suffering wasn't limited to the small towns and hotshot schedules. Many General Electric locomotives met their end traversing the lonesome mainline beneath the Big Skies of Montana. In the bitter cold, these locomotives were recalled from the West Coast, but sent west "dead in tow" and without the draining of their coolant lines. As trains moved from Palouse Country of Eastern Washington out across the Bitterroot range and into Montana, the coolant froze in the bitter winter temperatures. The old GEs and their ruined engines wouldn't see the west again and the Milwaukee would rent power in the final winters as their fleet numbers declined precipitously. It has been said this destruction of the old GEs was done under orders. Perhaps it was. Whatever the reason, they never had a chance against those bitter Montana winters and the cold journey back to the Midwest.
Today, many of the small towns out on the old transcon cling to existence through the cold winter months and passing years. As in decades past, the cold seems to intensify their silence but unlike times past, it is an unbroken silence. The orange and black that traversed the wintry landscapes is relegated to memory - often faded and fuzzy as the passing years take their full effect. Still, the air feels cold on those nights just like it always has and the stars shine brilliantly in crystal clear skies above. It is a winter scene that is played out again and again, both bleak and brilliant in the same brushstroke. It's haunting to think of those old GEs in a silent death march out across the cold plains, as it is to consider the long silence of what followed shortly thereafter and remains entrenched to this day.