Thursday, December 29, 2011

Peaceful Snows on a Transcon

Before taking leave from the Midwest and pursuing the abandoned transcon of the Milwaukee Road, I knew the Santa Fe's own road west quiet well.  Well, to be completely accurate, I knew the BNSF Transcon through Illinois quite well.  A decade ago there were still quiet a few traces of ATSF to be found, however.  Warbonnets were found with some regularity, some even "unpatched" and wearing their original Santa Fe numbers and heralds.

Edelstein Hill was a favorite spot of mine to watch trains roll out on the high iron.  This grade up out of the Illinois River Valley was harsh, and steepest on the line anywhere east of the western mountains.  The surrounding Midwestern landscape was typical but beautiful.  Fields of corn in the summer gave way to winter browns and then white winter snows as temperatures plummeted.  These pictures are just a few taken one winter afternoon during an Illinois snowfall. 

One of the most striking things about fresh snow fall is how quiet everything is.  Cars that pass seem to roll by with nothing but a "whoosh" sound.  Even the trains on Edelstein Hill felt more subdued that afternoon.  As I reflect on the Midwestern snows, I'm reminded of their silence and pristine beauty.  The silence of falling snow is breathtaking and often a welcome respite from the noise that surrounds us most of the time.  As we roll quickly into a new year, I hope you find times of Peace and silence to enjoy.  

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Years and Miles of Decembers Past

Many, many miles ago, it was a dry and hot summer in the Eastern Montana Badlands.  The land was baked in the heat of the arid day.  I had come this way to see what was left and to track the remains westbound across the state, following the old Milwaukee Road along the course laid out many years before.  It was a day about as far removed from December as possible, and yet, a day that was inexorably linked nonetheless.   

December 6, 1960 saw the Milwaukee Road file an ICC "train off" petition for it's famed Olympian Hiawatha.  There would be no more Super Domes to the Emerald City, and the remnants of the service would be cut back to Deer Lodge before a complete annulment.  There would be no more scheduled passenger service over some of the best engineered railroad on the continent, maybe the world.  The rising Saddle Mountains from the Columbia River basin, the Cascades, the Bitterroots, all would be left to the haunts of freight trains - and those only for a short while longer. 

December 19, 1977 marked the Milwaukee's final entrance into bankruptcy and one that it would never exit.  It existed as a diminishing enterprise for a couple of years following, but would leave the North Coast and Northwest it had boldly pursued 70 years before.  What followed was politics, scrappers, and the scars of America's final Transcon.  Whatever dream it was, it had come to an end and there would be no more trains over the best engineered railroad on the continent.  Maybe the world.

December days carry some tough reminders of the things that were and what's been lost.  The bleak mid-winters can carry haunts that span the years and miles -- even to a hot and sunny day out in the Montana Badlands.  Here, close to the infamous Custer Creek disaster, one of the railroad's old bridges bakes in the hot sun.  The smell of old creosote still wafts in the air and sunflowers and wild grasses keep the line company.  Come December, the flowers will be gone and the bridge will withstand another harsh winter of sub-zero temperatures and blowing snow.  Unlike the finality of the Milwaukee Road's Decembers, however, the flowers and grasses will return as the Badlands return to life. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving and Nothing Could be Finer...

In the years of railroading's past, holidays and holiday meals were something of an event.  Those were curious days by today's standards:  dining cars employed chefs who cooked on stoves and ovens using fresh ingredients from along the way.  The Northern Pacific, for example, restocked dining cars with fresh fruit from Central Washington as trains made their way through.  Railroads had their own recipes that made their dining cars famous and specialties that set them apart from competitors.  Moving people was important, and the business of railroading reflected that.

The holidays had their own menus in many dining cars, reflecting the best meals for travelers who found themselves out on the rails.  For many years, even Amtrak changed its regular meal plan to offer special holiday turkey for Thanksgiving.  The picture above reflects one such holiday specialty: Alaskan Railroad Cranberry Pie.  It is a thing of beauty, and has become a tradition for our friends and family many years after it first pampered travelers in dining cars long forgotten.  To compliment this rare cranberry delicacy, a Fred Harvey apple pie is sure to round out a Thanksgiving meal.

I hope you find reason for Thanks this holiday season - and try some of your own railroad recipes if you feel so inclined.  They are a unique way to look back to times when things were just a bit different, and truly, nothing is finer than some old forgotten recipe from a diner.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Spring Creek Sunsets

Location:  Spring Creek Trestle, near Lewistown, MT.  2005

Big events change things quickly, but the accumulation of small changes mark the years and decades just as effectively.  The sun comes up and the sun goes down: one day leads to the next as a mix of change.

Every so often, there appears just a few years of stability when the reliability of the status quo seems unshakable.  Recently the expectation of burgeoning productivity and expansive wealth have been questioned, though for years they marked the American Dream.  Cheap energy was a hallmark of the U.S. as was its ability to manufacture products for domestic and global consumption.  For years the railroads owned the landscape and mail was always delivered by RPO car.  Today the RPO is long gone, and the unique Saturday delivery that as marked the USPS seems destined to follow it into history as well.  Many of the towns that were served by these institutions are depleted or vanished.

There was a time, during one of those periods of stability,  when a sunset along Lines West marked the end of the day across the Milwaukee's extension to the West Coast.  It foretold the dawning of another with the usual activities spread out across the system.  The coming day would see locals and patrols out along the lines exchanging grain cars in the Golden Triangle, or serving the railroads and industries of Butte.  It would be another day of pace-setting manifest trains burning miles from the big ports of the coast to the central U.S.  A day of electrified power across the mountains, of sleek passenger trains that rivaled any in the West out amidst scenery that was second to none.  There was a time when a beautiful sunset promised another day out along America's final transcon.

Today the changes have accumulated, and the perceived stability is benched in quiet abandonment.  Above, the Spring Creek Trestle bears witness to another end of day - but is listed as unusable and the lines that it connected in Lewistown are gone anyway.  One day, probably not in the distant future, it will share the same fate as all of those other institutions that litter the historical landscape.  A sunset over Spring Creek promises another day, but merely edges ever closer to an obvious conclusion.  It is always tempting to gaze at the span of only a few years and feel secure in the stability that surrounds us, yet there are quiet places that shout out the opposite is true.  A sunset on Spring Creek Trestle is one of them.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Famous Goodbyes from the Energy Crises

There was a time, now many years ago, when there was a different economic malaise, a different energy crisis, and a different set of hard choices.  For the Milwaukee Road, this energy crisis of the mid-seventies produced an interesting result:  the decision to maintain electrified operations across the Rocky Mountains through June of 1974.  The original plan had the juice turned off in 1973 so this represented a stay of execution, but not a lasting reprise.  For reasons that are not always clear, the electrification was turned off and the Milwaukee Road turned to newer diesel power for its trains across the Rockies.

Ironically, the final costs of new diesel locomotives to replace the scrapped electrics, combined with  ever increasing fuel costs of the energy crisis, cost the Milwaukee dearly.  Detailed studies of this decision, as well as original GE economic analysis can be found here.    Particularly troubling is evidence that the Milwaukee actively misrepresented operating data to make the case for electric abandonment.  Maintenance costs for locomotives were stated incorrectly, and without regard to the  rising fuel costs, electric operations were 40-60% less costly then Milwaukee diesel operations (source).

But that was all a long time ago.  When the power was cut and the wires came down, the electrification was gone and the fuel crisis soared.  It remains a memorable and regrettable goodbye from the days of the energy crisis.

The electric locomotives were replaced with a new order of SD40-2s from General Motors.  These locomotives reflected the times.  They were produced with 16 cylinder, 3000 Hp diesel engines that shed 4 cylinders and 600 horsepower from the previous SD45 locomotive design.  Fuel economy was increased and the reduced length diesel resulted in improved reliability.  These new locomotives became a mainstay of locomotive fleets across the country in general, not just within the Milwaukee Road stables. Pictured are Chicago Northwestern variants, still working hard in their third decade of service across a wintry Iowa landscape in the mid 90s.  Built on the same frame as the SD45, these locomotives have lengthy "porches" at either end.  The smaller, more efficient diesel engine allowed the shorter hood which remains not just an identifying feature, but also a small reminder of the times that produced them.

Today these SD40-2 locomotives are still found in various types of service though their numbers are falling.  Recent products from GE and Electro-Motive have added computer controls, advanced fuel delivery systems, and more horsepower without damaging the all important fuel consumption characteristics.  Many of these old locomotives now find themselves in slow speed yard service with reduced horsepower ratings.  It is a far cry from their early days when they were "the best."  Their goodbye continues after spanning the years from one energy crisis to another.

It wasn't just the railroads that experienced some motive power downsizing.  Automakers were faced with similar problems and the enormous American cars that were so popular through the 60s and early 70s began to shrink.  When Chevrolet introduced its new Impala sedan for 1977, it was truly small compared to the outgoing model.  As part of the times, Ford introduced a smaller "large" car in 1978 on the so-called Panther platform.  The Panthers would span decades, just like SD40-2.  The names  were varied, but the platform was a constant:  there was the Ford LTD which became the Crown Victoria.  Much of this sheetmetal was shared with the Mercury Grand Marquis.  Even Lincoln sold a Panther in the form of the Town Car.  Within the last few weeks, Panther production has wound down and the final Crown Victoria has rolled off the assembly line.  It has been an incredible run for a design that has spanned decades.  In the photo above, Panthers from various generations bask in the sun atop their full-length frames.

With the demise of the Panther, the U.S. no longer makes a rear wheel drive car mounted atop a full frame.  Although the design was developed during the previous energy crisis, the extra mass of the frame and overall size of the car make it difficult to meet ever tightening economy standards in this present crunch.  GM ceased production of its own body-on-frame passenger cars in 1996, leaving only the Fords as mainstays of police forces and cab companies everywhere.   Now even those are singing their own goodbye song and the days of smooth-riding American v8 passenger cars continue to fade.

These are ends of eras in many ways.  Things that were spawned in the 70s in response to the economic challenges of the times are giving away.  Time and ever increasing efficiency make locomotives like the SD40-2 or vehicles like the Crown Vic dinosaurs in a land filled with new options.  These products displaced famous faces when they debuted - from the quad headlight nose of the Little Joe, to the full size Caprice convertible, they replaced them.  Now these reminders of that previous time and previous generation are passing as well.  Their replacements carry names like Taurus or SD70ACE but it seems unlikely that these replacements will have the same staying power. 

The past few decades have seen two distinct energy crises, and spawned innumerable famous goodbyes.  Today we acknowledge just a couple more.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Historical Scars

At the peak of railroading in the United States, over 250,000 miles of track crossed the continent (source: ICC).  More than 180 Class 1 Railroads were operating by 1930 (AAR).  The next 80 years would see a dramatic reduction in these numbers, brought about through rationalization of duplicate lines, corporate mergers, and outside pressures like affordable air travel and the Interstate system.

Often left behind are remnants of these original companies and rail lines.  They exist in large cities and small towns alike.  Dearborn Station in Chicago still stands, but the multitude of railroads that used it daily are gone as are the tracks and station platforms.  Shops and a small park now take their place.  Countless abandoned grain elevators still dot small towns where tracks used to connect them.  A few still offer storage and service via trucking, but more are just silent hulks.  Large or small, these are relics of that railroading peak 80 years ago.

Between the towns and cities lie other remembrances:  the landscape scars.  They are a cut that still exists in the side of a hill, or tunnel that gapes darkly at the surroundings.  A small bridge over a little creek, or gravel atop a culvert.  Line side poles sometimes follow these scars along, although time has brought many down one way or another.  They are not always obvious - it's easy to quickly drive by these disturbances in the land without giving a second thought.  Many have also been tilled into surrounding fields or simply overcome by the vegetation that surrounds them.  Nature continually works to rework and reclaim.

The picture above is the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Coast Extension, just east of Rosalia, WA.  Here, the poles are in place and the cut in the side of the Palouse hill nicely marks the line traced out in the early 1900s.  Old tunnels and bridges abound nearby as the line sets its sights on the Bitterroot Range just to the east.   These are the historical scars that mark some part of the way things used to be.  Things weren't always better, but they were different.  From big city stations to cuts in the hillsides, they're good reminders of what went before.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Decades in the Making

The year is 2005 and a hot summer's day finds the photographer with Velvia slide film and an old Pentax camera pointed Railroad East.  The blues and greens that are captured by Fuji's high saturation  film disguise the 100 degree temperatures and hot breeze that reside in this western mountain valley.  To the left and right, the old Northern Pacific mainline to Northwest Coast enters and exits frame.  In 2005 the NP is home to the Montana Rail Link and its unique fleet of sd45s, a few remaining semaphore signals, and (as always) a close proximity to America's Resourceful Railroad.

This is Huson, MT.  Huson was located at milepost 1662.2 on the Milwaukee Road - just over 1660 miles from Chicago's Union Station.  The Milwaukee's mainline to the West Coast lies directly ahead of the camera and under foot in this 2005 photograph.  The feeder lines to the Milwaukee's network of substations and overhead DC power still mark the old right of way's northern edge, but the grade-level crossing with the NP is gone. 

In 1979, Wallace Abbey photographed this location from the back seat of a 1970s era Suburban hi-railer.  His trip began in Tacoma and journeyed east along Lines West.  The photograph below is just one of many that record the state of the Milwaukee Road main as the 1980 liquidation loomed.

More than a quarter century separate the views and much has changed, though the photos also show elements where time's influence has been less dramatic.  The mountains that form the backdrop show the same profiles and dry slopes.  The Montana blue skies are there, and even the nearby farm has many of the same buildings left in place.  Most obvious, though, are the AC power lines that mark the right of way and the old NP that still crosses the Pacific Coast Extension.  These two views of MP 1662.2 have been decades in the making. 

Special thanks to for use of this W. Abbey photo from their collection.   Both views are available online at their website with additional background and information: 2005  1979

Thursday, July 28, 2011

All the Romance of the American Railroads

The train was slowing down.  They slid past sidings full of empty freight cars bearing names from all over the States – ‘Lackawanna,’ ‘Chesapeake and Ohio,’ ‘Lehigh Valley,’ ‘Seaboard Fruit Express,’ and the lilting ‘Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’ -- names that held all the romance of the American railroads.
‘British Railways?’ thought Bond.  He sighed and turned his thoughts back to the present adventure.

From:  I. Fleming, Live and Let Die, 1955

It's been a long time since that unexpected piece of prose landed in the novel, Live and Let Die.  It was a romantic look at the American Railroad experience from an unexpected source, though its heartfelt poetry is undeniable.  It's easy to imagine yourself in Bond's place, rolling south along the Eastern Seaboard as those names that speak of far away places on 40 foot boxcars flick by outside.  Now, more than 55 years later, all of those names are consigned to the historical record.  In some bit of irony, the fictional character of James Bond has outlived them all.

Two pictures here show two distinctly different places and days but share the same story.  On a cold and sunny day in Bovill, ID the remnants of the Milwaukee Road's line into the forests of the Idaho Panhandle is remembered by a set of forlorn highway flashers.  The little town of Bovill itself feels tired and run down as well.  Milwaukee Road mallets used to ply the rails here, and passenger service extended from the mainline at St. Maries, serving the old logging communities.  For many years the rails to Bovill have been paved over, only recently have they been deactivated all the way from St. Maries South.

 On a blisteringly hot day, many miles removed from the cold winter winds of Bovill, an old passenger station stands in the small Kansan town of Bazine.  The side door is still clearly marked, and on the peak of the A-frame wall the old Santa Fe emblem is just legible.  A 100 degree wind howls about the old building and down the vacant streets of the small prairie town.  The main street is wide by today's standards but sized to turn the horse-drawn transportation of an era long ago.  Like Bovill, the best days are behind the small town and what's left recalls something that hasn't been seen in a long time.

The past decades have changed something.  It's something you can see in the empty towns that dot the big prairies of the west, or those forgotten logging towns of the Rocky Mountains.  It's seen in the abandoned railroad stations that cling to existence along rusty rails that used to glisten on blistering sunny days.  Where interurban lines once crisscrossed Midwestern corn fields, or where a casual rise in the ground still extends to the horizon line.  "All the romance of the American Railroads," on which Bond mused so long ago, is gone.  Although that is likely only a small piece of the overall puzzle that finds small towns vacant, jobs evaporated, and branch lines abandoned.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Significant Dates

The day was July 4th, the year was 1909.

The Milwaukee Road had been working on its Pacific Coast Extension since 1906 and by 1909 had finally achieved its goal:  the PCE was connected end to end.  On July 4th, regular freight service started across the West on the newest, and for America the final, transcontinental railroad.

The Milwaukee did its part to spurn a new round of western settlement.  Small towns were generated along the mainline and out along the branches as well.  This settlement and renewed interest in farming coincided with other parts of the country:  the prairie lands of Kansas and Oklahoma were experiencing above average rain falls and the price of wheat was increasing dramatically.  It is interesting to consider all of these events actually playing out at the same time across different parts of the country.  The booming economy would crash 20 years into the future, but in 1909, the West raced onward and upward.

The picture shows Choteau, a small farming town out on the Montana Golden Triangle.  In this 2007 picture, thoughts of an Independence Day 98 years in the past are hard to come by.  Still, the events of that day provide some foundation for the remnants at hand.  Many of the Milwaukee rails are in place through town and even a Milwaukee standard switch stand rests colorfully by the rails.  In times past, ribside boxcars would roll out of Choteau heading south and then east to Great Falls.  From Great Falls, it was a trip out across high coulee trestles and rolling grasslands to Lewistown, then south to the mainline at Harlowton.  Like the mainline, much of this feeder network is gone, even the existing remnants have been ravaged by floods and their future is uncertain.

July 4th marks a significant day in the life of America's Resourceful Railroad, but it is a harsh world where the things that were meant to last forever prove to be as transient as everything else.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lonely Branch in the Dustbowl

The vast spaces of the Great Plains are a barren and unforgiving landscape, but beautiful in their starkness and profound in their emptiness.  This photo of Southwest Kansas is Dustbowl territory, and on this particular day it feels like it:  sustained winds of 40mph and temperatures of 100 degrees.

Lost in this sea of emptiness is a lonely old branch of Santa Fe origin.  It is a thin ribbon that still plies these great plains, connecting what is left of the small towns beneath hot and endless skies.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Calling at Butte

Some have offered the roaring 20s as the "Golden Age" of U.S. passenger rail.  The famous named trains that were born from this general era are numerous and memorable.  The 20th Century Limited, the Broadway Limited, the Phoebe Snow, the Chief, and Golden State Limited are only a few of these famous trains that arrived during the first quarter of the twentieth century.  Long forgotten are the innumerable unnamed trains that existed only as numbers, but branched out from the country's main lines and connected the small towns and places scattered off the beaten paths.  Many of these were mixed freights, comprised of only a passenger car or two and freight cars that were switched at the small towns along the way.  At its peak during WWII, the U.S. passenger train network accounted for 90 billion passenger miles.  

Like the other railroads across the United States, The Milwaukee Road took an active roll in passenger railroading's golden age.  Grand stations were built across the Pacific Coast Extension.  These included towered and ornate stations at Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls in addition to the numerous smaller wooden stations built in the new towns now linked in to the great U.S. rail system.    The original station at Butte is still located downtown, a proud structure that recalls those days of travel by rail.  It was designed as a "stub-end" station.  Instead of being located directly on the mainline, it was served by a "Y" that split from the main and terminated at the station.  This required passenger trains like the Olympian and Columbian to come off the main and back into the station where they were serviced.  

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, passenger rail declined in use and route miles.  Roads improved, vehicles became more accessible to a growing middle class, and air travel cut time dramatically on long distance trips.  Thousands of stations were abandoned, and countless trains were lost forever.  The vast passenger infrastructure system that defined American travel during the first half of the century was wiped out.  Milwaukee Road passenger trains were no exception.  The final run of the Olympian to the West Coast was in 1961 when its terminus was cut back to Deer Lodge.  Another casualty of the times was Butte's unique stub-end station.  To save time and cost, a smaller station was constructed directly on the mainline.  The final passenger trains operating on Lines West would call here, at this second station.  Its construction reflected the times and the money available to continue passenger services.  The cache of large ornate entrances to American cities was gone, and the cost to maintain and operate them was not lost on the railroads of the time.  Today both stations still stand in Butte and point to two very different times in U.S. rail travel.  Not far from either, Interstate 90 roars by as the modern replacement for both.

Friday, May 13, 2011

End of the Line

To the west, the tops of the Rocky Mountains peak above the end of prairie land in Big Sky Country.  Not far from here, a parade of RVs and sightseers make their way to Glacier National Park, nestled in beautiful mountain wilderness.  That was Great Northern territory.  For the Milwaukee Road, the end of the line in Montana was here - at Agawam.

The Golden Triangle area of Montana was one of the most lucrative on-line revenue producers for Lines West.  Fleets of Ribside boxcars and Federal Yellow hoppers rolled from these plains to the mainline at Harlowton.  At Agawam, two elevators still mark this end of track.  Grasses grow thick among the ruins here, as cars old enough to remember days of orange and black plying light rail rest beside them.  There are a few places out along the haunts of the Milwaukee Road where visitors can see time - and Agawam is one of them.

Many have marveled at the beauty of God's creation in the Rocky Mountains just to the west.  Today Glacier continues to be a popular stop, and for good reason.  But these wide plains and big skies that surround Milwaukee's old end of the line - somehow seem just as amazing, and just as breathtaking in their own distinct way.  On a day when the grasses rustle in a summer breeze it is the still, small voice that calls.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Guts and Hustle Muscle in Montana

It's been a few years now, but there was a time not so long ago when solid sets of 20 cylinder diesel locomotives could be found pouring their guts out doing what they always did best.  Even further back than that, these beasts could be found on railroads across the entire U.S.  When these pictures were taken the year was 2005 and there were but a few remaining daily users.  The SD-45 (and its close relative, the F45) was quite a machine, and Montana Rail Link used them as they were always intended, even in their fifth decade of service.  

"Hustle Muscle" was the nickname applied to first SD-45, owned by the Great Northern.  Other nicknames have included flare-45 because of the unique flared radiators at the rear of the unit.  These flared radiators were necessary to provide the extra cooling capacity for the large 20-cylinder diesel that EMD installed under the long hood.  The 20 cylinder diesel made only a brief appearance in the EMD lineup and sales of the 45 series locomotive lasted from 1965 to 1975.  The SD-45 itself bowed in 1971.

In 2005, the Montana Rail Link began replacing many of these old 45s with new locomotives from EMD.  But in the summer of 2005, sets of 45s still roamed freely along the former NP tracks in Montana and Idaho.  I set out to photograph some of these big units at work, and found them to be as impressive in 2005 as they must have been in 1965.  Standing trackside on Bozeman pass, the 20 cylinder diesel engines gave a deep, chest pounding feel as they pushed loaded coal trains to the summit at 10 mph.  This was pure mountain railroading, from the era of the muscle car.

Today's MRL still attacks the grades laid down by the NP as it made its way across the Rockies to the West Coast - but the solid sets of SD45 helpers are gone.  In their place a new "flare" has filled in, but like many things, the new version doesn't seem to have that same old-time panache.  

The new 4300Hp locomotive uses the extra capacity of flared radiators to keep temperatures in the 16-cylinder diesel lower for reduced pollutant formation.  That, of course, was never a consideration in 1965.  Fuel efficiency was another point where the 20 cylinder 45s lagged.  Indeed, their production ceased with the coming of the 1970s fuel crisis.  What's interesting on both counts, however, is that both the original 20 cylinder SD-45 and its replacement, the 16-cylinder SD70AcE lack the brute power of the 5000 Hp Little Joe.  Now that was Hustle Muscle.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The pages of many books are filled with images of America's final Transcontinental railroad.  They show high mountains and electric locomotives from the West, or perhaps vast corn fields and grain trains from the Midwest.  Streamlined Hiawathas that were photographed at speed through Wisconsin countryside are reproduced faithfully.  Little Joes engaged in an assault on the Bitterroots show the grittiness of a heavy mountain railroad as sand flies from around the running gear.  Wherever the locale or whatever the subject, most of the images recall a Milwaukee Road that doesn't look anything like this:  the Badlands.

The Badlands are a harsh environment.  Filled with dry sage and dry hills, these inhabit eastern Montana as part of the Milwaukee's journey west.  Shown in the above photo, the Resourceful Road crosses the Yellowstone River at Kamm, MT into a big sky beset with the pastel colors of a dipping summer sun.  Soon the cool of night will engulf the badlands and the scorched earth will yield its heat back into the night sky.

Like other forgotten places on the transcon, there were few who journeyed with the Milwaukee to this remote river crossing.  Ahead, beyond the large bridge, lie the more famous Milwaukee haunts and electrified Rocky Mountain Division.  Behind, the path back to the corn belt of the Midwest.  On this evening the bridge stands as an imposing reminder of what was and the grand scale of that vision.  The bridge is seemingly ready and able to host a Dead Freight or XL Special at any moment should the need arise.  But as it has for more than 30 years, time will again slip by and another night will fall away silently without the rumble of large locomotives.  The next night will as well.  Only the occasional rancher will pass this way, or perhaps a fisherman looking to drop a line into the Yellowstone.  Silence is a constant companion of Lines West.  The Badlands amplify it to a full crescendo.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Least Time

March 9 is an important date in Milwaukee Road history.  In 1908 on this date the first train arrived in Harlowton, MT from the East.  Harlowton would become a small town of major importance to the Milwaukee, and Central Montana as well.

Here at Harlowton, the Milwaukee would construct a large yard and engine facility.  The line to the Golden Triangle would originate from the east-west main here at Harlowton, providing the outlet for wheat crops to reach far away markets.  Other shipments from the areas north of Harlowton worked their way south as well including oil from the Lewistown area.   Harlowton was also the beginning of the Rocky Mountain Division for trains heading west.  Here in the big yards, the famous electric locomotives that defined the Milwaukee's Mountain operation for decades would be swapped in and out.  March 1908 marked the beginning.  In a bit of irony, March 1980 marked the end of the Milwaukee's operations across the west.  The last train headed east through Harlowton and scrappers soon followed, pulling rail.

It has been 103 years since the Milwaukee first rolled into the small town of Harlowton, 31 since it left.  I find myself reflecting on these passages of time more and more as I get older.  As a friend of mine recently observed, time becomes the thing that is most valuable because it is so easily syphoned and committed away every day.  The push of life and the frenzy of the days ensure this.  At the same time, our memories of special times or special places grow more fond and more meaningful by comparison.  Even the photo above is aging:  the scene reflects the Harlowton depot as it existed on a hot summer day in 2003.  The yard tracks are long lifted and the roundhouse is dilapidated.  I had time to pursue the old railroad then, but didn't appreciate the significance of it at the time.  Now, only as the years continue to mount, do I realize the gift that times like that are.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Heat of the Day

Milwaukee memories abound in this photograph of a hot summer day in St. Maries, ID.  Two GPs that trace their lineage back to days of orange and black stand ready to haul empty log cars to the reload.  The log cars themselves can trace their heritage back to the Milwaukee.  Even one of switchstands among the many yard tracks still bears the chevron markings of its former owner.  Pictured here is the St. Maries Railroad in its final summer as a log hauler, 2009.  It's a hot day, and the rising heat is captured through the lens of a big telephoto.  The final image is distorted, but says "summer time" just as clearly as the smell of creosote. 

Though the St. Maries RR remains in place to haul wood products from producers in St. Maries to the Union Pacific connection at Plummer Junction, the days of ancient log cars traversing the Elk River Branch are over.  The flats have been torched, and the line south of St. Maries is quiet but for the continuous sounds of the nearby river it closely paralleled. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Big Sky Blues

Out on the Montana plains, near places with names like "Straw" is the Milwaukee Road's old line to the Golden Triangle:  one of the country's breadbaskets.

The Milwaukee Road plotted two mainlines across Montana.  The first, the main through Harlowton, Three Forks and Butte.  This would be the east-west transcon where the Little Joes roamed.  There was a second mainline considered by the Milwaukee as well, a northern route through Lewistown and Great Falls.  The line between those two cities was built and operated throughout the life of the Milwaukee Road as a critical feeder to the main artery at Harlowton.  The full vision of this second main was never realized, although the line was surveyed out across the Rocky Mountains.  Two large stations were built on this secondary main that symbolized the importance of the line, although in some sense, an importance not realized in the original sense.  Today the two large stations stand at Great Falls and Lewistown.  The depot at Great Falls is one of Montana's iconic stations with a beautiful tower similar to those at Butte or Missoula.

Although never realized as a true second main, these "Northern Montana Lines" were connected to the real mainline by a north-south run that originated at Harlowton and ended at Lewistown.  On its way north, it found one of the Milwaukee's competitors in the form of the GN at Judith Gap.  While the Milwaukee's mainline through Montana was never far from the Northern Pacific, it seems its Northern Montana Lines were never far from the GN.  Today, the Milwaukee's lines to the Golden Triangle wheat country continue to fade - but the GN is in place and used by BNSF to haul unit grain trains from this lush wheat country.  The lack of competition following the Milwaukee's exit has been a story of politics.  Montana has repeatedly lamented the high shipping rates charged by BNSF for the grain that is taken from this country, and arbitration of these seems ongoing (source:

Evidence of the lasting BNSF monopoly is clear near Judith Gap where the GN flyover is still in place.  Beneath the bridge is the old Milwaukee feeder line, connecting the abandoned transcontinental line with the old Northern Montana Lines that fanned out into the wheat country.  Federal Yellow hoppers roamed here once, kept company by the Milwaukee's fleet of aged ribside boxcars and unique locomotive power.  Today, the BNSF runs overhead beneath the big skies and deep blues and remains the final player in the vast wheat country of the Golden Triangle.  Here, as in other places across the West, the loss of the Milwaukee Road is deep and lasting.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Under Wire in the Emerald City

In 1911 a new station opened in Seattle - not so far away from the current King Street Station.  Actually, it was just across the street.  The main concourse was truly grand and reflected the importance of the railroads at the time.  Union Station (as it came to be known after some initial confusion) is today one of the fine examples of historical preservation.  The original tenants, the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road, are long vacated but the building stands ornate and proud as it did 100 years ago when passenger trains were called "Varnish" and heavy-weight Pullmans were the preferred mode of luxury travel.

Today, Union Station is the hub for Sound Transit and travelers can descend below ground to catch the bus or light-rail from this historic building just as  travelers from times past.  The difference in decades is unmistakable, however.  Today's long distance travelers board the light rail bound for the SEA-TAC International Airport, not the Armour Yellow of departing Union Pacific or Milwaukee Road passenger trains.  Inside on the main level, painted names above open doors still advertise the Women's Waiting Room or Men's Toilet and Barber Shop but these amenities are long vanished from the old station.  The era of the highly polished and well-dressed traveler are seemingly over.  Travel has changed and become more accessible to all, while at the same time, entering into an era of TSA body scanners.

It is interesting to consider Union Station and its undergrounds.  In days past, travelers entered on street level, but departed on Olympians from sub-ground platforms.  The Vintage Seattle Blog has a very nice post card of a departing Olympian on the sub-level.  The close relation of the two Seattle depots is obvious.

Look carefully in the post card:  the overhead catenary is visible above the waiting Olympian Hiawatha.  This electrified Olympian must have been one of America's truly unique travel experiences.  Certainly the lands it traversed seem unequaled, and the line it traversed was one of a kind.

The Milwaukee Road's final runs from Union Station were in 1961 and by that time the Bi-Polars were replaced with E-units from General Motors.  For the next 10 years, the Union Pacific would utilize the station until the coming of Amtrak when all passenger trains into the Seattle downtown were relocated across the street.  A massive refurbishing and rebuilding of Union Station was completed in 1999, formally saving the Great Hall for the future in the glory of the past.  Beneath the surface, another nod to the past exists:  the electrified light rail, where passengers can still depart the Emerald City under wire.