Showing posts from 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 everyt…

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…

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 y…

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…

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…

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 o…

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, b…

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 …

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 …

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.

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 acr…

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 continu…

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 l…


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 s…

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 th…

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 ri…

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 de…

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 depar…