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.