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.