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:  progressiverailroading.com).

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.