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.