Sunday, December 23, 2012

Elevators and Gateways

December 19 has recently past, another day of the year that has come and gone as quickly as all the others.  It marks a significant day for the Milwaukee Road, however.  On December 19, the Road filed for its final bankruptcy, just before the holidays in 1977.  35 years ago now.  Just like the days, the years seem to slip by too quickly as well.

This is Ryegate, MT - 1306 miles from Chicago's Union Station.  Throughout the past year the wanderings posted on this blog have slowly moved across the state of Montana from Terry, at MP 1080, to the small little town of Ryegate.  Elevator row still stands here, and it's not hard to imagine a mainline of heavy rail running through the grasses that lie just to their north.  The picture looks west toward the next division on the Milwaukee's Lines West: the Rocky Mountain Division.  The next Milwaukee stop made on these pages will be Harlowton itself where the famous electric locomotives roamed.

Extensive attention has always been lavished upon the Rocky Mountain Division, and rightly so.  By contrast, however, the part of the country through which we've been travelling went relatively unnoticed.  It's a quiet country out here with beautiful skies and wonderful flat lands that traverse the horizons.  These lands east of Harlowton have amazing histories in their own right, and the scars left by the Milwaukee Road are no less fascinating nor tragic.

Harlowton itself is a natural point to break away from our travels west for just a brief period.  Until we arrive back on Milwaukee right of way, enjoy the pictures and stories of other lines and other times.  Harlowton will be right where it should be when we get back to the Resourceful Road's pacific extension.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Old Time Elegance


On November 28, 1905 the Milwaukee Road Board of Directors approved the the Pacific Extension to the West.  98 years later, a hot summer day finds Lavina, MT situated 1290 miles from Chicago out along the approved extension.

The remnants of that extension remain scattered on the ground at Lavina as the concrete signal base attests.  But like the other miles and miles of this reach west, the grasses have overtaken and now blow gently in the breezes of a hot summer afternoon.  No smell of baking creosote or hot ballast on this summer day.  This little town is actually "New" Lavina after being moved to the present location when surveyors for the Milwaukee Road plotted the mainline through this part of Montana [1].  The old town and its stage coach stop were left behind to welcome the station calls of trains traversing the Pacific Coast Extension.

In the background of the Milwaukee's mainline rests The Adams Hotel, an interesting story in itself.  Built as a center of elegance and social activity, it has spanned the decades from 1908 to present.  Like much of the newly settled West, the first few years were good but the droughts and depressions of the 1930s ended its run of elegance.  Over the years it served various purposes with restoration starting just prior to this photo taken in 2003.

The big school house of Vananda and The Adams Hotel both tell the story of the railroad's importance  to the communities it created and served.  It brought hope and played the part of a bright promise for tomorrow.  Today Lavina has a population of 182 and joins the many other quiet and small places left behind when the Resourceful Railroad left town.


1) http://www.co.golden-valley.mt.us/html/lavina.html

Saturday, November 17, 2012

They Return Once Again


2189:  The miles from Chicago's Union Station to Seattle, WA.  At one time, 656 of them electrified and served by two transcontinental passenger trains, the Olympian and the Columbian.  In 1948 The Columbian, train 18, departed Seattle at 22:30 every evening and arrived in Chicago at 8:45am, the morning of the third day.  The Olympian Hiawatha operated on a more limited schedule and completed the same traverse in only 45 hours [1].  Between the two end points of the line were 5 mountain ranges, two sections of electrification, and ever changing geography.  Leaving for the big eastern cities, the trains traversed the the sub-tropical rain forests of the Cascades where precipitation amounts climb toward 100 inches per year [2].  Then to the rain shadows of the Central Washington desert where small outcroppings of people had settled when the new rail line built west.  The Palouse and the Bitterroots followed and were chased by the Rockies of Central Montana and the rain shadow that lies to their east.  Then the wheat fields of the Montana plains, the Badlands, and the Dakotas where the land rolls between the rivers that meander across the great plains.

Leaving Seattle at 22:30, the eastbound Columbian received passengers at the small outpost of Corfu at 3:50a.  By the time the timetables here were published in 1948, Corfu had been reduced to a station without agent, but the images from the first days are stunning.  The track is ever straight and evidence of new construction is everywhere.  Our friends at Big Bend Railroad History have offered several of these early twentieth century images over the past months.

These haunting photos show a beginning.  They show the beginning of the Resourceful Road itself and the culmination of the Lines West dream.    To the passengers who roll by on the eastbound passenger trains, it is the beginning of a passage of thousands of miles and multiple days.  The outpost of Corfu, situated in the midst of a nighttime desert, flips by outside the window with probably little thought; another small town and another stop for the "unlimited" Columbian.  In the electrified years, the locomotives would switch at Othello and provide a far more interesting service stop and chance for a "leg stretch" anyway.  Still, to little towns like Corfu, the Columbian was the lifeline to the outside world.

Further east along this lifeline, the Columbian would call at large and small towns alike.  Missoula, Butte, and Harlowton to name a few.  The little town of Roundup was scheduled for 2:16a, a full 735 miles to the east.  Unlike the pictures of the new Corfu, these pictures of Roundup show the end.  The passenger trains that are seen rolling through Washington desert have long ago called at Roundup and arrived at Chicago.  The dream of Lines West  that is shown in one hundred year old Corfu images survives today as a fading shadow in the points of call like Roundup.  The depot is used for utility work while, hidden in the tall grasses, old signal bases show no aspect to east bound passenger trains and travelers.  Just like the trains themselves, these completed their journey long ago.

In different times, it was possible to stand on the platforms of the newly constructed Corfu station, board the Columbian heading east, and arrive in Roundup for the cattle drives that gave the community its name.  Now Cofu is dust, and Roundup serves as a quiet reminder of the way all things must return once again.  At Roundup, 2:16 in the morn comes again and again with no hiss of air brakes, no whirl of a/c fans, and no Columbian that calls.

"What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?  One genration passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.  The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose.  The wind goes toward the south, And turns around to the north; The wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit.  All the rivers run into the sea, Yet the sea is not full; To the place from which the rivers come, There they return again."  Ecclesiastes 1: 3-7





[1] Amtrak's Empire Builder traverses Seattle to Chicago in 46 hrs.
[2]http://www.theweatherprediction.com/weatherpapers/118/index.html


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pieces of a Story


 Just about 1265 miles from the bustling Union Station, Chicago the middle of Montana reveals a few more pieces of a story.  This is Roundup, a town named for yearly cattle roundups from the surrounding ranch lands. 

The Miles City Mercantile outpost still stands in Roundup.  Like so much old industry, the Mercantile was built to last and stands straight and level throughout.  The company was founded in 1916, soon after the Milwaukee traversed these parts.  As a company, its present status is listed as 'inactive' but  memories from a few employees interviewed over the years shed a bit of light on the old company and its breadth [1].  The mercantile had locations in many of the Milwaukee towns that dotted the Central Montana plains.  Towns like Winnett,  Grass Range, Roundup and others.  The times were different: where wild grasses grow today, boxcars were spotted on steel rails that represented a figurative and literal unbroken connection sea to sea.  "Men of the road" were hobos that stood on the back platforms looking for dented cans and other handouts from gracious employees. 
 

Other old industry stands by in Roundup as well.  The once ubiquitous wooden grain elevator is disappearing across the West and Midwest - but a few ghosts like the one above still stand looking out across the land they have scoured for decades.  The gaping windows, broken ladders, and missing rails all speak to the same story and provide their own chapters to to this tale of what happened those many years ago.  It's a story that's as seemingly large as the state through which we currently traverse, with players that extend well beyond the old railroad itself.

[1]  Roundup Record-Tribune & Winnett Times - Jul 26, 2006

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Musselshell Graveyard


Slowly, ever so slowly, the dry and harsh plains of eastern Montana begin to yield  to a new land that will soon reveal itself to westbound travelers.  The Musselshell river makes its appearance rolling west - and the cuts that it has made in the landscape introduce a rockiness that was missing through the plains of Ingomar and Vananda.

The journey west has been filled with the solemn feeling of an industrial graveyard.  It is a feeling of a missing 'hustle' or purpose that seems so close, and at the same time, so distant from the present.  Time continues to erode this graveyard in real and figurative ways.  Through the summer of 2011 massive rains to this part of Montana did heavy damage to the old Resourceful Railroad.  Bridges are missing and fills are washed away.  Further north along the Milwaukee's wheat lines to the Golden Triangle, the large trestle over the Judith River now lists across the center spans.  Its foundations have eroded and it awaits funding for repair that will likely never come.

In times past, teams of railroad men and machinery would have quickly bolstered the eroding fills and buttressed the bridges that served as the lifeline to the transcon.  Fresh ballast would now be in place, and a year later, slow orders lifted as freight from the Pacific Rim journeys east to the big markets of the Midwest and East Coast.  The stark, stark contrast between those "what ifs" and the present reality make the Musselshell graveyard a gloomy place indeed.  There are a few places where it seems rails could simply be relaid, sadly this is no longer among them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Living in the Promised Land

The long, sweeping curve into Ingomar, MT highlights the Milwaukee Road's entrance into this small town out on the Montana plains.  The photo above looks east, back toward the places and spaces already traveled, and to those beyond the start of abandonment at Terry.  Ingomar itself is one of the few survivors that exists out along an old US highway and this abandoned transcon.  The streets are gravel and the shops few but nonetheless, Ingomar holds on.
Ingomar was one of the towns plotted by the railroad as it headed west in 1908.  As with many of the other small towns plotted by the Milwaukee Road, it was to serve as a hub for the local settlers and an access point to the railroad's growing empire that stretched to the east and west.  Looking south along the main street, the US flag still flies high on this hot summer day in 2003.  It marks the Jersey Lilly - one of the local watering holes left over from a time of grander intents.
The station still stands at Ingomar as a converted residence and is still lined closely to the old mainline that strikes through the north side of town.  Also left behind is an old Milwaukee tender, likely from an S2 Northern steam locomotive.  The classy white stripping and outline of the tilted emblem are clearly visible as the relic sits in the weeds just off the main.  The story goes that water was supplied to the town by the Milwaukee Road when potable water could not be found [1].  Although no longer in use today, it stands as an unexpected and haunting reminder of the steel machines that used to traverse these promised lands. 


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Losing the Fight

Location:  Vananda, MT
MP:  1181.5 Miles from Chicago

The same hot summer day that has accompanied the journey west continues at Vananda, MT.  Here, there are two things that bear witness to the old town - the house above and an impressive brick school just out of photo to the left.  The dry weather of Central Montana has aided in keeping them  standing but it's clear they are losing the fight.  Also out of picture and behind the camera is the Milwaukee's right of way through Vananda.  Of course the Milwaukee lost the fight many years ago and has hastened the demise of places like Vananda ever since.

Is it a long road to obscurity or a simple, straight path? The Milwaukee existed out on these plains for almost 70 years, a lifetime.  Its building ignited a new interest in railroads and a final run of settlers out onto these great expanses of grassland.  What would follow were hard times.  The drought of the 1930s, the Dust Bowl, and the collapse of institutions across the nation represent what author Timothy Egan titled, "The Worst Hard Time."  Though the dust bowl of Kansas and Oaklahoma didn't quite reach the plains here, the hardships of the time did.

By the early 1980s, the railroad and small towns like Vananda had seen two World Wars, several conflicts and economic downturns, and were weathering the realities of an energy crisis and another malaise economy.  In the end, the Milwaukee's 70 years seems like a long time - until those years become a lifetime and the road to obscurity reveals itself as being all too short.  In some ways the quiet that is out on these plains, nearly 1200 miles from a bustling Chicago Union Station, is a peacefulness that marks defeat.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Walking in Old Ways

"Stand in the ways and see, And ask for the old paths, where the good way is, And walk in it" Jerimiah 6:16

On August 12, 1978 the Milwaukee Board of Directors announced their intent to abandon the Pacific Coast Extension. The final abandonment would come after an initial embargo in 1979, a brief reprieve, and then a final shutdown in 1980. Moving west only slightly from the previous photo brings us to the high summer sun of a 2003 day, 25 years after that regrettable announcement. US 12 has been working west with the old mainline since leaving Forsyth and the sun is climbing higher into the skies, yielding unfriendly lighting and harsh pictures of this old way west.

The small girder bridge that still links east and west in this photo is all part of a line that looks as though rails could simply be relaid and trains could run in a matter of weeks. It's interesting to compare this thought to the numbers being thrown around by states like California and companies like Amtrak to develop high speed rail (HSR). The line pictured above was well used for passenger travel in times past (and it wasn't so slow). The Milwaukee operated varnish like the Olympian here. Pulled by locomotives like the 4-6-4 "Baltics" that held the point directly from the Twin Cities straight through to Harlowton. It was the longest continuous run for an equipment set in the U.S. at the time. Right here on this little girder bridge that still stands as a connection point for the path of old.

Despite the harsh colors and sub-prime time of day for photography, the above photo remains a personal favorite. I think the simplicity of the bridge, locked in place for decades past and decades to come, strikes an interesting tone.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Day from Night

The separation of light from dark is a daily event, marking the beginning and end of  daylight hours and the transition into the darkness of night.  The two never truly cross paths, but transition with the entry and exit of the sun into the skies overhead.  Days full of sunshine seem to instill some bit of hope, especially after long periods of rain or unbroken cloud.  By contrast, nights seem unshakably dark.  The moon occasionally rides high and illuminates the landscape in eerie blue shadows, but for the most part, nights are dark -- an uncomfortable thing compared to the light that chases it away.

So fundamental is this balance and our appreciation of light our vernacular includes expressions like, "dawning of a new day" or "age."  And despite the presence of darkness for half of a 24 hour period, we yet refer to these as a day. 

It is also true, however, that not all dawns bring with them hope no matter how brightly the sun shines.  These are days when a "John Wayne Moment" never happens.  These are stories where the night settles and refuses to leave, forever separating itself from the hopeful dawn of something new and better.  The trek west along the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Extension continually brings to mind one of these darker stories.  Near MP 1175 the right of way is still discernible as a gentle rise in the ground. Time has made it difficult to see, but it still rolls by in the distance behind the large tree.  The gentle curve of the right of way here belies the original design of the railroad and its  transcontinental purposes.  On this day, the grasses cover it well in warm Montana sun while they gently sway in the breezes that traverse these plains. 

Despite these warm summer tidings, night has settled here and does not relinquish her grip.  The promise of sunrise and a new day for the old railroad seems distant and forgotten.  The John Wayne Moment never happened and daylight has seemingly fled.  The quiet that has replaced the things that were is only one of many cues that we journey westward in an unending night.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In the Shadows of the NP

 Location: MP 1164    Forsyth, MT 

With the exception of just a little rail left within the limits of Miles City, the journey west has been marked with dirt.  Often simply a rise in the ground, or a brace of tire tracks like those here on the north shore of Yellowstone River.  Across the river is Forsyth, MT, but it is here on the relatively quiet north shore the remnants of the Milwaukee have left the now recognizable and sprawling signature.

The linked map reveals the situation well:  Forsyth.  The city is nestled nicely south of the river with I-94 running in close proximity.  Also present are the significant yards of the old NP, still in use today.  The Milwaukee's travels west were never far removed from the NP, at least through the western states.  From the current end of track at Terry to Forsyth, they are particularly close, often within earshot of one another.  Forsyth, however, marks the beginning of the Milwaukee's more northerly trip into central Montana while the NP remains to the south.  US12 joins the old right of way here at Forsyth as well and will be a constant companion until the Resourceful Railroad again turns slightly south toward Three Forks and the crossing of the Rocky Mountains.

The comparison between the Milwaukee and NP (later BN) is an interesting one.  The NP was first to achieve a link to the Northwest and its route reflects that.  The largest cities are typically located along its right of way.  The later entries to the Northwest (the GN and Milwaukee) hit notably fewer population centers compared to the NP.  Forsyth is just one example of many.  From its inception to its execution, the Milwaukee Road was engineered to be a fast, direct line to the west.  In some cases this meant a more isolated route, however, the Milwaukee proved capable of generating profit.  It is a common misconception that this design and the operation of Lines West was the anchor that sank the company.  As has been previously reported here as well as other places, the ICC found alarming accounting errors that attributed losses to the western lines [1].  In fact, these lines were profitable in the final years of the railroad.  Following recalculation by the ICC, Lines West contributed $12.7, $11, and $2.9M in profits to the company through the years of 1976-78.  Notably well into the traffic decline and bankruptcy of 1977 [1]. 


To pursue that history and line of thought is to open an investigation into a murky past and poor management.  Conspiracy theories abound in those waters.  Regardless, on the north shore of the Yellowstone River those old decisions seem incredible and sad.  Now US12 is beckoning to push west where the shadows of the NP will be left behind, at least for a few miles. 


Source:
1) Jones, T.  Milwaukee Road in the 70's: What really happened?
link:  www.trainweb.org/milwaukee/article.html

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Voice that Calls

Location:  West of Sheffield, MT
MP 1142

There are so many ways to look backwards through the lens of time.  As I write this in 2012, I look back through almost ten years to this small point out on the big plains of Montana.  The year was 2003 and there was a voice that had called me out here, to pursue something bigger than myself.  Perhaps it is strange, but the Lord has always been quite willing to speak and walk with me through history and trains. 

As I stood here in 2003, the look backwards was to 1980 when some of the last trains rolled this way.    The world was a different place then, back when the trestle piers that peak just above the tall grasses supported America's final transcontinental.  Or perhaps the look back went even further to the early 60s when the last passenger trains bound for Seattle passed this way.  Today's Empire Builder captures some of the feel of the Montana Plains at speed, but I can only imagine that the Hiawathas and Columbians were an experience all their own.  In prior lifetimes, I have laid awake at night aboard the darkened Superliners of the Builder, staring out at the thick darkness of lonesome prairie surrounding the train.  Or I have marveled at the broad expanse of grasslands under a high afternoon sun from a lounge car making time along well maintained BN main.  That other travelers have done the same here, near MP 1142, atop missing trestles and overgrown mainline adds depths to the remains. 

Soon enough, the journey west will put us under wire at Harlowton and in the shadows of famous Little Joe Electrics or Boxcabs.  The mountains and tunnels lie ahead but for now we are surrounded by big sky blues and a haunting voice calling travelers like you and I to stop and listen.  The journey west continues.
 
"... that voice which called thee at first, shall call thee yet again" --C. Spurgeon

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Forgotten Memory


In the rustling tall grasses of Montana prairie the trek west continues.  The civilization of Miles City, with its offices, restaurants, and Wal-marts, briefly blotted out the empty feelings of this land - but here near MP 1140, the expanse is inescapable.  In different times, this was a place named Sheffield, but like so many other locations across the Milwaukee's West, it is now more a name with no place. 

The old corrals here certainly date back to Milwaukee times.  Feed pens and loading ramps still dot the site but it's not hard to see the general decay of decades.  In the West, some elements of the Milwaukee are simply gone, but others paint a picture larger than that of the railroad itself.  Here, the reflection painted is one of a changed culture and changed economy as well as the vanished transcon.  Like a forgotten memory that tugs at the mind but will not rise to the surface, the days of cattle by rail exist only in places like these.  The grasses are tall and the wood is old.  There's the sound of an old chain hitting a post, clanking in the soft wind.  Years ago at the end of a business day the gates were closed and the people walked away.  But like the old railroad that plied these parts, there would be no next time.  Days grow to months and then to years with the tall prairie grasses gradually taking back and obscuring the past. 


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Division Points

Like its name suggests, the Trans Missouri Division of the Pacific Coast Extension crosses much of the territory defined by the large, meandering river.  1118 miles from Chicago, the Resourceful Railroad enters Miles City, MT.  In better times, it was the location of division offices with large yard and maintenance complex - the first encountered out along the PCE.  In other times, it was the original start point for the Lines West embargo of 1980.  Never far away in these parts of the plains is the old NP, the first line to strike out for the Northwest Coast.  It is still active today and lends the sounds of diesel prime movers and whistles to the local community despite the Milwaukee's lasting absence.  Below, west bound coal rolls through the eastern edge of Miles City behind a quartet of EMD products that reveal the continually changing landscape of railroading in general.


 Years ago, machinists and blacksmiths worked here in Miles City, rebuilding and maintaining the Road's fleet of coal powered steamers. Today, the yards that once sponsored these Milwaukee crews and switchers now host more modern cars bound for maintenance in the old complex.  In the 2003 picture below, early morning light glows off the sides of old rails and tank cars near the dark outline of  Milwaukee era servicing facilities.  Today the shops are owned by Transco, but can trace their history back to Trinity Rail as the sign attests.  Even the outline of the old Roundhouse is still clearly viewed, courtesy of the Transco Website.



Across the Milwaukee's West, few things were done in a small way.  Even today, 30+ years after the 1980 embargo that marked the end, the large presence of the line reminds us of what was there before.  On this sunny summer morning, the skies are a high blue and just as in years past, the shop switcher begins making its rounds.  Rail cars will be shuffled and reworked, then bound for the NP connection at the east end of town.  Unlike times of the Milwaukee Road, however, there will be no through freights calling at the yards.  The days of 500 mile inspections at Miles City are over.  There will be no first or second section of the Thunderhawk or XL Special, and there will certainly be no trains calling at the station just west of the yards.  Although tracks remain here in this little piece of the empire, they end just west of town, swallowed by prairies and big sky where the journey west continues.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sunset on the Badlands

The journey west continues as setting sun puts a finishing touch on this day in Eastern Montana.  The journey west began near Terry, MT at MP 1080 on the Pacific Coast Extension (PCE).  Now, near MP 1105, the ball is dropping, and what had been the heat of the badlands will quickly turn to a desert cool.


The Yellowstone River has been crossed once by the time trains made their way to this location.  A second crossing at Calypso (MP 1108) lies ahead before arrival at the Division Point of Miles City. 


It is impossible to escape the enormity of things out along the old PCE.  The line runs across incredible distances of vast emptiness and the Badlands only magnify that reality.  Passing through the Yellowstone crossings emphasizes something else as well:  the enormity of what was removed so many years ago.  This was not a small back-woods logging road, or a grain line rolling through Iowa countryside.  Everything the Milwaukee did here was big and intended to last.  Though Superdomes and Columbians are relegated to photographs older than these, the railroad and its inspiring vision still dwarf travelers who pass this way. 

Friday, March 02, 2012

Scars of an Embargo

March 1, 1980:  Milwaukee's Pacific Extension embargo approved by the ICC

"On  February  25,   1980,   the   court   authorized a third embargo request by the trustee.  The Milwaukee ceased operations over a large portion of its lines (including the northern tier mainline and appurtenant trackage west of a point near Missoula, MT) effective March 1, 1980."  From "Interstate Commerce Commission Reports, CMST&P Reorganization, Docket 28640)

In the aftermath of the embargo, the scrappers would come and operations not considered as part of the new Milwaukee "Core" would be terminated.  Across the Milwaukee's West the remains of these actions are still seen, and the effects are far reaching.  Ghost towns dot the landscape, and conditions persist that promote monopoly.  There has been a legacy associated with the Milwaukee's collapse and it is not one of renewal and prosperity.

The trip west along the Milwaukee continues in the above picture, taken near Kamm, MT in 2003.  The former Northern Pacific is nearby with howling SD70s and loaded coal trains, but the Milwaukee Road is quiet as ever.  Also nearby is this old pile of discarded ties that harken to a different time and a different vision for the future.  The Pacific Coast Extension was embargoed 32 years ago and although the line slowly fades from the landscape, the scars last far longer.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Away and Westward Bound


The day is ending out in the Eastern Montana Badlands - another day is over on America's Resourceful Railroad.  Dry grasses rustle along the lineside poles that still trace the path of the Milwaukee Road here, but scavengers and scrappers have long since removed anything of industrial value.  It is July 2003 near Terry, MT and the end of rails on Milwaukee's Pacific Coast Extension.

In 2003 I first found myself out along the Milwaukee's far reaches under the big skies of Montana.  Summer days were long and the weather was hot.  Over the next five years I would return to the state several times to trace further the roots of this unforgettable, yet fading, relic of America's past.  My traveling companions were an old Suburban, a Pentax LX loaded with Fuji slide film (later replaced by a Pentax digital body), and the Man upstairs who put these travels on my heart in the first place.  The old truck and the Lord were reliable - the primary LX had occasional problems that required the use of a backup LX that was taken along 'just in case.'  Miles and years faded under foot and rolling wheel of the suburban.  Sunsets were magnificent and the scenery changed continuously from these dry scenes of Montana to the wet foliage of the Cascade Range.  

Recently, I have revisited the idea of compiling some of the best of these images, perhaps in an informal book.  Over the next several months I will present some of these here on Lost Rail, tracking the line from east to west across the three western states it left behind so many years ago.  Join me as we are off and westward bound.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Into Dust

Mainline on the Pacific Coast Extension.  It's a rare thing to find the old 112lb rail still in place, but it remains in a few scattered places across the West.  That makes this place a special one for many reasons.  It exists in the Central Washington desert and that bodes well for preservation of historical markers like this one.  Though cold winters and hot summers are common, the rain and moisture that does damage to long standing elements of man passes on this landscape.  Memories here last for a long time, and the Milwaukee mainline west of Othello is full of them.

The rails themselves reflect the electrified service of the Resourceful Railroad across the Cascade Range.  Though the overhead catenary and lineside poles are gone, the rails hold a key signature from this effort:  they are forever electrically tied together with thick metal wiring at the rail joints.  This served to create a continuous ground, or return loop, for the electrical motors that drove the BiPolars and Boxcabs out across this desolate landscape. 

Along this old line, a Milwaukee style cross-buck guards the right of way.  It represents an unmistakable older-style that still stands,  alerting traffic to trains that will no longer pass.   Type-R block signals still dot the right of way here as well, though many have become subjects of target practice.  These were placed early in the life of this line and represented some of the first signals with improved lenses for long-distance viewing.  They now stand with a vacant and haunted look, well suited for the land and the rails that still pass through.  It's a dusty and lonely part of the Resourceful Railroad, but the memories are nearer the surface here than many other places. 

The wind blows sand and dirt out here as the sage brush rustles along the rusty rail.  These are mere shadows of what came before: a sea of grays and browns along a line that knew bright orange and crimson.  It's easy to see the "dust to dust" on this mainline to the Northwest Coast, haunted by all of these marks of past glory.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Early Morning Gold

Location:  Choteau -- somewhere with big skies and big spaces.

This is Choteau, MT on a clean and clear summer morning in 2007.  Rain had passed through the night before and the built-up dirt and haze that accompanies summer had washed away.  Only unlimited ceiling and light blue remains on this start to a perfect summer day.  This corner of Montana was home to a number of railroads, and this little town hosted the Milwaukee and Great Northern lines that came up from Great Falls.  Grain poured from this little town, and others like it along these far flung branch lines, and filled Milwaukee's decrepit ribside boxcars right up to the end. 

In the quiet morning, there are a few holdovers that are worth mentioning and thinking about.  Here in Choteau, one relic is the old grain truck.  This C60 can trace its design back to 1973 when the models were refreshed as part of GM's truck redesigns.  They would be produced in similar style through the mid-80s along with related vehicles like the Suburbans and pickups.  They weren't fancy:  vinyl seats were common and the manual "wind wings" provided cooling on hot days.  The grille suggests that this could be one of the early ones, and the seemingly bent frame suggests its been doing its job for a long, long time.  Just like the worn out SDs that the Milwaukee Road rolled through here, this C60 isn't perfect but it knows its purpose and hangs on.

Other relics include the grain elevators that trace their history back to the railroads that first penetrated the lush farm country of the Golden Triangle.   Concrete silos were added later, but even these likely date to the 1950s.  All of these relics are gathered together here on a beautiful summer morning, bathed in a bit of dew and the quiet of a day that hasn't quite started yet:  the sun rises early on the northern plains.  It's morning on the Golden Triangle and, for me, the beginning of a tour through this part of the state.  Old Milwaukee towns and trestles, the GN Hi-line, and even an Empire Builder lie ahead.  It was a big day that started with a quiet collection of memories.