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.

Comments said…
Leland, your words and pictures make me miss so much something which I never had the pleasure of experiencing in person. Thanks!
SDP45 said…
At least you can still visit the depot at Roundup. Corfu is near impossible to easily find.

Anonymous said…
timetables have always fascinated me. back in what would have been the early days of the pacific extension, it was possible to flag down the branch train between stations. i like to think of some farm kid doing that out in our field that used to have the two iron rows in the midst of the corn rows... say, around 6:50 a.m. by 7:40, he would be at the junction with the mainline. after an hour's wait, he could still make minneapolis by midafternoon, and then - who knows?

jim, from iowa

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