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 . 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 .
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.
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
Lost Rail is pleased to share a first publication. This is a collection of photographs taken over the course of a year spent in the Palouse. The photos are broken into the distinct and beautiful four seasons of the country. Photos are sourced from the pages of this blog as well as others taken around the Palouse and Inland Empire of Washington State.