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.