Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Good-will to Men.

The works of Longfellow have been referenced before on these pages.  In particular, the epic poem of Hiawatha from whence the Milwaukee Road named its passenger trains.

"Swift of foot was Hiawatha"

Passenger trains and holidays seem to share a special bond.  The winter paintings of Howard Fogg, or the enumerable Christmas cards of snowy nighttime scenes and disembarking travelers come to mind.   Some memories of the season seem as fresh and wonderful as though they were from just a day ago.  Others equally sharp, but melancholy.  Old stations like the one below embody both the happy thoughts of travelers arriving home amidst fresh snows as well as times that are slowly fading, ever losing to the growing span of years.  Time, it seems, is compressing and accelerating.

Christmas is a powerful time for memories and thoughtfulness: some seem sad, some wonderful.  Longfellow penned the poem below specific to the Christmas day, amidst war, sorrow, and the bells.  Wherever the day finds you, and however you got there, Merry Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
     "For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!" [1]

1)  Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Complete Poetical Works of Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Still, Still at 1371

The little town of Lennep, MT lies at MP 1371.1, almost 1400 miles from the bustle of downtown Chicago along the Western Extension of the Milwaukee Road.  Lennep has appeared in these pages before, albeit under different skies.  On this day in 2003, the sun is baking the small town under high blue skies while the grasses crisp in the dry Montana summer months.  

The Lutheran church still stands in Lennep, along with a small collection of other buildings and homes.  Though the railroad is gone, the old station sign has been saved and the Milwaukee font is unmistakable. Behind the camera one of Milwaukee's Type R signals remains standing as well - with that blank stare that is so common.  Lennep was, and is, a quiet place out on Lines West.  

Tracking the Milwaukee Road westbound visits places where we've been, but no longer wish to go.  The country has a different soul in these places:  Twitter seems unimportant, 24 hour NFL coverage seems excessive, and fights in Walmart parking lots are somehow unfathomable.  Maybe it is the big skies that put everything in perspective?  Perhaps the shadow of history has helped create a lasting stillness?  For whatever the reason, these places are different and it's not all bad.  

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Rest in Peace

Increasing train speeds meant something to the Milwaukee Road, and the Feds.  In the late teens, a few years following the completion of the mainline to the Northwest Coast, the railroad was required to invest in a signalling system to maintain its increasing passenger train speeds.  The signals selected were some of the first to successfully use new lens technology that focused the lights for long distance viewing.  Called "Type R" signals, these Automatic Block Signals (ABS) were manufactured by US Switch and Signal and remained in operation along Lines West from their installation to abandonment.

Near Lennep, MT these Type R ABS devices were in continuous use from 1917 until 1980 when the rails were pulled and vandalism began to take its toll.  The original investment for the signals that spanned Harlowton to Lennep was $72,173.31 as reported in November 1917.  96 years have passed now, and the equivalent (inflation adjusted) 2013 dollars is $1.3M.  Clearly, speed meant something to the Resourceful Railroad.  Similar investment was taking place all the way west, wherever passenger trains plied the rails.

Interestingly, this did produce one left-over piece of unsignaled mainline.  Known as "dark territory," the mainline went dark from Plummer, ID to Marengo, WA.  Passenger trains left the main at Plummer and veered north to Spokane on joint Milwaukee-Union Pacific trackage.  They rejoined the Milwaukee main at Marengo.

This is another one of the places along Lines West where it's easy to imagine the orange and black of the old railroad splitting the signals.  The remains of these Type R's dot the old mainline through this section of Montana.  They cast an eerie, industrial shadow of times past out across the modern day.  Where a high green signal used to welcome the mighty electrics and diesels of years ago, sky blue now stares unrelenting down the old right of way.  As Mr. Fred Hyde has observed, these are lasting gravestones of the Milwaukee Road.

Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Moment in Time

"The cattle industry gives The Milwaukee Road a considerable amount of revenue: Cattle are hauled to feed lots and markets; fresh and processed meats are shipped all over the nation; other by-products are hauled, as well as goods related to the raising of cattle … This fall The Milwaukee Road will haul a lot of steers bearing the reverse L D Bar [of the Cottonwood Ranch near Harlowton, MT] and the Milwaukee family at many places will eat steaks from the Cottonwood Ranch's yearly crop of good steers."
-- D. Rue, "The Mark of a Good Steer."  Milwaukee Road Magazine, July, 1950 

In 1950, the Milwaukee expected to haul a good amount of cattle to markets around the West and Midwest.  In that year, 5.4% of the revenue was generated via livestock and animal products.  That was almost the same amount as contributed by the passenger services which generated 4.3% in coach and 2.6% in sleeper and parlor sections [1].  Cattle movements by rail would steadily decline over the coming decades, however.  By 1960 "Animal products" contribution was 2.9% with cattle only .4% of that total [2].  Even in the 50s and 60s, the transition to haulage by truck was well underway.  Today the system has completely transitioned to modern feed lots and massive production facilities that use techniques that would probably have made members of the Cottonwood Ranch shudder.  

Just like grain shipments and other commodities, the modern livestock and meat markets concentrate on bulk to achieve efficiency.  Just like forty foot grain boxcars, the small sidings with stock pens spread along the mainlines of the Western railroads have vanished as well.  But like the old wooden grain elevators that can occasionally be found in the heart of small Western towns, every once in a while, a lonely stock pen emerges from the tall grasses.  This old pen is near Lennep, MT, just about 1370 miles west of Chicago's Union Station.  The old gates are still in place and it's easy to imagine a set of boxcabs making a quick set-out or pickup from the siding that existed here.  Indeed, fabulous photos exist of Little Joes operating the industry tracks in this area, doing just that.

No Little Joes to photograph on this day though, that was a brief moment in time like the livestock trains they pulled and the industry they served.

1] Milwaukee Road Annual Report, 1950
2] Milwaukee Road Annual Report, 1960

Friday, September 20, 2013


There is a place where the great plains begin their recession to the east and the first mountains rise into the big Montana skies.  On long and hot car rides many, many years ago the first sight of mountains rising from endless plains marked progress for a young boy on family vacations.  Dual a/c units that aided the front seat and the rear were not considered mandatory then, neither was 'in flight' entertainment.  Instead, entertainment was the view outside the square windows of vehicles from another time.  But mountains meant progress: national parks, changing scenery, destinations.  Years later, the arrival of the mountains still marked progress riding the Empire Builders across the Montana Plains.  Though only small and in the distance, they meant an end to 79mph and the start of Glacier National Park with its verdant forests and long snow sheds.  

Through the mid 1960s the view above greeted similar travelers who had ripped across the Great Plains of Montana and were now looking at the first sign of mountain ranges on the Milwaukee's Western Extension.  Only one tunnel had been encountered since leaving milepost 0 in Chicago:  Tunnel City, WI and Tunnel Number 1.  50 more would be pierced on the way to the West Coast terminals of Seattle and Tacoma.  This was the Milwaukee Road's Rocky Mountain Division, home of great electric locomotives, high mountains, tall bridges, and trains like the XL Special, Thunderhawk, and Olympian Hiawatha.  

The picture above was taken from a summer now more than a decade ago.  Two sentinels from the period of Olympian still stood watch over the Western Extension at their feet while lineside poles and AC power lines marched dutifully toward the horizon line.  The remains of a graded transcon stretched to the west, toward the mountains to come, the high deserts, and the ocean beyond that.  Do the sentinels yet stand?  Perhaps.  Is the fading signature of the mainline still present?  For yet awhile longer.  By contrast the mountains of the West, and of the Western Extension, last forever.  

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Watchman, what of the night?

Heading west from the ironies of Two Dot, the grade steepens and the railroad begins a climb toward the summit of the Belt Mountains.  This will mark the first of five mountain ranges for the Resourceful Railroad, a hallmark of its pathway to the ocean.  

Several small outposts exist along this rising plain, the first is Martinsdale shown looking east in 2005.  It is a classic scene of railroad abandonment and the small towns that are left behind in the wake of progress.  This is old Montana Railroad country, purchased by the Milwaukee as it pushed westward and included in its mainline routing across the Belt Range and through 16 mile canyon yet to come. 

AC power lines are never far away in this land, and the old train order signal still stands watch above the grasses at its feet.  Decades have passed since a westbound headlight climbed the grade to Martinsdale, yet captured within the scene is a seeming anticipation that at any time, beneath the huge granite sky, through the swaying grasses there could come a piercing headlight at any time... 

grinding up the hill, by the station and the Watchman that yet stands.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Milwaukee Road's Goodnight

"As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return."  Job 7:8-9

The year is 1972.  GE has released a proposal to the Milwaukee Road to close the electrification 'gap' between Avery, ID and Othello WA while supplying new electric locomotives to handle trains across the expanded Harlowton to Othello electrified lines.  Perhaps the most intriguing part of this arrangement is GE's offer to finance the deal itself.  Significant unknowns lie ahead for the nation, a fuel crisis looms and an economic downturn as well.  The best of Milwaukee's electric locomotives in service entered their roles more than two decades prior.  The oldest date from the teens.  Out on the mainline, away from the decision makers, the trains continue to move, benefitting from the port and operating agreements spawned by the BN merger conditions.  But back in the midwest, far from places like Two Dot or Harlowton, decisions are being made, future directions decided, and a watershed moment is coming.

Although many have said similar things, Chuck Palahniuk recorded this simple line, "We'll be remembered more for what we destroy that what we create."  Now, nearly 40 years after the Milwaukee pulled down its wires above the Rocky Mountain Division, that action and those memories continue to resonate.  The last remaining Little Joe rests in Deer Lodge, with pantographs stretching towards an empty Montana sky.  The boxcab in Harlowton exists well off the original right of way and the yards it patrolled with regularity.  Two lasting pieces of a memory that is hard to erase.

Digging through the contents of the actual GE study reveals interesting contents and formal responses from the railroad that stood to benefit.  Even early in the decision making process, the position of the railroad seems fairly obvious.

We presently estimate that 63 diesel units of SD-40 six
axle 3,000 H.P. rating can handle the main line proposed operation
Harlowton to Tacoma .... It is our opinion that the flexibility of the diesel
to run freely on the main line of our entire railroad and also interchange 
with diesel power on the various branch lines (particularly in
the Seattle-Tacoma area) affords for the diesel a utilization advantage
that is not reflected in the G.E. 3-20-72 proposal

... we do not anticipate any of the substantial cost reduction
benefits for new motive power or in maintenance of motive power 
which a large scale electrification should generate ... We anticipate that
... "custom bui1t" characteristics of the proposed new electric units
will "spillover" into our maintenance costs ... We will probably be the only railroad 
in the United States who will use the 3,000 volt D.C. units to be designed and
built exclusively for us. ... 

In closing, I wish to state, we are looking forward to handling
an electrified operation, if it is concluded to be desirable

Even in 1972, the railroad's position seems well established to let this uniquely engineered and operating system fade into history.  Nonetheless, important evaluations from within the company were not necessarily in agreement with the formal responses to GE.  Mr. Wylie, who had many times in the past improved the operations of the Milwaukee's electrics (including their ability to control and operate with the Road's diesel locomotives) noted that:

A six axle electric locomotive with 900 HP traction motors and 
25% working  adhesion will provide about 5,200 HP at the rail at 20 HPH. 
this is double the rail horsepower that can be obtained from the SD-40 
diesel units ...

Despite the qualifications of those on the ground, voicing concern over the rejection of GE's offer, rejected it was.  Electric operations would continue through 1973 and into 1974.  By 1974 the effects of the combined energy and economic crises were being felt.  The operation of the electrics over the Rocky Mountain division had already been extended once.  A bump in copper prices in the 1973-74 years may have been the final 'kick' the railroad management needed to end the railroad's electrification.

Historical Copper Prices ($/mt), Mongabay.com
Unfortunately, crude oil became somewhat more expensive at the same time.

The Milwaukee Road would face an increasing shortage of motive power moving forward as units died and were parked.  The best locomotives were pulled back to the lines in the Midwest during the final period of the Western Extension, and those that were left suffered on without the help of any overhead wires.  Unscheduled Dead Freights would be the last trains to run through places like Two Dot, but even those would seem preferable to what is left instead.  Somehow, the immortal words of Job seem fitting:  

The eye that now sees me will see me no longer; 
you will look for me, but I will be no more.  
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, 
so one who goes down to the grave does not return. 
Job 7: 8-9

Good night Resourceful Railroad.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Varnish Vanishes

In "The Milwaukee Road Olympian - a Ride to Remember," author Stan Johnson recalled the transition from steam to electric power of the Milwaukee's varnish in the Harlowton Yards:  the train glided silently away from the station and yards, under the quiet pull of the electric locomotive.  Feeding the electric lines that ran above the train were the brick substations located at intervals along the line west of Harlowton.  Here at Two Dot, MT was Substation One, 1347.5 miles from Chicago.

Two Dot (or Twodot as it is known by some sources) was named for a local cattle ranch and first established as a station by Milwaukee Road predecessor, the Montana Railroad.  Following the acquisition by the larger transcon, the location was selected for the first of the railroad's substations that would accompany the line from here to Avery, ID and the termination point of the Rocky Mountain Division electrification.  The Two Dot substation suffered a fire prior to the abandonment of electrification, and newer transformer equipment was built outside the confines of the original brick structure.  Some of these old workings are still visible many years later in the photo above though the building itself is long removed.  The AC power lines that originally fed the substations are visible here as well.  They rise above the fields and often mark the approximate location of the transcon itself through Western Montana.

This is rattlesnake country, and crews that walked and worked the rails were continually aware of what might lie atop the hot ballast under a high Montana sun.  Walking the rails was common place in yesteryears.  This visual inspection of the rail joints and ties was conducted regularly -- a far cry from modern pick-up truck based inspections of today.  Atop these rails road the Milwaukee's Varnish, the Olympian and later the Olympian Hiawatha, as well as the interstate freight traffic the Milwaukee shuttled to and from ports on the coast.  

It is traditional to refer to premiere passenger trains as "The Varnish" due to the polished interior and high class status.  Out along the Rocky Mountain Division, the electrification was its own polished pride and symbol of the railroad.  It was frequently used in Milwaukee advertising literature or company logos that proclaimed "To Puget Sound Electrified."  The Olympian was itself credited as being the "Electrified Olympian."  Even as the traditional passenger varnish began to fade, the electric system was maintained.  Faced with daunting financial odds and lack of funding, the employees maintained and operated it with pride until the end in 1974.   There is significant mystery to the railroad's decision to pull the wires, especially in the face of the financed GE offer to upgrade and extend it.  In the final analysis, perhaps it was a piece of old varnish that was too unique and poorly suited to management's desire to merge with another railroad system in the 1970s.  Clearly they had little use for the system that had previously served the transcon as one of great efficiency and significance, energy crisis be damned.  

The Milwaukee's Olympian name was vanquished when the passenger train was pulled back from Seattle to Deer Lodge, MT in 1961.  Stan Johnson's ride to remember was dead.  In 1964 a coach only version was then scaled back to South Dakota. The dramatic and unique electrification was pulled down in 1974. The rattlesnake country of Twodot remains but the varnish has most certainly vanished.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Down the Yard Throat

The view above is the last one of Harlowton, for now.  The image looks east, down the throat of the large yards that once held the lands here.  The old station and signal stand just to the left of the plow and Deer Lodge's yellow mule.  The skies overhead are gray, and the day is one of a cool spring where the sun struggles to break free, highlighting just a few square feet for only seconds a time.  

Railfans and photographers traveled from near and far to this place to capture the 'lasts' that included the Little Joes and western electrification.  Then there were the last Dead Freights, and the last of the salvagers that passed this way.  On this day there is only one photographer here though, looking down the yard throat and gazing backwards at what was, wondering what could have been.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Before Erie

In 1953, a partnership between Alco and General Electric was ended and GE began the development of their first independent diesel locomotives.  The partnership had produced some memorable products like the Alco PA and FA as well as a number of the famous Alco road switchers.  The builder's plate on one of the first 'independent' GE products shows the build location of Erie, PA.  The U25B plate represents just one of thousands of locomotives manufactured within the Erie facility, destined for service at locations around the world.

Before these plates read "Erie," however, they read "Schenectady."  Such is the case with the last electric locomotive to operate on Milwaukee rails.  This is boxcab electric, E57B.  She rests in a small lot by US 12 on the way through Harlowton, MT.  She isn't styled like the famous GG1s that ran for years in the Northeast and she lacks the streamlining of the Milwaukee's own Little Joes.  By contrast, rivets are easy to spot in the sheet metal and the wooden framed door is clearly from a different period in manufacturing history.  Ironically, E57B served a longer career than either of those streamlined relations.  

Atop the many coats of faded paint on E57 is one more mark of its age and longevity: the builder's plate prominently displays Schenectady, NY.  The casting itself puts to shame the stickers that serve as today's builders plates.  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ghosts and the Darkness

I remember well the first time I laid eyes on Harlowton.  The old horse and I (although at that time, we were both about a decade younger) rolled into town on US12 and stopped at a convenience store that overlooked the flour mill shown in the picture below.  The Montana day had heated well through the morning hours but I had learned years before that the best way to spend time outside was to avoid a/c completely.  If you never get used to being comfortable, then you never realize how uncomfortable you are.  So the old Suburban and I had opted for down windows and no compressor even as the day heated.  We shared the pain of the rising mercury together.

I reckon we were both a little different looking back then.  I seem to remember the silver paint on the old girl was just a little more glossy and had a little less wind and sun burn.  The engine had a few less miles on it too, and by that same token, so did I.  My hair was a bit thicker, there weren't funny lines around my eyes, and it didn't hurt to sit in the captains chair for hours at a time with the bow-tie on the grill pointed west.  Those were also days when we both had the time to do things like chase the ghosts of Hiawatha across Montana.

The suburban took gas (a lot less expensive then), and I took a drink and quick snack that would hold until I made it downtown for lunch.  I snapped the first picture of Harlowton with the Fuji Velvia that was loaded into the old Pentax (the picture in the prior post) and moved down to the old rail yards that the Milwaukee had left behind.  There are a few memories that still kick around those wind-blown flats, but the crash of coupling boxcars or the electric hum of traction motors aren't among them.  They have long since stopped echoing through the streets of the small town that overlooks this division point.
Historically, Harlowton was an important location for the Milwaukee Road, and an important locale for the State of Montana and Judith Basin country as well.  The Milwaukee wasn't the first to access the fertile wheat country of the "Golden Triangle," but when it did build into this land of sweetgrass, Harlowton was the access point.  Looking north in 2003, it's still easy to imagine that old line from the wheat fields rolling into town beneath the US 12 overpass.
For many towns in Montana's Judith Basin, the grain elevator and railroad siding have long been the heart of the economic life of  the area, especially during the months that grain harvests are readied for shipment. The origins and names of many of these towns dates back to the construction of ... the Milwaukee Road. [1]

Of course Harlowton was significant for other reasons as well.  The Rocky Mountain Division of the Milwaukee Road started here and with it, the the wires that would hang above the mainline all the way to Avery, ID on the far side of the Bitterroot Range.  The ribbons of steel from here west hosted some of North America's most famous locomotives.  Among these were the Boxcabs and Little Joes, but also the lesser-known Westinghouse Quills that preceded the Joes.

The economy here was highly dependent on the Milwaukee.  Indeed, the decline and abandonment of the railroad correlates to an ever decreasing population base.  In 1920 the census showed more than 5600 people within the city.  By 1970 the number had dropped to just over 2500 [2].  The final days of the Milwaukee here were reported by NBC on March 23, 1980.  75 employees were left in a town that once benefitted from Milwaukee payrolls of $2.5M per year [3].

Those are significant figures to ponder, and they parallel the experience of small towns and larger cities that dot the country from east to west.  Whether you can call it progress or not, change is inevitable.  The memorial sign hanging in front of the Harlowton Station marks the "Milwaukee Road Historic District" and lends further history of the line's impact on Montana and Harlowton.
On this day, as with all the others out on the Rocky Mountain Division, quiet is the rule.  The rail yards in Harlowton once proved vexing to visiting photographers because of the wires and poles that criss-crossed the rails below them.  That isn't a problem any more, the yards are open to the blue dome overhead while a sea of grasses beckon beneath.
A few memorials are left behind.  The old sanding tower is in place, and the water tower is easily seen nearby.  There are even the remains of a few of those catenary poles that made Little Joe photography such a difficulty.  Just a bit south of the old depot that serves as the centerpoint for the Historical District, the roundhouse stands as well.  The building is decrepit and falling, likely not long for this world.  It will soon follow the famous electrics into the history books, confined to pictures and stories just like the people and locomotives that were held within.
The old mainline leaves town just as it did years ago with insulator pads still hanging from the overpass above.  It's not hard to imagine the high green signals that greeted accelerating passenger trains or freights that were leaving Harlowton under electric power.  The electricity is a signature that is unique to the Milwaukee Road, and one that is still seen in unexpected places along the Lines West. 

On this day, lunch was had in one of the small cafes in downtown Harlowton.  The last electric locomotive to operate on the Milwaukee can be found close to US 12, so truck and I stopped to pay respects on our way west.  We were now in the land of substations and overhead wire, and the rest of the day would be spent documenting a few more of those remains as well.  I am convinced that the ghosts out along these places need to be remembered and their stories told.  These were dark times, and the sorrow that lingers is inescapable.  Perhaps in many ways, they still are.
The elders are gone from the city gate;
the young men have stopped their music [4].

1)  "Montana Wheat Towns Grew Up with the Railroad"  The Milwaukee Road Magazine.  September / October 1973 pg 8 (1973)
2)  "Wheatland county, montana - wikipedia, the free encyclopedia."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheatland County, Montana. (Accessed 2012)
3)  "Shutdown in Harlowton MT," NBC News Broadcast. March 23 (1980)
4) Book of Lamentations 5:14 (NIV)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

1335: A First Look

While hundreds of miles of Milwaukee's Pacific Coast Extension languished in relative obscurity, there were a few places of great fame.  1335 miles from Chicago's Union Station must be considered as one of those. 

This is Harlowton, MT - a site of large yards, engine facilities, connection point to the Northern Montana Lines and Golden Triangle, and start of the Western electrification.  Here the Little Joes flipped on their magnificent quads and headed west into the mountain ranges that lay ahead while eastbounds dropped off their electric motors and pushed east towards the plains and Badlands.

Harlowton was a town of great significance for the Milwaukee Road and the Milwaukee Road was of great significance to Harlowton.  This is the first look at MP 1335 where the trek west continues, this time 'under wire.'

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Blue Shadows

In the lands of the western big sky, away from the mountains and the beautiful forests, just between ranges or out along the expanses of prairie, are lands where the sky hosts an unending play of constant change. No day is like any before, no night like any other to come.  When the explorers Lewis and Clark gazed out upon the vastness of the western prairies they remarked upon their beauty and wondered how God could have failed to put them in Virginia.

As the railroads bound the United States together, to these lands they also came.  The first through the Northwest was the Northern Pacific, followed by the Great Northern and then the Milwaukee Road.  The NP was built in stages that matched the ups and downs of the post Civil War economy.  Although it was the first to the Northwest coast, it did not have the advantage of improved materials or engineering practises like those afforded the Milwaukee Road, the late comer to the party.  Following its entry to Spokane, the NP turned southwest and ran across the Washington desert and scab land countries to Pasco.  From there it turned west and northwest to follow the Yakima River as it began a climb into the Cascade Range. 

The scab lands of central Washington are a sandy and rocky place, beutiful and unique among the western vistas.  Like the prairies that lie east of the Rockies, or the Palouse that lie to the west of the Bitterroots, the horizon line extends far and wide.  Sagebrush is common as are the dust devils that seem to spring from the earth on hot summer days.

At Lind, WA the first and the last transcons through this country cross each other.  The Milwaukee on a giant trestle that spans the coulee and the Northern Pacific itself. 

Though the Milwaukee is gone, today's NP hosts BNSF freights as well as the Empire Builder.  They slide by between the old piers that hoisted the "Resourceful Railroad" far overhead.  As the NP continues its trek south through the increasingly desert country it passes through the small outpost of Eltopia. 

There's a legend, or perhaps the truth, that Eltopia was first known as 'el to pay by the loco railroaders.  One evening an NP passenger train arrived in need of fuel and the only wood available was wet, soft cottonwood.  Now cottonwood burns cold, hardly the thing for steam.  This was a problem and a frustration for the crew and legend has it that the engineer said, "There'll be hell to pay for this."  And the name stuck.

A few years later, the quickly vanishing Cascade Green of the BN is highlighted in by the low sun of late afternoon.  The skies are quickly changing from the rich big sky blue to the darker shades of evening.  

As the sun sets, the skies again play out their ever changing colors on the large canvas that extends overhead.  Pastels will give way to bold oranges and reds, and as the ball drops, will return again to pastels and then star-filled darkness. 

But on this night, all across the western big sky country, the moon will rise in fullness and ride high through the midnight hours.  A constant companion for nighttime travellers, and a gentle echo of the sun it chases across the sky.  The eastbound Empire Builder will soon travel through the little Eltopia outpost, on its way to Spokane and the big cities that lie a thousand miles beyond.  Tonight the moon will glisten upon its stainless steel flanks and illuminate the landscape beyond the darkened windows.  At Lind, the piers of the Milwakee's old trestle will glow white against the desert landscape, illuminated by the full moon aloft.  Blue shadows abound.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Choice Mercies of Yesterday

Go back, then, a little way to the choice mercies of yesterday, and though all may be dark now, light up the lamps of the past, they shall glitter through the darkness, and thou shalt trust in the Lord till the day break and the shadows flee away. -- C. Spurgeon

The choice mercies of a yesterday, the fond memories that surface from the depths of times past.  These are special moments that go ever forward.  Included here are just a few of such memories from the summer of 2002.  The location is Central Illinois along the BNSF mains that radiate from the Chicago hub, the subject is Milwaukee's own 261, a 1944 Alco returned to service in 1993.

The Milwaukee Road 261 was born as a coal-fired 4-8-4 Northern in the midst of World War.  A few siblings of 261 were oil burners that spent their years running the 'gap' out in Eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle.  This bridged the two electrified components of the Milwaukee's Western Extension.  The 261 was held closer to the Midwest.  She shares similarities to another classic Northern locomotive design:  The Rock Island's R67.  Both shared the same running gear designs, allegedly due to war time design and manufacturing limitations.  

In the picture above and below, 261 is highballing the old CB+Q mainline just past Galva, IL.  The pictures recall the Saturday of the last weekend in June.  This is always the traditional "Galesburg Railroad Days" Festival weekend and the 261 was playing an active role that year.  It was corn growing weather that weekend with high heat and high humidity.  Legend has it that you can actually hear the corn 'creak' as it sprouts up in that hot summer sun.  Doubtless, the temperature inside the cab of the 4-8-4 was breathtaking.

On Sunday, the 261 left from Chicago and headed out along the old C+I line.  Below the 261 has just cleared Waterman, IL as she approaches one of the classic searchlight signals still in use in 2002.  The photographs are just a standard "wedge" composition but the big skies and lines of the 4-8-4 feel right at home on former CB+Q rails.  

After being turned, the 261 and train head back to the Union Station in Chicago.  It was fitting that the big Northern started and ended the days there on home rails.  Unlike prior outings, the passenger cars are nearly a matched set of classic Milwaukee Road passenger colors.  Across the system of yesteryear, these colors spanned thousands of miles through the Midwest and underwire to the West Coast.  

Truly, the restored 261 running without diesel help, was a rare highlight but details from that summer day caught several other elements that are becoming increasingly uncommon.  The target style signals have been replaced across the BNSF system and are now a rare find.  Likewise, the lineside poles that supported them and provided the old information link along the railroad are vanished as well.  For decades these elements defined the presence of a railroad just as much as track and ballast.  Over the past decade they have become difficult to find and their presence out across the old C+I line adds a classic feel to the day.  

Even the last train of the weekend is difficult to reproduce.  The red and silver of the locomotives is almost new and fresh by today's standards.  Likewise, the "War Pumpkin" paint on the second unit has yet to fade to the now typical pastel tones.  

These aren't exactly the "old days" or the "glory days" of railroading.  Still, the passing of years brings them into focus as old days in their own right.  They are choice mercies, worth reflecting upon when the shadows of night linger just a bit too long.  One can never go back again, but fortunately we can take the memories of hot summer days and corn growing weather ahead.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Silver Rails and Dark Territory

There was time in the early 1980s that the costs of the fuel crisis had been counted, the costs of failed mergers had run their course, and the deferred maintenance had overcome the original mainlines.  It was a dark time.  The end for the Rock Island was 1980. 

The end was not without its drama as even the bankrupt Milwaukee Road played a part.  In order to serve the steel industry at Wilton, the Milwaukee operated daylight hours over the eastern Iowa main.  A local operation, the Iowa Railroad, operated the nights.  The Iowa Railroad played a large role in preserving the mainline across the state as it helped maintain a continuous link from Omaha east.  In addition to farm commodities, this preserved service to the all important customer at Newton:  Maytag.  Many have speculated that it was Maytag more than anything else that saved this mainline from total abandonment.  For many years the company even owned rights to the old Rock Island corporate logos.

In 1984 the Milwaukee Road was out and a new regional was born that operated the full mainline to Omaha.  This new player, the Iowa Interstate, would prove to be a lasting presence and its colorful diesels have plied the rails ever since.  Over the decades, new birth has come to this old part of the Denver mainline.  In places, it is still obvious where the Rock's original double track used to be, but instead of jointed rail and sinking ballast, the Iowa Interstate has invested heavily in the physical plant.  Old telegraphy poles still dot the line to the horizons, but the rail is new, straight, and continuous weld.   As a nod to the past, the Interstate recently painted their own "heritage unit:" one of the new GE supercabs in Rocket Freight livery.  It's been decades since Alco FAs and EMD F units hustled freight dressed in Rocket Freight, but it has returned again. 

Though the story of the Iowa mainline is one of renewal and rebirth, ghosts of the old Rock Island linger.  From the Midwest to the Deep South and even the Southwest, the leftovers of abandonment decay with the passing years.  In West Branch, old block targets contrast with silver rails and GE supercabs, showing the other side of the Rock Island's legacy.