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." County, Montana. (Accessed 2012)
3)  "Shutdown in Harlowton MT," NBC News Broadcast. March 23 (1980)
4) Book of Lamentations 5:14 (NIV)


SDP45 said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
SDP45 said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
SDP45 said…
Guess I'm having a hard time with the comments today. Sorry!

Wood from the roundhouse can be had here:

Anonymous said…
i don't think i've ever seen one of those grain elevators built out of stone (cement block?) before

jim, from iowa
Anonymous said…
Great story thank you for sharing. My family was one that was affected by the closing of the railroad. I truly enjoyed reading this!

Tonya from Harlowton

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