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.


Ole Amundsen said…
Beautifully done, Leland. The 70's were a difficult time for railroad visionaries, scrap value seemed like a prudent move to many. Still makes one shake the head in disbelief though that this railroad is just gone, gone, gone. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the comment sir, always appreciated.

Anonymous said…
I was through here last June ('12) and stopped in Two Dot. There was another man looking around the substation site & we started talking. This man's grandparents had lived in Two Dot when he was a boy & he was remembering visiting them & watching the electrics roll through town. He couldn't believe there was nothing left. Not even a brick or one RR tie.

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