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.