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