Saturday, December 27, 2014

Harsh Contrasts

Location: 16 Mile Creek
MP: ~1416 Miles from Chicago Union Station

16 Mile Creek and Canyon were favorite spots for Milwaukee Road photographers to capture some of the best "varnish" the Resourceful Railroad had to offer.  Along with all of the dramatic photos of Eagles Nest tunnel, are images of Little Joes pulling Olympian Hiawathas resplendent in crimson and orange, Super Domes, and Creek series observation cars.  Of course, over the years even while the railroad was operating, contrasts were stark.

As orange gave way to armour yellow, passenger Joes gave way to poorly suited Bi-Polars relocated from the Cascade Division.  These would run out their final miles across the Rockies.  Then the passenger trains stopped running altogether followed by the Joes, Boxcabs, and then the front-line power.  Finally the trains and then the rails were gone as a final pull-back was completed.  Each December 19th that passes notes the last bankruptcy of the railroad and hopelessness in a season of hope.  Harsh winters would follow, and silence after that.

Is it time that presents the continual reality of contrast, or is it something else?  The what is and the what was, the restored and the broken down, the old and the new, the have and the have not.  Even the photo above is full of contrasts that range from lights and shadows to the objects that have been captured on the old slide film.  The tranquility of an empty Montana road and a babbling 16 Mile Creek stand in contrast to the mainline railroad that once ran the gauntlet through these canyon walls.  

The small outpost of Maudlow lies ahead as the Milwaukee Road continues its run westbound.  It has been, and will continue to be, a run full of harsh contrasts and stark reality.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Appearing from the Shadows

The path back to 16 Mile Creek and America's final transcon has led south out of the small town of Ringling and up and over small passes where cattle roam and the road is single track.  On this little path, it is easy to feel alone and lost - even if just for a moment.  The mountains that climb around a sole traveler seem too high, the dirt road too infrequently passed, and there are none of the sounds that mark civilization: no car horns, no cell phone coverage, no slamming doors - just all-encompasing quiet. In some ways this makes it easy to see the land the Milwaukee built through in its push west.

Pushing on and through the doubts, past little pieces of Americana along the way, the road empties into a wider valley where, once again, the Resourceful Railroad lies in pieces.  Far across the valley floor, a brace of wooden trestle bridges loft the smooth right of way between fills on timbers that seem too spindly for the likes of a Little Joe.  At their feet is the remains of an old homestead resting next to the creek.  A few trees provide it some shade in hot summer months just as they were designed to do by those who settled here long ago.  They have outlasted the little farm, the hearty folk that planted them, and even the transcontinental railroad.  Living in this little valley, I wonder if the railroad provided that sense of connectedness and civilization that seems so distant?

"What if" is a dangerous question to ask, but perhaps this scene is just a little too quiet?   For years the state of Montana has complained that it is held captive by a single railroad that seems isolated from free market pressures.  With the growing trend in oil by rail shipment, these problems have worsenned.  Automobiles sit on manufacturer lots insterad of dealer lots, other freight like grain sits due to motive power and crew shortages, and passenger trains run hours off the mark on a regular basis.  What if the Milwaukee's exit from the West hadn't been so complete and thorough?  

In the enlarged scene above, the old house and trestle bridge are marks of an alternative reality, perhaps the road less taken.  On this day, in the late June sun, all is quiet and these are just pieces of history lying in the shadows of times past.  The storm that came here was decades ago, but the damage it incurred is felt daily in ways both seen and unseen.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Railfan 5 Challenge

The challenge was first posed by Mr. Eric Gagnon, over at Trackside Treasure.  It was taken up by several others, that include some other Lost Rail friends: Oil-Electric and Confessions of a Train Geek.  Robert over at Oil-electric passed the challenge directly to me.

The challenge share five photos that visualize my introduction to and development as a ferroequinologist.   This is a difficult challenge: actually choose 5 photos (I have included 5.5) that show my journey as a rail "enthusiast."  Perhaps this is made easier for me only because many of the formative pictures are still kept by my parents so I am left with a smaller selection.  My choice of 5 spans the decades and leads to a future second installment, picking up where this series leaves off. 

Picture 1:  CPR 374, Vancouver BC ~1982
CPR 374 was the first locomotive to pull a train into Vancouver.  The date is pre-1983 when she was removed from her park setting (where children liked to play on her) for restoration as part of Steam Expo '86.  Our hero looks back at his mommy in the picture below who is capturing the moment with another relic from a bygone era, the Pentax Spotmatic.  Growing up in BC, it was the Canadian National that I really loved, however.  Perhaps it was because its mainline was only a mile or two from our house and the old house would shake each time a train rolled by.  Other photos from the period show the young lad wearing train hats and playing with some indestructible Lionel trains.  I have often wondered if all small boys go through a period of loving trains, but a few of us never outgrow it?

I would cross paths with the 374 again many, many years later when attending a conference in 2010.  It wasn't until I uncovered this earlier photo that I realized the old girl and I actually had a history.

Picture 2:  Amtrak's Hoosier State in 1992
In the late 80s my family moved from Vancouver to Iowa.  Though I started life in Vancouver, BC and still feel at ease in the Pacific Northwest, in many respects, I grew up in the Midwest.  Instead of mountains, it was big skies and fields that provided the backdrop for the boy's upbringing.  For a brief period of time before I acquired my own Spotmatic gear, I was the proud owner of an old Kodak Brownie of one sort or another.  It loaded film easily and with the click of a button captured images like the one above: the local Hoosier State making its daily call in Lafayette, IN.  It's interesting to note that Horizon cars and Amfleets were in use then just as they are today.  I reckon they had a few less miles on them then though, just like me.

My grandparents lived in Lafayette and I would eagerly await early morning walks down to Lafayette's 5th street to see the trains through.  During these years the Hoosier State was daily while the Cardinal operated on its normal 3 days per week schedule.  Unlike the Hoosier State (above), the Cardinal had a diner and sleepers and would arrive just a bit earlier in the day with breakfast being served.  The smells of breakfast from the diner were always a special treat.

My grandpa and I spent quite a few mornings wandering the length of 5th street, hoping for a Family Lines locomotive to slowly meander down the middle of the road.  It was still early enough in the CSX era that Family Lines were not difficult to spot.  Not far away were the former Wabash tracks that would host many, many trains per day including the new and strange looking Roadrailers.  Grandpa would point out the old Monon station on 5th street (being used as a performing arts theater) as well as the old Wabash station that looked decrepit even in those days.  These were memorable experiences and still stick in my mind as I reflect on the railroads and times that were formative. 

Picture 3: Iowa Interstate in Iowa City, IA in 1997

While this blog is normally focused on the Milwaukee Road's Lines West, it was the Rock Island which formed an initial and lasting bond through my years in Iowa.  The large bridge over the Iowa River still held Rock Island logos, and daily interchanges with the local CRANDIC Railroad were always fun to watch.  Locomotives like the 401 would come charging up the interchange track from the lower CRANDIC line to the main yards on the old RI main.  The speeds were slow, but the noise and action was fierce.  These rebuilt Paducah GPs were the mainstay of the IAIS fleet during the 1990s and their distinctive headlights still make me smile.

Number 401 herself lasted for a long time around Illinois and Iowa.  According to the unofficial IAIS photo archive and railfan guide, the 401 started tenure with the IAIS in 1987 and was sold in 2005.  Not bad.

Picture 4:  Monon Semaphore Signals, Indiana, 1998
As my interests in photography expanded, my attentions began to focus more on the "remains" or "left behinds" of prior state of the art.  One evening in the summer of 1998, a friend and I were doing some railfaning around the state of Indiana and I happened to glance right to the old Monon mainline that was running parallel.  Standing out against a low setting sun was this lone blade, 130.6.  

We stopped and took about a roll's worth of film and set about the next day to find as many other blades as we could.  I would return to these signals different times to capture them before they were removed from service by CSX.  As with many of the holdovers and remains I've come to seek in my wanderings, I am always amazed and humbled a bit by how much history has passed during the tenure of these old signals.  They were originally placed by the Monon and saw countless freights and passenger trains (like the Thoroughbred) that spanned the steam and diesel eras.  They were a lasting presence out on those Indiana planes and the sunset captured that day is just one of thousands that cast its light on the silver sides of the old blade.  One day, I'll put together a blog posting about semaphore signals.  These Monon signals are among my favorites: upper quadrants, captured in active service in a time period that has long since passed them by.

Picture 5: CTC signal on the Rock Island at West Liberty, IA, 2003
 The final photo finds a dismantled CTC signal at West Liberty, IA.  This is the north-facing interlocking signal along the North-South line which protected the crossing of the East-West Denver main.  The signals were controlled, as I recall, by the operator who was stationed in the West Liberty depot.  Over the years I had found the late light of evening and sunset to produce some very interesting photos and, just like the blades along the Monon, the old CTC signal stands out well against the planes of the MidWest.  It is winter time in the photo above, and I had spent the day out and about looking for relics just like this one.  The days of Rock Island passenger trains like the Zephyr-Rocket are gone as is the railroad that operated them, but the lone signal remains as a standing reminder of what once was and what we've lost along the way.  

A few decades from now, I wonder if any young railfan will attempt their own Railfan 5 Challenge?  Will the images be filled with Amtrak Genesis units and a sense of nostalgia over bygone Horizon cars?   Perhaps even a photo of a GE "Toaster" will make it in?

Saturday, September 27, 2014


In the days before the Milwaukee's retrenchment to the Midwest, small roads like this Maudlow Road were the connections from one isolated outpost on the transcon to another.  Over modest passes, through fields where cattle wander aimlessly without fencing, and beneath the big skies above.  In good weather the roads were passable, in more difficult times of year they were treacherous.  The Milwaukee Road itself must have been the preferred means of access to the lost places like Francis that exist west of Ringling and within the traces of 16 Mile Creek.

This is the American West in many respects: isolated, alone, dangerous, and indescribably beautiful.  On this June day, in a picture now well dated, the little road from Maudlow continues to survive and meander its way from one small settlement to the next.  If there are specific times or places where one can fall in love with the West, this must be one of them for me. 

ps - Speaking of the West, the new book from Big Bend looks fantastic. Well done Dan.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Last Run of the Wheat Line

Most often, this site considers the "real" Milwaukee Road in images that record what it left behind.  On occasion, however, the focus drifts to the world of a re-created Milwaukee Road in the form of models that bear the Resourceful Railroad insignias.

Recently, my own Wheat Line (Warden, WA to Marcellus, WA) hosted its final run because of an imminent move to a larger scale.  The outbound run out to Marcellus is just a caboose hop, with the final cars being pulled from the line as the train works its way back to the transcon at Warden (all locations simulated ... poorly). Unlike the real Wheat Line, 100 ton hoppers were allowed as far as Ruff, WA in this version.  For the most part, however, the 40 foot grain boxcars still ruled the branch line, resplendent with rib sides and Billboard lettering.

For your enjoyment, the documented final run of the Wheat Line:

Milwaukee 534 and 5054 leave the mainline at Warden and head north and east out along light rail:

The elevators of Ruff, WA loom ahead and the approach of Dry Coulee:

 Passing through Ruff:

Arrival in Marcellus and the pulling of the final 40 footers from the branch line eastern terminus:

 The train arrives back in Ruff to collect the remaining ribsides and 100 ton hoppers:

 40 footers languish over the crossing at Ruff

With the train assembled, it returned to Warden and the Wheat Line story is concluded as salvage operations remove any useful light rail and switches.

The real Wheat Line was salvaged amidst the fallen ash of Mt. St. Helens and today, sage brush rules the old right of way.  Elevators stand along the line at places like Marcellus, Packard, Ruff and Laing as reminders of that old era of light rail and grain by worn ribsides.  Just like the real line, the model exists now only as memories and photos too - happy trails Wheat Line.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

These Things Remain

 Leaving the small outpost of Ringling, the Resourceful Railroad travels through large tracts of private ranch land where visitation can be difficult.  In the midst of these wanderings, the railroad runs through infamous locations like "Eagle's Nest" tunnel and into the 16 Mile Creek canyon.  For now, Eagle's Nest is a missing element to my wanderings of Milwaukee miles.  In similar fashion, the old substation remains and cattle platforms at Francis are notably missing as well, but perhaps that blank can be filled sometime in the future.

Leaving Ringling by road, one turns South to a meeting with the railroad once again at Maudlow, while the railroad heads West and then Southwest.  With the Rocky Mountains ahead, the road to Maudlow reveals exactly where the transcon must head, and the crossing that it will face.  The single lane dirt road through these hills and canyons makes no effort to traverse the relatively flat confines of 16 Mile Creek.  As such, the mountains ahead loom ever larger.

Though away from the right of way for a few miles, the land the Milwaukee traversed is no less wondrous.  The vistas extend far and away beneath Kodachrome skies while wandering cattle, open ranges, and farm lands keep company.  This was the Milwaukee Road's West, passed by and hard to access, but ever present and ever beautiful.  Even as the times pass and the old Railroad fades, there is something lasting in this West.  It is these places that put a call on people's hearts, a tug, a whisper, a longing.  Time will pass and beauty will fade, but His Love remains.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Captivating Expanse from a Distance

Distance was a word with which the Milwaukee Road was familiar.  In fact, Western US railroads in general crossed exceptional distances that their Eastern counterparts would never match.  The old NYC "Waterlevel" mainline from New York to Chicago was 961 miles and the PRR counted its "Broadway" route as 908 [1].  The longer Erie (Hoboken to Chicago) was 976 [2].  By contrast, the Great Northern line to Seattle was 1782 miles, and started in St. Paul [3].  

1392.8 miles into its own push west, The Resourceful Railroad rolled through Ringling and below a captivating expanse of Big Skies.  Ringling itself was named after John Ringling, one of the brothers of the Ringling Bros. Circus who had purchased land in the area [4].  Small yards were at one time placed at Ringling for interchange with the White Sulphur Springs Railroad.  This line diverged to the north, serving the small town of White Sulphur Springs.  In later years, the line provided forest products to the mainline at Ringling, though the tourism boom that had been predicted with the arrival of the Milwaukee Road never materialized [1].  The line is abandoned like the transcon that was its life blood, and the yard that was at the feet of the Ringling depot have long given way to the grasslands of the area. 

From this distance, just a little south of town, the layout of small Ringling is clear.  The depot lies along a flat and graded mainline with a few small buildings scattered nearby.  In this photo, taken several years ago, even the AC power lines cut through the picture as though all is well.  The wear on the depot, so evident up close, isn't obvious as the corners remain square and true.  The expanse of green fields lend a picture of health to the scene, and the year might as well be 1972 but for the missing catenary.  The arrival of a Little Joe, or perhaps an SD40-2 set with Locotrol seems imminent.  From this distance, it's not hard to imagine a healthy transcon alive and well today.
2) "The Phoebe Snow - December 1964,"
3) "GN-NP Comparison,"
4) "Ringling - Russell County"

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Those Magnificent Quads ... in Iowa

Those Magnificent Quads were a distinctive feature of Milwaukee electric locomotives.  Even now, the remaining Little Joe in Deer Lodge sports a lighted quad as part of the static display of Milwaukee Road motive power.  The Joe rests north - south, 180 degrees (and a few city blocks) out of place from the mainline it ruled.  The headlight shines only on low power, and the dimly lit scene before it never changes.  It is a far cry from the glories of times past when high power lumens cut through miles of dark tunnels or charged up the formidable grades of the Rocky mountains.  But the Quad exists still today, and even in static form, is something quite special.

1100 miles to the east, another set of quads yet roams.  The Iowa Traction Railroad runs the quad arrangement on its own electric locomotive, #54.  54 was built in 1923 by Baldwin Locomotive for the Southern Iowa Railway [1].  Interurban lines once criss-crossed the Midwest, Iowa Traction is essentially the last and runs switching services around Mason City.  The full roster of electrics includes various small motors from a variety of original lines, all collected here in the heart of corn country.  Not all have been so nicely equipped with a set of magnificent quads, but 54 proudly sports them just like her larger orange sisters that once called the Rocky Mountains home.

1)  "Iowa Traction",, visited 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

Spaces of the Past

"Who plundered those wide open spaces of the past, and how can we get them back?" [1]

Just down the gravel trail mainline from the US89 crossing, the depot at Ringling stands next to the old right of way.  This picture dates from 2003, more than 20 years following the demise of the Milwaukee Road.  Now, an additional 10 years have passed, and as noted in the comments to the prior post, the power lines are gone.  These old telegraphy poles that stood in the lush grasses of this early summer day have faired no better.  The gaping windows of the abandoned depot seem to suggest that the building itself has defied all expectation.  Even the photograph speaks of a different time and an old technology: the vibrant colors of Fuji's Velvia slide film are difficult to replicate, even in this day of modern technology and digital processing.

In the intervening decades from mainline to gravel road, there has been an onslaught of technology and progress. In the past 10 years even, the connectedness of the world and the culture has grown geometrically. When the old suburban and I were in Montana taking these photos, it was with a single cell phone (that was usually off), an old camera that made a loud 'thunk' sound whenever the shutter button was pressed, and rolls and rolls of slide film from Fuji and Kodak. Today, these words are written on an iPad with a touch screen while I shuttle back and forth between email checks and text message updates. And even that itself is old tech, twitter and other social media having replaced emails as the cultural standard some time back. 

But the Milwaukee Road exists in the wide open spaces of the past.  Out in these spaces, old depots still reside in tall grasses, an old tender sits in the plains at Ingomar, a substation atop a mountain grade. Before progress collapsed the size of the world, we could hear the wind and its peaceful music in these places and had time for things that aren't summarized on backlit touch screens. For a brief while, the Milwaukee road itself was progress: making small the large spaces that separated the West with new technology that promised a better world.  Small towns like Ringling were the outposts of this empire where people lived, worked, and loved. 

But progress has no heart for things that become old tech, and doesn't stop to reflect upon what was. Little Joes, sd40 locomotives, boxcabs, and even passenger trains are all relics now. The depot at Ringling is just one of the reminders that is easily ignored via apps and the Information Age.  It takes effort to overcome these distractions but to know places like Ringling is worthwhile. It means hearing the sounds the wind makes once again, or thoughtfully pondering the story that has played itself out across the Milwaukee's West. Once overcome, there is a still small voice that yet calls out, even now through the backlit touchscreen of the iPad. 

[1] Swenson, R.  "Margin" Revised edition, NavPress, 2004

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Long Road to Ringling

Leaving the mountain pass of the Belt Range behind, the Milwaukee begins a slow descent toward a meeting with 16 Mile Creek and the Missouri River in the miles ahead.  While the old transcon has closely followed two lane highways for most of its trip west of Miles City, it now veers South, working down the side of the Belt Range and through sparse grazing country typical of this part of the West.  In the photo above, only a thin, straight line laid out along the hillside speaks to the old railroad that claimed the land as an active mountain pass.

Coming off the Range itself, the line approaches the small town of Ringling, MT.  US 89 travels north-south by Ringling, the picture above looks east from the crossing.  Times have changed the view significantly: US 89 used to pass over on a small bridge while electric wires and Little Joes passed beneath.  Today, the old AC power lines that mark the electrified railroad still show a rising profile lofting up and over the ghost of the old elevated crossing.

Ringling itself lies at MP 1392.8, almost 1400 miles from Chicago's still busy Union Station.  While the passage of years seems to have compressed the time, nothing can compress the expanse of miles.  Out beneath the big skies, so far from towering skyscrapers and distracting noise, the magnitude of what was done and then undone is inescapable.  Each step west along the old railroad seems more difficult than the one before, adding more miles and places to the list of "what used to be."  To continue west will yield only more names with no places, forgotten stories, and cold wind.  Out in this land, along the Resourceful Railroad, there is no shelter from it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The foundations laid for those who lived and worked here are very visible in this last look at Loweth. The land is full of greens and foliage as this part of Western Montana comes out of spring and fades into a long, hot summer.  

Westbound trains would leave the summit of this first of five mountain crossings, heading downgrade towards the small town of Ringling some 8 miles ahead.  From the crest of Loweth, the path to the west looks directly at the Rockies and the arduous climbs that lie ahead.  Also ahead, the headwaters of the Missouri River, a rejoining of the Northern Pacific, and Butte on the far side of the pass.  

Directly ahead, a lone signal stands in the gap where the transcon passed.  Dark today, but a high green to ages past. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

If You Knew the State of the Art

Loweth, Montana lies some 1380.9 miles from Chicago at the crest of the Belt Mountains.  In some sense, it's just a place on a map with an old two-lane blacktop running through it.  But Loweth was was state of the art.

"From Harlowton to Avery three mountain ranges of the continental divide are crossed, with summit elevations of 5788, 6322 and 4150 ft.  Heavy grades and a large proportion of curvature are encountered, the maximum grade being 2 percent for 21 miles..."   [1]

It has been suggested, by the author if no one else, that the people who settled the Milwaukee's West were tough and dedicated in ways not often encountered today.  The weather was extreme with brutal colds and summer heat.  Some spots were arid country, existing in rain shadows of the mountain ranges that the Milwaukee crossed.  Yet people settled and lived in these harsh and beautiful places.  And it was to these places that the Milwaukee went as well.  Loweth exists as a reminder of the technology that it brought to these lands, and a memorial to those who built, worked, and lived here at the crest of the Belt Mountains.

On this summer day, it is the sounds of cattle slowly wandering nearby that break the gentle stillness of summer winds and rustling grasses.  But decades ago, the substation was operated by a family of employees who lived just next door.  Beneath today's hooves, the foundations of the operator bungalows rises just above the grasses and shrubs.  People lived and worked here as trains lugged by on the mainline - working hard in both directions.  This was home, even in the midst of the snowy and brutal cold, the occasional Chinook winds, the spring rains or summer droughts.  

Under their care was a centerpiece of the Milwaukee's Lines West.  Substations converted the AC power to 3000V DC (later 3500) to feed the electrics that prowled the grade.  The electrification was prominent in advertising and represented the "best" of the day.  The proof is in the fruit of the effort:  electrification across the Belt Mountains remained in operation from 1916 to 1974.  It was so good that it displaced and outlasted the steam locomotives (yielding impressive reliability improvement at the same time [1]) and then soldiered on through the first and second generations of the diesel locomotives that replaced them.  

The system was built to last; it was tough like the people that settled here to work these lands and this railroad.  Even while the cattle graze nearby, the insulators atop the old substation still thrust clean and straight into the blue skies above.  This was a way of life, and this was state of the art.

1) "Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Electrification" Engineering News-Record, 1920, 85, No 23.  

Friday, January 31, 2014

Separating East from West

Among the engineering marvels of the Western Extension were these: the many substations that dotted the Rocky Mountain division in Montana and Idaho and then the Coast Division in Washington.  Here the old mainline climbs and curves its way to the crest of the Belt Mountains with the outline of the Substation at Loweth looming on the horizon.  Mountains separated this country's east from the west, and the Resourceful Railroad crossed the first of them here. 

The grade to the top is as grueling today as it was decades ago: 1.4%.  How easy it is to imagine boxcabs lugging hard at the compound curve as they work their way westbound.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

As the Years Pass

When this blog started, the Milwaukee Road had only been gone from the West 25 years.  It had been a quarter century from 1980 to 2005 when these first writings made their way to the net.  Since then, the years have continued to pass and the Milwaukee's retrenchment to points east now approaches the 35 year mark.  Left behind was a sprawling signature that spanned states and geographies.  Towns like Lennep were left without a transcon and Montana grain growers without a second option.  

Since 2011, the postings and pictures have been slowly working west from MP 1080 in Western Montana to these pictures here, just west of Lennep, at MP 1379.  The mainline is climbing the first of its mountain passes here, on the way to the summit of the Belt Mountains at Loweth.  The original alignment of the Montana Railroad, an early Milwaukee predecessor, is seen in the background of the old Type-R signals.   The first photo was taken in the summer of 2003, the photo below only two years later.  

The weather is different, and the parched landscape of 2003 has been replaced by the verdant greens of a late spring.  Life has returned to this part of Montana, but time has taken its toll and even the scant passage of two years has left marked and lasting changes.  I have not journeyed to these ruins since 2005 and doubtless the years have continued to be unkind.  Such is the case with waxing years:  the old mainline and its haunting memory slip further and further towards whence they came.  Books have been written, stories have been shared, but the line inevitably marches toward the land of forgotten, assisted by the cold winds that torment and blow along the Milwaukee's Lines West.