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.  

2 comments:

oamundsen@aol.com said...

Very, very nice Leland! "Place" and what once was is hard to reconcile with what now is...has always been an attraction and a mystery to me. Your photos are alive with the very atmosphere of these sites, some fine day I must see for myself. Thanks.

SDP45 said...

I had someone ask me about Roxboro, WA the other day. I really wanted to tell them it was where a substation was planned on being built, had the gap been electrified. They would not have understood. People today just don't care much about history.

Dan