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


railroad fan said…
Your blog is really well done. I would say amazing but don't want to sound like a vapid teenager. It calls to mind a feeling of nostalgia that's almost like a lost love. Please keep it up. I've been reading for a while and although people may not always comment, I'm sure you have a good readership.
Anonymous said…
I love your writing style; the way that you are able to convey a feeling or sense image in the reader. Great pictures and info as well, it is a sort of railroad archeology
Anonymous said…
Over the years we have done some stupid, short-sighted things. But the abandonment of the Milwaukee Road just about takes the cake. This was REAL progress indeed!

Today our Interstate Highways are rough and crumbling. Washington D.C. has no idea where they're going to find the money to maintain them.

Meanwhile, the ex-Great Northern mainline is so congested that Amtrak can't manage to get over it on time and some days not at all.

This is completely unacceptable. The time has come to fix this problem. We need to fix the stupid "Great Mistake" that was done in 1980. REBUILD THE MILWAUKEE ROAD !

Fred M. Cain
Anonymous said…
I'm a conductor in Chicago and my father is as well. I've become sort of interested in old routes and forgotten lines working the extra board and seeing tracks leading into overgrown wooded areas or just parking lots. Some of the older guys know and I go to every yard from csx to ns but is there a site that details old lost rail passages other than this FANTASTIC blog?
LinesWest said…
Thanks all for the comments, and as for brining it back, I agree, naturally.

Here's one website I really like for some similar stories from around the country. It's a bit different, but very enjoyable, with pictures and the stories behind them.

Fred M. Cain said…

Here are some more thoughts:

1. A revived and rebuilt Pacific Coast Extenstion would drastically improve friendly, rail-to-rail competition along the Northern Tier. The "Surf Board" should approve of that. This would in turn help bring lower costs and better service to shippers in the corridor
2. A rebuilt PCE would go a long way toward relieving congestion. The ex-GN line, according to some sources, is now up to 70 trains a day + Amtrak along some stretches. This growth is unlikely to slow down. Although it would be horrendously expensive, BNSF could double track the entire ex-GN line, lengthen sidings and install CTC on Montana Rail Line (MLR) and STILL come up short in 40 years. It might make more sense to bite the bullet and rebuild the MILW PCE. Perhaps directional traffic could even be set up across parts of Montana and Idaho between the PCE and MRL in much the same manner as once existed in Nevada between Western Pacific and SP.
3. A rebuilt Pacific Coast Extension would be more “environmentally friendly” than expanding highway capacity through the corridor – all the more so if it were to be electrified.
4. The return of the PCE would almost certainly attract new businesses and industries to the ex-MILW corridor and help create jobs in the communities along the way. According to John Elliot's introduction in Thomas Ploss's book "The Nation Pays Again", Montana’s economy waxed and waned with the coming of the PCE and its disappearance. The rebuilding of the line would almost certainly spark an economic boom.
A possible fifth advantage – although a long shot at best – would be to provide a new and spectacular Amtrak route to the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, the State of Montana has already shown some interest in an Amtrak route that would cross southern Montana.
The physical work necessary for bridge, tunnel and washout repair would all be relatively minor. However, there are four difficult obstacles that will need to be resolved:
1. Finding an entity that is willing (and able) to undertake this. It could be UP or CPR or a new company or even a tri-state authority but finding that entity is the first major hurdle to overcome.
2. Acquiring the current Twin Cities – Terry, MT line from BNSF.
3. Arriving at a political consensus. It is true that some people (like the good folks in Renton or Ellensburg WA) are NOT going to like this. They will have to be appeased somehow.
4. Arranging and securing the necessary financing. We do not want to repeat the mistake of the first construction where the MILW was left saddled with such a huge debt load that it was unable to survive - much less prosper.
In conclusion, the rebuilding of the line would do wonders for our whole national economy and at the same time vindicate all the people who in the past knew that abandonment of the line was a mistake but were unable to stop it.

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