Friday, December 11, 2015

A Land Impearled

Today, the mainlines that work west from hubs like Chicago seem to share a common thread: heavy rail and lots of trains.  The right of way is well manicured, the ballast seemingly clean and shaped uniformly for endless miles that click by beneath the steel wheels.  Today's railroads have become efficient point to point haulers which share another commonality as well:  branch lines that used to traversed the countrysides like a spider's web have vanished.  

Many of these lines were divested in the 80s and 90s as companies took advantage of the Staggers Act and sought to rid themselves of low-profit, low-density rail lines.  Some continued on as small short line railroads, others as modest regionals.  Although some of the branch lines have survived the years, the numbers are undeniable: since the total US rail miles peaked in the early part of the 20th century, nearly half have been removed [1].  

There is something special about a branch line though - even an abandoned one.  Unlike the pristine looking mainlines with modern diesel power, double-stacks, and unit oil trains, the branch lines are quiet and out of the way haunts.  They exist as little pockets of time when the landscape was impearled with local businesses, small farms, and small railroads.  As the sun sinks low on the Milwaukee's abandoned branch between Menard and Accola, the mountains and wheat fields that surround it seem overwhelming compared to the fragile rails that once rested here.  Accola itself lies silently in the midst of this vast expanse, with Montana Elevator Co still prominently displayed across the elevator siding.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Turn South to the Branchline

 As the old main vanishes into the private lands that are out of bounds for the old truck and I, our venture turns south along Dry Creek Road and towards the bigger Montana city of Belgrade and a meet with I-90.  The gravel road winds through the arid Montana landscape as the shadows grow longer and the sun dips ever lower in the summer sky.  As years drift onward, even the memories of that turn south and gravel road seem to slowly fade away.  But planted firmly in my minds eye is the arrival at Menard, Gallatin County, MT.
 At Three Forks the Milwaukee branched from the mainline and headed east toward Belgrade along what is now the I-90 corridor.  The NP mainline to Butte did the same (and still does) though the Milwaukee branch has long vanished.  Heading north and into some agricultural areas, Menard stands as the furthest most point on this long abandoned branch.  Decades upon decades have passed since the last 40 foot boxcars filed out of the few elevators located on this line.
The sun is just high enough that the elevator at Menard catches the last few rays on this peaceful day in 2003.  It's another quiet end to the daylight hours, and  stars above will soon take center stage in this drama that is the West and the Milwaukee's far-flung empire.  The truck and I will stop quickly to take one last look back at Menard, and then Accola which awaits just down the branch.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Requiem for a Time and Place

A simple gate blocks the path west 1417.4 miles from Chicago.  The path laid out by surveyors and engineers more than 100 years ago was one that crossed 5 mountain ranges, rain shadows and rain forests, wheat fields and desert badlands, and is now one blocked by a simple fence and tubular steel gate.  The transcon path proceeds from here toward another crossing with the Missouri River at Lombard, MT.  This is private land, inaccessible to most travelers who venture this way.  

Between Maudlow at MP 1417 and Lombard at MP 1430 the railroad winds its way every closer to the Missouri River headwaters.  The Belt Mountains pay it company as do old names with no places like Deer Park and Cardinal.  The ghost town of Maudlow is the gateway to these last few miles through this mountain range, and it is here that we turn south just for a time to meet the railroad further west.

On this day, the quiet times at Maudlow find the ancient school house overlooking the railroad right of way below.  Piles of catenary poles that were collected years ago lie aside the the grassy ridge in the ground that yet marks the mainline west.  The Olympian Hiawatha wasn't scheduled in Maudlow, but The Columbian had Maudlow as a designated flag stop.  This lesser train made flag stops at Maudlow, Deer Park, and Cardinal before a scheduled stop at Lombard.  Times were different when The Columbian ran through this canyon: the two story school house of Maudlow seems built for a brighter future and no one travels to Cardinal any more.

Here there is a lament for brighter days that blows through the grasses in the warm summer breeze.  A lonesome traveler is left only to consider what was, what is, and the important place of forgotten memories.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Far from Home, but not Forgotten

In years past it was easy to spot the fading yellow hopper cars or boxcars that still proclaimed, "America's Resourceful Railroad" as they meandered North American rails.  Some were subject to the occasional over-painting that covered the slogan or even the name of the old railroad itself.  Still, to the careful observer, the Milwaukee cars were an interesting and notable addition to any train rolling by.

The yellow color selected by the Milwaukee was the same as that used by the Chessie Railroad, so-called  "Federal Yellow."  It was a significant departure from the boxcar reds or grays that the railroad had used so often before.  It was distinctive then, and remained so long after the railroad disappeared from its passes to the west coast.  

In the year 2015, the old yellow cars are harder and harder to spot.  In many cases, these cars have aged out of the expected 40 year life span, and are likely to be increasingly rare.  Many miles from home rails, one boxcar is now serving as the local tool shed on the Grapevine Hi-Railers layout in Grapevine, TX.  It still proudly flies the Milwaukee colors and gives a nod to the Resourceful Railroad even in this place far, far from home.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Past


In Gallatin County, MT, within the confines of 16 Mile Canyon lies Maudlow.  The Milwaukee Milepost here is 1417.2.  Like the railroad running through it, Maudlow is a ghost of what was.  It is marked by a two level school house and a few old buildings that stand within the canyon, staring out at the beautiful hills that surround the old stop along the transcon.  

The days have become weeks, months, and years in Maudlow.  The gas pump in town, outside the abandoned general store, still reads 98 octane for $0.32 per gallon.  Those were the days before unleaded gas, and the days when electricity flowed between the tall uprights that spanned the right of way.  There would be many many changes in the decades to come: the relative constant of the Cold War would end, the economic recession that saw the end of many railroads would lift, there would come more cycles of booms and busts.  All the while, the clouds above would roll along casting their shadows on the hills below just as they always have.  Dust to dust.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

By the Shores of 16 Mile Creek

Further east than the Yellowstone and more imposing than the Missouri, the Milwaukee started its journey west along the shores of a vast lake.  How different from where we find the Milwaukee's mainline here.  

Carl Sandberg called Chicago, "The City of Big Shoulders."  Others know it as the Windy City, and many a cold and wintry day has felt the devastating chills of driving Lake Michigan winds.  The Resourceful Railroad knew Chicago as Milepost 0.

When this series of posts started in Eastern Montana, at MP 1080, how different the landscape looked.  The badlands of Montana and the Yellowstone River provided the gateway to the abandoned Lines West.  Then from the arid Badlands to the Musselshell river and the more fertile ag country to the west.  Now, in the midst of the run to the Rocky Mountains, the railroad finds itself along the shores of a different body of water.  Unlike the Yellowstone River crossings of giant steel bracings and imposing structure, the small girder bridges and trestles along 16 Mile Creek pose a stark contrast.  Ironic that the Road's giant 5000 Hp Little Joe electrics called this stretch of Montana mainline home.

From the large Great Lake, to the imposing rivers of the Midwest and West, to the more subtle babbling of 16 Mile Creek on a warm summer day.  It was a journey of extremes and a fearless push to the even more grand shores of the Pacific Ocean.  On this summer day it is by the shores of 16 Mile Creek that the Milwaukee's mainline carefully traces.  This is the entry to Maudlow, MT; 1417 miles from the shores of the Great Lake.  The lush grasses have covered much of the old right of way, but the creek remains as it was.  Those who called Maudlow home knew these shores better than all the others along the Road's way west.  Trout fishing, hot summers, Montana winters, and the 2-D+D-2* arrangement of Little Joe electrics - all by the shores of 16 Mile Creek.

*See comments, edited from D-D

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Out of Time but not Out of Place

While the Milwaukee Road is the standard fare for this collection of writings and remembrances, there are a few other railroads that occasionally make a guest appearance.  In the past, the Rock Island Lines have graced these pages, as have former Wabash (Norfolk and Western) and even the Monon.  

One of the lasting images of Golden Age railroading must be Superpower steam and an upper (or lower) quadrant semaphore signal.  These "blades" usually collected in pairs, and stood high above the horizon lines of railroads across the country.  Though they were unpopular on electrified lines because of the overhead catenary and the related difficulties of visual discernment, traditional railroads embraced them.  The simple mechanical system that moved the blade itself was an effective visual aid that supplemented the poor optical qualities of the lenses of the day.  As lenses improved, and visibility at distance increased, the semaphore slowly vanished from the landscape of US railroads and the horizon lines of the land itself.

In contrast to modern signals with high visibility, tightly focused optics, the semaphores at night provided almost as much ambient lighting as a streetlamp.  One night as I lay awake aboard Amtrak's Cardinal many years ago, I watched intently out the darkened windows as the short train of Superliners rolled and pitched its way along old Monon trackage near Romney, IN.  When we hit semaphore territory, there was no question what the bright light was that flew by outside the window at regular intervals.  It was the soft white glow of railroading's yesteryear.

There are few places today where real, operating blades may be found.  Though CSX took many years, the Monon blades have now been removed.  In Oregon, a few years back, lower quadrants existed along former SP lines though their days were numbered even then.  And Amtrak's Southwest Chief still split the blades for decades after the Superchief and the El Capitan stopped rolling across New Mexico.  Today, the Raton Pass line is still home to sets of matching blades, perhaps the last few mainline semaphores remaining in the US anywhere.

Dear reader, permit me to share a few photos of the Monon Semaphores from 2002.  Enjoy these relics of railroading's golden age standing tall along a Midwestern mainline, just as they were always intended.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A few more personal favorites

There are a few pictures that didn't make the "Railfan Five Challenge" that I thought would be nice to share nonetheless.  In my quest to find 5 pictures for the 'Challenge,' I unconvered these as well.  Though time has compressed these events and days into a blur, there was a time, many years ago, when a young man just wandered with a few trusty companions: an old Pentax LX, Velvia film, and the Lord.

In the middle of the Iowa countryside, a few memories of yesteryear can still be found.  Here, not far from the abandoned M&St.L railroad line, the single room school house rises above the browns of mid-winter and into the blue skies of cold, Canadian high pressure:

There have been a few times when I have been awoken from slumber suddenly and without immediate cause.  Still, more often than not, it seems my wakefulness has been just at the right time, for the right reason.  It can be something like a phone call that needs to be answered, as the phone will start ringing.  Riding the Portland section of the Empire Builder one night through the deserts of Washington State I was awoken to simply gaze outside at the moonlight landscape.  There, with the blue shadows cast by the full moon, were all the elements of Central Washington: sage brush, treeless hills, and the old pillars of the Milwaukee Road's Western Push at Lind, WA.  They glowed in the moonlight, and I was immediately thankful that I had been roused at just the right time.  Just a couple of hours later, the Builder pulled into the Pasco with the hues of the rising sun shaking the darkness from the skies to mark the start of a new day.

Before I new the transcons of the Milwaukee Road (or the NP upon which the Builder was riding that night), I spent time along the ATSF's old transcon across Illinois.  Through the seasons I spent many good hours under the big skies of the Prairie State.  In the summer months, the sunsets were unforgettable.

Sunday, February 08, 2015


As 16 Mile Creek meanders down the canyon that bears its name, some 1400+ miles from Chicago's Union Station, the give and take between the water and the Milwaukee Road right of way continues its graceful play.  While the creek wanders back and forth between the canyon walls, the railroad transcon lofts itself over and across again and again.  The surveyors and engineers laid a smooth path down this canyon, evident even 100 years after the line was plotted.

Today the canyon and the old railroad through it are likely best known for fly fishing.   Fishermen can be seen gracefully placing their flies in and amongst the eddies and pools that dot the flowing stream.  Instead of Thunderhawk freight trains, bridges like the one above play host to rubber waders and fishing tackle - especially in beautiful Montana summer weather.  

Like many places the line traverses, modern amenities seem woefully out of sorts.  The texting of a touch phone or the glow of a tablet are revealed instantly as superficial distractions - robbing us travelers of precious time, and the surrounding depths of life.  Here in the canyon, out with the fly fishermen and ghosts of Little Joe electrics on a beautiful summer day, there seems to be so much more to the story.  Times and places like these are doorways to something bigger and something lasting.