Showing posts from 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.  U…

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. …

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.  P…

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 box…

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 alwa…

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 gird…

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 rail…

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 star…


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 …