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.



1) https://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch3en/conc3en/usrail18402003.html

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

On the road to Maudlow, MT. Tough to even see any of the old grade anymore. Would've been neat to see switcher unit hauling a few old 40' boxcars of grain down the rickety rails here.
-Jon

LinesWest said...

You bet, 40' boxcars and a switcher bobbing along on light rail. Classic Milwaukee.

Merry Christmas.

Monte Provolt said...


Here in Northern California all of our once very active lines have ceased to operate. What a shame, we have the only deep water port from SF to Portland. If we could only punch a rail about 135 miles to the east, we could connect to the national system. Alas the no- growthers block every step.

Anonymous said...

For the era, this was not "rickety." Except for about 4 miles of 100# rail on a straight stretch at Ringling, the rail here was entirely 112 lb and 115 lb rail with 131 lbs on curvature, all new rail laid between 1946 and 1960, and completely reballasted during the mid to late 1950s with processed (crushed) ballast. The was as heavy or heavier rail than equivalent mileage on NP or GN. This was designed to carry the Olympian Hiawatha and heavy freights at maximum speeds despite mountain territory. MSol

LinesWest said...

Thanks Michael, you're referring to the main, right? As I recall, a lot of the branch lines of the era (milw and others too) were somewhere closer to 60lbs? Here on this branch, I'd expect it to have met that lesser standard, right? All corrections appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I guess I saw the phrase "on the road to Maudlow" which is the "Milwaukee Road" mainline. It just is. The Bozeman branch began at Three Forks, quite a ways down the track.

Not sure how "classic Milwaukee" anything else was since as far as branchlines, there was nothing unusual about Milwaukee's. NP's old "branches" out of Butte and to Philipsburg are still intact; Milwaukee's were as good or better. Go look at that P-Burg branch. The old NP Main between Missoula and Paradise over Evaro Hill is still 112# jointed even though with mainline traffic, but typical of NP from the 1960s.

Even though nearly 60 years ago, Milwaukee's was the heavier built line, and certainly more so than the GN. Recall, at that point in time, Milwaukee had 1300 miles of 131+ lb rail, GN had 77 miles.

Milwaukee Road's mainline was maintained to the heaviest standards of the era; virtually rebuilt during the 1950s.

Best, MSol

LinesWest said...

Thanks Michael, the facts and history are appreciated, and your point about the standards of the day are well taken. I suppose to make it "classic Milwaukee" we'd have to throw in some ribsides along the branch.

The 1300 miles of heaver 131 lb rail (vs GN) just makes the Milwaukee story all the more frustrating.

-Leland