Electric Railroad: Rockies #1

Electric Railroad: Rockies #1

Forty years ago one of America’s most iconic and controversial transcontinental lines closed down for good, having worked for just over seventy years. This was the only electric line that stretched right across the Rockies & popularly called the Milwaukee Road. Despite the controversies surrounding its construction this once expensive, lengthy and high quality engineered, and much upgraded mountain route was no more.

The final train of all left the Tacoma freight yards on 15 March 1980. Almost immediately after workmen began the long task of ripping up more than two thousand miles in total of track across three US states – a job that took far more more than a year to complete.

In spite of the splendours of this new railway (it must be remembered the line was still called a railway at this point in time) the company itself had more humble beginnings. As you will probably know by now, this was the Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul Railroad. This was a merger of various other lines which substantially completed the system by 1874.

The start of the long journey eastwards across the Rockies at Seattle’s Union Station. A Class E-2 Bi-Polar locomotive’s in charge of the Milwaukee’s Olympia Hiawatha train. May 1952. Source: Twitter

By the 1890s the company had reached a point just west of Aberdeen, intially this was Bowdle in South Dakota but subsequently extended to Mowbridge. From there it would join up with a far bigger scheme to connect the Great lakes to the Pacific coast by rail. This would however be a very expensive new line and one that was responsible in part for the Milwaukee Road’s fragile economics.

By the end of the 19th century the Chicago Milwaukee and St Paul had become a vast network serving almost every corner of Illinois, Minnesota Wisconsin and South Dakota. It too had incursions into Iowa and Missouri but that wasnt enough. In order to make any trade with the western part of the continent the company had to enlist the help of the Burlington, the Union Pacific or the Northern Pacific’s routes, and the Milwaukee directors wanted to reduce their dependency on these other lines and compete directly with these too.

The westernmost electrified section in Washington. Hansens Creek Bridge in the Cascades. Source: Twitter. (NOTE: The account is now deleted thus an archived image is used here.)

In that respect the company’s directors itched for an extension westwards to the Pacific Ocean. A number of surveys and proposals were made for an extension westwards. Finally in 1905 approval was given for the construction of a total of over 2000 miles of new railroad in total, a good thousand miles or so of this would take the company to the Pacific.

The only problem was it would be through some of the most difficult terrain anyone could envisage. Despite the sheer logistics the new route through the Rockies and the Cascades to Tacoma was completed in three years – a major achievement given the number of tunnels and lofty trestle bridges that were needed.

A Little Joe with a freight climbs out of Avery in August 1971. Source: Twitter

The line was built in the most modern way possible including the extensive use of concrete which was used for stations, depots, bridges and tunnels. It wasn’t just this. Within a few years electricity too was needed and and several dams in the mountains were utilised to provide hydro electric power for the line’s electric operations. Not only that the new electric locomotives were equipped with regenerative braking which helped things along.

No sooner than it had been built – the new iron road was being called a huge mistake. It served places of little note and with bare potential for freight. Not only that it avoided a good number of major centres of population en route. The route was described as being ‘egregious’ as well as a ‘disaster.’

It indeed served important places but only a bare few, such as Butte, Missoula, Spokane. The capital of Montana, Helena, was missed out. Other railroads managed to include all these places but the Milwaukee by decree of its intent evidently wanted its own exclusive route through the mountains which meant it had to venture in places where no other lines had been built. Ironically the Milwaukee also had to shadow other railroads for great distances and in places it certainly shared running rights over other company’s track in order to complete the missing pieces of the jigsaw.

Train on the upper section of the Vendome loop, with the lower section visible further down. Source: Twitter

It wasn’t an easy route to operate. The difficult mountain terrain and the harsh winters made hard work of it. Long steep grades and numerous sharp curves were a struggle even for the company’s steam locomotives. As a result in 1914 the Milwaukee’s directors decided upon what was at the time the world’s biggest ever rail electrification scheme – 440 miles of cantenary system at 3000 volts DC throughout the Rockies from Harlowton in Montana to Avery in Idaho.

Because of this electrification the company now had a modern rail route to the Pacific Coast at Tacoma – which they preferred Seattle as this was in their view a better sea port. The company however had running rights into Seattle and were even in fact able to wire up that that section as part of their 1917 western division extension’s 216 mile electrification scheme from Othello to Tacoma.

The eastbound Olympian Hiawatha leaves Eagle Nest Tunnel and crosses Sixteen Mile Creek, Western Montana. 1954. Source: Twitter

The Milwaukee’s line wasn’t just any straightforward route. It had to gain considerable heights too in order to pass over the Rockies. And that meant twisting curves and lengthy loops. One of the most notable of these was the Vendome loop. Located between Butte and Three Forks, this loop carried the line up to a height which was then sufficient to enable its tracks to get across the 6,000 foot high Pipestone Pass.

The Little Joes

The electric locomotives that ran these routes were some of the most modern available. The powerful Boxcab locomotives were in fact the world’s largest at the time and these worked the line for more than fifty years and were eventually helped out by the newer and equally famous Little Joes. All the locomotives had regenerative braking.

It is said the Little Joes were actually part of a batch of 20 built by General Electric for Russia. The Soviets ordered these in 1946 and the first completed of these was trialled on the Milwaukee Railroad in 1948/49. However when it came to completing the contract the US Government slapped it down because of the developing cold war.

Little Joes E-21/E-77 emerge from Eagle Nest Tunnel to cross the Sixteen Mile Creek bridge with an eastbound freight. May 1962. Source: Twitter

In desperation General Electric tried offering them to the Milwaukee company instead. The problem was some had Russian 5 foot gauge bogies and these would cost money to alter. Another problem was the Milwaukee’s cantenary was much higher than other systems including Russia’s which meant those much bigger than normal pantographs had to be used.

Eventually the Milwaukee bought twelve of these Little Joes. Three others were bought by the South Shore Railroad. Those latter ones outlasted those on the Milwaukee! I dont know what happened to the other five!

The Olympian Hiawatha at Fish Creek Tunnel, between Piedmont and the Pipestone Pass, Western Montana. May 1953. Source: Twitter

The above location can still be seen in all its dereliction! The entrance to Fish Creek tunnel is barely visible these days. See this Railpictures page.

The Milwaukee’s passenger expresses were some of the world’s most modern trains and they were built with even more luxurious observation cars than those which could be found on the Union or Canadian Pacific lines.

In terms of passenger trains it was a popular route with its most notable expresses being the Hiawatha which was one of America’s top luxury trains.

Class EP-3 with the Olympian Hiawatha in Montana. 1956. These locomotives were known as ‘Quills’ but were not so successful. Source: Twitter

Because of the huge costs incurred in its Pacific extension the company, now known as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, struggled to make a profit. Its line did eventually make a profit. The management were however quite visionary and its chairman in the fifties, John P. Kiley, oversaw a huge amount of modernisation across the system. As a result traffic began increasing much to the company ‘s delight.

In spite of those achievements, one company chairman during the last two decades of the company’s existence, William Quinn, was responsible for many decisions that sent the company downhill. A lot of people in fact place the company’s misfortunes and ultimate demise on this particular chairman…

Freight hauled by a pair of Little Joes near Bonita, Montana. June, 1964. Source: Twitter

Quinn alone was responsible for decisions that were later said to have been disastrous for the company – including the withdrawal of the long distance passenger expresses such as the famous Hiawatha trains. The very last of the Milwaukee’s iconic passenger trains departed Seattle on 22nd May 1961.

He too later authorised the closure of the line’s substantial electrified route – totalling nearly 700 miles because he thought the full diesel option would be much cheaper and would avoid the additional crews needed to man the electrified sections. As a result the last electric trains ran in June 1974.

The line’s decline continued to plague the company and it wasn’t at all helped by the decision to close down their electrified routes. The Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in fact had an excellent network with huge potential. It was one of the biggest in the States. Sadly the company were not making the most of it but rather were letting it go.

A Little Joe with a freight at Alberton, Montana. October 1967. Source: Twitter

The company sold off its cantenary to a scrap value of approximately $5 million dollars and chose to rely on diesels alone. This happened at a time when an oil crisis was panicking the world and diesel became a very expensive fuel. Completely dieselising the lines through the Rockies in fact cost the company $39 million. Surprisingly the cost of renewal of the cantenary system through the Rockies and extending it to connect up with the company’s other 216 mile long cantenary system in the west (and also upgrading that too) would also have cost $39 million!

In an attempt to manage its losses the company turned down what it saw as non essential traffic. As a result this meant just two trains a day crossed the Rockies and Cascades mountain ranges. This was totally uneconomic in terms of maintaining a line which stretched more than a thousand miles westwards! The line’s maintenance regime was reduced substantially in order to reduce costs – and eventually derailments were occurring along the line almost on a daily basis! No surprise the Milwaukee company ultimately wanted to be shot of their once precious main line to the Pacific coast!

Avery, Idaho, seen in the early 1970s and where the western end of the 440 mile electric route was. Today this is a highway! Source: Twitter.

For comparison here’s the same Avery scene today as seen on Google Streets.

The end came in 1978. The company decided its once prestigious Pacific extension had to go. Adverts were put in various newspapers announcing the soon to be enacted deed across the various states and counties. Here’s one.

After the line had closed in the 1980s and the company had folded, it was eventually found the Milwaukee company had been responsible for some breathtaking incompetence. The line through the Rockies and towards the Pacific seaboard had in fact made a small but tidy profit through the years, and that even in the final decade of operation. The problem was they had accounted it all wrongly with many expenses being touted over as double.

The same location viewed in the other direction during August 1971 – with a Little Joe about to assist its freight train for the next 440 miles. Source: Twitter

Clearly the Milwaukee Railroad had thought it was a loss making venture! Some enthusiasts believe this double accounting amounted to sabotage and was somehow an attempt to get rid of the Milwaukee company. It was the end of a US Class 1 railroad.. One of American’s greatest railroad companies was no-more.

Continues in part two.

The full list of posts featuring the Milwaukee’s Rockies Mountains electric division:


Electric Railroad through the Rockies

Electric Railroad through the Rockies #2

Milwaukee Road then and now – Harlowton to Avery:

Part One: Harlowton to Butte

Part Two: Butte to Missoula

Part Three: Missoula to Saltese

Part Four: Dominion to Avery

Milwaukee Picture Galleries:

MILW picture gallery #1

MILW picture gallery #2

MILW picture gallery – Seattle/Tacoma