Thursday, January 3, 2008

Boxcar Grain, Mansfield Branch, 1983

The Mansfield branch: miles of rolling wheatfields, 40-foot boxcars, and BN geeps. . .

"Post some of that Mansfield and CW stuff. They seem to be the money shots!" Well, okay, Mr. SDP45, if you insist. Here's my "shot across your face," so to speak. I'm nothing if not accomodating. Don't tell me you don't enjoy it, either!

The plot: I was livin' high on the hog in Tacoma, working as an intern photojournalist at the Tacoma News-Tribune newspaper. A union shop, they treated their photographers right, fully equipping them with good Nikon gear. And unlike most newspapers, who saw the use of interns as a way to cheaply fill vacation vacancies during the summers, the TN-T paid their interns full starting wage, which, though I can't recall it off the top of my head, was more money than I'd ever earned before--enough for a cool apartment overlooking Commencement bay (the BN passed out of sight, but not out of earshot, directly below my place) and allowing me to purchase a new Nikon F3HP with motordrive and nicad batteries, a luxury heretofore only dreamed of.

Time was dwindling in Tacoma before heading back to Bellingham for my final year of college at Western Washington University--with any luck, this would be my last summer before settling into a lifetime of toil. For a railfan, the past couple of years had been pretty traumatic: losing BN's Alco and F-unit fleet in 1981, and the year before that, the entire Milwaukee Road. But other targets were worthy, and close-by, including the new Seattle & North Coast operation on the former Milwaukee Road Port Angeles branch (which used former BN F-units!), and the British Columbia Railway, mostly all-Alco and MLW powered.

The last weekend in July, though, Mad Dog Sawyer and I--he a BN brakeman of only a few years seniority, most of that cut-off--headed over Stevens Pass to see what we could uncover at Wenatchee, on the east side of the Cascades. We left on a Friday night, the 29th, and spent the 30th east of town on the Trinidad Hill grade. At the time, Wenatchee was still the eastern base for helpers over Stevens Pass (pairs of F45's, in one of their final assignments before retirement in 1985), which we spent Sunday the 31st chasing, ending the day with a four-unit set of F45s up front on drag freight #129. Monday's surprise was an extra turn on the Mansfield branch marked up for a pre-dawn turn to Withrow.

Racing the receding shadows up Moses Coulee: 1713/1743 on 44 empties. . .

. . .and throttling up for the 2.2% climb into Slack canyon.

If us youngsters had only known what a Gem this line was. Completely obscure and only sporadically operated, usually on Sunday afternoons, the branch left the former GN Mainline at Columbia River, 15 miles east of Wenatchee, and climbed up the Moses Coulee to reach wheatfields at Douglas, terminating 61 miles away at Mansfield, a wide spot in the road with grain elevators. The line was a perpetual money-loser, and regularly listed in the most-threatened lists of possible abandonments. Besides the 2.2 percent grade up the Coulee and an incredible twisting climb through Slack Canyon, a narrow basalt defile complete with timber trestles and a couple of a timber-lined tunnel, the branch was one of two places left on the BN's western lines restricted to 40-foot boxcars for grain loading (the Eleanor spur off the Coulee City line being the other).

I can't honestly say that this branch was really on our "must chase" radar. . .but I can't in retrospect confirm it was entirely by accident we ended up chasing it early on the morning of August 1, 1983, as two former Northern Pacific GP9s--1713/1743--led 44 empty boxcars up the coulee ahead of the first rays of sunlight.

Trailing were boxcars wearing the BN green paint, but also boxcars wearing the colors (mostly faded or rusted out) and logos of Great Northern and the CB&Q. Absent were Northern Pacific cars. . .though many of those repainted BN cars appeared to be of NP heritage.

Above Palisade, the line climbed into the narrows of the canyon. The train led the way; we followed, wowed with every turn on the narrow dirt road that at times shared the right of way with the tracks. . marveling at how rugged a country this railroad ran through. . .and kicking ourselves for not getting to this branch sooner!

Passing the neat frame depot at Douglas. The agent must be at work?

The tracks headed off deeper into the canyon and the road headed over the top of the hills to Douglas, where we next photographed the train passing the frame GN-style depot at Douglas. In a cloud of choking dust we drove into a field next to the tracks at Supplee, nothing but an elevator and a short siding for loading cars. But there was a problem: empties were fouling the main track, not yet having had a turn under the loading spout. And there was a solution: the crew would just push the cars fouling the main another six miles to the next elevator, Withrow, end of the line for the local this day. So, with the brakeman holding on for dear life, off the local went, a dozen cars ahead of the power, another 40 or so behind it.

Entering Supplee, empty cars are fouling the main track. . .

. . . so with the brakeman riding the point. . .

the train shoves the offending cars another five miles to Withrow. . .

. . the two geeps around a dozen cars deep in the train.

Chalked-legend on a boxcar side shows the GN boxcar assigned to grain service since 1974.
Sad to say, by now the sunlight was so overhead that photographic opportunites were limited to say the least. We took refuge in the shade of a general store for a soda, but Mad Dog and I had seen enough, and knew where we needed to be to photograph the return: mid-way down the canyon, where the tracks emerged from a tunnel and twisted along a narrow cliff. It probably was a pretty good wait, but our patience paid off with a splendid view of the two geeps holding back 44 cars of wheat with full dynamic braking and a healthy set of air. We managed one more shot of the train nearing Bonspur, clomping across a worn wooden crossing in a cloud of dust before disappearing under Highway 28 and coming back to the mainline at Columbia River.

Downgrade in Slack canyon, emerging from a tunnel with heavy brakeshoe smoke. . .

Within weeks, I was off to Bellingham, furthering my education, among other things. The Mansfield branch didn't last too much longer, abandoning in 1984, I believe, and with it, allowing the retirement of the last of Burlington Northern's fleet of 40-foot boxcars assigned to grain service.

And a last view off Highway 28's overpass.


ABC said...

That pesky higher education is always getting in the way....

Sometimes I wonder what I'm missing now that I'll look back and be kicking myself for not having shot.

SDP45 said...

A photo essay such as this is a joy to read. The pictures themselves are neat, but reading the story behind them brings it all to life.
I discovered this branch in March 1985, right before the tracks came up, but after the trains stopped running. The highlight for me was walking through the tunnel, which collapsed a few years ago.
Thanks for sharing.


Chris Crook said...

As a photographer, it seems the better education always comes around and between the furthering of the degree. I enjoyed it, and look forward the next installment.

So how did the newspaper career go, anyway?

Martin Burwash said...

Reminds me of my "higher education" daze in the Palouse...or what little I do remember....

Should have been chasing those Geeps instead of Janice while at good ol' Wazzu. Glad you chose the Geeps.

Martin Burwash

BEK said...

"So how did the newspaper career go, anyway?"

About what you'd expect. Lots of work, low pay, and as a photographer for smallish newspapers, driving around 40,000 miles a year looking for cute kids and pet photos when there wasn't any realy news. . .which was often. After 10 years of it--tired of spending three nights a week at highschool basketball and football games for the first 20 minutes of each contest to dash back to the darkroom to meet a deadline--I quit and joined the circu--er, railroad. Lots of trade-offs in terms of personal freedom, which I really now miss, but the pay was phenominally better the first day I walked in the door.

ramos said...

Great photo essay. Glad I found your blog. : - )

Darrin said...


I just ran across this site regarding the Mansflied Branch. I love the photos along with the stories. I'm the guy that grew up in Waterville and loves to collect photos and info about this branch line. I've contacted you before. I'm 28, so I was a little young to remember the line. I try to hike the line from the tunnel to Alstown twice a year along the old rail bed. It's really fun to do. Any who, I just wanted to say that your web site is great! I think i'm the only one my age that cares about the history of this old line. I've collected photos from guys like. T.O. Repp and the late John P. Henderson. Some day I would love to model the line in HO scale. Again, GREAT SITE!

SteveF said...

Blair, I really enjoyed reading your essay. I grew up in Wenatchee, and even worked in Waterville for a short time, so I am fairly familiar with the area.

I can remember the grain trains coming down the coulee at harvest time. I would see them as I passed by on HWY 28, wondering where they came from. It was only after my short stay in Waterville that I learned of the Branch, but by then it was 22 years too late.

This spring, after things dry out a bit, I think I'll take a journey up Moses/Douglas coulees, making sure to bring my camera. I even have a garden railroad seeking a theme. Who knows?


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Anonymous said...

FOURTY FEET AT A TIME, still one of my fave magazine articles of all time, even if some "know-it-all expert" was running the show there at TI....


Anonymous said...

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nissan81 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nissan81 said...

To correct the saying under the 4th picture down. The old red Ford in the picture Belonged to my grandfather Estel Hull not the agent. He and my Father (leroy Hull) were at work that day along with Clay Bird and Len Long. Some days they would meet the other track crew there because it was a closer destination from waterville. My family worked on that line for many yrs, during Great Northern and the not so great bn.

nissan81 said...

One more thing about the line to correct. It didn't lose money during the time of operations, it was a profitable line. The reason for the abandonment is because of the outdated use of box cars for grain services and the fact the only machine used to empty the cars in oregon was being replaced. The rail line was also a mixture of different size rails, and the bridges were in need of servicing also BN didn't have enough c-5 clase hoppers to use on the line if they did continued service. One more added note- The grain growers that the line serviced offered to buy the line but BN would not sell it to them unless they replaced all 61 bridges and up graded the lighter guage rails on the line. BN was just being asses and had already intended on the abandonment. Stupid in my opinion.

MB Line said...


I have a picture on my blog that I was told that your grandpa Estel Hull used to stay in. It was located between bridge #25 and #26. Check it out. If you can tell me more about the structure that would be great. Here is a link to my blog.


Darrin Nelson

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