Saturday, March 13, 2010

Where Were You, 30 Years Ago?

A Young Man's Fancy: Train 201, Change Creek, Washington Cascades, summer 1979.

In just a few days, March 15, while I'm enjoying the warm sun of the Gulf of Mexico with my family on Spring Break in Galveston, a landmark anniversary will pass for me.

While I may not always remember my siblings birth dates, and sometimes confuse my anniversary date with the 2nd of July instead of the 3rd (it is the 3rd, isn't it Mary?), I have no trouble remembering where I was on March 15, 1980. So, excuse the self-indulgency of this post.

This fateful day marked the end of railroad operations on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad on the mainline east of Tacoma, Washington. That evening, the final eastbound train departed the empty Tideflats Yard, towing the final boxcars, log flats, cabooses and locomotives east. After 71 years of operation, the bankrupt Milwaukee Road was abandoned west of Miles City, Montana. Hundreds lost their jobs. At the time, it was the largest single railroad abandonment in United States History. That record didn't last long--within a couple weeks, the entire Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad was abandoned. The failure of these two railroads was one of the last gasps of Regulation Era bankruptcies, which began in the late 1950s; it was the low-ebb of American Railroading, seven months before the signing of the Staggers Act deregulated rate-making and ushered in a new era of prosperity for railroads. It arrived a little too late to save the Milwaukee or Rock Island.

And on that evening of March 15, 1980, myself and a few others watched that last train leave town. Thirty years. Thirty-fucking years. Where did all that time go?

Self-portrait of the self-absorbed artist: Garcia, Washington, Cascade Mountains, 1978. . .

Being two weeks short of 20 years of age at the time, I knew of the historic significance of the event, but wasn't savvy enough to place it into the context of the past, the present, or the future. I'd only been on personal terms with the railroad a few years, since moving to the Seattle area in 1976. And while the Milwaukee attracted its share of attention from me, it had to share time with Burlington Northern's exotic F-units and Alco locomotives. But while my interest in the BN was largely superficially centered on locomotives, it was the Milwaukee Road itself--its route, its engineering, its operations, its locomotives (of course) and its people--that attracted my camera.

I was a Community College student in 1980, two-years into studies at Bellevue Community College. I was hoping to transfer to a four-year school to finish a degree in journalism, and worked on the school newspaper when I wasn't working 30 hour weeks at the Daily Journal-American newspaper in the production department. My free hours were typical of young men of the era: partying after hours with co-workers in a local tavern or nightclub, smoking dope in the "grotto" at the community college, and trying to keep a woman interested in me for more than a couple of dates. Then there was the Milwaukee Road.

Hotshot 201 westbound on a decrepit railroad: Roxboro, Washington, on "The Gap" in August, 1978.

Railroaders on the Milwaukee, I know now in retrospect, were unusually welcoming of the long-haired teenage railfan who turned up in the strangest places, always snapping photos, asking questions, and generally being a pest. Usually, most railfans were looked upon as vermin--the very name, railfan, seemed a derisive term to many of them. Why don't they get another hobby? they seemed to ask. Why the hell do they hang around here? But a teenager was perhaps "less threatening" to them than the typical middle-ager hanging around taking photos. For whatever reason, I was more accepted into the world of the Milwaukee railroader than the older fans, and the cab rides, hours spent following the roundhouse foreman around, or just hanging out with train order operators or dispatchers not only made me a somewhat familiar figure on the property, but planted a seed that took fifteen years to germinate before I, too hired on with a railroad (and, by strange coincidence, ended up working with a few ex-Milwaukee men I'd photographed years before!).

A favorite: Train 200 in summer rainstorm, Hansen Creek Bridge, Washington Cascades, 1978.

Train 201 leaves Snoqualmie Tunnel, Rockdale, Washington, December 27, 1978.

The last train order granting running authority for a Milwaukee Road train issued at Maple Valley, Washington, on March 15, 1980.

For an aspiring photojournalist, I was in the right place at the right time to document in words and pictures the demise of the railroad in west. Being somewhat obsessed with following my heroes Ted Benson and Dick Steinheimer into the pages of TRAINS magazine, I sold editor David P. Morgan a feature in 1978 on the Milwaukee's Tacoma Hill helpers, bestowing the nickname "Mr. Clean" on engineer Gordon Russ. But it was the feature story "Of Ryegrass and Evergreen," concentrating on the mainline between Cedar Falls and Othello, that really caught editor Morgan's eye. He gave the photo essay a full 17 pages (plus front and rear covers) in the June, 1979 issue. Needless to say, I was on cloud nine. Needless to say, I was probably a self-centered arrogant little prick for a while afterward as a result. The article extolled the wonders of two mountain passes rarely covered in the railfan press, while warning readers that the railroad's precarious financial situation could well render scenes history in short order. The old-guard railfans in Seattle thought I was crazy: Milwaukee Road? It'll never fail. Sadly, I was unusually prescient for a 19-year-old.

Milwaukee #19 leads the way on the 19-year-old's first--and best-known--TRAINS cover story.

That was a long time ago, and many, many thousand photographs ago. Maybe a half-million miles of traveling. I've since lived in Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Texas. Written magazine articles on BN F-units and Alcos, Utah copper mines, the Great Basin, Soldier Summit, and Australian Alcos. I've authored a book on railroads in Utah (book authoring: a never-again experience!). And I've certainly made better photos than those early Milwaukee efforts. And even though many of those have been published, it's been the Milwaukee Road photographs, and usually the TRAINS article, that I'm perhaps best known for. Given the subject matter, the rawness of the photographs, and the beloved history of the railroad itself, I'm guessing I couldn't top it if I tried. I'm sure if someday I rate an obituary in the pages of TRAINS, it'll mention that article on the Milwaukee Road from the summer of 1979.

Imagine that: a has-been at age 19!

Over in the closet is a big box containing my black and white negative collection. Most of what I shot on the Milwaukee Road was done in black and white; very little of that has ever been printed. I've been telling myself for years that I need to get back into the negatives and see what I can glean from my four years along the Milwaukee. Those past 30 years have gone by like a flash; I only hope I have 30 years more to enjoy this good Earth.

From the distance of middle-age, about the only words of advice I can give to the 19-year-old railfans to today who dismiss 50-year-olds like myself as fossils from another era are the final words from that photo essay from 30 years ago:

"Dig it while you can."