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."


Harold Krewer said...


Man, you got it right.

Sitting here reading your words while remembering when I was 19. Same time, different place, same circumstances: watching the Rock Island go thorugh its death throes.

Assuming we're both fortunate enough to make it to the year 2029, will we be listening to the 49-year-olds lamenting how Conrail is thirty years gone? And will there be any 19-year-olds "diggin' it now"?

Thanks for the perspective,


elclip1 said...

"Dig it while you can"...Yes indeed. My favorite line from my favorite Blair article. I met you just about then and we've been friends ever since. We've done some shooting together and certainly your photography and writing styles have been a serious influence on my work over the years.
One regret is that I never tagged along with you on a Milwaukee chase out here when I had the chance. Damn!

So is "Of Ryegrass and Evergreen" your "Citizen Caine"? probably so...You've done great work since, but that piece was not only very good, it also captured a moment in history in a way that few articles ever do (regardless of subject).
30 years gone - Good grief


ABC said...

Thank you for sharing your personal side on this event.

"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. "

Please, please, please do. This isn't just foam talking. Those negatives are something that will never be shot again. They deserve a life outside of a shoebox. Besides, I suspect that enough time has passed by now that many of them will have taken on new and richer meanings.

Steve said...

30 years ago I was a 7th grader at Marcus Whitman Jr. High.

I saw the Milwaukee on my rides east to visit Grandma in Noxon, MT but generally paid no attention. I never really saw any trains on it compared with the BN and the trains I did see were usually spread all over the ground. That certainly didn't improve my impression of the property.

30 years later when I think back to how I felt about the Milwaukee I'm mad at myself. I didn't know what a gem it was. Most likely I couldn't have done anything about it photographically but I could have at least cemented more of the sights, smells, and sounds of it in my brain before it disappeared.

Because I was just a bit too young, I have to say thanks for being there for me Blair! I appreciate the fact I can look back at that article or your photos and see what I missed. If you have more share, please do! Share the stories associated also as that part of the photograph is just as important as the photo itself.

Anonymous said...


What a wonderful story. Living in the east meant seeing the LV, CNJ, EL, RDG, LHR and, yes, even the PC vanish in a heartbeat. After the Conrail merger, the mixed-up jumble of diesels that didn't seem normal made me think about staying with the hobby. I even quit altogether in the mid-1980's. I came back, but even today this line or that track will always be known as the ex-something.
I traveled via Amtrak on the North Coast Hiawatha back in the spring of 1979 hoping to catch a glimpse of the Milwaukee across Montana, but never saw a train. It was an unforgettable trip, nonetheless. Spending several hours in the dutch door enjoying the cool mountain air. Sitting up in the dome listening a US Park Ranger narrate the passing historical points, usually related to the Lewis and Clark expedition, between songs on his guitar.
Indeed thirty years has passed in the blink of an eye and as noted by others, we can only hope that today's young railfans will remember what they see and experience today as not just another train, but a moment in history and record it for the future.

Bob S

Anonymous said...

Gonna start me up a blog and I'll show you what I shot at 19....

God that would be awful, first railfan to admit smoking dope at the tender age of 19!

"Well gess wat, I deed two..."


SDP45 said...

I just came across 2 excellent copies of you first Trains piece. Still a good read.


Anonymous said...

As I type this it's 8:06 Pacific time and 30 years ago X 5802 East is nearly ready for its run as the final eastbound from Tacoma.

At the time the MILW was expiring, my mother was expiring as well due to an aneurysm and we laid her to rest about the same time that the end came out west.

Blair, I loved that "Two more mountains to cross and credit it with my interest in the Milwaukee Road.

I'd certainly encourage you to publish your black-and-whites sometime in book format. What a great seller that would be. If you published at the 50th anniversary, you'd be 69 and I'd be 74. The meories of the MILW, even on the east end that I experienced, are still very fresh.

Your work inspired my Milwaukee Road book and am super happy that you provided the images we included.

Fred Hyde
Monona, WI

Anthony said...

Hey Blair!

You sure were a loveable self-centered arrogant little prick, though! Here's another friend who has admired your work from the time we first met, just about the same time as BAE - what a group! Another friend who has been inspired by your work - Milwaukee and otherwise - and hopes that you will someday do that Milwaukee Road book. A copy of that shot of 22 at Change Creek hangs on the wall in my home office in Puyallup, where two 22 numberboards reside in the closet. I was another of those who was busy with other things and didn't take the opportunity to chase Milwaukee with you back then.

I have always appreciated the opportunities life has presented to cross paths with so many people who weave in an shape the fabric of our existence. Thanks, Blair - great photgrapher, writer, person and friend!

Thirty years! WOW!

Tony Dell
Puyallup WA

Wayward Son said...

Never seen your neck of the woods but you sure got me remembering...

I've only got 17 more years of NS to go before I can start remembering the 'old days' LOL

Thanks for writing it all down.

Wayward S.

Chris Crook said...

I was 3. I was probably 12 when I first saw the article. It was one of those "daaamn" moments, and you became an influence on me at that point.

Publish the book.

Chris Crook

Anthony in Chicago said...

Great rememberances.

"Thirty fuckin' years..."

Like one on the characters in a Monte Python sketch once said, with a snap of the fingers "That was your life, mate." Yep, just that quick.

"Dig it while you can." Amen, brother.

Glad I found you here.

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Kurt Hicks said...


I am working on writing a rock climbing guidebook to the area that includes the Milwaukee Road. I'd love to talk to you about possibly using the top photo in the post in the book. Please send me a note/email and we can go from there! Thank you. kurthicksATgmail