On the trail of the Milwaukee Road

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The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, also known as the Milwaukee Road, was the last transcontinental railroad to be completed across the Western United States in 1909.

In 1914 it also became the only transcontinental railroad to be electrified. By 1927 approximately a third of the route between St. Paul & Seattle, a total of 660 route-miles, was under the wires – making it the world’s longest mainline railroad electrification at the time.

For nearly six decades, smooth, silent hydroelectric power was used to power both passenger & freight trains through the Rocky & Cascade mountains of Montana, Idaho and Washington – with a fleet of 116 electric locomotives of five different types ultimately placed into service. There were two electrified divisions – the 440 mile Rocky Mountain Division and the 207 mile Coast Division – separated by a 216 mile un-electrified section known as “The Gap”.

Though there were many studies illustrating the economic superiority of electric operation over that of both steam – and later diesel, in the 1970’s the Milwaukee Road, facing bankruptcy, became interested in selling off instead of renewing the electrification assets and, in the midst of an oil embargo, made the controversial decision to phase out electric operations in June of 1974.

However the Milwaukee’s pulling of the plug on its electric operations was to no avail. The railroad entered bankruptcy, and in March 1980 the Milwaukee Road abandoned its Pacific extension. A few years later, the remaining operations were acquired by the Soo Line – making the Milwaukee Road the largest railroad abandonment ever in the United States.

The pictures below show what remains of the Milwaukee’s Pacific extension today – the bridges, tunnels, and rights-of-way; the engines and rolling stock preserved in various museums; the stations that served passengers and the substations that supplied power – frozen in time waiting for a train that will never come.

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