The Weed Route
July 27, 2016 7:42 AM   Subscribe

In the winter of 1980 The Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road) abandoned almost 2000 miles of track between Miles City, Montana and Cedar Falls, Washington -- part of a passenger and freight shipping route known as the “Pacific Coast Extension.” Today, what's left of the Extension is "cut up among different railroads and the best engineered rail line through the rugged Rockies and Cascades is but weeds and trails, a vital transportation artery no longer available to shippers and the American economy." But in August 1980, before it was abandoned, two former locomotive firemen and engineers spent $400 to rescue a track-maintenance railway car, a 1952 M-19 Fairmont Speeder, from a scrap heap in a Maine train yard. They used it to travel the route and took photos along the way.

The two engineers, Alan L. Freed and Chuck Bothwell, may have been the last people to traverse the Pacific Coast Extension.

The American Rails link above has much more information about The Milwaukee Road, the Pacific Coast Extension and the 'Hiawatha' trains that traveled the route.

292 of the 450 photos can be seen on Flickr.

Smithsonian, 1984 (pdf): Speeding Along the Weed Route

Previously on MeFi: pjern's post about affordable private railcar speeders.
posted by zarq (20 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, those photos are terrific. How great would it be if there was video, too, like one of those Norwegian rail trips?
posted by notyou at 7:48 AM on July 27, 2016

This is not the Weed Route I expected but I will roll with it anyway, because trains.
posted by terretu at 7:52 AM on July 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Interesting! Much of the Washington portion is now a really neat trail that runs from North Bend to the Idaho border.
posted by shrabster at 7:54 AM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Holy crap! The Minneapolis-Seattle route was overhead-wire electric!
posted by mwhybark at 9:00 AM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cool. I lust to ride these abandoned rail lines.
Last month I rode part of the Weiser River Rail Trail with the WR Wagon Train.

I'm pretty conflicted by the idea of railroads being abandoned. On the one hand, I think we should utilize the rails for shipping and passenger travel. On the other, we could pull up the tracks and let them be used as bike paths and for recreation.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:26 AM on July 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh man, this tickles my wanderlust so much.

A railway line ran through the south end of the hamlet I grew up in, and how many times did I daydream about getting one of those hand-pump engines and riding the rails to... wherever. Maybe to Churchill, Manitoba, which had that one magical cross-hatched line going up to it on the map, no roads, just steel tracks.

And the smell of railroad ties in the hot sun, creosote, and a pile of rusted spikes down by the grain elevator, putting ears to the tracks before walking across the treacherous bridges...
posted by clawsoon at 9:44 AM on July 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Just the greatest. This is the sort of thing I have always wanted to do -- traveling some once-bustling but now largely abandoned transportation route in the US, meeting interesting people, seeing awesome sights and remnants of what used to be, staying in the occasional incongruously grand hotel in the middle of nowhere, eating at weird diners, dealing with transportation breakdowns, the whole nine yards. I guess it used to be pretty cool to travel the old Route 66, but I gather that it isn't the experience it once was. Some day, though, some day.
posted by slkinsey at 10:15 AM on July 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

The West is beautiful.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:47 AM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is very cool. My great-grandfather worked for the Milwaukee Road for over 30 years, including a 10-year stint as a foreman in Miles City, where my grandfather was born. I never met my great-grandfather, so it's both eerie and wonderful to see photos of the then-newly abandoned depots and tracks where he once worked.
posted by fitnr at 10:56 AM on July 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I live right next to one of the power stations, and cannot WAIT until this route turns into a cycling path. From what I understand, it's in the works. Thanks for this post - so cool!
posted by ikahime at 10:59 AM on July 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:11 AM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

That is great time capsule. I've driven the two lanes that parallel most of the Montana route. Many of the buildings are still there. I've stayed in the Graves Hotel (now closed) and the Sacagewea Inn (renovated now.) I've fished many of the rivers and creeks they passed and recognize the views.

The first 14 miles in Idaho are now a bike path (Hiawatha Trail) and I've ridden across those same trestles.
posted by ITravelMontana at 11:37 AM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

It would have been extremely tempting to bring a bunch of beer to drink while doing this.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 12:03 PM on July 27, 2016 [1 favorite]
posted by haikuku at 1:04 PM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is this related to the trail described in Reamde? (asked without reading the links or having a copy of the book in front of me)
posted by Snowishberlin at 1:12 PM on July 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pretty sure the trail in Reamde ran north-south from Canada down into the US. (Can't remember if into WA or ID.)
posted by skycrashesdown at 3:00 PM on July 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Beautiful photos, but profoundly depressing.

The worst part of the story is that Pacific Coast Extension was largely thought to be a money loser, but was actually generating profits for the railroad despite ridiculously poor maintenance and degraded services. The "loss" came from an accounting screw-up (read the last column), and in the end it may be what tanked the company.
posted by mrbula at 11:09 PM on July 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

That's a great link, mrbula. Especially the 5' 2" woman who "wasn't brave" when she pulled a 6' 2" man from a burning oil tanker moments before it exploded.

The comments in the 1980 speeder trip link also discuss the accounting schenanigans used to sell the idea of closing down the Extension. But you'll have to excuse me now, I have to go away and let my grar over that dirty business settle.

Great post, zarq. I was down this rabbit hole all day.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 12:10 AM on July 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Jonathan Raban's Bad Land: An American Romance is about settlers who tried to farm the part of Montana covered by this railroad.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 7:52 AM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Was just coming here to post this. It's fun looking up some of the places they stayed to see if they're still around. Olive Hotel, still there! Hey a train snow plow! Miles City Depot, renovation in progress. Antlers Hotel, gone. New Elk Cafe, gone. Adams Hotel, being restored. Graves Hotel, restored (maybe not still a hotel). Lennep was closer to the railroad than it is to the current road. St Johns Church was for sale, now is not. Sacajewea Hotel, now a boutiquey hotel. Minetta's Diner got scrapped and was for sale on ebay.

The wild horses! The Colombia river crossing! All that ash from the volcano!
posted by jessamyn at 6:24 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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