milwaukeepic - Electric Railroad through the Rockies

Forty years ago one of America’s most iconic and controversial transcontinental lines closed down for good, having worked for just over seventy years. This was the only electric line that stretched right across the Rockies & popularly called the Milwaukee Road. Despite the controversies surrounding its construction this once expensive, lengthy and high quality engineered, and much upgraded mountain railway route was no more.

The final train of all left the Tacoma freight yards on 15 March 1980. Almost immediately after workmen began the long task of ripping up more than two thousand miles in total of track across three US states – a job that took far more more than a year to complete.

In spite of the slendours of this new railway, the company itself had more humble beginnings. As you will probably know by now, this was the Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul Railroad.** This was a merger of various other lines which substantially completed the system by 1874.

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The start of the long journey eastwards across the Rockies at Seattle’s Union Station. A Class E-2 Bi-Polar locomotive’s in charge of the Milwaukee’s Olympia Hiawatha train. May 1952. Source: Twitter

By the 1890s the company had reached a point just west of Aberdeen, intially this was Bowdle in South Dakota but subsequently extended to Mowbridge. From there it would join up with a greater scheme to connect the Great lakes to the Pacific coast by rail.

By the end of the 19th century the Chicago Milwaukee and St Paul had become a vast network serving almost every corner of Illinois, Minnesota Wisconsin and South Dakota. It too had incursions into Iowa and Missouri but that wasnt enough. In order to make any trade with the western part of the continent the company had to enlist the help of the Burlington, the Union Pacific or the Northern Pacific’s routes, and the Milwaukee directors wanted to reduce their dependency on these other lines and compete directly with these too.

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The westernmost electrified section in Washington. Hansens Creek Bridge in the Cascades. Source: Twitter

In that respect the company’s directors itched for an extension westwards to the Pacific Ocean. A number of surveys and proposals were made for an extension westwards. Finally in 1905 approval was given for the construction of a total of over 2000 miles of new railway in total, a good thousand miles or so of this would take the company to the Pacific.

The only problem was it would be through some of the most difficult terrain anyone could envisage for a railway. Despite the sheer logistics the new route through the Rockies and the Cascades to Tacoma was completed in three years – a major achievement given the number of tunnels and lofty trestle bridges that were needed.

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A Little Joe with a freight climbs out of Avery in August 1971. Source: Twitter

The line was built in the most modern way possible including the extensive use of concrete which was used for stations, depots, bridges and tunnels. It wasnt just this. Within a few years electricity too was needed and and several dams were built in the mountains to provide hydro electric power.

No sooner than it had been built the new railway was being called a huge mistake. It served places of little note and with bare potential for freight. Not only that it avoided a good number of major centres of population en route. The route was described as being ‘egregious’ as well as a ‘disaster.’

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Train on the upper section of the Vendome loop, with the lower section visible further down. Source: Twitter

It wasnt an easy railway to operate. The difficult mountain terrain and the harsh winters made hard work of it. Long steep grades and numerous sharp curves were a struggle even for the company’s steam locomotives. As a result in 1914 the Milwaukee’s directors decided upon what was at the time the world’s biggest ever rail electrification scheme – 440 miles of cantenary system at 3000 volts DC throughout the Rockies from Harlowton in Montana to Avery in Idaho.

Because of this electrification the company now had a highly advanced and convenient railway to the Pacific Coast at Tacoma – which they preferred that over nearby Seattle as this was in their view a better sea port. The company however had running rights into Seattle and were even in fact able to wire up that that section as part of their 1917 western division extension’s 216 mile electrification scheme from Othello to Tacoma.

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The eastbound Olympian Hiawatha leaves Eagle Nest Tunnel and crosses Sixteen Mile Creek, Western Montana. 1954. Source: Twitter

The Milwaukee’s line wasn’t just any straightforward route. It had to gain considerable heights too in order to pass over the Rockies. And that meant twisting curves and lengthy loops. One of the most notable of these was the Vendome loop. Located between Butte and Three Forks, this loop carried the line up to a height which was then sufficient to enable its tracks to get across the 6,000 foot high Pipestone Pass.

The Little Joes

The electric locomotives that ran these routes were some of the most modern available. The powerful Boxcab locomotives were in fact the world’s largest at the time and these worked the line for more than fifty years and were eventually helped out by the newer and equally famous Little Joes. All the locomotives had regenerative braking.

It is said the Little Joes were actually part of a batch of 20 built by General Electric for Russia. The Soviets ordered these in 1946 and the first completed of these was trialled on the Milwaukee Railroad in 1948/49. However when it came to completing the contract the US Government slapped it down because of the developing cold war.

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Little Joes E-21/E-77 emerge from Eagle Nest Tunnel to cross the Sixteen Mile Creek bridge with an eastbound freight. May 1962. Source: Twitter

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Sixteen Mile bridge in the 21st Century. Now forms part of a trail. Source: CS Trains

In desperation General Electric tried offering them to the Milwaukee company instead. The problem was some had Russian 5 foot gauge bogies and these would cost money to alter. Another problem was the Milwaukee’s cantenary was much higher than other railways including Russia’s which meant those much bigger than normal pantographs had to be used.

Eventually the Milwaukee bought twelve of these Little Joes. Three others were bought by the South Shore Railroad. Those latter ones outlasted those on the Milwaukee! I dont know what happened to the other five!

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The Olympian Hiawatha at Fish Creek Tunnel, between Piedmont and the Pipestone Pass, Western Montana. May 1953. Source: Twitter

The above location can still be seen in all its dereliction! The entrance to Fish Creek tunnel is barely visible these days. See this Railpictures page.

The railway’s passenger expresses were some of the world’s most modern trains and they were built with even more luxurious observation cars than those which could be found on the Union or Canadian Pacific lines.

In terms of passenger trains it was a popular route with its most notable expresses being the Hiawatha which was one of America’s top luxury trains.

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Class EP-3 with the Olympian Hiawatha in Montana. 1956. Source: Twitter

Because of the huge costs incurred in its Pacific extension the company, now known as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, struggled to make a profit. Its line did eventually make a profit. The management were however quite visionary and its chairman in the fifties, John P. Kiley, oversaw a huge amount of modernisation across the system. As a result traffic began increasing much to the company ‘s delight.

In spite of those achievements, one company chairman during the last two decades of the company’s existence, William Quinn, was responsible for many decisions that sent the company downhill. A lot of people in fact place the company’s misfortunes and ultimate demise on this particular chairman…

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Freight hauled by a pair of Little Joes near Bonita, Montana. June, 1964. Source: Twitter

Quinn alone was responsible for decisions that were later said to have been disastrous for the company – including the withdrawal of the long distance passenger expresses such as the famous Hiawatha trains. The very last of the Milwaukee’s iconic passenger trains departed Seattle on 22nd May 1961.

He too later authorised the closure of the line’s substantial electrified route – totalling nearly 700 miles because he thought the full diesel option would be much cheaper and would avoid the additional crews needed to man the electrified sections. As a result the last electric trains ran in June 1974.

The line’s decline continued to plague the company and it wasn’t at all helped by the decision to close down their electrified routes. The Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in fact had an excellent network with huge potential. It was one of the biggest in the States. Sadly the company were not making the most of it but rather were letting it go.

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A Little Joe with a freight at Alberton, Montana. October 1967. Source: Twitter

The company sold off its cantenary to a scrap value of approximately $5 million dollars and chose to rely on diesels alone. This happened at a time when an oil crisis was panicking the world and diesel became a very expensive fuel. Completely dieselising the lines through the Rockies in fact cost the company $39 million. Surprisingly the cost of renewal of the cantenary system through the Rockies and extending it to connect up with the company’s other 216 mile long cantenary system in the west (and also upgrading that too) would also have cost $39 million!

In an attempt to manage its losses the company turned down what it saw as non essential traffic. As a result this meant just two trains a day crossed the Rockies and Cascades mountain ranges. This was totally uneconomic in terms of maintaining a line which stretched more than a thousand miles westwards! The line’s maintenance regime was reduced substantially in order to reduce costs – and eventually derailments were occurring along the line almost on a daily basis! No surprise the Milwaukee company ultimately wanted to be shot of their once precious main line to the Pacific coast!

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Avery, Idaho, seen in the early 1970s and where the western end of the 440 mile electric route was. Today this is a highway! Source: Twitter

The end came in 1978. The company decided its once prestigious Pacific extension had to go. Adverts were put in various newspapers announcing the soon to be enacted deed across the various states and counties. Here’s one.

After the line had closed in the 1980s and the company had folded, it was eventually found the Milwaukee company had been responsible for some breathtaking incompetence. The line through the Rockies and towards the Pacific seaboard had in fact made a small but tidy profit through the years, and that even in the final decade of operation. The problem was they had accounted it all wrongly with many expenses being touted over as double.

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The same Avery, Idaho, scene today as seen on Google Streets

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The same location viewed in the other direction during August 1971 – with a Little Joe about to assist its freight train for the next 440 miles. Source: Twitter

No wonder the Milwaukee Railroad thought it was a loss making venture! In the process they had amputated all the various bits of rail infrastructure merely in order to keep their railway alive! Some enthusiasts believe this double accounting was in fact sabotage and an attempt to get rid of the Milwaukee company…

And that was it. One of American’s greatest railroad companies was no-more. Most of the westwards extension has now vanished and many of its structures have been demolished, save for a few spectacular ones. Tunnels have been blocked off and parts of the route are now highways, or in the more spectacular mountain parts, have become trails for people to walk or bike along and enjoy the scenery.

Milwaukee Road gallery

There are many spectacular stretches along the Milwaukee Road, but few have been photographed by enthusiasts though. That is because the line is remote and locations are regularly quite inaccessible. The picture of Fish Creek Tunnel took its photographer a good amount of climbing to reach. It might not seem much of a location but if one were to see the setting in its entire context its actually quite high up and prior to that the line has had to ascend the Vendome loop. Thus its not an every day location one would have used to see any trains!

The next picture however does show some of the spectacular route the line took – and its from a series of press photographs undertaken by GEC for the railroad company in 1915 – to show off what were at the time the biggest electric locomotives in the world.

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One of the EF-1 electric locomotive built in 1915 by GEC and nicknamed Boxcabs.

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Westbound freight alongside the Clark Fork River near Superior, Montana, August 1970. Source: Twitter

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A Little Joe leads three diesels and their freight across Turkey Creek Trestle, near Avery, Idaho. September 1970. Source: Twitter

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Dramatic picture of the motorman at the helm of his huge Boxcab locomotive on the Milwaukee’s western electrified section. 1971. Source: Big Bend Railroad History

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Little Joe with a westbound freight at Garrison, Montana. August, 1971. Source: Twitter

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Freight near Lennep, Montana. July 1973. Source: Twitter

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A set of Boxcabs leads a freight at Newcomb, Montana. October 1972. Source: Twitter

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Boxcabs at Butte, Montana in 1973. Source: Pinterest

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The last years of the Milwaukee’s electrified route through the Rockies. Two Boxcab units and a pair of Little Joes haul a train near Newcomb, Montana. July 1973. Source: Twitter

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A westbound freight crosses the Frontage Road by the Clark Fork River. Nine Mile, Montana 1973. The bridge has been demolished. Source: Twitter

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An eastbound freight begins its climb over the Pipestone Pass. September 1973. This is now a mountain bike trail. Source: Twitter

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A battery powered ‘shop goat’ pulls a Little Joe onto the turntable. Deer Lodge, Montana. September 1973. Source: Twitter

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Just one Little Joe is preserved – at Deer Lodge, Montana. Source: Google Streets

There’s a single Boxcab unit preserved at Harlowton. Google Streets.

Deer Lodge, Montana, is where the electric railway’s main locomotive depots and workshops once were. It was a very busy location right up until the 1970s when the Milwaukee company’s electric traction services were scrapped.

The end of the line

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The Milwaukee’s rails seen five months after closure – no doubt waiting for the scrap merchant. Ingomar, Montana. Source: Twitter

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Martinsdale station just after closure. August 1980. Note the signal. Source: Flickr

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Martinsdale just before it was demolished in 2017. The signal was still there after 37 years! Source: Twitter

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The Milwaukee’s sub station at Taunton, Montana. Source: The Long Hunt

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The former Milwaukee Road near Vendome Loop, Montana. Source: R67Northern

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The entrance to the tunnel at the top of the Pipestone Pass. Source: Trainboard

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Abandoned, partially dismantled, Milwaukee Road structure in Montana. This is the bridge over the Frontage Road. Source: Twitter

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The partially demolished bridge over the Missouri River. Lombard, Montana. Source: Wikipedia

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A derelict bridge near Adair in Idaho. Note the defunct cantenary masts. Source: Flickr

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View of the Milwaukee’s route in Idaho. The trestle bridge in the distance is Turkey Creek bridge – seen in an earlier picture with a train crossing it. This view clearly shows the remoteness of the line. Source: Flickr


This 1915 silent film from General Electric shows the construction of the Boxcab locomotives (Class EF-1 and EP-1) as well as the hydro-electric power employed. There are shots at various locations and from the cab of these new locomotives. The film also shows the Milwaukee’s lines were fully colour signalled!

You Tube video featuring the final week of the Little Joes on the Milwaukee Road in Montana.

A mix of Little Joes and diesels in the final full year of Milwaukee Road electrification.

Plenty of good film including the earlier Boxcabs. The Little Joes were pretty fast – especially on the Hiawatha expresses!

The last ever journey through the Rockies! Enthusiasts bought this platelayers’ trolley and took it across the Milwaukee’s mountain route before the tracks were ripped up. See The Milwaukee Road Abandoned “Pacific Extension” Trip

The Milwaukee Trail, Butte, Montana.

Next post: Along The Milwaukee Road #1

The full list of posts featuring the Milwaukee’s Rockies Mountains electric division:

Introduction: Electric Railroad through the Rockies

Part One: Harlowton to Butte

Part Two: Butte to Missoula

Part Three: Missoula to Saltese

Part Four: Dominion to Avery

My interest in the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad stems from a book I had read as a kid in the sixties on its electrified route through the Rockies. Like our own Woodhead Line, the Milwaukee’s too was a highly advanced and modern electrified railway across a divide (ours being the Pennies) and which too suffered closure.

**I didnt want to enter into the argument whether ‘railroad’ is an American word or not, especially as the Chicago Milwaukee and St Paul was originally known as a railway, not a railroad! No matter which country it was, whether its the UK or the USA its down to the company which description they prefer. Many lines in the States in fact described themselves as railways – and several still do.

Several of our own early attempts – including the London and Birmingham described themselves as railroads (as well as railways) so it seems the UK originally coined the term.