In the winter of 1980 The Chicago Milwaukee St Paul and Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road) abandoned almost two thousand miles of track west of Miles City Montana. The abandonment of the “Pacific Extension” was the largest single railroad abandonment in American history.
The following photo essay documents what may be the final trip on the abandoned Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension from Miles City, Montana to Cedar Falls, Washington.
Feel free to use these photographs on any forum or railroad-related site. We just kindly ask for you to link back to this website if you decide to use them. Finally, we invite you to post comments, memories, or family photos that would help in the documentation of people and places along the route of this historic railroad in the comments section below.
This gallery was updated on July 31, 2018
I have been wanting to tell you guys how much I appreciate you sharing this the last few times I came across it, but couldn’t seem to get an email to get through. I was 17 when the last train left on 3/15/80, and I remember wishing I had the money and a good car to go out there when it happened, but I didn’t. I have always thought that this was a travesty and should not have happened, and now being a railroad employee with BNSF for 25 years, I feel more strongly than ever that the Milwaukee should have been saved for competition and for the capacity it would have provided to the rail network! The country has suffered in the northwest because of it. But, at least you preserved the memories for us and I think that is wonderful. We will never replace the Milwaukee Road, but it can be remembered and you are commended for doing it. Thank you!
I totally agree. Many believe there was sabotage within management. After the trustee ruled to embargo the Western extension, the audit was done on company expenses. It was done twice to make sure there were no mistakes, because what the trustee discovered was that all maintenance and overhead costs had somehow been doubled for only the Pacific extension. Had the figures been entered correctly, a small profit would have resulted, despite the miniscule traffic they were handling by the end. The Milwaukee was a huge threat to the BN monopoly that James Hill had always envisioned since the turn of the century. The Milwaukee prior to 1970 was the only major transcon that had a direct route to Chicago, and after the BN merger, it was potentially the fastest and shortest to Chicago. I totally believe that BN couldn’t have that and some how they were able to destroy the Milwaukee. A truly sad thing to see, and as you stated, it turns out that all of the railroads were really needed in the end.
I agree with that.
There’s a good website (http://www.trainweb.org/milwaukee/article.html) which describes very well in details what happened step by step to the Milwaukee Road during the last years of its existence. The downward spiral began approximately in 1970 and the worse period for the Milwaukee took place in 1977 when the bankrupcy was pronounced and the society fall definitively into the abyss.
During this sad period, there was one man, the mastermind of this tragedy. William Quinn was twice and the last chairman of the Milwaukee.
In my opinion (even if I am not American and not a judge), I consider this man as the principal responsable of the bankrupcy and the disparition of the Milwaukee.
He died recently at 104 years.
This man (who certainly did some good things in his life) has been the worse manager of the Milwaukee Road during 20 years from the end of the fifties to the end of the seventies.
When he was elected to the presidency in 1957, this old attorney was inexperienced in railroad matters and leaved the Milwaukee only just 8 years later to go to the Burlington & Quicy to the president’s chair in 1966 before coming back again to the Milwaukee in 1970 until the end at the presidency to finish the job and “close” the society.
He decided to stop the electric operations and to dismantle the installations (catenary and the substations) at the worse period.
He never succed to achieve any significant mergers as they were projected (the CNW merger or the one with UP and Rock Island for example which was imagine at one time).
The new Fife yard at Tacoma in order to replace Tide Flat was never achieve and has been stopped during the works.
All the strategies he decided were failures and had bad effects: deferred maintenance, more and more derailments after a few years, the lost of some markets and customers disapointed by the quality of the service.
Like this, how do you want that a such society can survive and remain one of the greatest railways network of class 1 ?
For someone who closed more than 2000 miles of tracks and put thousands of employees in the street, what a beautiful professional experience and curriculum vitae.
It’s clearly a sabotage.
This man (and some of his board) could be considered as a traitor to the nation.
Curiously, this man who earned a very good living, worked in a beautiful and confortable office was never judged and condamned by the justice or other instances (shareholders, banks, ICC…) for its disastrous management of the society.
Hill has succeded where Quinn has failed.
Billions dollars were spent to build this network and the Western extension. All this money and efforts was lost for absolutely nothing in 1980, less than a century later after the beginning.
Where I am surprised is that instead of keeping the track in place like Stampede Pass (which was reopen), Homestake Pass and Donner Pass in order to afford to go back, the western extension of the Milwaukee track was quickly dismantled (a few months after the end of the operations), maybe to erase all the traces and avoid anyone to reopen this line, like a murder who will erase any trace of its crime scene.
Thank you so much Mister Quinn for all and rest in peace.
Great photos that you have shared! I’ve traced the Milwaukee line the last 4 years on my mountain bike & have always pictured in my mind what it may have been like with ties & rail! Thanks for sharing!
An awesome trip. If you guys want some help putting the Gallery in proper sequence, let me know. Rob Leachman, email@example.com
Guys, thanks so much for taking the time to share these images for every one to see.
I was only about 10-11 years old when the upper midwest RR scene came crashing down on itself. I will only ever really know the Milwaukee Road in pictures, as I did not have any railfan friends who were of driving age that I could pal around with to see some of this stuff. What was allowed to happen to the Milwaukee (and the Rock Island) is nothing short of being the biggest travesties that the railroad industry, and this country for that matter, will ever know.
The improprieties of railroad management, their boards of directors and the politicians of governments on the state and national levels is nothing short of appalling. Their indiscretions and lack of action in protecting the rail systems forever ruined the collective futures of the rank-and-file RR employees, their families, and the towns the railroad operated through.
The shortsightedness in systematically dismantling and destroying the rail network continues to have far-reaching effects today, as railroad companies struggle to move the ever-increasing traffic on an infrastructure that has nowhere near the required capacity. As a train dispatcher, I see first hand every day the effects of limited physical plant capacity.
I truly hope that everyone who was involved in the shameful behavior that led to the collapse of the Milwaukee Road has or will someday stand in judgement before our Creator for the harm they have perpetrated on the people, families and communities whose fortunes were forever quashed by the actions of those responsible. It greatly angers me and I am at the same time, deeply saddened.
D. J. Holmes
Government policy is anti-rail, roads are not expected to be profitable to survive :$
Thank you for sharing this awesome collection. Both the photos and the experience are now priceless. It is indeed heartbreaking to think we have lost forever so colorful and picturesque this once majestic part of rail Americana.
What a great trip !
Thanks for inviting us all along !
Please let Rob Leachman put photos in geographical order for those of us piecing together the Pacific Extension by photos and memoirs. Thank you for sharing your chronicle. Your expedition is historical.
Questions: Were you able to travel the entire distance unimpeded? Were any block signals alive other than interlockings? Very interesting to see the Mount St. Helens ash appear around Taft going west. Really like the hotel photos with the vintage cars parked out front. Did you guys end up having to camp along the ROW? Did you trigger crossing signals? Were there any trustee police along the way? Rock slides? Ranchers saying WTF? How long was your trip time wise? What was your average speed/miles per day? Did you know about the Bill Taylor’s trip taken by speeder just before you? Fascinating…could you write a storyline corresponding with each day your journey? Thanks again.
yes, I’d love to know the answers to CMST&P’s questions. Such a great adventure, you guys ought to write a book to go with the pics. Great stuff and thanks for posting this!
What a great trip! Thanks for sharing. What camera did you use?
I used an old, used Nikon F1 camera that I had dropped just prior to the trip, so the focus and light meter were not particularly reliable, and as I recall my buddy had an old Pentax SLR, nothing special. I wish we had taken better equipment but that’s all we could afford at the time.
I just found this thanks for Facebook, and am perusing the images now. I made several road trips along the route in 1981, 1982, 1884, 2004 and 2009 and each time note the continued decay of the remaining artifacts. Thanks for sharing these images, they are marvelous.
Fabulous photos of the route! One question: should pictures 184 – 191 have their reference to “Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel” changed to “St. Paul Pass Tunnel” or “Tunnel 20″–to use the Milwaukee’s designation?
Hi Tom, good catch! Got it all mixed up when I was editing these. I have the renamed the photos you mentioned as “St. Paul Pass Tunnel”.
Glad to help out. You have done us all a world of good history by publishing this photo essay! You were the right man in the right place at the right time.
Amazing! So great that you had the chance to do this and did it. Think of all the people who were around then who’d give ANYTHING to go back and do what you did. Amazing photos, thanks for showing us what must have been an amazing trip. I’d love to read comments about what happened along the way. There’s a book in this, I’m sure!
Obviously, they should have kept the railroad police. –CW
These photos chronicle a part of America’s precious past that would otherwise have been as certainly lost as the tree that fell in the forest that no one heard fall. LOL. I hope you will kindly excuse the awkward and silly metaphor but given the hauntingly forlorn, almost quietly desperate, aspect of the subject matter as portrayed, I couldn’t resist. In a way, I am reminded of Peter Bogdanovich’s and Larry McMurtry’s 1971 movie classic “The Last Picture Show.” It rends the heart to find one’s self wishing things could somehow go back to the way they were before the demise of The Milwaukee Road and the languishing of the places along the way, now collectively part of a faded dream that once was, so foolishly and pitifully squandered away and left to decay. But thanks to this magnificent photo sequence, we at least are saved the last memories before the sunset–memories we can hold onto and cherish forever. The right of way, now with rails and ties pulled up remains as scars upon the landscape, has largely reverted to private ownership, the right of eminent domain apparently erased, will likely preclude any opportunity to reinstate this route and there’s the pity. It would at least be something if one could still tour unimpeded what is left of these wonders of the western wilderness.
Wow! I remember being there! fourth from last photo–the kid in bell bottoms. I forgot about the photos I shot of you guys. . . I hope you have the negatives–I must’ve given you the roll of film! What a great bunch of memories your trip brings back.
This is PR Anderson we met out at 611 on June 7.
Wow, amazing pictures of an amazing trip. Thanks for sharing!
Could expand on what happened at Avery. Did you leave the line there?
This … is … awesome!!! My jaw hung open the first couple of times I went through your photos! Hats off to you for having the gumption to do the trip. I retraced the line, by car as much as possible, in October 2010 from Avery ID to Marmarth ND, over most of the course of two weeks, but this… WOW! Thank you for taking one last look at the MILW, taking the photos, and then sharing them!!! Do you have any plans to write up an article?
I so enjoyed taking the trip with you via this website. Although I’m from Wisconsin, I spent two months in and around Cardwell and Jefferson Island, Montana, in the summer of 1994 when I attended geologic field mapping school at the Indiana University Geologic Field Station (located about eleven miles south of Cardwell). One of my field mapping assignments was in the mountains along the Jefferson River, opposite the former MILW main. As a railfan I was always on the lookout for the remaining signs of the Milwaukee Road, and through your efforts I can finally see what it really used to look like there and all along the line. Wow!
I am currently constructing an HO scale layout of the Milwaukee Road and Rock Island in eastern Iowa–as you can see from the photo taken two days ago, the Milwaukee is up and running again, at least at 1:87.1 scale on our second floor. If you’re ever in the Twin Cities (where I’m located), head over to the former Amtrak Midway depot and you’ll likely find a MILW Super Dome and Skytop Lounge, beautifully restored and often pulled by MILW 4-8-4 #261, which is based here.
Thank you for sharing a MOST AMAZING TRIP. As a long time Milwaukee Road Lines West fan I’d like to say I’ve seem most everything there was on that portion of the railroad – UNTIL NOW.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
May I ask a question of the authors (if they still monitor these pages)?
Did you actually travel on the railroad from St. Paul Pass to Othello? Camera failure? Speeder failure? Film development issues? The reason I ask is that just about the only portion of that route I could not get to was that portion when my wife and I followed the old right of way from Mobridge to Cedar Falls several years ago.
Thank you again for an amazing presentation.
For those of us that were born to late to see and appreciate the MILW at its zenith, thank you for sharing. I too, am curious how you managed angry ranchers, police, curious/nosy neighbors and landowners during the trip. How often did you have to take the speeder off the rails and trailer it to the next point?
Great site, so cool to see these pictures. If the line had been abandoned, why were the employees still there at different places, for maintenance issues?
I am French (I apologize for tipping error) and I discover this website looking for some informations about the Milwaukee company.
I discovered the amazing history of this company and the beauty of the Pacific Extension through the Rockies.
The Milwaukee line was the most well built railways line to cross the Rockies and link Chicago to the Pacific coast.
As it was the last transcontinental line built at the beginning of the 20th century, the layout and track was very well studied.
The grade were low (1.7 % in average and 2.2 % maximum), most of the curves were compensated and the altitude of the summits (snoqualmie, St Paul Pass, Loeweth…) low compare to other lines which cross the Rockies North or South of the Milwaulkee line.
This company was at the top of the technology with the electrification which gives power (the Milwaukee was the biggest company with catenaries at the time) and the first long weld rails (experimented near Plummer Creek). Bridges and thresles were all in steel and most of the tunnel in concret (I heard that the tunnels were good to offer a good gauge for car transports on double deck). The line was equiped with an automatic block signals system to offer great capacity.
It was one of the most scenic railway too (Sixteen Miles creek, Pipstone Pass, Vendome loop, Snoqualmie Pass…).
Thank you very much to share all these old photos of the last trip on the Pacific Extension before the track was dismanteled.
I have however a small regret : there’s no photos about the Butte – Missoula and Avery – Othello sections which are interesting too (the authors said that there was a wreckle train on the track north of Butte during their trip, so maybe it’s a explication).
The abandonment of this line was an awful mistake, a great waste of money due to a bad management from some bad leaders (BNSF spent lot of money recently to re open Stampede Pass which is not the best line). The last ten years of exploitation show a desastrous management which looks like a sabotage. It’s one of the huge bankruptcy in the world. Very sad.
hopfully, the milwaukee dream is alway alive, but it’s hard to see this monumental waste.
What service would not have rendered this line if it were still in operation ?
Thanks again for this testimony.
Vrai, c’est trop triste
Je vous invite à voir ce site très détaillé en Anglais sur les causes de la faillite du Milwaukee:
I worked for the Milwaukee from 1970 to 1974 in Tacoma. When you hire top management from a competitor what do you expect.
Thank you for making the images from this incredible journey available for the world to see.
On Google Maps you can still find the Jake’s Garage building in Melstone. It looks like the business has moved across the street to a newer corrugated building.
What a real treat to view this album! I spent the bette part of this morning going over your trip pictures. My one thought was this is what built America. Such cool memories! Thank you!
What I’m amazed at is there still workers employed by the Milwaukee after they stopped running trains and that they didn’t seem annoyed or call the police when you guys showed up on a speeder. Try that today and see what happens!
What did y’all do with the motorcar? I still use mine working signals instead of a hirail. Great photos, I always enjoy seeing them.
Thanks so much guys! for sharing these amazing photos for every one to see!
I see there’s some new photos ot this trip.
Thank you so much for sharing.
What happened between Butte and St. Regis, and Avery and Othello ???
I spent my youth all over the Milwaukee’s Pacific Extension in the 1970’s. Great trip back, seeing all these photos.
What is the backstory on this trip ? Did you arrange permission to ride the rails ? Wish I had had the wherewithall to do the same. Friends and I rode a pushcart from Hyak to Cedar Falls the day Mount St. Helens blew up.
I was an owner operator trucker for 20 years, carried a dirt bike on my rig and did railfanning all over the US especially interested in abandoned ROW’s so CMSP&P of great interest. This group of photos is unmatched anywhere I’ve seen but some important sections where the boys must have traveled are missing, Avery, Id. where electrification ended a key spot on Milwaukee is one, also St. Maries where rails are still in use is another but overall an amazing travelogue.
This is simply, without a doubt, a work of art. Thank you SO much for what could only be described as a trip and experience of a lifetime.
I read the Smithsonian article and was wondering if you have the images of them traveling through SD? I currently live out there and I can’t find a whole lot of photos of the MRC line during the MILW era.
Would have given a million to make that trip. Now it’s worth a million just to view your pictures. Too bad GoPro cams had not been invented yet. We made that trip many times on my Dad’s pass. What a crime was committed to eliminate the competition. Thomas H Ploss “The Nation Pays Again” has it right! Now have my own M-19 & enjoy NARCOA runs on the good old Milwaukee.
This site was recently linked to in the Trains Magazine forum pages under a thread titled (surprise), “The Milwaukee Road”.