In 1901 the first surveying work began and it was estimated the more than 1,400-mile western extension
would cost the railroad around $45 million adding more than 25% to its
total system mileage. However, four years later this number was
readjusted to $60 million. What made the extension so terribly
expensive was partly due to the right-of-way costs. Unlike the GN and
NP the CM&StP was not given free government land grants and
had to both purchase all of its land from private landowners as well as
take over a number of small, new, or floundering railroads across the
region. Still, this did not hinder the effort and in 1905 the railroad's board
approved the building of what would become known as the Pacific Coast,
or Puget Sound Extension. A year later in 1906 the actual construction on the western extension
commenced with the railroad itself building west from its western-most
terminus at the time, tiny MoBridge, South Dakota reaching more than
1,000 miles into western Montana.
From Seattle, heading east, the line was constructed by contractor Horace Chapin Henry, which completed the 450-mile stretch into western Montana. Amazingly, in just three short years the entire extension had been completed and on May 19, 1909 a Golden Spike was driven at Garrison, Montana commemorating the opening of the new route. Not only was the line built in record time but it also was an engineering marvel. While the Puget Sound Extension would ultimately cross no less than five different mountain ranges on its way to Seattle including the Belts, Bitterroots, Cascades, Rockies, and Saddles it did so at a much lower ruling grade than its competitors. The line would also be at least 18 miles shorter than either the NP's or GN's, and traveled through fewer population centers cutting down transit times even further, as well as giving the CM&StP a more direct route.
Perhaps, though, most advantageous was the fact the railroad now could boast that it was the only
true transcontinental whose own rails stretched from Chicago to Seattle
(the Northern Pacific and Great Northern's lines reached only as far
east as the Twin Cities meaning they had to transfer their traffic over
to the CM&StP or ally Chicago, Burlington & Quincy for the rest
of the journey). Less than two months after the Extension was
completed it opened to freight traffic on July 4, 1909. However, it
wasn't until a year later on July 10, 1910 that the first passenger
trains rolled over the new line. In an attempt to compete with the GN
and NP for dominance in the transcontinental passenger market the CM&StP unveiled their new heavyweight trains the Columbian and Olympian with the latter being the flagship of the fleet.
Just a few years after the new transcontinental line had opened the
CM&StP quickly discovered how difficult it was to operate trains
through rugged mountain ranges, even on a route so well engineered, and
decided in an unprecedented move to electrify significant sections of
the route. Thus, the legend of the Milwaukee Road was born. Construction on the first phase of electrification project began
in 1914 at Harlowton, Montana and would reach into the northwestern
region of Idaho at Avery. This first section was completed within three
years and in 1917 the railroad would also electrify its main line
between Othello and Seattle, Washington with the final wires strung and
completed by July of 1927 reaching Seattle Union Station in the downtown
district of the city (this station was shared with Union Pacific and
today still stands, restored). There would remain a "gap" between Avery
and Othello that would never be electrified, initially because the
railroad just didn't have the money, even though it was often considered.
For power the railroad used 110KV 3 phase AC transmission lines and converted this down to a 3,000-volt direct current (DC) system using motor generator sets located inside 22 line-side substations. At the time and for many years the electrified western extension
was the longest such freight operation in the world at 656 miles and
ultimately a number of European countries would emulate the CM&StP's
system. Unfortunately for the railroad the western extension,
including its electrification had come at an extremely heavy price of
$257 million, more than four times the readjusted amount of $60 million
in 1905. At the time freight volume had not been what the railroad
expected and ultimately it was forced into bankruptcy in 1925. A year
later it was sold and reorganized, and in 1927 renamed the Chicago,
Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad as well as officially adopting its knickname as the Milwaukee Road.
That year also saw the railroad open its own resort leading into the
Yellowstone National Park in Gallatin Gateway, Montana called the
Gallatin Gateway Inn,
which would compete with what the Northern Pacific and Great Northern
had to offer.
For power the Milwaukee Road used a number of different electric locomotives on the Extension including General Electric-built boxcabs (Class EP-1 and EF-1), the unique Bi-Polars (Class EP-2), rare Baldwin-Westinghouse Quills (Class
EP-3 they were somewhat similar to boxcabs) and finally the last motors
ever purchased the highly powerful (and popular) "Little Joes" (Class EP-4 and EF-4). The Little Joes were purchased in the early 1950s to replace the
Milwaukee Road’s aging fleet of electrics which consisted of elderly GE
boxcabs; classes EP-1, EF-1, and EP-2 (Bi-Polars).
The Bi-Polars enjoyed relatively long lives and were scrapped in 1962 while the original EP-1s and EF-1s were retired following the purchase of the EF-4s in 1950 (however, boxcab classes EF-2, EF-3, and EF-5 remained in service along with the Little Joes until the end). While the Extension became an efficient and reliable main line, even after the CMStP&P's reorganization in the mid-1920s the route still failed to live up to expectations, particularly with the oncoming of the Great Depression in 1929. Even the surge of traffic during World War II was not enough for the railroad to stave off a second bankruptcy in 1945. Interestingly, the best years of Lines West lay ahead. In 1947 the Milwaukee Road canceled the premier Olympian and inaugurated the posh Olympian Hiawatha between Chicago and Seattle.
This train was custom-built by the
railroad and featured the highly popular "Super Dome" and "Skytop"
observation cars, which were hustled through Montana by matching Little
Joe EP-4s and by boxcab EP-1s west of Othello, Washington. For reasons unknown (although the railroad claimed lack of ridership) the Milwaukee discontinued the Olympian Hiawatha
by 1961. However, in 1958 it began trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) or
piggyback service between Seattle and Chicago, a move that would see the
Pacific Coast Extension explode in traffic growth. Five years later in
1963 the railroad introduced its high-priority "XL Special" (westbound
#261) and "Thunderhawk" (eastbound #262) scheduled freights.
As traffic out of Seattle continued to increase through the 1960s
and into the 1970s, so did the Milwaukee Road's share of this freight.
The merger of Burlington Northern in 1970 played right into the
railroad's hands giving it several new traffic interchange points.
During this time the CMStP&P essentially controlled the Port of
Seattle as it commanded nearly 80% of its originating traffic and also
held roughly 50% of the total container traffic originating from the
Pacific Northwest in general. In other words, the Milwaukee Road was
completely dominating freight volume between Chicago and Seattle (it
also didn't hurt that the railroad could shave almost a full day off
transit times compared to that of the BN).
The demise of the Milwaukee Road had already begun, however. Top
management at the time had all but given up on wanting to run a
railroad. In 1972 it decided to discontinue (but not scrap) electrified
operations on the Coast Division between Othello and Seattle. Then, in
1974 the railroad canceled its electrification completely running its
final Little Joes in June of 1974 between Harlowton, Montana and Avery,
Idaho. Maintenance of the route was all but halted through the 1970s
and 10 mph slow orders were rampant during the line's final years. By
1977 the very poorly managed Milwaukee Road entered bankruptcy
and in an stunning move in 1979 decided to scrap its entire Extension
west of Terry, Montana, some 1,100 miles of track.
Ironically, the best engineered line through the northern Rockies is the
only such route to ever be formally abandoned. Today, much of the
original right-of-way through Montana, Idaho, and Washington remains in
place although it is now owned by locals save for small stretches in
Idaho and virtually all of the line through Washington (which is owned
by the state).
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