Saturday, January 26, 2008

Death on the Hartford

In the days of the Northern Pacific Railroad, it was called the Hartford Branch. It was a line that skirted the eastern edge Seattle and Lake Washington and ran through the northwestern Washington interior all the way to the Canadian boarder at Sumas. The formation of the Burlington Northern made large portions of the line redundant and thus they were abandonned. One reminant survived however, the two mile stretch that ran from the junction of the Burlington Northern east-west mainline, up into the town of Snohomish.

Central Feed, a longtime provider of milled grain for the dairies in the Snohomish Valley is what kept the Hartford alive. Twice a week in the late afternoon, one of the Burlington Northern locals would cross the old Snohomish River swing bridge and switch the mill. It's work done, the train would back down they way it came and continue into Everett.

Then came 1998. With the local dairy economy crumbling, rumors began to circualte about the fate of Central Feed. The longtime family ownership dissolved and the facility was taekn over by Co-op giant Harvest States/Land-O-Lakes. In as much as they already had a mill in the area, we all knew it was just a matter of time for Central.

The time clock ticked down to zero on May 7, 1999. The mill used the last of its inventory and closed their doors forever.

Two days later, the last train on the Harford made it's way into Snohomish and picked up the final empty car from Central Feed. The Hartford Branch saw its last train.

Through the winter of 1999 and into the new millenium, the mill sat vacant. Those of us in the feed business hurried from farm to farm like a group of vultures, trying to pick up what little business Central left behind. All of us were thinking,"better them than us", but all of us knew, Central would not be the last mill to close its doors.

Sitting on valuable real estate, it wasn't long before the property was bought. The mill had to come down. The talk in the Red Barn Tavern now turned to how long would it be before even that watering hole would see the same fate as the mill. It lasted the summer...

With the old machinery having little value beyond scrap, the mill came down without even the dignity of a part by part dismantling. Cranes with wrecking balls tore at the structure, exposing it's inner workings and scattering it like road kill.

As the mill came down, the weeds grew up around the now useless rails of the Hartford Branch.

The last step was the paving over of the rail crossing. The sections of rail were lifted out, ties and all and cast aside so the black toppers could insure a smooth road where once cars bumped across the tracks. It was finished. The last of the Hartford Branch was left to be forgotten.

There's a new library and shops where the old once stood. Whenever I pass by I wonder, when will the last car be pulled from the spur behind my employer, Conway Feed? We all know it's not a matter of if, but when. I have a feeling I'll be there to record the last of the siding at Fir as well.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Make Mine Regular Coffee,....Black

It is not exactly news that where I live is no longer considered a rural, or farming area. Some time back Skagit County, Washington "progressed" into a suburban life style. We are now a bedroom community for the Seattle/Everett metropolitan sprawl. We still farm some, and always will, but nothing like it was even as recently as 20 years ago.

On the corner of Avon Allen and Highway 20, the Country Cafe, (Now called the "Valley") sits empty. The old gravel parking lot that was once jammed with farm pick-ups during the week and yuppie transplants during the week-ends is vacant. The last of the farmer coffee shops is about to fall victim to suburban growth. There are just too many cars on Highway 20 for two lanes. The road is about to be widened to 4 lanes and the Country is in the must go.

The farmer coffee shop was about like the local livestock sale barn. It was where you met your neighbors, did business, swapped lies about how well your crops were doing and gossiped about whoever wasn't present to defend himself. Politicin' was conducted with local elections won and lost depending on the whims of the coffee shop constituents.

But that has all changed. The Midway House, a long time hang out for the farmers in the north county is now an antique store. And now the Country is going to be bulldozed to the point nothing will remain. I even have to wonder, how long will the feed mill and fertilizer plant across the highway be able to hang on. Reflected in the dirty windows of the Country, like so much of ag here in the county, when will they have to be removed for the sake of the increase in population.

So where do we get our coffee these days? Well, it's not at a sit down counter where breakfast was served all day. No, these days you'll see our pick-ups, farm trucks and even the occasional tractor at any number of local latte stands. With so many of them scattered about, no single establishment attracts the numbers of farmers as did two or three coffee shops. In this world where being "connected" is paramount, the end of the local coffee shop has definitely disrupted what was once a vital form of rural communication.

Back at the latte stand, I still hold to the old ways, I'm proud to say. When it's my turn at the window, I hand the cute young thing inside my dirty, greasy tanker and proudly say,

"Make mine regular coffee, black."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Winter Fallow

Winter. The land sits fallow, last year's crops long harvested, this year's crops still in my mind. Like the land, it seems the older I get, the more I want to just wait out winter. Fallow just like the soil. I put in my required 5 days a week at the feed mill, but to tackle the list of winter jobs during my evenings and week-ends, time when during spring, summer and fall I devote to working the land, requires more effort than to farm.

Winter. Occasionally snow covers the mud. Occasionally breaks in the overcast brighten my mood for a moment.

Winter. It seems even my mind goes fallow.

Winter. It is when I have the time to pursue personal goals yet it is the time I have the least energy to put forth the effort.

Winter. I need a dose of spring to make it through.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Stump and The Log

If I ask those who regularly explore the canyon below old Wellington if they walked by "the stump", they immediately know what I am talking about. "The stump" is probably the most recognized image taken at the time of the Wellington slide. Featured on the front page of the Seattle Times only a few days after the avalanche, it was widely claimed that the pipes wrapped around its circumference held captive the lifeless body of a small child. Historians to this day argue the validity of that claim. I don't believe a word of it as there is no evidence of the pipes being cut, or the stump chopped away to release the poor soul. I also take into account, this same newspaper was reporting as fact that the local wolf population was feasting on the remains of those killed. Public outcry to that claim became so vocal, the Times quickly had to print a retraction.

To this day, "the stump" looks much as it did nearly 100 years ago. That is what makes it so fascinating to me. Here is one spot where a close study can reveal just what happened at 1:43 AM March 1, 1910. Yet, it is not just the stump that tells the story.

Laying alongside the stump is "the log". It was the remains of a huge old growth fir tree. Its bark is still black from the forest fires that burned the hillside above the siding at Wellington the previous summers. Under its mass is part of the underframe of a rail car known as the queen pin. Queen pins are specific in design for specific cars. By looking close and comparing this model to old photos it becomes clear this example came from one of the short express mail cars used by the Great Northern.

And so, thanks to the stump and the log, the picture takes form. High above, where the tracks once were, Train 27, the Fast Mail was parked on the outer siding, next to the drop off. On the next track over was Train 25, the Spokane-Seattle overnight passenger. When the slide came down from the mountain above, it first hit the cars of the passenger train, tipping them onto the adjacent mail train. The relentless force of the snow slid the coaches over the mail cars and carried them on down the slope.

Now flipped on its top the remains of this mail car was spun 90 degrees as it too was being carried down into the canyon. Somewhere in that rolling wall of snow a log log was propelled across the bottom of the car like a battering ram, shearing off the steam pipes, air lines and one of the queen pin assemblies. Only when the entire mass slammed against a tree snapped off by the avalanche did it come to rest, but not until the pipes were wrapped around the stump like a set of logging cables.

That is mechanics of what happened, but that is not story. The story is much more disturbing. You see, inside that car were not just sacks of first class mail. Inside that mail car, and all the mail cars of Train 27 were the railroaders who had so desperately tried to open the line. For the first night in over a week men, real people, Lou Ross, Al Dougherty, Milt Hicks and Benny Jarnigan to name a few, were finally able to catch a nap somewhere other than in the cabs of their engines and snowplows.

If the vision of the destruction of this car seems violent, how much more appalling was the death of the men sleeping inside? Wood car decking exploding into splinter's, giant logs crashing down through the snow, and yes the snow, the unmerciful weight and suffocating cold of the snow battered the bodies of these men.

I think too of those railroaders that survived. I think of them as they had the grim task of digging out the shredded remains of men that were their friends.

This is the story the stump and the log tell me.

If the coupler jutting out of Tye Creek speaks of the defiant nature of the men of the Great Northern, the stump and the log tell me of the violence and death brought upon them that terrible night.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lest We Forget

A heavy snow was falling from a dark, gray sky. Cascade cement is what the old heads on the Great Northern called it. The over sized flakes stick to everything and have a bad tendency to slide. A person gets far wetter out in this snow than they will in the rain so well known on the western slopes of the Cascades.

Off of US 2, at Scenic, Washington, on Stevens Pass, sits a refurbished Great Northern caboose. In the summer, it dominates a parking lot that marks the beginnings of the Iron Goat Trail. This trail is built on the old Great Northern rail line over the pass. A line that passes through a town once named Wellington.

During the summer the parking lot is clear, full of cars. In the winter it is buried under the white cement that falls from the sky. In the winter, the caboose is no longer a dominate fixture. In the winter, it sits alone, nearly buried, forlorn and forgotten.

Well, maybe forlorn, but not completely forgotten.

Last Saturday I headed up to the pass. As much as I wanted to photograph the trains of the BNSF working their way through the storm, what I really came to capture was a visible artifact of the Great Northern in the deep snow of winter. For it was winter and the Great Northern's efforts to conquer it that ultimately defined Stevens Pass. An 8 mile tunnel was constructed as a result of the snow that was now falling on that old crummy.

So there, proud as ever, was Rocky the Mountain Goat. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, it seemed even the drifts of snow parted to make sure the mascot and spirit of the Great Northern would not be covered, not be forgotten.

A short distance away, out on the mainline the trains ran not in the least bit inhibited by the elements. The Empire Builder emerged from the safe confines of the Cascade Tunnel and had but a half hour of running before reaching the more temperate lower levels of the pass. Even the heavy freight trains crossed the pass as if it were a warm summer day.

Do they know? Have they forgotten how this all came about?

Rocky stands guard at Scenic, near the old line up Windy Mountain. He stands there, lest we forget.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Rails Along the Greasy Grass

Charles Kuralt called it "the saddest place I know." Even in these post 9-11 times, I would agree with his assessment. The valley of the Greasy Grass is a pleasant spot. Running north and south, the wandering river is marked by groves of elm and cottonwoods, providing shade from the midday heat and shelter from the wandering thunder cells dropping off the Bear Tooth Range far to the west. The eastern side of the valley rises abrupt, the ground broken with deep ravines, parallel ridges and cresting sidehills.

Standing on the east flank of the valley, on the first ridge running southward, I looked down on the flat floor. Green alfalfa fields were being irrigated. The sprinklers sent out their interrupted streams of water, always turning, never traveling. Through the middle ran the modern commerce of I-90 and the BNSF main stretching north from Sheridan and the Powder River. Behind me on the hills to the east, horses grazed the green, but short grass. Still it was quiet, a pleasant wind blowing.

But this is a sad place. Stretched out south of me, for nearly five miles are sporadic clusters of white markers. Not gravestones, not really, but markers of the dead to be sure. Nearly all had the same engraved inscription, "A soldier of the US 7th Calvary fell here June 25, 1876".

There was so much death that day. Not just the soldiers of Custer's command, not just warriors of the non-treaty Plains Tribes. Certainly the death toll, from both sides pales in comparison to the bloody battles of the Civil War, or even the attack on the World Trade Centers. Yet this is the saddest place I know.

What was lost that hot afternoon in June was an entire culture. For the nomadic tribes of the Plains, the fight on the hills above the Greasy Grass was a clear case of winning the battle and losing the war. Public outcries lead to the final push that forever took the plains away. Not to judge good or bad, the final conquest of the native people's of our country began that sad afternoon.

It is a sad place. Looking down the grassy slope towards the Greasy Grass, known now as the Little Big Horn, past the white stone markers of the men of the 7th, cut down that day, and across the flat valley,I see the nation's commerce rumbling north out of the Powder River country. I wonder if the crews on the trains know they are rolling unharmed through the middle of what once was an encampment of nearly 7000 Indians? Indians, under the direction of such historic names as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse,who butchered the troopers of the 7th Calvary. Do they feel a slight sense of sadness as their loud horns echo above the panicked calls of a dying Calvary bugler? I wonder if they realize the pony soldiers dotting the hillside above them failed to do what their Iron Horse so quickly accomplished?