In my recent travels to Montana, I started noticing something off to the side of the freeway. It was in a particularly beautiful area, where there’s purplish rocky cliffs overlooking an amazing canyon river. And, much to my delight, there are not one, but TWO old bridges spanning the canyon. On the way home from my latest adventure, I decided to actually get off the freeway and see if I could figure out how to get to them. I pulled off I-90 at the Fish Creek exit and headed towards the river.
I’ve always been fascinated by bridges, especially old railroad ones. I love the idea of a bunch of steel, bolted together in a maze of skeletal trusses, which is able to support the weight of a freight train. This particular spot was a jackpot. Not only was there an incredible old railroad bridge, there was also a steel truss road bridge going underneath of it. Plus, the newer (sexier?) I-90 bridges were right next door. I parked my truck off the road, and decided to have a closer look.
The canyon there is breathtaking. And, surprisingly, there was a forest service campground right next to the bridges. Considering the road was inaccessible, and the temperature was around 14 degrees, I decided against pitching a tent. Instead, I climbed the bank of the old railroad grade to get a better perspective of everything.
As I looked down the deck of the old Milwaukee Road bridge, I had a slight inclination to re-enact that scene from the movie “Stand By Me”. You know, where the kids try to cross a river on a railroad bridge, only to have a steam engine roar up behind them when they’re only halfway across. But, I figured it would probably end up being more of a “jungle expedition” movie scene - where a board gives and they go crashing into the drink, hundreds of feet below. I decided against it. Oh yeah, plus it’s illegal. And there were several Montana Rail Link work trucks nearby. Dammit.
Instead, I sat on an old railroad tie to smoke a cigarette and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. A peace I haven’t experienced for quite some time now. I started to think about things. A lot of things.
I am fascinated not just by old railroad bridges, but old railroad grades. The old Milwaukee Road grade, which parallels I-90 from near Lookout Pass to…uh…somewhere east… is particularly amazing to me. How someone actually considered this route to be possible (or profitable!) astounds me. (Area specific history here.) Anyone who’s ever experienced the Hiawatha bike trail (which is converted Milwaukee Road grade) knows how many bridges and tunnels had to be constructed. Over the years, as I’ve driven to Montana for camping trips on the St. Joe River, I’ve observed that old grade and imagined the labor, expense, and time it took to build such a thing. And the excitement it provided as people zipped by in parlor cars, possibly seeing western mountains for the first time. What an incredible experience. And legacy. But I also wonder - how does something so labor intensive, so grand, so beautiful… suddenly cease to exist?
Such is life.
Suddenly, I hear a rumble in the distance. It was a Montana Rail Link train, approaching from the east on an adjacent track. It's interesting how one railroad is abandoned, while another parallel railroad presses on. With it’s own uncertain future, of course.
Such is life.
As I continued home towards Idaho, I once again observed that old Milwaukee Road grade. I watched it snake around the canyon, eventually curving away from the freeway near the Taft Area. Just below where the Hiawatha bike trail begins. And I thought about how something old and abandoned was remade - into something new and amazing. With a different form and function. And a completely new purpose.
Such is life. I hope.
And the otis G experience begins.