Mountain West Rail
Rambling through Layers of Understanding
Mullan Pass, to Paradise, Montana - October 19 & 20, 2002
by Martin Burwash

It's hard to know where and how to start.  The beginning seems so long ago that it might be best to begin with what's at the forefront of my mind.  We don't get many second chances, especially in photography.  Last Friday afternoon, somewhere just west of Elliston, MT I realized the MRL was doing just that, giving me a second chance, a chance to take all those pictures I wished I had taken years ago when manned helpers were the rule on Stevens Pass.  I wasn't about to let this opportunity slip by.

Although the scanner had been silent, I could tell by the East Elliston signals a westbound freight was dropping down off Mullan.  There is an interesting set of old brick furnaces dug into the hillside along the right of way just upgrade, the remains of an old lime plant.  The sun was right, I always wanted a pic of a train with those kilns as a background, and so within 15 minutes another photo was added to the layers.

Hell, as long as I was there, I headed down to the West Elliston switch and got a series of them cutting out the 4 unit mid-train helper, a series I never photographed at Skykomish.  A friendly crew had no problem with me hanging around.  With the moves complete, the engineer leaned out the window of his SD45-2 and hollered, "I'll back her up a bit and really get going.  That should give you some good smoke."  My God, only on the MRL would an engineer do a personal photo run-by with a helper set!  More layers, more understanding of why I have to keep coming back.

I was up at Blossburg in time to get another westbound helper train popping out of the Mullan Tunnel into the crisp afternoon light that is so typical of fall in the high country.  The telephoto glint shots of the lead power and the helpers cresting the Great Divide could well be the best shots of the group.  An eastbound freight topped the hill, and the light helper set right behind had standard shots taken of each, but while munching a sardine sandwich, a plan started taking form....

Alongside the westbound signals that control the East Blossburg switch is the old NP sign marking the continental divide.  A westbound stack train was called for Helena at 18:40, putting him at Blossburg well after dark.  A time exposure using the light of the headlight of the train to light up both the signal mast and the sign… should work!  I set up for the shot and waited.  The darkness slowly engulfed me and with it the cold.  I had brought a flannel shirt, but, naturally, hadn't bothered to change into it.  I had my jacket over my cotton work shirt, but 5600' of elevation laughs at that attire.  I was cold, but scared to go back to the car for fear of missing the shot…hell, I've toughed out way worse than this!

There is a beauty about being alone in the high country that is nearly impossible to describe.  I was at the mouth of the cut leading to the Mullan tunnel, but behind me, to the southeast the moon had come up over the mountains.  It was casting its light over the broad pastures and mountains to my left and circling out in front of me.  The coyotes began their nightly chorus, answering their own echoes.  Sound travels so well up there, I could tell the cattle a half mile or so away were bedding down for the night.  When a cow lies down, once she gets situated, she'll let out a grunt and a snort. That sound was now repeating itself over and over.  For a short time the stars where brilliant and out by the billions, but then faded as the power of the moon's glow spread out across the sky.  Believe it or not, even a shooting star streaked overhead.  I was cold, but absolutely content.  Could a poor sinner be so close to understanding the Almighty?

It was strange looking down the cut towards the portal of the Mullan Tunnel.  The opening nearest me was totally obscured by the night, yet I could see the far portal as clear as a bell.  The light of the moon, shining on the opposite side of the mountain was strong enough to cause the effect.  Only now do I wish I had shot full and tried to put that rare sight on film.  Eventually the train arrived and the time exposure taken.  Time will tell if the exposure taken is any good.  I finished the night using the moon light to take various time exposures of Blossburg.  More layers added, it was time to turn in.

Despite being fully clothed, and burrowed into Grant's sleeping bag, I woke up a couple of times freezing.  I started the car, let it heat up a bit, killed it, then burrowed back in.  I had been up since 3 AM, so getting back to sleep was not an issue.  I woke up about 5:30 AM Saturday, but with day break a few hours off, I snuggled back in....

There were still more layers needed as I crested the Divide and headed to Austin just before dawn.  The first order of business was an early morning shot of the old farmstead at the upper loop.  It was a shot taken, and blown, last trip.  The Pasco/Fort Worth did the honors.  An old discarded horse drawn grain drill did the honors as a prop for a Pasco/KC train.  I'm not going to give you a rundown of each train and each shot taken.  There were just too many;  a coal train with twin helper sets, a grain train with twin helper sets, on and on.  Towards the end of the day the Helena West had an eastbound light helper and an eastbound stack train jammed on the main at Austin, with westbound stacks coming up the siding, (sporting an MRL point helper).  That train stopped and waited for yet another helper set to drop down from Skyline.  (In a moment of pure "brilliance" I telephotoed through the couplers and hoses of the two MRL point helpers to shoot the light helper coming down from the upper loop.)  Suffice it to say at no time were there not a least one train and one set of helpers on the hill from about 6 AM to 6 PM, and I had dangerously underestimated the amount of film I was going to need!  But there was another attraction that had brought me here....

I admit that I am not a loyal follower of steam tours.  I have seen the 4449 4 times.  Each time I watched her pass, she was either breezing along on level track, or if climbing the Cascades, her diesel helpers were running hard, all but shoving, or in one case pulling, the grand lady over the hill.  Her exhaust was rapid, but smooth, and if anything, sounding slightly muffled.  About 13:30 Saturday, October 19, 2002, I learned how a steam locomotive climbing a grade truly should sound.

Even without a scanner I could tell the 700 was heading up from Helena.  I had hiked to the top level of track above Austin.  Looking down on the road and the lower loop, over 2 rail miles away, the circus was underway.  Dust from cars flying up the road lay thick in the valley.  A helicopter was flitting around like a fly you can't seem to brush off.  (BTW….that chopper came up to where I was set up…it started to kick up some dust, I gave them a double bird and had made up my mind to shoot the 700 bare assed if that is what it took to keep their video camera from ruining my shot…they flew away and did not come back.)

There were 3 main shots of the 700 I had come to get.  From the big fill on the upper most level of track, I could shoot down on the backside of the old farmstead in the foreground, with the 700 working right to left in the middle of the shot.  I shot it with the RB and the 124mm.  It would be somewhat backlit, but I overexposed slightly to compensate.  It was a beauty of a setting.  My next shot was about 100 yards away and would be a series with the 35mm and the 200.  The sun had done a fine job of lighting up the deep cut threw Iron Ridge.  The tracks curve around the backside of the ridge, pass straight through the cut then curve away from my position, crossing the big fill.  I had the telephoto set up for a series of head-on shots as she came through the cut.  Picture 3 was with the RB, the 65mm, from the same position and would be a near broadside of the engine curving away.  The sun would be hitting her broadside as well, giving me great detail on the drive wheels and rods.  After that, maybe a telephoto or two of her going away and rounding the next bend.

The 700 literally exploded into the Austin Basin.  I was not prepared for the noise of the exhaust erupting from her stack, the smoke being shot skyward with each stroke of each piston.  The retorts were sharp, crisp but labored....

Helena West:  MRL 395, how you guys doing?

MRL 395:  We're coming into Austin now.  I'm down in Run 2…we're letting the steamer do all the work.  We're holding right at 12 mph.

She hit the flange greaser above the first loop, in front and one level of track below me.  The exhaust had a brief chance to escape its slow, regimented cadence and thoroughly used the opportunity until the 395 notched up a bit and got the big gal back on firm footing.  She slipped out once again as she began to lean into the upper loop, and again the old F-45 was content to merely nudge her along before resuming her subservient role.  I grabbed my first shot and ran back to where I had the 35mm set on the tripod.

She's only doing 12, I've got plenty of time.  I carefully swapped lenses on the RB, MADE TRIPLE SURE THE SLIDE WAS OUT, then turned my attention to the telephoto.  Back behind the ridge she didn't sound all that impressive, but when she rounded the backside and headed into the cut….holy shit!!!  The smoke was being launched skyward with a force equal to the pull. And the noise!

Guys, I work around noisy equipment all the time, nothing, I mean nothing other than maybe a jet taking off equals what I was hearing… and she was still 500' away.  I shot my telephoto shots giving up at the last possible second.  I grabbed the RB and waited for her to lean into the curve and come broadside to me.  "Rods down, Martin.  She's going slow enough, wait for those rods to drop."  At least that's what I THINK I was thinking…the stack talk was to the point, if you were standing a foot from me and I was hollering in your ear, you would not have heard a word. The fireman must have given the engineer the word, the low mournful whistle began echoing off the mountains…I squeezed the shutter.

I took a couple of away shots, but they were pretty much after thoughts.  She disappeared upgrade, but her exhaust bounced off the mountains for another 45 minutes before she entered the Mullan Tunnel.  I started to put the cameras away.  My hands were trembling.... my God what a sight and what a sound.  I looked down in the basin below.  The circus had gone.  I laughed out loud, by the time the show had reached me, they were long gone to the next road crossing, fighting each other up that narrow dirt road, the one Mullan had used.  The 700 had given me all she had…selfish to think, but I think she gave me just a little extra pulling around the upper loop.  It was as if to say, "You came all the way up here?  Well in that case let me show you how a steam engine is supposed to climb a mountain."

I hung around Austin the rest of the day as there were still quite a few more trains and helpers on the hill, still a few more layers to add.  By 6 PM I had turned west and was headed for Missoula.  Pulling into town I saw the 700 parked on a house track right alongside a city street.  No one was baring access, and a small crowd of foamers had gathered around to watch the men service the engine.  It was nearly dark, but I set up and took a few time exposures of the number boards…and then…a welder struck an arch.  Could I be so lucky?  Something above the 3rd driver on the fireman's side had rattled loose.  The MRL shop boys were there, shining lights on the work area.  While the foams stood around with their hands in their pockets I rattled off nearly a roll of time exposures of the man welding.  Using various time intervals, I'm hoping at least one turns out…it could be a prize winner!

 I had only seen the 700 twice, and already layers were beginning to form….but I was down to 2 frames on the RB, and I was out of 35mm black and white!

And so there I was Sunday morning, watching the sunrise over the Flathead River, halfway between Dixon and Paradise.  No, not halfway to Paradise, I was there.  I returned to the same spot I had shot the previous two trips.  It was a gamble that paid off.  A slight cloud cover was diffusing the light, a life saver as without it I would be shooting straight into the sun….but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Montana Tourist Department, or Ken Burns, could have used the scene.  When I arrived, I parked the car and headed down the trail to the mainline and the river below it.  To the east the sun was coming up over the mountains and into the clear skies over Missoula and the Jocko Valley.  It hit that clear gap before disappearing into the clouds overhead, its rays sending a dazzle of light over the glass smooth surface of the Flathead.  An otter or muskrat slipped into the water and made a slight ripple as it swam across.  It was as beautiful a sunrise as I have seen.

I dropped down below the tracks and headed out onto a rocky beach that juts out into the river.  With the color body I could shoot across a bend in the river with the telephoto and get the train winding along the bank.  The RB would again have the wide angle, taking in the river's bend, the train and the magnificent reflection of the cloud formations and mountains overhead.  With the diffused rays of the sun streaming through the high clouds there would be a nice glint on the train as it passed by above me.  I had time, so I stretched out on a rock at the edge of the river and continued to read "The Power of One."  Formations of geese flew overhead in lop-sided "V"'s.  Fish were jumping and rolling, feeding off the water bugs.  Although reading at the time so I did not see it happen, one fish jumped so close and landed so hard, water splashed on my shoes.  Like Friday night alone at Blossburg, like Saturday alone at the upper loop, I felt a contentment like no other.

I knew the 700 must be getting close.  The circus was on the move.  Car after car shot by on the highway, all were racing to get to Paradise.  Again I had to laugh.  White fisted, doing 80 on a two lane road all were trying to be the first to get to "Paradise".  Did they know they were driving right past it?  Even the helicopter came swooping past, again being greeted with my "wave".

I was alone, no one next to me, no one on the bank above where I had parked.  The 700 came gliding around the far corner, I began taking pictures.  She was having an easy time of it today.  She had the look of someone who the day before had finished a hard task and now was happy to do a little light work.  It was just me and her and a Montana sunrise along the Flathead River.  How can they just drive by and miss all of this?  I added more layers, but understood very little of the mentality passing by up on the highway.  The wide angle with the RB, if it turns out, will take your breath away.  The sun was glinting off the engine, plumes of steam and white smoke in the air, all being reflected in the slow clear waters of the Flathead.  Even if the photo is a dud, my mind's photos will last forever.

I eventually wandered into Paradise where the circus was in full force.  I did meet Bruce Kelly for the first time, a likable chap.  They had the 700 do two runbys, but I almost felt sorry for her.  Climbing Austin she was like the big elk that share that mountain with me each time I've gone up there.  Out along the Flathead she was like those geese flying overhead, graceful.  Here she was like a bored trained animal, being told to do silly little tricks, all well beneath her dignity.  Oh sure, I put on my clown suit and joined in with the rest of the troupe, but I must admit, my efforts were half hearted, and the pictures will show the phoniness of the whole affair. I added a few more layers of color images and gained the understanding that the heart and soul of the 700 was somewhere back up the line along the Flathead, somewhere in the night at Missoula, and somewhere on the east flank of Mullan Pass.

- Martin Burwash


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