In the early 1980s my family and I discovered the Flathead tunnel. Like many of our summer vacations, we were on the hunt for something interesting. Normally that something interesting was railroad related and our adventure into western Montana in 1982 was no different. We stopped by the forest service office in Libby and grabbed a current map which easily showed us the road up to the west end.
An east bound (#92?) is about to enter the west portal of the Flathead Tunnel.
The campsite was just out of site near the trailers.
Driving with our pickup and camper we’d planned to camp someplace up near the tunnel for the night. Conveniently there was an access road off forest road 36 about 1/4 of mile east of the east switch Rock Creek siding. We decided a spot off the road and outside the right of way fence would be perfect to enjoy the show.
I don’t remember exactly how it played out but several trains passed during the early evening which allowed us to get the feel for the location. Unlike the Cascade tunnel, trains blew out of the west end of Flathead doing 50. Wow, this tunnel was nothing like its older sister. 1960s engineering and construction techniques had made this bore a freight moving machine in contrast to the Cascade tunnel.
Rock Creek Campsite. On Forest Service land of course.
As darkness set in things changed. Somehow the darkness made it seem like the trains were moving faster. The wheels banging the frog at East Rock Creek at 50mph was nerve wracking while during the day it was just a noise. Most trains would get into dynamic brake about half way down the Rock Creek siding causing a big slack run in and the associated crashing noise. All of these mysterious noises in the night made you really wonder if something was going to go on the ground. If it did were we camped far enough away?
The original bungalow sign from East Rock Creek. Replaced in 1983 with a standard BN design.
Tuesday this week something did go on the ground at east Rock Creek. According to news reports a westbound grain train spilled 17 or 18 cars there. I haven’t seen any pictures yet to know how close our little campsite was to the wreck but I certainly would not have wanted to wake up in the middle of the night to loaded grain cars leaving the track. Thankfully train derailments are fairly rare and we didn’t have to be there to witness this one.
Lon and I have been discussing in the past few weeks how there are very few Cascade green painted units in Vancouver. Sunday I didn’t see any. Does that mean the BN is gone? It seems it is at least from a paint job perspective. Heck, even a lowly workaday engine like the 2258 pictured above is now in the proper corporate scheme.
I’ll miss Cascade green. As I was growing up it was a fresh new color on a hopeful new railroad and I came to love it. Something about the green and black meant serious railroading, prosperity, and a bright future. I was hooked. When I lived in Michigan I sought out the Powder River Basin coal trains that passed through town because that was the only way I could get my fix of the green in a land of blue. I needed it because blue was different and just didn’t represent railroading the way I knew it.
I’m sure a few more Cascade green units will pass through Vancouver before the last one is repainted. I’ll keep an eye out for them but I don’t expect much. Does that mean the BN gone? For now I’ll just say another chapter in BN’s history book is nearly finished and leave it at that.
Remember when BN trains had numbers? You might not because for the majority of the last 15 years BN successor BNSF has used alpha symbols for their trains. Train numbers were a bit harder to decipher but after hanging around for a while I could pick up on where most trains were headed. It was pretty easy for me to tell where the trains went to on the west end because I could observe them. The eastern origin or destination was still a mystery for me. Some trains like 1/2 and 3/4 were obvious but as the inter modal era started in the mid-1980s the proliferation of numbers was tough to keep up with. If only we had the Internet in the 80′s because pages like this would have been very handy.
This brings me to the photo above of train 13. 13 (being an odd number was a westbound) was a Chicago to Portland inter modal primarily made up of trailers. Other than train 1, it was the hottest train on the BN in the gorge. On September 10, 1994 when I photographed 13 at Wishram it had just finished a crew change and was proceeding west on a clear signal. As was typical of crew changes on hot trains this one was quick.
Like most BN inter modal trains in the 90′s train 13 ran with SD40s, B30-7As, and B39-8. The version I caught at Wishram was lead by BN SD40-2 8054, a B39-8, and MRL SD-40 209.
I don’t miss train numbers too much, but I have to admit it would be fun to photograph train 13 with the gear I have today.