Monday, January 3, 2022

BNSF: Providence Hill


The Palouse is solitary, rising, falling, ripples on a wind-blown pond, deep green beyond imagining in spring, golden in late summer, a place of quiet and freedom and endless possibility.  This is what creation must have looked like when new and pristine, before the laws of thermodynamics took hold.  

A westbound grainer is approaching the summit of Providence Hill in southeastern Washington where the BNSF mainline from Spokane to Pasco climbs out of one of the hundreds of coulees and crosses one of the hundreds of plateaus created during the Ice Age Floods.  Over perhaps a million years, perhaps even longer, ending as recently as 12,000 years ago, what is now southeastern Washington was scoured by repeated cataclysmic floods, ice dams freezing, thawing, freezing, thawing again, and the water behind them surging toward the Pacific, stripping topsoil, stripping down to basalt in places, fracturing, cutting clean like precious stone, in other places depositing silt that blew like sand after the water receded, covering the ground with new soil, in places, over and over and over. 

For at least the past two million years, earth's climate has imitated the early computer game Pong, bouncing back and forth between cold and hot, hot and cold.  During cold cycles, ice sheets would advance like infantry, moving steadily south in the northern hemisphere, further south and further south, eventually to begin a gradual retreat as the climate warmed.  These oscillations occurred about every 100,000 years, within which there were several mini-oscillations, as the ice moved first south, then north, then south again, eventually retreating northward until the next cycle of cold.

A century ago, Milutin Milankovitch suggested that changes in the Earth’s position relative to the Sun trigger the beginning and end of glaciation periods.  These changes involve cyclical (1) variations in the earth's elliptical orbit about the sun, (2) changes in the degree of tilt of the earth's axis and (3) wobbling of the earth as it spins.  Milankovitch combined the cycles to create a mathematical model calculating that Ice Ages occur approximately every 41,000 years.  Subsequent research confirmed this prediction between one and three million years ago. About 800,000 years ago, the cycle lengthened to 100,000 years, matching the Earth's orbital variations caused by the gravitational wells of Jupiter and Saturn.  

These glacial cycles, and the floods that went with them, scoured the landscape of southeastern Washington in many places down to the basalt deposited during the Miocene, when lava repeatedly flowed like maple syrup from fissures in the earth's crust, piling higher and higher with each eruption, in some cases reaching depths of 15,000 feet.  (For a full discussion of the Columbia River Basalt Floods, see Today, this land is composed of dry canyons with steep walls cut into the lava, plus patches of lava lying on the surface of the plateau, called Scablands. The southeastern part, where Providence Hill is located,  contains the silt that created the rolling hills of the Palouse -- deep fertile soil that supports most of Washington's wheat farming.

This DPU on a loaded westbound coal train has just crested Providence Hill and is beginning the downgrade march to Pasco.  Behind the train is a field of recently harvested soft white winter wheat, the primary variety grown in Washington.  About 2.3 million acres are planted each year.

A westbound grain train meets an eastbound manifest in the Washington Palouse. The hills were formed over thousands of years from wind blown silt, called "loess," carried by prevailing southwest breezes. From above, the hills look like giant, grass-covered sand dunes -- which is what, in effect, they are.  In the spring, the winter wheat turns deep green, as deep as a pool of motionless water.  In summer, the grain turns to yellow-gold and is ripe for harvest.  Although nature generally repeats itself across the globe, the Palouse hills are unique.  You will not see anything like them no matter how far you travel.  

At sunset, an eastbound, empty grainer is climbing toward the summit of Providence Hill.  Recently harvested wheat is behind the train, while native grass is seen in the foreground.  Grain grown in the Palouse is transported mostly westward (85-90%) to ports in Oregon and Washington, then shipped overseas.  Some grain is carried by rail all the way, but a substantial amount is carried part of the journey by rail, then loaded onto barges and transported down the Columbia River.  Grain traffic is heavy by rail and barge virtually all year.

During the last several ice ages, glaciers advancing south from Canada pulverized the rock over which they passed, creating dust as fine as mill grist.  The technical term is "glacier flour," which is theorized to have accumulated like silt behind the ice dam of Glacial Lake Missoula.  Geologists believe that this ice dam froze and melted and refroze and melted again multiple times, inundating eastern Washington, creating several temporary lakes that, upon draining, left behind huge piles of silt.  Prevailing winds from the southwest blew the silt into hills of loess.

A loaded westbound grainer is climbing toward the summit of Providence Hill.  Immediately above it is native grass.  Above that is row upon row of freshly harvested wheat.  In the valley is an irrigated field of lentils.  The Palouse is the largest lentil growing area in the United States, exporting the crop around the world.  
A westbound merchandise freight is headed to Pasco, Washington.  At the top of the hill is recently harvested soft white winter wheat.  Planting and harvesting this crop is challenging, because the hills are steep enough for tractors and combines to tip over like June bugs.  Thus, the land is plowed along the contours of the hills.  Harvesting combines follow the same pattern, employing self-leveling chassis and headers that allow the blades to tilt with the slope of the hill, while the cab and body remain level.  A platoon of these machines can shear as many as 100 acres in a single day.  Your author has stood by the tracks, watching harvesters devour entire hillsides, dust like migrating birds rising above them. The newer models sport fully enclosed, air conditioned cabs. 

The Providence Hill summit is reachable on Lind-Hatton Road, which at the top of the grade intersects to the west with Providence Road.  Trains climb significantly in both directions, though the longer approach is from the west.  Because of the lack of trees, one can stand on top of the hill above the tracks and watch trains approaching for miles in both directions.  The line here is double-tracked to avoid bottlenecks caused by slow movements.  

This land averages about 12.5 inches of rain per year and about 20 inches of snow, just enough to sustain dry-land wheat.  When your author visited in June 2021, Providence Hill and environs had not received significant rainfall in over 90 days.  The wheat crop was on the verge of collapse; many farmers were harvesting early for salvage.  (Harvest normally occurs in late July and August.).  One afternoon, your author pulled off the road to take a photograph.  A dusty pick-up stopped on the black-top.  The driver climbed out, short and square, with weathered hands and arms, face lined with tiny rivulets like the fields he plowed each fall.  He told me to be careful parking off road in the grass, because hot mufflers could start range fires.  He was not accusatory, just friendly.  He asked where I was from.  I told him central Oklahoma.  He asked how much rain we averaged per year.  I told him 35 inches.  He smiled and said, "If we ever get that much, I'll retire." 

Coal production in Washington hit a high in 2003 with an estimated 6,232,000 tons, but production ceased in 2006.  Nonetheless, coal traffic across Providence Hill is heavy, bound for coal-fired plants in state or for export to the Orient.  These loaded trains struggle mightily and can be heard for miles before they appear.  Coal has fallen out of favor with the cognoscenti, because it is carbon-based, and carbon-dioxide is considered a planet killer.  This attitude seems incongruous, since plants need carbon-dioxide to survive, and all living creatures are carbon-based.  Nonetheless, in the year of our Lord 2021, the war on coal continues unabated and is likely to persist until the crusaders experience electricity deprivation.

Portions of the Palouse, as in this image, are relatively flat, tilted at a slight angle like a wheel chair ramp.  In such regions, you can look across the fields to small grain elevators (such as the one in the center right) and imagine you are standing in the Oklahoma wheat belt.  The sky is painfully clear, deep blue, as blue as the neck of a pea bird, and the only sound for miles is the approaching train.  In these tranquil surroundings, it is difficult to imagine repeated floods obliterating an ancient land, depositing the loess that today nourishes millions.  

The hills of the Palouse are moderate and sculpted, like the Sand Hills of Nebraska.  The BNSF line in Washington, however, unlike its sister, does not remain in the valley ( or "coulee," the term employed in the Pacific Northwest).  Instead, it crosses the ridge in the background.  The closest analogue I can think of is Curtis Hill in northwestern Oklahoma, although that grade is westbound only.  Here trains struggle in both directions.  The line does not attack the hill directly, instead curving gently with the contour to lessen the grade -- the same technique used when these fields are plowed.    

Near Providence Hill, the tracks often divide cultivated wheat from native grassland.  The contrast is striking, as though two artists of vastly differing styles combined to produce a single canvas.  The vistas are wide, uninterrupted by common landmarks of civilization -- houses, roads, vehicles, people.  The few villages are tiny, often without restaurants or stores or anything really other than a few modest dwellings..  The occasional farmhouses are even more remote.  You feel alone in a vast expanse that no one has seen before, adrift, lost in a motionless reverie.  Montana claims big skies; the Palouse claims an infinite horizon. 

The westbound grade begins just outside the small village of Lind, which once supported a movie theater called the Empire, now abandoned.  The old bank building houses a chicken restaurant and Slim's Bar and Grill.  When your author last drove through, two upstairs windows were boarded, though it looked as if people might be living where glass remained.

The town sits in the eponymously named Lind Coulee, which runs mostly east-to-west.  Past Lind, the tracks turn southwest and begin a several miles climb, in which the tracks elevate about 300 feet, to the summit, then a long downgrade run into Providence Coulee, a much shallower depression, where water did not flow fast or often enough to erode everywhere through the loess.  Only in limited places is basalt exposed, because only water that filled Lind Coulee to its top overflowed into Providence Coulee. 

Before the tracks begin their climb, however, they pass under the remnants of the Milwaukee Road viaduct over Lind Coulee.  All that stands are concrete arches on each side and a single support.  These might be the remains of a Roman aqueduct, or perhaps just the faint echo of a failed attempt to build a third transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Northwest.

[Friend and longtime Pacific Northwest railfan Art Jacobsen notes the following:  "That certain former RR’s viaduct SW o’Lind was their bridge #EE-194A, a 13-span 680 ft. long steel viaduct near M/p 1952.6 (81.25± on NP/BN/BNSF).  It replaced the original 300±span timber pile trestle #EE-194 by/before 1912, when numerous of their original timber pile structures were also replaced or filled-in across the Evergreen State.  The then-BN had the salvage contractor (H&K Rail) remove the steel superstructures in 1981 while the E concrete-arch pier for the latter was demolished-by BNSF when they extended double-track up Providence Hill between Lind & Sand in 2014.  There’s a vid’ clip on U-boob featuring that event, which turned-into an all-day affair account the remaining structure was a bit stronger than expected and it was then decided to leave the W one in-place (it was beyond minimum horizontal clearance limits in any case).]

This westbound coal train has passed the abandoned Milwaukee Road and is beginning to climb the side of Lind Coulee to the summit, following the route surveyed and constructed by the Northern Pacific in the late 19th century.  The approximately 150 miles from Pasco to Spokane were completed June 25, 1881, allowing access to the Oregon Navigation and Railroad Company's tracks along the south bank of the Columbia River all the way to Portland.  When the Northern Pacific and Great Northern jointly decided to construct a line along the north side of the Columbia, from Vancouver, Washington, to Pasco, they chose to connect to Spokane and points east via a newly constructed line along the Snake River as far as Devil's Canyon, then turning due north to Kahlotus and Spokane, a route that ultimately became part of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway. The new road was well engineered with favorable grades and curves.  The original Northern Pacific Line was disfavored mostly because of the grade across Providence Hill, a significant bottleneck. 

Burlington Northern eventually abandoned the SP&S line and retained the NP line across Providence Hill.  The BN was short on money at the time; management was under significant shareholder pressure to reduce costs.  Both lines needed upgrading, and funds were available only for one.  The NP line had significantly more on-line traffic.  If it had been abandoned, Spokane to Lind and Pasco to Connell would have been retained as branch lines. Only 30 or so miles, the portion across Providence Hill, would have actually been abandoned.
  Plus, the many tunnels and bridges on the SP&S line were much more expensive to maintain.     

This is an excerpt from the 1948 Rand McNally "Handy Railroad Map," showing both the Northern Pacific Line from Pasco to Spokane and the SP&S line that ran along the Snake River.  Both routes merged at Cheney, Washington, and used the original Northern Pacific trackage into Spokane.  The map also shows the old Milwaukee Road mainline crossing the NP tracks at Lind.  The Milwaukee Road continued west through Lind Coulee and is today a hiking and biking trail.

[Update:  Art Jacobsen makes the following correction to the Cheney reference:  "T
he former SP&S had its own line (their 3rd subdivision) all-the-way to Ft. Wright Jct. on the then-GN just W-o’the latter’s steel viaduct above the Spokane R.  That was some 2⅛ mi.WNW of Spokane’s GN/SP&S passenger station on Havermale Is., w/a connecting track to the then-NP main @ Scribner, just-under a mile SW o’Marshall – still in-use by both the BNSF & UP @ present.  Marshall’s some 7+mi. NE-of Cheney, where the former NP and ex-SP&S mains were over ¾ mi. apart – latter to the SE, and UP’s “Washy” main is w/in ⅛ mi. of BNSF’s ex-BN/NP main there." 

An eastbound grainer coming down the south side of Lind Coulee.  The Milwaukee Road ran at the base of the north slope.  The photographer is standing on top of that slope, looking down into what once was filled with surging water. 

It is possible that the photographer is also standing on top of a Giant Palouse Earthworm (Driloleirus Americanus).  According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:  "The population size of the Giant Palouse Earthworm is unknown. Data on this species are sparse. The species is difficult to detect and few surveys have been performed to determine its distribution and abundance. There has been an obvious reduction of its range in the Palouse region of Washington with the conversion of prairie to cropland. Additionally, introduced worm species appear to exclude native worm species, including this one."  The Department rates this worm's "vulnerability to climate change" as "low to moderate."

You author is puzzled by this.  If data on this worm are "sparse," and if the species is "difficult to detect," then how can there be an "obvious" reduction in range?  Also, how can anyone possibly know the Giant Palouse Earthworm's susceptibility to climate change?

An even more pertinent question:  what does "climate change" mean?

Bruce Bjornstad, author of On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods, Keokee Books, p. 42 (2017) states:  "Most likely, though, humans' reign on Earth, and their pertubations on the climate, will have long passed before the next ice sheet makes its pre-scheduled North American tour, many thousands of years from now."  

Pushers on a westbound grainer climbing the south slope of Lind Coulee.  The photographer is standing well back from the edge of the north slope; thus, the camera angle obscures most of the canyon's depth.  The sky is completely clear, unsullied by humidity, and the wind is as calm as the sky is clear.  The sound of the train could be heard almost 30 minutes before the headlight appeared, and long after the grain cars disappeared across the ridge, the sound echoed back like a vague memory.     

Eastbound grain.  This image clearly shows the height of the plateau above Lind Coulee.  Westbound trains climb almost to the top, then slide through a narrow passage carved by overflowing flood waters.
Eastbound autos have just passed the summit.

These eastbound stacks have just created Providence Hill and are rolling down the south slope of Lind Coulee, with the BNSF heritage unit second in line.  Summer is the best time to visit this area, though even then the weather can be quite variable. As late as May,  the temperature in the early morning can be below 40 degrees.  From mid-June through mid-August,  temperatures rarely rise above 85 degrees.  When your author visited in mid-June, daytime highs were in the 70's and skies were generally clear.  Earlier in the year, clouds are common.  Winter brings much colder temperatures and perpetual clouds. 

Loaded coal at the summit.  The train will now descend into Providence Coulee, which runs southwest and intersects with Hatton Coulee about seven miles north of Connell, eventually running into the much larger Washtucna Coulee.  Because Ice Age flooding here was only sporadic, water cut shallowly into the loess, which is clearly exposed on the "road" bulldozed on the west side of the tracks to keep fires started by passing trains from crossing into the dry bordering fields.  Your author has driven this route and felt his vehicle sinking slowly into a fine brown powder more like dish soap than soil.  As long as you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and keep moving, you will not get stuck.  At least, that was my experience.  But the tire tracks I left were four to six inches deep, and the dust I raised covered the sky, blotting the sun like a dust devil.  Passage must be impossible whenever it rains.

Below:  stacks at the summit.

This aerial image shows the path of Providence Coulee from the summit to Connell.  The tracks run through grain fields to a few miles south of Beatrice, then through mostly native grassland on the east to Hatton, where the coulee deepens noticeably, and the tracks sink well below the surrounding plateau.  From this point all the way to Connell, the railroad is lost in a small canyon.  From the tracks, the only portion of the outside world visible is the sky directly overhead.  The only approach is to drive into the coulee, following either the railroad's service road or the fire-break "road."  Your author sampled both. 

In the first image above, westbound grain is stopped at the end of double track just north of the tiny village of Hatton, with a population of less than one hundred.  When I was taking these images, a local family was having a birthday party.  Pick-ups were parked up and down the few streets.  Children were laughing and playing in a small front yard.  Music was blaring from inside a clapboard house not much bigger than a single-car garage.  I was standing along the side of the road with my camera.  A rancher stopped in the street, rolled down his window and asked if I was still shooting film.  I said yes.  Turned out he was slightly older than my 71 years and had been shooting film his whole life.  He said he had boxes and boxes of landscape slides taken throughout Washington.  I told him we were the last two dinosaurs.  He laughed.  His name was Hatton.  The village was named after his grandfather.

In the second image, eastbound grain approaches the beginning of double track beside the small Hatton grain elevator.

Below:  A grainer and ethanol train meet at Hatton.

This westbound grainer, with Norfolk Southern leading the way, has passed Hatton and entered the deeper portion of Providence Coulee.  Because flooding was infrequent here, the coulee has not cut down all the way to basalt.  Thus, the loess is at least as deep as the coulee, probably deeper.  Your author did not have the equipment to take a core sample, and in any event, he's not quite that interested in the geology.  Semi-educated guesses are sufficient.

The prevailing southwest winds that blew the loess here from the Pasco basin were interrupted by high barometric pressure caused by advancing ice sheets.  With each glacial cycle, the prevailing breezes changed direction and blew from the east.  During such periods, loess accumulation ceased, and small amounts of soil were created by general weathering and erosion.  Then, when the glacier retreated, winds changed direction and more loess was blown in.  This process repeated itself many times over at least a million years.  If the slopes of Providence Coulee were stripped bare, one would see alternating layers of thick loess and thin paleosol (soil of a completely different nature from a completely different source). 

If you look closely to the immediate left of the small bridge, you will see the author's Jeep.  Reaching this location required a level of foolhardiness unique even to your author.  The loess in this bottom was as granular as sand.  Driving to and through it will not soon be forgotten. 

Loaded coal in the narrow confines of Providence Coulee.  Because of the tight curves, trains in both directions move slowly.  Westbounds are coasting, while eastbounds pull into a mild grade.  Some might not consider this a part of Providence Hill, but the tracks are not flat.  To the left of the train, flowing water has exposed bits and pieces of ancient basalt, a clue to the violent history of this country.  The landscape provides many such clues, if we only know where to look.

More exposed basalt.

These stacks are coasting downgrade.  In this portion of the coulee, on the far side of the engines, the railroad has blasted through some ancient basalt, exposing the depth of the loess.  To the left of the rear of the train is the fire-break discussed above, showing the color of the soil.  The photographer is standing in the same fire-break, boots depressed into about four inches of what feels like cookie crumbs.  Because the soil is so granular, a range fire coupled with strong winds could quickly deplete the loess over a wide area.

[Another comment from Art, who knows this country like old comfortable shoes:  "Christian missionaries, U.S. Army staff, and early settlers all make references to indigenous Native peoples’ (e.g.:  Cayuse, Yakima, Nez Perce, and other regional tribes) periodic firing of the Palouse area prior-to later (i.e.: post-RR) agricultural development.  The practice being identical-to if not adapted-from Plains tribes E of the mountains, and provided-for nutrient enrichment w/vegetative development.  It also kept invasive species under control, and had been part of the natural environment since before the Pleistocene (e.g.:  the native plants had long-been adapted to it).  Undoubtedly, there were also the periodic conflagrations along RR R-o-W’s in the steam era before oil-fired locos became common after 1910 (and NP retained coal-fired types E-of Yakima through the end of steam).  Also, the generally stronger winds occur in the late winter through spring months (e.g.:  prevailing Westerlies during March – May, w/the exception including November) when range fires are usually not common.]

This is Providence Hill in the Washington Palouse.  The hills and sky stretch endlessly, beckoning, but not like a siren, rather like a mother calling her children.  There is no past, no future, just the eternal now.  If you think otherwise, you have not visited this place, have not seen its hills nor listened to its silence.  As Milton put it:  "Solitude is sometimes best society."  

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