Saturday, May 11, 2019

Kansas City Southern: Ouachita Mountains Revival

Page, Oklahoma

"The first religious experience that I can remember is getting under the nursery table to pray that the dancing mistress might be dead before we got to the Dancing Class." -- Gwen Raverat

The image above did not exist prior to 2018.  Before then the area to the right of the tracks was covered with forest.  Although the underbrush was passable, trees had grown so close to the tracks that a photographer would be forced to stand on the passing siding just to see a train on the mainline.  Plus, the foliage was so thick and tall that only an occasional shaft of sunlight could penetrate.  But in 2018, the trees came down.  How that happened is the subject of this post.

The Forest Encroaches

In a previous post (, I discussed how, once the telephone lines were removed through the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, the Kansas City Southern stopped mowing its rights-of-way, allowing new growth pine and hardwood to crowd to the very edge of the tracks, like screaming patrons shoving to escape a burning movie theater, obliterating most of the best photographic locations frequented by railfans for many many years.  Mine was the lament of an old man yearning if not for his youth then at least for a return to the locations that had given so much pleasure.  But the locations were now gone, as though someone had shamelessly removed most of the famous paintings from an art gallery, leaving only a few random canvases hanging from otherwise barren walls.

Below is an image showing what the mainline through the Ouachita National Forest looked liked before the tree clearing began:

About one mile west of the Oklahoma/Arkansas border

Here the photographer has found a single shaft of light shining through the foliage, like a spotlight in a dark theater, and used it to illuminate the nose of KCS 4196 South, a grainer headed to the Gulf of Mexico.  Although Black Fork Mountain is visible in the background, the image conveys no sense of the splendor of the beautiful ridge, the blue stream and the valley through which the railroad navigates.  The feeling is claustrophobic, something like being locked in a closet with an air hole in the roof through which one can occasionally glimpse blue sky.

In the Spring of 2016, I began hearing rumors that the KCS was cutting down trees along the Rich Mountain passing siding, an area where 40 years earlier one had been able to climb through the sweet gums to the top of a small hill and lean out into the sunshine to photograph passing freight trains that rocked from side to side like alcoholics, with Black Fork Mountain watching disapprovingly from above. 

You Can Go Home Again

When you open an Apple product it's like a religious experience. -- Lee Clow

That Fall I returned to the Ouachita Mountains  for the first time in several years, mostly to see if the rumors were true.  I drove east on Interstate 40 from my hometown of Edmond, Oklahoma, all the way to Salisaw, about 20 miles west of the Arkansas line, then turned south on US 59.  The road to Salisaw crosses several ridges, beginning at Okemah, that grow progressively taller as one travels east, like cresting waves as you swim away from shore.  None of the ridges would qualify as a mountain, but you get the feeling that mountains are nearby.  

Then you turn south and soon enough are climbing Wild Horse Mountain.  Again, you probably don't think of this as a mountain, but it is certainly an impressive climb, and when you reach the top, you can see far away to the south -- the green valley of the Arkansas River, the blue water, and about 30 miles away something rising out of the ground like a huge rock covered with vegetation.  This is Cavanal Mountain, elevation 2,385 feet.  Poteau, Oklahoma, sits at the base of the mountain, which the local Chamber of Commerce claims is only 1,999 feet tall and therefore the "world's tallest hill," the idea being that anything shorter than 2,000 feet is a hill.  I don't care what the Chamber says, it looks like a mountain to me.

Remember, you are still at the top of Wild Horse Mountain, still looking south, and past Cavanal Mountain you see in the far distance an almost straight line rising like a fence from the horizon, filling the view from east to west.  This is Winding Stair Mountain, and no one claims that this is a hill.  So you continue south, and just north of Poteau the tracks of the Kansas City Southern come into view and run beside the highway.  Years ago, when the railroad was broke and about to collapse, before the beginning of the Coal Boom of the mid-1970's that saved the KCS and several other roads, this portion of the highway was littered with the detritus of past catastrophes -- broken knuckles, torn air hoses, steel wheels and axles buried in the mud.  In 1974, for example, the railroad suffered 41 derailments.  But today the tracks are pristine, and you can hear the mountains calling to you in soft October breezes.  I don't know what they are saying, it must be a foreign language, but the tone is alluring.

Heavener is a division point on the KCS, 15 or so miles south of Poteau, and sits at the base of another hill or mountain, take your pick.  The State of Oklahoma has established a park in the highlands and claims that a rock, called the "Runestone" (which the automatic spell checker keeps changing to "Rhinestone") contains inscriptions from Vikings.  I have my doubts, and in any event, you have to hike a ways and then look really close to even see any markings on the rock.  If I were a Viking, I would have made more effort to make myself known.

US 59 continues south for about another ten miles, then gradually turns to the east.  You are now in the Ouachita National Forest, and although the tracks are nearby, they are completely obscured by the foliage.  Soon you realize that you are driving at the north base of Winding Stair Mountain.  You have turned east through a gap in Black Fork Mountain, and the two ridges now parallel your course as you speed toward Arkansas.  Below is a map showing the topography:

At Page, Oklahoma, the first passing siding in the mountains, the tracks become visible again, mostly because the railroad has historically kept this area cleared of foliage for easy access by train and maintenance crews.  If a train crew does not have enough Hours of Service remaining to reach Heavener from the south, the train will tie down at the Page siding, and a van will drive down from Heavener to pick up the now off-duty personnel.

I was hoping that by the time I reached Page, I would begin to see where the trees were being cleared, but no such luck.  The forest was as thick as ever.  Page is where the 1.5 percent eastbound (railroad south) grade begins that is surmounted at Rich Mountain, about 12 miles away.  (Approximately 6 miles of the grade are in Oklahoma, the other 6 in Arkansas.)  At Rich Mountain, trains begin an equally steep descent into the valley of the Ouachita River.  Unfortunately, photography on that side (east) of the hill is almost non-existent, due to the location of the tracks in relation to US 59.  So photographers generally confine themselves to the westside grade between Page and Rich Mountain.

I told myself that I would soon enough begin to see downed trees, but the further I drove east, the more worried I became.  There was no clearing -- anywhere.  I reached the Arkansas border.  A small tavern is located there.  One door is in Oklahoma.  Another in Arkansas.  You purchase your beer in one state (Oklahoma) but drink it in the other (Arkansas).  I stopped in the parking lot, poked my head in the door and asked the man behind the bar if he knew anything about trees being cut down in the area.

"No sir," he said.  "Don't nobody cut down trees around here.  This is a National Forest.  Got to have a permit."

I could not tell if he was standing in Oklahoma or Arkansas when he said that, but I felt my heart sink like a bag of gravel.

I jumped back in my Jeep and said to Bear the Mighty Dog, my railfan companion, "Well, looks like we screwed the pooch."

His look told me that he did not like that phrase.

Not having anything better to do, I continued driving east past mile after mile of forest.  The tracks were less than 30 yards from the highway, but the trees were so thick that I could only catch occasional glimpses of the rails.  I began talking to myself, which I often do when trains and or clouds and or trees don't cooperate.

"I can't believe I would drive all the way down here for this!" I told myself.

"Well, this isn't the first time you've wasted a day," I replied.  "Probably won't be the last, either."

The dog, who has grown accustomed to a grown man talking to himself, paid no attention.

Well, BLANK!" I shouted, shaking the fist that wasn't attached to the steering wheel.

Your Author Attends a Revival and is Called

I'm good at doing the laundry. At least that. And it's a religious experience. -- Robert Fulghum

That is when the miracle happened.  Shortly before I reached Rich Mountain, the trees between highway and tracks disappeared.  The line between trees and clearing was as distinct as between layers of sandstone and granite.  I drove into a clearing awash with sunlight, and this is what I saw:

KCS 4773 North about one mile west of Rich Mountain

On both sides of the tracks, the trees had been not so much cut down as smashed into kindling.  The remains coated the ground like ash, in some places several feet deep.  At the moment, however, I was not too interested in what had happened to the trees.  I was more interested in the view -- a door open to a new world.  In over 45 years, I had never photographed the KCS from this location, because the trees beside the track were at least 50 feet tall.  I felt as though I had died and been resurrected.  No, better to say I felt as though I had walked into a revival tent and heard the preacher call my name.  That was it.  I was witnessing a revival -- a Ouachita Mountains Revival.

Pushers on loaded coal train at same location -- November 2016.

Pushers on loaded southbound coal train at location where the photographer first saw that the forest had been cleared.  This image was taken one year after the initial clearing.  By that time, some of the underbrush had started to grow back.

The French Wield Their Influence

Cleanliness is not next to godliness. It isn't even in the same neighborhood. No one has ever gotten a religious experience out of removing burned-on cheese from the grill of the toaster oven. -- Erma Bombeck

Although not well known, the Ouachita Mountains, along with the Ozark Plateau of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, form what geographers call the U.S. Interior Highlands -- the only mountains between the Appalachians and the Rockies.  I have found a variety of theories concerning the origin of "Ouachita."  One claims that the word is composed of Choctaw "ouac" for buffalo and "chito" for large.  Another posits a combination of the Choctaw words "owa" for hunt and "chito" for big.  

I find the first unpersuasive, because bison roamed the high plains of North America, eating grass, migrating with the seasons.  The foliage in the Ouachita Mountains is far too dense to allow travel by a bison herd, and there is little grass.  To my knowledge, bison never inhabited southeastern Oklahoma.  If you drive there today and examine the forests, you will understand why.

I also do not subscribe to the second theory.  When the Choctaw were forcibly removed from their homeland in Mississippi and driven at gunpoint to what later became southeastern Oklahoma, that territory was completely wild, completely untamed.  The plains tribes avoided it because the forests were simply too thick for travel.  The woods were inhabited by black bears and cougars, both of which were solitary and could not possibly be the subject of a "big hunt."

So what theory remains?  This may surprise you, but there was at one time a fairly strong French influence in this part of the world.  How do I know?  Place names.  A sub-range in the Ouachita Mountains is called "San Bois," a French phrase meaning "without wood." The name was originally given to a creek in southeastern Oklahoma with little timber and later to the nearby mountains from which it flowed. It is one of the many names indicating early French exploration and influence in southeastern Oklahoma.  

Other French place names in the region include:

1.  Poteau:  One of the major cities in southeastern Oklahoma.  It means "post" or "pole" in French.

2.  LeFlore County:  Poteau is the County Seat.  It was named after the LeFlore family of Choctaws, descendants of Major Louis LeFlore, and his brother, Michael LeFlore, Canadian Frenchmen, who, after the expulsion of the French from the territories of the Mississippi River by the English, first settled in Mobile, Alabama, then a small trading post. After remaining there a few years, Louis moved to the what became the state of Mississippi and settled on the Pearl River, in the county of Nashoba.

3.  Fourche Maline:  Pronounced "foosh-ma-lean," this is a 70.0-mile-long tributary of the Poteau River in southeastern Oklahoma.  Oklahoma Historian Muriel Wright translated the French name as meaning "treacherous fork" in English.

Thus, I believe that "Ouachita" comes from the French spelling of the Caddo word "Washita," meaning "good hunting grounds."  There is a Washita River in western and south central Oklahoma that once flowed into the Red River and now flows into Lake Texhoma.  Most Southeastern Oklahoma natives pronounce the two words identically, with the emphasis on the first syllable:  wash-i-tah.

An empty coal train at the same location -- February 2018

Plate Tectonics Are All the Rage

I once said coaching a first-year team was a religious experience. You do a lot of praying - but most of the time the answer is NO. -- Bill Fitch

So where exactly did the Ouachita Mountains come from?  No one knows for sure, obviously, but the most current theory suggests that these mountains are a highly eroded remnant of a much larger range, one that may have stretched from Texas into southeastern Canada.  Eons ago, what is now the southern central United States sat at the bottom of a sea, collecting sediments eroding off nearby land, plus the shells of dead sea life.  Starting around 350 million years ago, multiple tectonic plates collided with the North American plate, helping form the supercontinent Pangaea.  The collision thrust the sea floor into the sky and folded the dry land repeatedly on top of itself, which is why portions of the Ouachita Mountains today contain the fossils of ancient sea creatures, most of which are now extinct.  Provocatively, to me at least,  similarities between rock layers of the Ouachita Mountains and the Appalachians indicate that they may have been part of a massive mountain chain formed by this collision. 

If this theory is correct, then why is there so much lowland between Oklahoma/Arkansas and northern Alabama (where the Appalachians end)?  Well, the theory suggests that about 200 million years ago, Pangaea began to break apart, tearing the huge mountain range in two, leaving a wide swath between the Ouachita Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east. 

But why do the Ouachitas run east/west, while the Appalachians southwest/northeast?  Well, the plate tectonics boys have an answer for that one, as well.  The Ouachitas formed when the south-facing margin of North America collided with South America; the Appalachians when the southeast-facing margin collided with northwestern Africa.  These two separate collisions pushed the edges of the continent forward and up to create, in effect, a single huge mountain chain.

Plate Tectonics has become almost universally accepted, rivaling the theories of evolution and expansion of the universe in popularity.  Even so, not everyone buys it.  For example, the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Volume 14, Number 3 (2000) contains a contrarian article by David Pratt, marshaling a surprising number of facts in opposition.  Here is the conclusion:

"Plate tectonics – the reigning paradigm in the earth sciences – faces some very severe and apparently fatal problems. Far from being a simple, elegant, all-embracing global theory, it is confronted with a multitude of observational anomalies, and has had to be patched up with a complex variety of ad-hoc modifications and auxiliary hypotheses. The existence of deep continental roots and the absence of a continuous, global asthenosphere to “lubricate” plate motions, have rendered the classical model of plate movements untenable. There is no consensus on the thickness of the “plates” and no certainty as to the forces responsible for their supposed movement. The hypotheses of large-scale continental movements, seafloor spreading and subduction, and the relative youth of the oceanic crust are contradicted by a substantial volume of data. Evidence for significant amounts of submerged continental crust in the present-day oceans provides another major challenge to plate tectonics. The fundamental principles of plate tectonics therefore require critical reexamination, revision, or rejection."

If you are interested in this sort of thing, the article can be found online at:

I also recommend Rising From the Plains, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1986), by John McPhee, a wonderfully written book (still in print) containing a serious discussion of Plate Tectonics.  I found particularly interesting the thoughts of geologist David Love, the primary subject of the book:

"There's nothing wrong with ideas, with working hypotheses, but unsubstantiated glittering generalities are a waste of time.  Most of the megathinkers are basing sweeping interpretations on pretty inadequate data.  There are swarms of papers being written by people who have been looking at state and federal and worldwide geologic maps and coming to sweeping conclusions on how mountains were formed and what the forces involved were."   [Page 142]

In other words, take everything you've read in this blog about the formation of the Ouachita Mountains with a large grain of salt.

The Miracle Stretches to Rich Mountain

I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were 22 with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive religious experience. -- Shelley Winters

That Fall of 2016 I had a religious experience.  And who's to judge what form a religious experience should take, anyway?  All I know is that, for years, I had been mourning the encroachment of the forest along the KCS, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, for no reason that I could comprehend, at least part of that encroachment was gone.  Have you ever feared in your heart of hearts that your loved one was dying of lung cancer, that you would somehow need to make plans to carry on by yourself, which would be almost impossible, only to discover that she had contracted whooping cough in her late sixties, which is not pleasant but also is not life threatening?  That is how I felt.  Rail photography along the KCS was not dying after all.

That first day I followed the tracks to Rich Mountain, the summit of the eastern and western grades and location of the second passing siding in the mountains after Page.  Over the next few days, as well as subsequent trips through March 2019, I took the following images:  

This is a southbound mineral train (compass eastbound) approaching the north (compass west) end of the Rich Mountain passing siding in the Fall of 2017.  This is an area that was not cleared when I first visited in the Fall of 2016 but had been cleared a year later.  Because of all the coal traffic on this line, it is not unusual to see BNSF and Union Pacific power; however, this is the only time I have seen both railroad's power on the same train.  This picture gives a good view of how the trees were smashed along the right-of-way.  The detritus here was several feet deep, and one had to be careful walking on it to avoid falling to the ground below.  

Here is the same train meeting a northbound (compass westbound) empty coal train at Rich Mountain, where the trees were cleared the year before.  Now a small strip of undergrowth is beginning to encroach the tracks.  Before the trees were cleared, it was impossible to take photographs in this location.  Forty years before, it had been possible, with much effort, to climb through the forest and obtain a shot while standing on the tracks, as the immediately following image demonstrates.  In about another ten years, the foliage had grown so tall and dense, that photography along the tracks was not even possible.

Rich Mountain, Arkansas -- Summer 1977 -- the era of White Knights.  The photographer in the image immediately above would have been standing in the middle of the trees to the left of the engines in this photograph.

Here the same mineral train is passing the rear of the empty coal train at the south (compass east) end of the Rich Mountain siding.  The photographer is standing in an area recently cleared of timber.  Before the clearing, this image had not been available in the photographer's lifetime.

The pushers on the same empty coal train are headed north (compass) west and have just cleared the siding.  This image shows that the right of way has been obliterated on both sides of the tracks, as though it had recently rained boulders.  I did not find out until two years later how the forest was being removed, which I will discuss in due course.  (This is called suspense -- I think.)

One year later (Fall of 2017) a southbound coal train approaches Rich Mountain.  If you look closely you can see that undergrowth is beginning to appear through the detritus.  Images from later years show that the railroad is making no effort to keep the undergrowth in check.

The grain train is meeting an empty coal train at Rich Mountain.  Not to belabor the point, but shots like this did not exist before 2016.  To those of us who make regular pilgrimages to the Ouachita Mountains, this turn of events has been, as I said, a religious experience.

In October 2017, a loaded southbound coal train is waiting on the south end of Rich Mountain while an empty northbound coal train passes on the siding.  The foliage in the foreground are small sweet gum trees that are growing back from the roots of trees previously smashed.  

The front end of the empty coal train is now passing the pushers on the loaded coal train at the north end of Rich Mountain.  Because train movements in both directions are very slow here (all trains are climbing a 1.5 percent grade), it is often possible to photograph a meet at one end of the siding, then photograph the same meet at the other end.

The pusher on the empty coal train is passing the pushers on the loaded coal train.

Pusher on an empty coal train at Rich Mountain.

Loaded coal train meets northbound manifest at north end of Rich Mountain.

A loaded southbound coal train is about to reach the summit at Rich Mountain.  Beginning in 2016 and extending to the date of this post (May 2019), I have started seeing more and more Canadian National and Canadian Pacific power running through the Ouachita Mountains.

Loaded southbound grain.  Next to coal, grain is the heaviest traffic across the mountains.

Stack trains are not common on the KCS.  Here one is meeting an empty coal train pulled by UP power -- February 2018.

Clearing of the Forest Continues Westward

 If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.-- William James 

In the Fall of 2016, only a small portion of the KCS right-of-way had been cleared, but that was enough to whet my appetite for more, much more.  I was like a dog who has caught the scent of barbecued meat and now cannot focus on anything else.  One question did, however, trouble me.  Why was the KCS knocking down trees?  At that time I believed the tree clearing operation must have involved a large crew working around the clock.  I imagined that the highway running near the tracks would have to be guarded while the trees were coming down, which would require coordination with the Arkansas and Oklahoma Departments of Transportation.  I imaged that the process must have been dreadfully expensive.  (It turned out that my surmises were mostly incorrect, as I will describe shortly.)  What could cause the KCS to spend so much money, a railroad not known for lavish expenditures?  I did not for one second believe that the Kansas City Southern was removing trees to provide a better railfan experience!

I am not privy to the internal workings of the KCS.  I have not talked to a soul who works for the railroad.  I have spoken to certain knowledgeable individuals (who shall remain nameless to avoid being impugned by association with the author) who have indicated that the railroad began removing trees from its rights-of-way in the Ouachita Mountains to facilitate the implementation of the Positive Train Control (PTS) required by federal law passed in 2008, for which the implementation deadline has been extended several times.  PTS keeps track of a train's position in part by Global Positioning Satellites, and the trees were being removed to allow satellite monitoring.

The following was taken from the Kansas City Southern's website:

As the diagram indicates, global positioning satellites follow the course of the train through the forest, and if the foliage is too thick, the satellite cannot see the train.  So the trees must come down.  That all makes sense, but there is still a question I cannot answer.  The KCS cleared the forest only from Rich Mountain to Page.  There are several other areas nearby where the tracks run through equally heavy forest, yet none of those has been cleared.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  In the fall of 2016, clearing had commenced and, like a boy who has just reeled in his first fish, I was thrilled.  Obviously, I returned -- in the fall of 2017.  I did not venture to the mountains in the summer of 2017 for two reasons:  (1) the sun angles are wrong that time of year, and (2) summer weather in the Ouachitas is often hazy and cloudy.

But in October 2017 I was back, and what I discovered not only expanded the miracle but also reinforced my belief that, as I think Benjamin Franklin put it (or some other equally smart individual):  "Beer is proof that God loves you."  Right-of-way had now been cleared west all the way to the Oklahoma border and about three miles beyond.  In my life, the KCS tracks through the Oklahoma forest had never been approachable, except at Page.  From that location, the next available photographic opportunity was on the Oklahoma/Arkansas border.  About six miles of beautiful mountain scenery lay obscured behind hundreds of years of pine and hardwood growth, like a decorative pond long overgrown by trumpet vine and Virginia creeper.

In my wildest dreams, I had never conceived that so many new vistas would be opened.  And therein lay the dilemma.  The preferred method of photographing trains in the Ouachita Mountains is to catch a loaded coal or grain train at Page and chase it up the hill to Rich Mountain.  In the old days -- i.e., the 1970's and 1980's -- there were, at most, maybe ten locations when one could take a photograph.  Now, after the tree clearing, there was a photographic opportunity every foot or so.  Since loaded trains struggled up the hill at 10-15 mph, it was now quite easy to take 30 photographs of the same train before it disappeared into the trees across the Rich Mountain summit.  And I did that more than once.  I now have slide boxes filled with transparency after transparency of the same train, many looking as though they were taken in the same location, because the train had moved only a hundred yards or so.  I was like a basset hound who finds an open sack of dog food in the garage and eats and eats until he makes himself sick.  But just like that dog, I did not mind that I was ill.  The pleasure was in the eating.  You just keep going and going because the opportunity may never come again.  

Eventually, I managed to regain some semblance of self-control and thereafter confined myself to no more than ten images of the same train.  But for me, the enjoyment lies as much in following the train up the mountain as in viewing the photographs.  Plus, I've been down to the Ouachitas so many times now that I am recognized by some of the train crews, who blow the whistle at me and wave.  Don't worry; I won't subject you to ten or more photographs of the same train.  What follow are a few (a very limited few) of the images I took in the fall of 2017.

Here is a southbound (compass east) grain train grinding upgrade about two miles west of the Oklahoma/Arkansas border.  Black Fork Mountain is in the background.  Until the trees were cleared, this portion of the tracks was virtually inaccessible, so thick was the undergrowth.  Now, as the image shows, one could walk right up and take a photograph.

A loaded coal train on the Oklahoma/Arkansas border.  The photographer is standing in Arkansas, looking back toward Black Fork Mountain in Oklahoma.  The tower to the left of the train at one time supported microwave equipment dismantled years ago.  As a young man, I once climbed that tower in a failed attempt to get high enough to shoot over the trees, which now are gone.  I would not try that today (age 68).

Light engines in a location that, before 2017, had been obscured by pine trees.

Canadian National DPU on a loaded, southbound grain train.

Southbound stacks in Oklahoma.

Northbound manifest with Canadian Pacific power.

Southbound stacks plus merchandise freight in Arkansas.

A loaded, southbound coal train has crossed the Oklahoma border and is headed compass east toward Rich Mountain.  The photographer is standing on a small hill that, prior to removal of the trees, had been inaccessible for more than 40 years.

Northbound Empty Grain Train.

The Author Discovers How the Trees Were Cleared

Jiro Ono serves Edo-style traditional sushi, the same 20 or 30 pieces he's been making his whole life, and he's still unsatisfied with the quality and every day wakes up and trains to make the best. And that is as close to a religious experience in food as one is likely to get. -- Anthony Bourdain

In the past, I had always visited the Ouachita Mountains in the Fall.  Although that far south the deciduous colors are usually muted, the sun angles are perfect, and the sauna that passes for Summer has by then moderated.  But in the Fall of 2017, I wanted to return to the mountains as quickly as possible, consistent with the requirements of my law practice, so I made my next visit in February 2018.

I was anxious to see if the clearing had advanced all the way to Page, because there were areas where the highway was significantly above the tracks; removal of trees there would create some beautiful locations, I believed.  

You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I discovered that the only additional clearing had occurred along the Page siding.  In fact, when I arrived on that warm February afternoon, trees were being removed.  Where I had expected a large crew with chain saws and harvesters (the machines that chew up trees and turn them into dust), I instead found one man operating a medium-sized front hoe.  He was knocking down trees, one at a time, with the bucket.  Once they had fallen over, he smashed them into smaller pieces, again with the bucket, until it looked as though a tornado has recently touched down, obliterating everything in its path.  So, apparently, all it took was one man and a front hoe to get rid of the trees.

I wanted to ask him if he had been responsible for knocking down all the trees from Rich Mountain to Page, but I could see no way to approach the front hoe without endangering myself and my cameras.  (If it came down to it, I would likely be more inclined to save may cameras.)  The bucket was swinging back and forth on its extended, yellow, hydraulic arm, smashing into trees with a huge crash, sounding a little like artillery fire.  The trees would first splinter, then crack wide open, and part of me was saddened to think that hundreds of years of forest growth could be reduced to something less useful than firewood in an afternoon.  Crash!  Crash!  Now it was sounding more like thunder.  But part of me was also thrilled, because the front hoe was opening vistas that had not before existed.  For example, until that day, I did not know that the south (compass east) end of the Page siding ran beside Big Creek.

Following is an aerial photograph of this location, taken in winter, when leaves are off the deciduous trees, but before the trees were removed.  As you can see, the siding is in the middle of a thick forest, and even though US 59 is only maybe 30 yards from the tracks, unless you knew in advance, you would have no idea that a railroad line ran so close to the highway.


Here is an image from the same location but at ground level, taken after the trees between highway and railroad were removed.

As nearly as I can tell, this was all done by one man with a front hoe.

KCS power at same location.

Same location, looking in opposite direction.  These trees had probably been obliterated that very day, or at the latest the day before.

You may be wondering why any railroad would choose willingly to construct its mainline through such mountainous territory, when about one hundred miles to the west, the Oklahoma hills are far less rugged and forested, while about one hundred miles to the east lie the broad flatlands of eastern Arkansas that lead to the Mississippi River Delta.  The "last spike" ceremony on the KCS was held in 1897, when trains were at last able to navigate from Kansas City to Port Arthur, Texas (named after Arthur Stillwell, the road's founder).  By that time, routes to the Gulf from Kansas City and St. Louis had already been constructed on both sides of the Ouachita Mountains.  The only place left was through the forest.  Below is a relief map showing the terrain south of Kansas City:

To the west of the mountains, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas line ran from Muskogee, Oklahoma, southwest to Fort Worth, while to the east the Missouri Pacific mainline ran southwest along the eastern edge of the mountains from Little Rock to Texarkana.  A line due south of Kansas City runs directly through the heart of the Ouachita Mountains.

As the relief map shows, however, in the approximate center of the formation, two of the main east/west ridges (Winding Stair Mountain and Black Fork Mountain) are separated by a moderately-sized valley.  Also,   there is a gap in Black Fork Mountain at Page, Oklahoma, through which a railroad line can pass without tunneling.  The summit is reached in the valley between the two ridges.  In Arkansas, there is a large gap in Winding Stair Mountain through which the railroad turns south towards Texas and Louisiana.

Below is a more detailed relief map showing those features:

In February of 2018, I took several images at the Page passing siding and also followed the line back to Rich Mountain.  I present a few of those images here, along with other shots taken at Page since the tree clearing began.

DPU's on loaded, southbound coal train.

Southbound Manifest.

Southbound Grain at Dusk.

Light Engines at Page, with Winding Stair Mountain in background.

Meet at Page -- February 2018.

Northbound Grain at Page.

Empty coal train running around northbound grain.

Pushers on empty coal train running around northbound grain.

Another empty coal train running around northbound grain.  The crew on the grain train waited so long that they went "on the law" and had to be picked up and driven to Heavener.  The grain train sat there all night until a "dog catch" crew arrived the next morning.

A meet at the south end of Page siding.

There was No New Clearing in March of 2019

It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one's bath like a lump of sugar. -- Pablo Picasso

I returned in March 2019 to find that no additional forest had been cleared.  Whatever was needed for Positive Train Control had, so it seemed, been accomplished.  Still, that any clearing at all had occurred was, as I have stated, as close to a miracle as I am ever likely to witness.  I did notice that in several places trees were starting to grow back along the right-of-way.  Apparently, the foliage had not been killed, only knocked down, and the root systems were growing again.  It is my distinct impression that the KCS does not intend to keep the right-of-way mowed.  The only concern is to keep the trees low enough so that trains can be spotted by GPS satellites.  I may be wrong about this, which would not be the first time.  But if I am correct, then many of the photographic locations available in the Ouachita Mountains in the early twenty-first century may disappear in a few years.  Oh, well, a partial miracle is better than none.

While waiting in the check-out line recently at the grocery store, I saw the following headline on a tabloid:  "Boy Without a Brain is Absolutely Thriving!"  So I suppose that there is hope for all of us.  In any event, following are a few of the images I took in March 2019.

Northbound Manifest.

Southbound Local.

The DPU's on a loaded southbound grain train are passing an empty coal train in the siding at Page, Oklahoma.  

Here is another location where clearing the forest has exposed Big Creek.  Before the trees came down, I had no idea that the water was so close to the tracks.  

I have no idea where this image was taken, other than somewhere in the Ouachita National Forest.  I believe that is Winding Stair Mountain in the background, because the ridge is relatively flat.  For some reason, this image reminds me a little of Montana.

And so ends the story of my religious experience in the Ouachita Mountains.  Like life in general, the ending is bittersweet, at best, since the forest is already re-establishing itself around the railroad.  I leave with the following image, to remind us how things looked when the trees first came down, when hundreds of years of forest growth disappeared overnight and one could walk right up to the edge of the tracks and feel, like a newly baptized child, that the world had somehow changed.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog and photos. Each of your posts featuring the KCS in the Ouachitas have been very enjoyable. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Winding Stair Mountain ridge lies west of U.S. 259 in Oklahoma. East of the gap where U.S. 259 runs north-south, the mountain ridge that straddles the state line south of Black Fork Mountain is, "Rich Mountain." Talimena Scenic Drive spans the crests of Winding Stair and Rich Mountain ridges from west to east. The KCS railroad used the name of the ridge to the south for its control point at the summit of the grade which culminates near the headwaters of the westwardly flowing Big Creek, and the eastwardly flowing Ouachita River. The respective watersheds of these mountain streams are fed by the south slope of Black Fork Mountain and the north slope of Rich Mountain. So, "Rich Mountain," might refer to the long mountain ridge featuring such attractions as a lookout tower at its 2,681' summit and the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, or its namesake KCS railroad siding control point and the tiny adjacent community located at the apex of the valley north of the mountain ridge of the same name.