Sunday, December 17, 2023

My Favorite Western Grades: Part Two


MRL climbing Mullan Pass.

Part One ( showcases Western grades in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.  Part Two looks at your author's favorite grades in the remainder of the western United States and British Columbia. (If one of your favorite grades is not mentioned, it is likely because I have not yet visited it.)

These lines were built in the last half of the 19th century into the first years of the 20th, when engineering and construction techniques were crude.  Men, steam shovels, mules and dynamite were the tools of the trade.  Small tent cities of laborers (Chinese, Irish, Mormons and many others) moved slowly with the completion of each mile of track.  Even today (December 2023), construction across these summits would be major projects, although, unlike in the 19th century, loss of life would probably vanish completely.

These railroads were built at phenomenal human cost.  Each cross-tie is the grave of a worker who perished during construction.  As you review the following images, salute the thousands who came before.

Arizona Divide 

Building southwest through the valley of the Rio Puerco in eastern Arizona, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad halted at what became Holbrook.  To the west stood the Mazatzal Wilderness --  vicious mountains that in the 21st century are not crossed by even the most primitive road. The locating engineers thus chose to follow the Little Colorado River northwest toward the San Francisco Volcano Field, where construction reached the Arizona Divide (7,335 feet) about 15 miles south of San Francisco Peak, a huge strato-volcano towering over 12,000 feet.  BNSF freights now struggle in both directions to surmount this obstacle.

Eastbound stacks beneath San Francisco Peak.

A westbound oil train.

At over 7,000 feet, the Arizona Divide sees a lot of snow.

Kingman Canyon

In addition to the Arizona Divide, the BNSF Transcon climbs two other lengthy grades from Needles to Flagstaff -- a distance of about 200 miles and a climb of about 7,000 feet.  The first is the long continuous climb from Topock to Kingman -- which takes the line through Kingman Canyon. The grade is eastbound.  Westbounds glide serenely downhill, while eastbounds struggle for about 50 miles while climbing approximately 2,700 feet. The original line contained a ruling grade of almost two percent.  In 1922, the Santa Fe constructed a second main of 1.4 percent.  Trains climb through some of the harshest country in North America -- the Mojave Desert.

An eastbound Z climbs the 1.4 percent grade in Kingman Canyon.  The original steeper grade is in the lower right.

Westbound on the original grade.


Crozier Canyon

The second major grade begins at Hackberry and continues unbroken to the summit at Yampai -- elevation 5630 feet at mile post 451.9.  This section runs through Crozier Canyon, where eastbounds struggle mightily against the grade.  Crozier Canyon is unique because, even though in the middle of the desert, spring water flows through it year-round and supports lucious vegetation. 

Westbound in dynamics.  Behind the tracks are leafless winter trees, sustained by the clear flowing stream in the bottom of the canyon.

Eastbound climbing the grade.


Another eastbound.

Seligman to Yampai

Crozier Canyon is the eastbound grade to Yampai.  The westbound grade starts at Seligman and climbs steadily through the Aubrey Valley, which appears flat to the eye but slopes from southeast to northwest with a 1.4 percent BNSF grade.  

Seligman was named for J.W. Seligman and Company, a prominent U.S. investment bank in the 19th and early 20th centuries, until its divestiture under the Glass–Steagall Act. The firm financed several major U.S. railroads in the 1870s (including the Atlantic and Pacific), plus construction of the Panama Canal. Seligman was also involved in the formation of Standard Oil and General Motors.  

"Yampai" is I believe a corrupted spelling of the Yavapai Tribe.

Stacks trains meet in the Aubrey Valley.  The consist on the right is climbing the hill to Yampai.

Attacking the 1.4 percent.


Dragoon, Arizona

Dragoon is the Arizona summit of Union Pacific's southern transcontinental line, wedged like a rock in a tire tread between the Dragoon and Little Dragoon Mountains.  The westbound grade covers only a few miles, rising from Wilcox Playa (a dry lake bed) to the summit where a few hardly settlers scratch out a living.  The eastbound grade starts in the valley of the San Pedro River and climbs about 15 miles through harsh and unforgiving territory that no one calls home. 

Eastbound stacks leaving the valley of the San Pedro River.

Westbound stacks crossing Wilcox Playa and begining to climb.


Mescal, Arizona

The Mescal summit is only about 25 miles from Dragoon.  From the east, the railroad climbs out of the valley of the San Pedro River to a spot in the desert that does not seem like the top of a strenuous ascent.  Though peaks surround a narrow county road crossing the double-tracks, the terrain is flat and mostly treeless.  Traffic from the west climbs from Cienega Creek, and the double tracks on that side of the summit are separated almost a mile.  One line is the original Southern Pacific Sunset Route.  The other is a remnant of the El Paso and Southwestern, retained when the SP swallowed the smaller road in the early 20th century.

Light power at the summit.

At the bottom on the west side, the old El Paso and Southwestern crosses the original SP tracks.

Climbing westbound out of the valley of the San Pedro River.

Maricopa Mountains

The Maricopa Mountains rise stubbornly from the desert southwest of Phoenix, small nubs of a once much larger chain worn down through the eons to rocky protuberances that even an old man can climb.  Trains struggle in both directions to reach the summit at Shawmut, once a helper district, now just a forgotten spot in the sand.  Vegetation here is suprisingly thick for a desert, most notably the giant Saguaro cacti and the amazing Palo Verde -- trees containing chlorophyll in their trunks and stems, allowing them to survive years in which there is not enough moisture for leaves for grow.  

Eastbound approaching the summit, back-stopped by Palo Verde.

Another eastbond at dusk.


Soldier Summit

The route across Utah's Wasatch Mountains that ultimately became part of the Denver and Rio Grande Western was constructed as a narrow gauge line by the Utah & Pleasant Valley Railway in 1878 to access coal deposits near Scofield.  In 1882, the Denver and Rio Grande purchased the U&PV, intending to build east across Utah to connect with the route to Grand Junction, Colorado, then across Tennessee Pass, through the Royal Gorge to Pueblo on the edge of the High Plains. 

The line to the coal mines was misaligned for a road to Colorado, so the Denver and Rio Grande constructed a new narrow-gauge route southwest from Colton down the Price River Canyon to the base of the mountains at Helper.  The line was eventually converted to standard guage, and the four percent eastbound grade to the summit was reduced by the loops at Gilluly.   

Today (December 2023), Union Pacific’s line across the Wasatch Mountains in Utah is little more than a branch, hosting two Amtrak trains per day and an occasional freight or coal train.  The following images were taken when the Rio Grande still operated the line, when Soldier Summit was awash with trains.

Westbound manifest on realigned track required by the 1983 landslide and resulting flood at Thistle.  Original mainline can be seen above the water.


Eastbound Amtrak.

Helper, Utah.

Echo Canyon

Echo Canyon is part of the passage from the western plateau of Wyoming's Overthrust Belt to Utah's valley of the Great Salt Lake.  From Ogden, Utah (4300 feet) to Evanston, Wyoming (6,800 feet) eastbound trains climb 2,500 feet in about 55 "crow-fly" miles.  The railroad distance is about 66 miles.

The canyon begins at Echo, Utah, and stretches about 32 miles beneath red sandstone cliffs as spectacular as anything in North America, cliffs that have overlooked passage of both humans and animals for thousands of years.  Native Americans trod the canyon for centuries, followed by European wagons, the Pony Express, the Union Pacific and Interstate 80.  Highway access is available throughout, making Echo Canyon a location that all rail photographers should visit at least once.  

Westbound rolling downgrade at Echo, Utah.

Eastbound climbing the grade.


Marias Pass

The Great Northern surmounted the Rocky Mountains at Marias Pass, within about 40 miles of the Canadian border, a crossing so relatively mild from the eastern slope, virtually bereft of trees, that God Himself, or perhaps a lesser deity, might have created the passage specifically for 19th century construction.  The western slope, on the other hand, collects most of the moisture from the Pacific, generating snow and trees.  The two sides are as different as the near and far faces of the moon.

Today (December 2023) BNSF runs a wide variety of freights across the pass, while Amtrak's Empire Builder provides daily transportation to Glacier National Park.

At this northern latitude, the timber line is so low that the bare granite peaks rise above the plains like thrones, hiding glaciers in crevices etched by thousands of years of wind, rain, snow and ice.  Trains struggle in both directions, but the summit is open and mostly flat, the perfect crossing.

Eastbound stacks glide down the open eastern slope.

Empire Builder on the western slope.


Bozeman Pass

Halfway between Livingston and Bozeman, Montana, this pass separates the Bridger and Gallatin Mountains.  The Northern Pacific opened a 3,652 feet tunnel under the pass in 1884. A shorter 3,015 feet tunnel just north of the original opened in 1945.  Sacagawea, the Shoshone who guided parts of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, led Captain William Clark and his party through the pass on July 15, 1806.  Montana Rail Link currently (December 2023) operates trains across the summit; BNSF will take control in January 2024.

LMX 8583 climbing the eastern slope.

Western slope.


Mullan Pass

High on the Continental Divide, Mullan Pass overlooks Helena, Montana, with quiet solemnity.  Like Marias and Bozeman, Mullan's eastern slope supports fewer trees, while the western is heavily forested.  The east side presents some of the most spectacular railroading in the United States.  Your author has personally witnessed two coal trains breaking knuckles on the climb to the top -- one inside the summit tunnel!

Loaded coal attacking the eastern slope.

Eastbound on Mullan Trestle.

Westbound coal.

Kicking Horse Pass

My photographic expeditions north of the border have been few, and Kicking Horse Pass is the only Canadian grade in my collection.  The summit is only about half the height of Tennessee Pass, but the timber line is so low (even lower than Marias) that the naked peaks are overwhelmingly majestic.  Unfortunately, the spiral tunnels are below the timber line and lost in the forest.  Woe be to he who tries to hike along the tracks, for the Canadian Pacific guards its property like a nuclear missile siloe.

Beneath Cathedral Mountain.

Field, British Columbia.

Morant's Curve.

Cascade Tunnel

The longest in the continental 48 states, Great Northern's Cascade Tunnel was once limited to electric traction power to avoid toxic smoke in the bore.  A huge ventillation system installed in the 1950's obviated the electrics, though train crews are still given breathing equipment for emergencies.  

After a train exits the tunnel, the next movement must wait until the smoke is cleared, which in your author's experience can sometimes take almost an hour.  When the electric blower units are operating on the east portal, smoke flows steadily out the west.  The first time your author saw it, he thought the tunnel was on fire. 

East Portal.

An empty eastbound coal train has emerged from the bore.

West Portal.

Trinidad Hill

Another obstacle on the Great Northern's mainline to the Puget Sound was Trinidad Hill, where eastbound trains climb out of the Columbia River Gorge, no simple river valley, but a gigantic chasm carved into ancient basalt by massive Ice Age floods.  Trains struggle northeast up a steep grade through Lynch Coulee, then horseshoe back to the southwest, still climbing, eventually reaching the plateau overlooking the canyon.  

Like many prime railroad photographic locations, Trinidad Hill is remote and peaceful.  Standing at the top of the grade, looking down at what millions of years have wrought, one realizes that one's part in the grand drama is rather miniscule.

Empty eastbound coal struggles out of the Columbia River Gorge.


At river level, preparing to climb.


The horseshoe.

Providence Hill

Providence Hill is located in the southeast Washington Palouse, hills 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. 

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.  

Westbound grain climbing the grade to the top of the ridge.

Eastbound empty grain approaching the summit.

The summit.  In the background is recently harvested wheat.

Pritchard Creek Horseshoe

Union Pacific's line to the Pacific Northwest follows the Oregon Trail along the Snake River in Idaho to the approach to Hell's Canyon, a little-known scenic wonder rivaling the Grand Canyon, impassible by land, passible by water only to the brave and/or foolhardy.  The locating engineers then crossed the water into Oregon along the tiny Burnt River through a narrow canyon not much wider than the interstate highway that follows it today.

This defile opens on the north to the Durkee Valley, which sits at the base of a steep ridge separating the Burnt from the Powder River.  The tracks climb a magnificent horseshoe at Pritchard Creek, one of the most bucolic railroad settings your author has seen.


An eastbound UP manifest in full dynamics is approaching the horseshoe.


Same train in the horseshoe.



Telocaset, Oregon

There is no easy path from Oregon's Powder River Valley north to the Grande Rhonde Valley.  Both are like flat-bottomed bowls in a sand box, surrounded by mountains and hills that prevent tranquil passage.  In the 20th century, Interstate 84 climbed the grade through territory much too rugged for covered wagons and later railroads.  The Oregon Trail serpentined to the east through a narrow defile in the hills and climbed the second sustained grade between the Snake River and the Blue Mountains, the route later followed by the Union Pacific.  Today a narrow country road mostly follows the tracks through a cleft barely wide enough for automobiles.  Trains struggle in both directions to reach the summit at Telocaset, a Nez Perce word meaning "a thing at the top" or "put on top". 

Two UP manifests meet on the northern slope of Telecaset Hill.

Northbound stacks beginning the climb.

Top of the grade.

Mount Shasta, California

Mount Shasta is a member of the Ring of Fire stratovolcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean from Asia to North America.  With a total height over 14,000 feet, it stands almost 10,000 feet above the surrounding landscape like an immense throne.  Those living beneath it seem not to mind that it is still active, erupting as recently as 200 years ago. 

The most strenuous railroad climb is Cantara Loop, where northbound trains climb out of the Sacramento River Valley.  This area is surrounded by huge trees, making photography virtually impossible.  Fortunately, many other locations make Mount Shasta well worth a visit.

A southbound manifest travels through a recent forest fire.

Northbound beneath the volcano.

Southbound work train.

 Donner Summit

Like other famous Western passes, Donner's windward slope sees more rainfall than the east and therefore supports more vegetation.  From Truckee east down the canyon of the Truckee River into Nevada, the tracks are reasonably clear.  West of Truckee, the forest grows more densely.  West of the summit, the railroad is mostly lost in a thicket. 

Though this crossing of the Sierra Nevada is significantly milder than anything to the south, trains still struggle mightily in both directions.  The winter weather is legendary, and your author has only visited in summer.  

Entering Nevada.
Amtrak at the top.

East of Truckee.

Goffs Hill

From the Colorado River to the Pacific, BNSF's Transcon encounters four California grades that in the days of steam required helpers.  The first is Goffs Hill, an approximately 30 miles westbound climb out of the river valley.  In the 21st century, high priority traffic climbs the grade fairly easily, but heavy trains still struggle.  The harsh Mojave Desert watches with quiet bemusement.  

We think that we have mastered the elements, but a short trip to this desert dislodges that fantastic conceit.  The idea that man can conquer the Mojave is the equivalent of belief that someday we will turn our swords into plowshares.

Beginning the climb.

A slow manifest beside the dead mountains.

Halfway up the hill.

Bolo Hill

Between Amboy and Cadiz (rhymes with "ladies"), BNSF freights in both directions climb this relatively short grade in weather as hot or hotter than 117 degrees Farenheight in summer.  In days of old, steam helpers cut off at the summit, and though its rails have lone been removed, the "Y" is still visible in the desert sand.  Reaching this location, several miles off the nearest paved road, requires a drive through desolation that defies description.  

Westbound stacks beginning the climb out of Cadiz.

Eastbound at summit.

Eastbound at dusk.  If you look closely, you can see four more eastbounds behind this one.

Ash Hill

Ash Hill takes its name from the volcanic detritus that covers the ground like -- well, like ash.  Because of lack of rain and plant growth, the landscape is little changed from the era when the ground exploded with lava.  The original line marched straight up the hill.  Subsequently, the Santa Fe constructed a second track curving around the impediment on a shallower grade.  

As westbounds climb to a higher level of this wasteland, the terrain grows even more forebidding.  If T.S. Elliot had seen the Mojave, his famous poem might have turned out differently.

The mid-trains in the foreground are coasting downgrade.  The train in the background is on the shallower alignment.

One train nears the bottom, while another begins to climb.

Dusk at Ash Hill.

Cajon Pass

To the north and east, the Los Angeles Basin is surrounded by mountains that rise above the flatlands like a stockade.  Cajon Pass provides a desert entry between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains and crosses directly over the notorious San Andreas Fault.  

The grade is one-way – from southwest to northeast.  In places, the pass is not even a mile wide and contains some of the most fascinating geology in North America.  

Right here, where highways, railroads, high pressure gas lines and high voltage electric lines all run side-by-side, the earth is both rising and turning simultaneously year after year, enough that all transit modes through the pass must be continuously realigned to avoid rupture.  When the next major earthquake occurs – and it is a matter of “when,” not “if” – it is fair to say that all hell will break loose.

Westbound BNSF rolling downgrade.

Eastbound.  Above the motive power is the Palmdale Cut-off, constructed by Southern Pacific in the 1960's, now operated by Union Pacific.


Tehachapi Loop

We end with my personal favorite.  To me, Tehachapi Loop is a gigantic model train layout in someone's gigantic garage -- a layout constructed with care and precision over a lifetime.  There is a northbound grade coming off the high desert, but the real climb is south out of the San Joaquin Valley through the southern end of the Sierra Nevada.  From the valley to summit, the landscape is almost beyond belief, like something constructed by a child in a sandbox -- impossibly flat valleys and impossibilty steep hills and a railroad without tangent track.  This grade shows the extent of human imagination.

In the day of Santa Fe.

Union Pacific in the Loop.


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