Thursday, October 12, 2023

1983 BN Withrow Turn

Photo courtesy of Blair Kooistra.

Blair says:

"I shot a tighter Kodachrome of this, but over the past many years, the 50mm Black and White has really grown on me.

"It's gotta be a Sunday morning--this train only operated on Sundays!--and noted BN engineer Michael "Mad Dog" Sawyer, (then years before he had even a clue he'd be writing a column for TRAINS magazine) and I are standing next to appropriately-named Palisade Road, in the bottom of the Palisade Coulee, as Burlington Northern's "Withrow Turn" moves into the first sunlight of the day as it starts up the Two Percent grade out of. . . wait for it. . . .Palisade, Washington. This is the old Great Northern Mansfield Branch, Burlington Northern's 16th Subdivision, winding 60 miles from a junction with the mainline at Columbia River siding (now Albus) east of Wenatchee through volcanic coulees and canyons to reach grain elevators at a half-dozen locations before ending at Mansfield--atop those volcanic cliffs behind the train. This is primitive railroading, even for back when the photo was made: the single tunnel in the narrow canyon up ahead is lined with timbers, the bridges in sad shape, and the rail hasn't been beefed up, most likely, since the railroad was built in the early 1900's. This lack of modernization wrote the obituary for this operation, as light rail couldn't handle anything heavier than a standard 40' 50-ton capacity boxcar full of grain--state-of-the-art into the early 1950s, but too labor-intensive and capacity-strained in the era of the 100-ton covered hopper.

"So, once a week, a pair of (usually) GP9's would take 50 or so empty boxcars built mostly in the 1940's and head off into the wilds of Douglas County, turning with a like number of cars stuffed with wheat--2500 tons of so bound for flour mills and export elevators in Seattle or Tacoma and riding a drag freight out of Wenatchee over Stevens Pass.

"Up they go, winding into the canyon, past an old combine idled for a Sabbath. Great Northern. Burlington, Burlington Northern. The names of rusted and faded boxcars are familiar to the area, and despite their friction-bearing trucks and leaks in the floor, the "B-109" boxcars are among those still kept around on BN's roster for lines like this: not worth the investment to upgrade, as the railroad hedges its bet it can get rid of this branch before the equipment fails for good.

"Largely shackled to this operation by regulation, once the Staggers Act allowed railroads freedom to set rates and make deals with shippers, BN was able to abandon this line, making a better deal to the farmer's co-ops to haul their truckloads of wheat a bit farther, to large elevators along the old Great Northern or Northern Pacific mainlines, for loading eventually into those jumbo hoppers.

"The last train up here operated, I believe, in 1985, and then the rails came up and those old 40-foot boxcars headed for scrapyards...or retirement in some farmer's field as a dandy field shed."

August, 1983 

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