Photo courtesy of Blair Kooistra.
"F-unit Friday. . .
"If I could sum up all what made chasing trains through the dusty expanse of central Washington's Columbia River basin in the late 1970s in one photo--this would be it.
"The wheat rush continues in the irrigated scablands (that sounds painful just to write that!) in the Grand Coulee region, and Lincoln County is one of the state's great grain-producing area. The former Northern Pacific branchline to Coulee City can handle the latest 100 ton covered hoppers, but a car fleet stretched thin with harvest rush has found this morning's return trip to the mainline at Cheney of the Coulee City Turn consisting of 31 old 50-ton capacity 40' boxcars. We see that old Rocky The Goat is rusted away, the once-bright CB&Q Chinese Red faded to pale orange, and even the cars wearing with with-it Burlington Northern Cascade Green are on their last legs. Six-foot wide car doors are coopered and the holes in the wooden flooring plugged to keep leaks to the minimum; friction journals and running boards up top still survive in a "modern" railroad era where the high-capacity covered hopper has all but taken over.
"From off the 44 Road northwest of Almira, we see seven equally ancient locomotives--a mix of 1500 and 1750 hp. EMD Geeps and F-units--top the hill out of Hartline, curving past the concrete elevator at Hanson as tracks attain a new creek drainage to follow down to Almira. This railroad wanders between these rolling hills, looking for the most advantageous gradient, playing hide and seek with US Highway 2 and mostly crossing gravel farm roads at obtuse angles.
"Streamlined covered wagons assigned to the old NP Parkwater shops in Spokane spent most of their time pushing trains over Marias Pass out of Essex, Montana, but their use on eastern Washington branchlines is becoming more common as pairs of SD45's have transitioned into the helper duty. The F's have held on, but in another year most will be in storage with the final operation of the few F9 cab units left in service lasting into late fall of 1981.
"Having lost the Milwaukee Road to photograph earlier in the year, discovery of the CW branch, its old freight cars and streamlined F-units, has made trips to the east side of the state from Seattle a new obsession. But of course, even this was being pushed out the door by progress.
"Owned by the state of Washington now, and operated by low-bid shortline contractors, the CW branch is still moving the grain to the west coast markets. And, true to what we witnessed in 1980, even today it operates with old (1990s) locomotives and the same style and size of covered hoppers deemed cutting-edge 43 years ago, but now deemed too obsolete to make a living on the mainline.
"Things really never change."