Opportunity and Loss on the St. Maries River Railroad

Why do some changes hurt more than others?

After receiving the latest issue of Railroad Heritage, with it’s wonderful photo feature on the St. Maries River Railroad (STMA) by Marc Entze, I was awestruck and a bit saddened by the images and accompanying story. I had visited the railroad twice in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the character of the railroad with its operations and soul seemingly frozen in the 1970’s. I never got to complete the photographic story I envisioned as the branch line that defined much of the railroad was abandoned the following year, and with it the character of the railroad changed forever.

The sign says it all.

Heritage

Spotted behind the St. Maries shop building was this truck frame cast in 8/44. Not likely to be used again, so it's a pleasent surprise to find 64 years later.

Spotted behind the St. Maries shop building was this truck frame cast in 8/44. Not likely to be used again, so it’s a pleasent surprise to find 64 years later.

The Potlatch mill in St. Maries

The Potlatch mill in St. Maries

The railroad was (and still is) a time capsule back to the former Milwaukee Road. When the Milwaukee embargoed its entire Western Extension in 1980, Potlatch Corporation acquired a portion of the mainline and a branch line, along with locomotives, rolling stock, faculties and former employees so that they could continue to move their product of finished lumber from forest to market by rail. Along with these tangible things, Potlatch also absorbed the culture and soul of the former railroad and this added to the mystique for me and many others that were saddened by the Milwaukee’s departure from the west. The operational hub was in St. Maries and headquartered in the former Milwaukee Road depot that had served as a crew change point for the railroad. While the mainline portion from St. Maries to the Union Pacific interchange at Plummer is spectacular with typical Milwaukee Road engineering, it’s the branch line to Clarkia that follows it namesake river that defined the character of the railroad. As the conveyor of logs to the hungry mill in St. Maries, it was an archaism of operations and equipment in modern railroading; a logging line. Endless carloads of logs seemed to come out of the forest for as long as anyone could remember, initially with the Milwaukee Road and then the STMA moving them from the reload at Clarkia, down river to the Potlatch mill in St. Maries.

Following it's namesake river south to the waiting reload.

Following it’s namesake river south to the waiting reload.

Gold of a differant element.

Gold of a differant element.

Passing through Fernwood with the product of the clear-cut hills beyond.

Passing through Fernwood with the product of the clear-cut hills beyond.

For an aficionado of the Milwaukee Road or of railroad logging history, this place was the real life wayback machine. For any railfan that made the trek to St. Maries, they would find a welcoming environment, with friendly staff and crew. As long as you didn’t do anything stupid, you were basically free to wonder around the railroad without approach, something that was already rare then and more so today.

While the railroad was on my visit list for years, raising young kids kept me away until 2008, when I finally had the chance to dedicate three days on the ground in late July. Being a die-hard Milwaukee Road fan, I was aware of the basic railroad features and operations, but didn’t have the deep understanding that is needed to make good photographs. As I followed the railroad operations and explored the photographic opportunities, I was awestruck at the potential here. Generally, I don’t do my best photography during an initiation to a place or railroad and I need time to watch, learn and absorb the operations and character of a place. While I got some decent photographs, I knew that I needed to come back and that I should make it timely as this operation seemed to good to be true. While the basic operations hadn’t changed in the the 28 years of Potlatch control up until that point, change seemed certain to come.

The brakeman has a lot of walking to do as he checks the air on each connection.

The brakeman has a lot of walking to do as he checks the air between each car.

In the past, this truck from the woods would have stopped at the reload, but now is continuing all the way to the mill

In the past, this truck from the woods would have stopped at the reload, but now is continuing all the way to the mill. Change is in the air…

A classic Milwaukee Road switch stand is turned to align the train.

A classic Milwaukee Road switch stand is turned to align the train.

Change was in the air when I came back 3 months later in late October for a brief two-day visit. Having felt welcomed on my prior visit, I checked in with the staff at the depot to ask about planned operations over the next two days. I was informed that the railroad had recently signed a contract to store 500 centerbeam cars that were not needed in the middle of the ongoing recession. This indicated to me that the railroad had new profitability standards placed upon it by the parent company and it was under evaluation. Not a good sign…

Later that day, the Plummer Turn would receive the first batch of 35 cars from the Union Pacific and tomorrow they would be brought up to Clarkia to be pushed up Sherwin Pass to the end of line. The line beyond Clarkia once connected with the Burlington Northern at Bovill, but a washout truncated the line in 1996 and while the rails remained in place, trains had not operated beyond Clarkia since. This was an unexpected operational surprise, but again it was put me in the unwanted position of not knowing the line or its photographic potential. I had thought that this second trip would be an opportunity to take advantage of what I had gleaned during my previous visit. While, I did get some good shots during those two days, there were many misses as well. But I tried to keep it all in perspective as I was experiencing and witnessing an operation that had long eluded me and I was enjoying every minute of being out there.

The St. Maries crew ride the last of 35 centerbeams picked up at Plummer Junction from the UP. The marker flag was passed on the fly and the UP brakeman has already realigned the switch for his train.

The St. Maries crew ride the last of 35 centerbeams picked up at Plummer Junction from the UP. The marker flag was passed on the fly and the UP brakeman has already realigned the switch for his train.

 

From the caboose, the condutor keeps an eye on the train as it nears the end of line with 35 centerbeams bound for storage.

From the caboose, the condutor keeps an eye on the train as it nears the end of line with 35 centerbeams bound for storage.

 

Marc and Camron? grooming the ROW. Hindsight reveals much...

Marc and Camron? grooming the ROW. Hindsight brings it all into perspective.

On my flight home, I was already making plans to come back the following year and later booked a trip for October of 2009. As summer came around, I was full of excitement and anticipation for my upcoming return to St. Maries and this time I allotted 5 days for my visit and saw this as a chance to take all my learnings and apply them to some better photography. Well, what was too good to be true, proved right….in August, Potlatch suddenly announced that they were no longer going to use the reload at Clarkia and would thus curtail railroad operations on the branch. I was devastated, to say the least. I didn’t postpone my trip initially, but then reports came in over the next few weeks of all the log cars being pulled off the branch and then cut up immediately upon arrival in St. Maries. With the final nail in the coffin for the storied logging line, I cancelled my trip, and had to be satisfied with the images and memories made during my two brief visits the previous year.

But, I’m still not satisfied…there was so much photographic potential there and I feel that I never got to explore and capture it to my satisfaction. In hindsight, I probably should have taken that last planned trip to document the change as it was happening. Maybe witnessing it first hand would have let me close the door on my feelings of loss for that railroad line.

With the brakman watching the rear, the power backs up through the busy and dangerous reload yard. Note that in late October, snow has already fallen in the distant hills.

With the brakman watching the rear, the power backs up through the busy and dangerous reload yard. Note that in late October, snow has already fallen in the distant hills.

Running along side its namesake river, a St. Maries River Railroad train, follows the curves and grade of the river from Clarkia down to the town of St. Maries. The train is approaching Mashburn siding with about 40 loads from the reload. This line was part of the Milwaukee Road until 1980 when the entire western extension was shut down. Potlatch Corporation purchased the line as well as several locomotives and hundreds of log cars from the Milwaukee Road and formed their own railroad. This line operated until 2008 when Potlatch finally switched to trucks, but left the rails in place for a possible future use.

Running along its namesake river, the last “Logger” that I will have the pleasure of witnessing.

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