After a long drive and a romp around Frenchman Coulee, our next destination was a place called Taunton, home of the Milkwaukee Road substation. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (usually just called the Milwaukee Road) was the last of the transcontinental railroads, finally completing its Chicago to Seattle line in 1909.
Ten years later, they decided to electrify the line, through Montana, Idaho, and Washington, replacing coal-burning locomotives with electrical ones. These were much more efficient for going up over Snoqualmie Pass on their way to and from Seattle. You can read a bit about that here (some great old shots of the electrical locomotives, too).
The railroad built 22 substations along the route to convert the electricity into 3000 Volt DC. Then, it would pump out the current to the lines powering the locomotives. The railroad de-electrified in 1973, and that began its downfall. They opted for diesels, but when the oil crisis hit in the mid 70s, it became much, much cheaper to run electric. But, by then it was too late. Taunton and the twenty-one other substations were history.
Most were torn down, and now only seven remain. One is at Taunton, which isn’t really a town. There was only a house or two built near the substation – small bungalows for the workers running the place. Oddly, the “town” of Taunton was platted around when the substation was built, but nothing ever came of that. Now, all that remains is the carcass of the substation.
From Route 26, we turned off onto a little-used road that slides along side the old rails. It’s a dirt road – something we run into a lot in our travels. Along the way, I saw a switch and just had to take a picture of it. It might seem geeky – this whole thing is actually quite geeky – but I really like railroad switches. If you’re ever my secret Santa, get me an old railroad switch.
Anyway, the dirt road was well maintained, but had lots of strange twists as it wound its way through Red Rocks Coulee. It was also open range and we had more than a few cows to drive by. A particular mother and son melted our hearts.
After a half mile jaunt back on Route 26, we turned right to head back to Taunton. Along the road, you could see the substation in the distance.
The road leading to the site is a nasty one, full of huge ruts. There was no way for the Yaris to make that, so we had to hoof it. It’s maybe a half-mile. The tracks remain, but the copious amounts of wires that were above the tracks are gone.
What we found was a mess. This place is really, really trashed. It’s still picturesque in an Asbury Park sort of way, but, like Asbury, it looks like a bomb hit it. If you were considering a visit, I would get on it pronto.
We walked around the grounds, taking various shots of the rails and building. The structure seems more or less secure and safe. Inside, it was a very different story.
What used to be a relatively clean place (it was electric, not greasy diesel) was completely trashed. Aside from the obligatory spray paint, there was broken glass and random bits of refuse everywhere. The substation is (was?) privately owned and it seems like someone was using it as their own personal dump. Why anyone would do this is beyond me, but some people are just crackers.
There are two main “rooms” in the building, and both still have much of the original electrical equipment. There’s an office, a bathroom (with a smashed toilet), and a basement that we didn’t dare venture into. The stairs leading down were covered in piles of bird poop. Smartz took a picture to prove it. Nasty.
Having had enough of that, we headed back outside. Smartz carved our initials into the solid dirt cliff behind the substation, adding ours to many others – some from 1994. The desert is great like that. Meanwhile, I picked through the trash thrown randomly about. I found an old Motorola console stereo and a much-coveted railroad crossing sign. Both beyond any repair or interest.
The visit a success, Smartz thought it would be fun to get our photo. This brave gal flopped down on the tracks, propped up her camera, set it on timer and rushed over to capture the moment.
After dusting ourselves off and climbing back into the car, the day was pretty much over. We made a quite pass through Potholes State Park and… wait. Washington has a park dedicated to potholes?
Yes, but these aren’t the potholes filled in every spring by PennDOT. These were made by the same Missoula Floods that created the coulees. While rushing across the ground, water would drill out these holes. Some are thirty feet deep. Many are covered by a dam that just “needed” to be built. I’d like to find some not near the dam and hopefully someday we shall.
So that was our trip. We covered around 500 miles and saw more things than we planned. There was history and geography. Both are everywhere in Washington, but sometimes you need to dig a little to find them.