Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad (1973-2019)

This week, the Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad made its last journey, shipping coal between a coal fired power plant that is being decommissioned, the Navajo Generating Station and the Peabody Energy Kayenta Mine. Image: Ryan Adams, 2019, "With only weeks left in operation, the Black Mesa & Lake Powell railroad contiues its daily journey between Page and the Mine at Kayenta"
The Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad was one of the more unique railroad operations in the United States. For one thing, its operation did not fall under the authority of the Federal Railroad Administration, as it was completely isolated from the rest of the US Rail Network.

I've mapped the right of way below; despite the remoteness of operations, the desert environment makes the tracks quite easy to spot, making this trace extremely easy.

It ran about 80 miles along electrically powered catenary lines at 50,000 volts. During the height of operations at the power plant, it ran three trains a day, powered by 15 GE locomotives, one ex-UP, eight ex-Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México, and six of its own purchasing. (American-Rails)

Image: YouTube video by Mike Armstrong
The line is entirely within the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona in an extremely remote part of the United States. Even a trail is highly unlikely to succeed, as much of the area is near private property. That said, it has been known for years that this power plant was eventually going to close, as it is one of the single-most contributors to the United States' carbon footprint.

Image: Dick Campbell, c.1985

The Navajo valued the track at $120 million in rails and infrastructure as of 2017, and while there are proposals to try and increase tourism via the line, it will ultimately be up to the tribe whether or not the potential benefits of the line outweigh its value in scrap.

Image: Lauren Scrafford via
The line was built for one purpose and one purpose only; connecting the power plant with the coal mine to its south. As such, compared to many of the abandonments on this page, it is a fairly new line, having begun operations in 1973.

A view from the cab with engineer Thomas Long Jr. Image: Krista Allen via Navajo Times
The coal-fired plant is closing down due to competition from other forms of power, namely natural gas and solar power. While miners and other workers are protesting the closure, many employees will be given pensions and medical benefits, and those ineligible will be offered transfer to other Peabody operations across the United States.

In the Navajo Times, engineer Thomas Long noted, "Moving means a new career path, new obstacles, and learning new things and “that’s good,” said Long.

Only time will tell what happens with the right-of-way of the Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad.

As always, I hope you enjoyed today's blog, and thanks once again for reading!

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Pre-Steam Railroads: Rail Transport Before the Steam Engine

The word "prehistoric" refers to the time period before human records were kept, either by writing or artistic murals. While no exact date is agreed upon to which prehistory ended, it is generally accepted that human cultures began to document activities early in the Bronze Age, although culture began much earlier than that in the Neolithic period.

You're probably thinking, what does this have to do with railroad history?

I believe that rail transport history follows a similar progression with regard to its prehistory, although it is much simpler to understand exactly when railroad prehistory ended, right when steam took over.

Railfans' interest in railroad history tends to began with the locomotive. In 1784, prototypes of steam locomotives were being developed, and by 1802, the Coalbrookdale Locomotive was created by  Richard Trevithick. In the next two decades, the concept of steam locomotion and the railroad itself would evolve, and England's Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825 would mark the first passenger operations.

However, humans have been using primitive forms of rail lines since at least 600 BC, in Ancient Greece. Today's blog will focus on five rail lines that operated before steam engines came to fruition.

Ancient remains of the Diolkos near the Isthmus of Corinth, Greece. Image: Dan Diffendale
The Diolkos was a paved trackway made of limestone that aided in the transport of ships near the City of Corinth. The line used grooves on either end to keep wheeled carts in place, much different than today's form of heavy iron railroad track. It more resembled a rutway as opposed to a railway. While its principal purpose was likely as a military aid, it also appears to have been used for commerce in peaceful times.

Today this is now an archaeological site that amazingly still has easily traceable remains of the line. While about 2/3 of a mile of the track has been archaeologically preserved, estimates place the entire length at somewhere between 3.7-5.3 miles in total.
Near the City of Corinth, this early form of rail transport was in service from the 6th century BC until early in the 1st century AD, meaning modern railroads have about 500 years to go before they reach the same longevity.
The Roman and Egyptian worlds in BC times also featured trackways that may have had similar designs, but less information is known about them. These stone creations would be the state of the art technology for 1,000 years before wooden rails would be introduced, much more resembling modern railways.

Planks laid in the ground beginning in the early 12th century would begin the next phase of railroad evolution: wooden rails.

A line that originally began in 16th century Salzburg in present-day Austria is still in operation. Known as The Reiszug, or Reißzug in German, it was documented as having been installed to serve the Hohensalzburg Fortress. It uses a cable lift similar to a funicular, however has no evidence that a counterweight was ever used (like how a funicular works).

Reiszug in modern times. Image: Michel Azéma
The Reiszug's true age is unclear, but it was built sometime between 1495-1515, thus regardless it is the oldest railway still in operation by most likely over a century. In its first iteration, it used wooden rails powered by animal, but has since been upgraded to steel wheels and electric motors.

"The Top Station. This view shows the end of the track as well as the engine room". Image: Michel Azéma
The advent of iron and steel rail tracks predated the steam locomotive by about 50 years, first appearing in Great Britain in 1760. This is also the first time that public railways began to form. Wooden railed temporary railways were built to transport coal in Great Britain in 1671, although these were temporary in nature. In Middleton, near Leeds, a proposal to aid in transportation of coal was established as the Middleton Railway in 1758, making it the first permanent railway established by Parliament in Great Britain. 

The one mile route originally used wooden rails before converting to iron rails in 1799. As a heritage line still in operation, it marks the oldest continuously operating public railway in existence.

The current heritage railway operation in red, listed on my map. Image: Google My Maps
Throughout the 18th century, Britain was not the only place beginning to experiment with rail transport. Near the French Fortress of Louisbourg in present-day Nova Scotia, a tramway was built in 1720 to aid in its construction. The Louisbourg Tramway is thus the earliest mention of a rail line in North America. Unfortunately, very little is known about this line, and unlike the Diolkos, there is nothing in the way of archaeological remains. 

Mention of this line appears in the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin no. 78, "...mine tramways were built in France at least as early as 1680, there was a pleasure railway in the gardens of the Chateau at Versailles in 1713, the best French engineers were employed at Louisburg (sic), the surviving remains of the roadbed and the local tradition all point to the possibility and probability of the existence of this tramway from about 1720 until the destruction of the city following second siege of 1758. The Louisburg papers, in the Public Archives of Canada, have not been completely examined and cataloged yet and it is possible that contemporary proof may be found eventually". 

The Fortress of Louisbourg as it appears on Google Maps.
Thus far, any more contemporary information on the line has yet to surface that I am aware of. Know anything about it? I imagine if LiDAR data were available for the site, it may help shed some light on this mystery. I'd also like to know more about the "pleasure railway" built at Versailles.

In the present-day US, there were most-likely tramways or other primitive railroads before the Leiper Railroad, but its status as the first chartered railroad in the US in 1810 deserves mentioning, even if I've talked about it once before. 

Image of the very narrow Leiper Canal. Image: Delaware County Historical Society.

Originally envisioned as a canal in 1790, the railroad came to fruition as the result of a property dispute between Leiper and a neighbor, who believed that the water diversion as a result of the canal's construction would adversely affect his mill. The line originally ran with horsepower, and straddled the line between the horse era and the iron-horse era in railroad history, as it was rebuilt in 1852, well within the reign of steam. 

It amazes me how long some of these lines lasted, and still continue to operate. Each one was an important milestone in the development of the modern railroad lines we know today. Could there have been even older primitive railroads that were never documented?

If you know of any other ancient rail line that predates the steam era, let me know in the comments. 

Thanks as always for reading!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Macomb & Western Illinois Railway: One of Forgottonia's Forgotten Railways

There are many abandoned railroad lines and forgotten railroad companies all across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and indeed all across the world. Many of these companies never even operated a railroad for a single day.

The reasons for abandonment of a particular stretch of railway could be a blog of its own, as each and every right of way has its own unique story, and economic factors which resulted in its demise. That said, the advent of paved roads and the trucking industry is a common factor in the abandonment of many tiny lines.

" Railroad Short Train circa 1905" Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
Such is the case of the Macomb & Western Illinois Railway, known later in its life as the Macomb Industry & Litteton Railway, although one could also point to its poor construction and rural corridor as factors as well. Today we'll explore the relatively short life of this former line in the middle of Forgottonia.

The north end of the M&WI as depicted on the 1914 USGS Topo Map
The line first ran in late 1903, as a way for farmers of Western Illinois to get their yields to connect with the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad at Macomb.

The line's south end at Littleton in 1925, after it become the MI&L. (USGS Rushville 1925 Topo Map)
It was originally supposed to be an interurban electric railway in the same vein as the Illinois Traction System. The line didn't have sufficient capital to develop the electric infrastructure necessary, and thus was built as a gas locomotive powered line instead. This meant much of the right of way was next to, or in the middle of, local streets, angering property owners.

Image: Johnson St in Macomb, IL, along the line's original ROW. Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
In Macomb, the original ROW was located on Johnson St, connecting with the CB&Q, before a westerly bypass of the town was built, scars of which can still be seen on satellite imagery. 

Image: Google My Maps
As can be inferred from the MI&L name, the line connected Littleton and Industry with Macomb, with additional stops at Henderson, Andrews, Four Mile, and Runkle. A map (not mine) of the right of way is pictured below, showing the locations of the stops. A northerly street running link to Western Illinois State Normal School, now known as Western Illinois University, was planned but never built.

While the line wouldn't run until 1903, a couple proposals for the road came much earlier, as the area between Macomb and Littleton was one of the widest stretches of land not served by rail in Western Illinois, according to Frank Hicks' book on the railroad, The Little Road: The Story of the Macomb Industry & Littleton Railway

The cover photo of Hicks' book, this scene depicts the M&WI #2 at Littleton in 1905 or 1906. Image: WIU Archives
Colonel J.M Piper proposed constructing a line from Macomb to the Mississippi River in 1895, which would have ran through Industry, Camden, Mt. Sterling, Perry, Griggsville, Detroit and Pearl, naming the proposal the St Louis Perry & Chicago Railroad. Such a road was never constructed, and only Pearl and Griggsville of the towns mentioned above has any rail service today. Mt. Sterling once a Wabash line run through it, but that is now abandoned between Meredosia and Elvaston, IL. Construction on the road actually began in 1896, but was soon quickly stopped when it became obvious that there wasn't enough funds to fully finance the line. The Burlington purchased the company and shelved the project.

When electric lines became viable alternatives to steam early in the 20th century, the proposal for a Macomb-Littleton rail link gained traction once again, even though it ultimately became a steam operation. It was powered by a gasoline locomotive, making it one of the first combustion engines in railroad service. (Hicks p.17). Even in spite of its gas power, it was still known to locals as The Electric Road.

In 1905, a small wreck occurred south of Industry along the line. Fireman James Hodges suffered a broken foot as a result.

Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
Derailments were common along the line. Like many smaller lines, the road was poorly constructed, and the line had to speed construction along to open by the end of 1903.

As stated before, not everyone was a fan of this line, particularly those who owned property adjacent to the right of way. Just one year into its operation, its gas engine was destroyed in a fire. The Macomb & Western Illinois, like many railroads, would not be long for the world.

By 1910, the M&WI had folded. The majority of its assets were owned by the now-bankrupt Bank of Macomb, and the line was acquired by the Chicago House Wrecking Company, who wanted to abandon the line and sell it for scrap material.

The farmers along the route purchased it instead and reorganized it in 1913 as the Macomb Industry & Littleton Railway.

Macomb, Industry, and Littleton Railroad #6. Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
While the line would last longer than its predecessor, with new competition from the trucking industry, traffic along the line declined significantly, and this problem was further compounded by an aging infrastructure. By 1930 the line would make its last run, and the year afterward would see the right of way torn up, with all but one locomotive having been scrapped.

Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
If you enjoyed today's blog and wish to delve further into this little line, I highly suggest reading Frank Hicks' book mentioned earlier on it. At 86 pages it was his Senior Thesis at Western Illinois University, and covers the history of this road much more than I can in the span of a few hundred words.

Thanks as always for reading!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The 10 Most Pointless 3-digit Interstate Highways

The Interstate Highway System is a marvel of engineering, even in spite of its cost. There are over 46,000 interstate miles in the US. Surely, not all of them are necessary. Some can even be considered pointless.

A 1958 map of what was completed of the original interstate highway act, which has since been added upon in a significant way. Image: WTTW
What makes a highway pointless, especially one built to the highest road standards in the world? It can be length, as many of these routes are only a mile or two in length, but it doesn't have to be. There are quite useful interstate highways that nonetheless very short (I-190 in Illinois and I-238 in California are good examples). Another qualification is the area they serve; many of these routes either don't connect to a significantly populated area, or don't facilitate downtown traffic. 

Here's my list of the Interstate highways I find the most useless. Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments.

10) Interstate 990 (New York)

I-990 in upstate New York runs for about six miles in length, making in the third longest road on this list. It connects I-290 and the State University of New York at Buffalo, and then continues on for another five miles, until ending at NY-263. 

"The first northbound shield for I-990 was this assembly preceding milepost 1." Image: Jeff Morrison via
Other than being the highest numbered interstate highway, nothing notable exists about the route. It appears as though it was planned run more northeasterly than its current end, which might help legitimize much of the route.

9) Interstate 878 (New York)

I-878, the Nassau Expressway, was planned to be much longer than the 7/10 of a mile that it currently is. I talked before about it when I discussed unbuilt expressways in New York City. Its present state is a New York State Route that only has eastbound lanes. It is saved from being further down this list in that it (somewhat) allows traffic to bypass JFK airport traffic. 

Image: Adam Moss
Why exactly only the stretch from I-678 to the JFK Expy is considered part of the interstate highway system is beyond me.

8 and 7) Interstates 175 & 375 (Florida)

I decided to combine these two spurs from I-275 into one entry because they seem to serve the exact same purpose, and both do so in a way that essentially makes them glorified entrance ramps. The eastbound lanes only have exit ramps, and the westbound lanes only have entrance ramps.

I-375 at the top; I-175 at the bottom. Image: Google Maps
I-175 connects downtown St Petersburg with I-275, about a mile in length. I-375 does the same thing about 3/4 of a mile north. Like a couple other routes on this list, these highways are the result of funding loopholes. According to, "Both were conceived as state routes originally. However, when a funding issue led the state to cancel part of I-75 in Hillsborough County, five miles of eligible interstate were released. This opportunity led to the designation of I-175 and I-375."

6) Interstate 172 (Illinois)

My home state is home to two of the interstates on this list, the first being I-172, which connects I-72 with Quincy, IL, nineteen miles north, making it the longest road on this list. Quincy is a city of roughly 40,000 people, and it is by far the largest municipality for about 50 miles in any direction. On top of that, 172 meets Quincy about 4 miles from the downtown area. The road continues as IL-110/336 north to Macomb and beyond, not that a northerly 172 extension would make it any less pointless of a route.

Image: Jeff Royston via
In reality, it's all politics. 172 (and 110/336) are part of an area of Illinois called "Forgottonia". Citizens of the 16 county region between the Mississippi River, the Quad Cities, and Central Illinois felt that they were missing out on infrastructure and transportation spending in the 1950's, as a Chicago-Kansas City interstate connection died in Congress three times. Dick Durbin recoined the term in an attempt to win over votes from the region, which he did successfully.

Forgottonia now has three pointless designations for one route! Image: Joseph Barnes via
According to the Associated Press, "Durbin noted that western Illinois has been called 'Forgotonia,' for lack of services including good roads, and the new designation shows the area has not been forgotten." Never mind that the area continues to lose population despite the brand new I-172 and IL-336 expressways.

5) Interstate 189 (Vermont)

Interstate 189 is a victim of the freeway revolts, with only about half of the planned interstate completed as of 2019 (the northern half has been canceled, but could be revived as a non-interstate parkway). It was supposed to connect downtown Burlington, VT with I-89, but only runs to US-7, with part of the road built west of the interchange, but not open for vehicle traffic.

West of US-7, the road continues north, but not open for traffic. Image: Google Maps
Had the road been completed to downtown Burlington, it probably wouldn't be on this list, but as it stands, it's a very long entrance/exit ramp from US 7 to I-89 and vice versa. 

I-289 was also planned for Vermont, however it too suffered much the same fate as public opinion went against freeways. VT-289 currently runs along part of the original proposed beltway, as a parkway around Essex, VT, but notably doesn't connect with I-89.

4) Interstate 381 (Virginia)

One of a number of interstate highways with no exits whatsoever, I-381 connects its parent with downtown Bristol, VA. It continues south of its end as a surface street, Commonwealth Ave, or VA-381.

Map of I-381 via
Signed in 1960, I believe this was given interstate status simply to advertise the new interstate highway system, or to give the Bristol area the distinction of having its very own interstate connection.

3) Interstate 180 (Illinois)

I-180 runs 13 miles from I-80 in Central Illinois to Hennepin, IL. A town of 700 people. And that's about it.

Image: AARoads via
So how did a town so small get its very own connection to the Interstate Highway Network? It was built to serve a nearby steel plant, which closed down shortly after it was completed. Even after its reopening in 2002, it only serves about 3600 cars per day on its best days. The US Government's Government Accountability Office noted that 180 was built to entice Jones & Laughlin, a steel company, "looking to locate a plant in Hennepin. By objective criteria, more important routes in Tacoma and Tucson were turned down at the same time I-180 was approved." (Kurumi)

In spite of its uselessness, 180 has been proposed to be extended down to Peoria, which would somewhat legitimize its existence, but no concrete plans have been in place since the 1960's. In fact, a cost-saving measure in 2015 would've removed two of its lanes, having it join I-93 as the only interstates with only two lanes of traffic.

In a bit of irony, it's not the most useless I-180, as you'll see in the #1 spot.

2.) Interstate 587 (New York)

I-587 is cosigned with NY-28 for its entire one mile length, its parent doesn't acknowledge its existence (signs for the exit are for NY-28), and it interchanges with said parent via a roundabout. 

Image: Steve Anderson, NYC Roads
It doesn't have any interchanges, and its designation stops short of downtown Kingston. Known as Col. Chandler Dr, there's no reason why it simply couldn't, or shouldn't, simply be NY-28. This barely qualifies as an expressway, let alone one that would be interstate standard.

And somehow it's exponentially more deserving of being an interstate than the final member of this list.

1) Interstate 180 (Wyoming)

Interstate 180 in Wyoming is fascinating in one sense, given that it is one of the few interstates with traffic signals (and the only one with more than one to my knowledge). It is a signed at-grade road connecting I-80 at a diamond interchange with downtown Cheyenne, WY. While there are interstate highways in Alaska and Puerto Rico that are not to interstate standards, this is the only one in the continental US, as well as the only signed route, in which no part of the route conforms to interstate standards. A pair of bridges over a Union Pacific yard is the only grade separation throughout the route. It also has a maximum speed of just 40 mph.

Image: Dale Sanderson via

It is co-signed with BL-25, US-85 and Business US-87 for its entire length. So how does an arterial roadway in Cheyenne get an interstate designation? I-80's route through the Cheyenne area was finalized in the 1960's, with Wyoming pressing for a freeway connection into downtown, as the route chosen bypassed Cheyenne to the south. 

The FHWA originally denied Wyoming's request, which prompted the state to resubmit it as an at-grade expressway. This reduced the cost of the route from $16 million to just under $9 million.  

I can respect that over $8 million were saved by proper government oversight of transportation projects; but yet that same standard could have been applied to many of the other routes on this list. 180 is an important artery in the Cheyenne area, as there's only two other bridges over the Union Pacific yard. That being said, it's just an artery, and could just as easily be US-85/US-87B/BL-25.

There are a few other Interstate highways which aren't exactly necessary, but nonetheless didn't make this list. Honorable mentions in the useless category would be New York's I-790, which would've made this list if it weren't planned to be extended into Utica, and I-585 in South Carolina, which at one point in its life didn't connect with any other interstate, outside of BL-85.

I hope you enjoyed today's blog, thanks as always for reading!