Category Archives: Railroads

Murder

This portrait of Wild Goose Bill was published in the Spokane Chronicle in 1934 and was based on an image discovered in the offices of Wilbur's local paper.

This portrait of Wild Goose Bill was published in the Spokane Chronicle in 1934 and was based on an image discovered in the offices of Wilbur’s local paper.

On the 25th of January, 1895, two men rode a freight wagon along a frozen road leading out of the town of Wilbur. The heavy wheels smashed through frozen puddles and left deep ruts in three feet of snow. Clouds of steam ghosted behind the men and the horse, suspended in the still air. A ceiling of oyster-colored cloud sealed the sky, stained by the weak glow of a sun powerless to penetrate. Few words were uttered, and the men’s faces were set in anger or determination.

It was age pursuing youth that led to this moment, a timeless theme played out this time in the fading days of the American west. One man was realizing that the days ahead featured nothing but old age, that the world no longer saw him as strong and powerful. His dreams of a young wife had been shattered. His days of legend were behind him. On this day the final act of his legendary life was to be played out.

Samuel Wilbur Condit was born in New Jersey, but followed the lure of gold to California. Even as a teenager he was smart enough to recognize that the real money in a gold rush would be found in supplying miners with the goods they needed. Continue reading

The Day the Mountain Came to Town

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

On the 200th anniversary of our country’s birth my cousin Dale and I joined one of the last mass climbs of Mount Adams in south-central Washington. I left from work on the Friday afternoon, drove to Yakima to pick him up, and we went to a campground outside Trout Lake to spend the night. Of course the excitement and the noise of all the other campers kept us awake all night. I don’t remember getting any sleep at all.

We were rousted out for the climb around 3:00 in the morning. We received some orientation and instructions and lined up to begin the climb. One of the instructions was to stay in line and not to pass those ahead of us. We were young and strong. Many of those ahead of us were neither, so the temptation  to violate that rule was strong.

We reached tree-line just before dawn, and that morning provided one of the most spectacular views I will ever see. We watched the ghostly pale peak of Mount Saint Helens emerge from the night, turning raspberry pink, then dazzling white. Before it erupted, Saint Helens was nearly perfectly symmetrical. As we strapped on our crampons and struggled to keep our places in line, we watched Mount Saint Helens in the distance, a graceful and beautiful mountain that later proved to be powerful and dangerous. Continue reading

All the Warning We’ll Get

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

There was a small earthquake centered on Frenchman Hill one day around 1972. When an earthquake scientist from the University of Washington called Othello High School to look for a reliable  student to tend to a helicorder they were setting up at the epicenter, they ended up talking to my mother, the counselor. I was 16, and I had just gotten my driver’s license. She told them she had a perfect match for them.

So my second job off the home place (the first one was changing sprinklers for my neighbor) was visiting a tiny trailer parked next to a plowed field overlooking the Lower Crab Creek valley and the ancient massive slide on the north face of Saddle Mountain. Six seismographs fed streams of data to a series of heated needles that recorded every tremble of the earth around the trailer. I had to changed the waxed paper they burned their message onto once a day and then put in a phone call to Colorado to calibrate the clock with the National Bureau of Standards.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this must have been a heady period for earthquake scientists in the Northwest. Endorsement of the theory of plate tectonics was in its infancy. Continue reading

Written in the Earth

A soldier of Custer's regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

A soldier of Custer’s regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

When you grow up in desert heat, at least when video games and television have yet to proliferate, one of the joys of childhood is playing with the garden hose. Personally, I enjoyed digging rivers and lakes into the earth of the wire enclosure where our chickens roamed. I remember the amazement of unearthing a living frog that had burrowed into the ground for hibernation, and that had narrowly avoided the blade of my shovel.

One of my maxims about the desert landscape around Saddle Mountain is that this earth is honest. When people pass through, the traces they make remain to be read by those who come after them. As I think back on the traces we’ve discovered on our farm alone, it amazes me that so much history is written in its sand and dust.

In the early 1960s my father hooked his tractor to a battered old machine he called the rototiller. He was in the process of rooting sagebrush out of a new field, and this machine would completely destroy the plants that grew there naturally. Continue reading

Through the Iron Curtain, 1978

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

In 1978 I went through a number of Winter to Spring cycles. After six weeks in snowy southwestern France, the weather had just started to turn balmy when it was time to leave. We boarded a train to Paris, switched to another one that drove straight across Germany without stopping, delivering us to Warsaw on Easter weekend.

Our next train was a local, packed with rustic crowds returning from Easter celebrations in the capital. Not only was it impossible to find a seat in a compartment, but the aisles themselves were crammed Continue reading

Crossing Over

A two-horse-power ferry provided passage across the Columbia River at White Bluffs.

A two-horse-power ferry provided passage across the Columbia River at White Bluffs.

Drive down any freeway in the state, and you’ll see the same dull gray pavement, with tarry black repairs. The roads look the same on both sides of the mountains and whether they are on dry land or bridges. We’ve come to take these roads and bridges for granted, to the point where we can estimate to within minutes just how long a trip ought to take. But it wasn’t always so.

After they offed the Astorians, the Hudsons Bay Company established routes that provided for the safe distribution of trade goods and transportation of furs gathered over an entire year. In auspicious places, the English built forts to store the furs that came from far north in what is now British Columbia, and from the Snake River country and Montana. Continue reading

The Plunge

Truth be told, I cannot vouch for the details of this tale. My father related it to me when I was too young or too disconnected to remember names or dates, but the truth of the story is etched into the face of Saddle Mountain above lower Crab Creek.

The trace of the bulldozer descent of the north face of Saddle Mountain above Crab Creek. The track is located around nine miles east of the Columbia River. This view is a telephoto image, showing only the upper section of the trace.

The trace of the bulldozer descent of the north face of Saddle Mountain above Crab Creek. The track is located around nine miles east of the Columbia River. This view is a telephoto image, showing only the upper section of the trace.

What a bulldozer was doing on top of Sentinel Peak, I cannot say. Perhaps in gouging a firebreak above the Milwaukee Road the driver found himself forced to make corrections that led him ever higher. Eventually he must have found the railroad hundreds of feet below him, a distant trace at the bottom of a precipitous drop. Did the railroad send someone to him, demanding that he bring the dozer down again? Did he refuse to drive down the face of the mountain? I would have. Continue reading

Then & Now

I published this photograph of the Lower Crab Creek Valley as viewed from the Taunton townsite in “Another Flood.” On a recent visit to the same spot I took the following photograph.

This summer I took a hurried trip through Eastern Washington, photographing sites I have written about. In this article I try to post old photographs alongside more recent ones. In some cases I have also provided views of places previously mentioned in my posts, although no older photographs are available to compare them to.

A view of the Lower Crab Creek Valley in 2012, more than fifty years after the previous photograph was taken, reveals the changing ecology of the formerly arid landscape. Irrigation and invasive species have radically altered the local habitat.

There is definitely an article to be written concerning the environmental changes that have taken place in the Lower Crab Creek Valley over Continue reading

Legends of the Ice Cave

Beneath this towering cliff and rubble fallen from it lie the remains of the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave.

There has been a fair amount of mystery concerning the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave. Even today you’ll find inquiries about it on internet chat sites. Over the years, locals disagreed on lots of points concerning this phenomenon. Some said it was a natural cavern, a huge chamber full of glittering perpetual ice. Others said it wasn’t really anything more than a big root cellar where people kept chunks of ice they would cut out of Crab Creek in the wintertime. Some people even doubt its existence. But it’s there.

Virtually all that’s left of the Ice Cave is a pile of old timbers and the remains of the massive wooden doorframe.

The Ice Cave is about four miles west of the end of the paving on the old Corfu Highway after you leave Smyrna, around eight miles from Beverly. It’s difficult to spot the remains from the roadway, so look for a large alkali clearing in front of it and a huge slope of tumbled rock flanking its other three sides. Continue reading

Waiting for a Train

Taunton’s red brick substation from the middle of the abandoned Milwaukee Road main line, looking west in July, 2012.

In the 1940s the Milwaukee Road provided an important means of transportation in Central Washington. Gasoline rationing meant that much travel took place by train.Whether they were traveling out of military duty or seeking work on farms or at the burgeoning Manhattan Project south of Saddle Mountain, travelers might at some point be stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a train.

I grew up near the red brick substation of Taunton, a minor stop on the line. It’s hard to imagine why strangers from Virginia or Ohio might find themselves waiting for a train at Taunton. Perhaps their train had to pull onto the siding to get out of the way of another, more important train. Nonetheless, in my intimate knowledge of the Taunton substation, I knew of several occasions when stranded travelers left evidence of their visit in the form of scrawled pencil lines on the red brick.

Travelers’ graffiti that remains of the walls of Taunton’s substation is usually found on bricks that would be in shaded areas in the heat of an afternoon. With no air conditioning, it would quickly become unbearably Continue reading