Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Romance of the Rails is gone; or, How I Almost Got Arrested

Back when I was but a lad, once or twice a year we'd go camping up on Stevens Pass. One of the activities necessary to call it a complete trip was a visit to the Western portal of the 8-mile-long Cascade Tunnel. What could be more exciting to a young boy than watching 5500 horsepower of diesel-electric locomotive bursting into daylight from deep within the mountain? What was more mysterious than watching Amtrak's Empire Builder disappearing into the cold, dark mouth if this man-made cave? Hours were spent, first with my grandparents and parents, and later with my hiking buddies, standing outside the tunnel, wandering 100 yards or so inside, and exploring the remains left over from the 1920s construction camp.

So earlier this month I took Mike up there, he of the recently posted backpacking video. Parked above the portal, wandered down and took a look inside, showed him the gated Pioneer Tunnel left over from the original construction. Nothing seemed to be coming so we turned and wandered the tracks down toward the original site of the Scenic Hot Springs Hotel, covered over and abandoned during the line relocation in '28. Nothing to be seen there, so we wandered back. A railroad employee was cleaning up some paint supplies at the job shack in Scenic. He told us we shouldn't be on the tracks. Then added, somewhat sheepishly, "They make us say that. Tell us to tell any trespassers to get off."

He was friendly enough, and when I told him my grandfather used to work for the Great Northern (the railroad that originally built the tunnel), and that I had a lifelong history of visiting that place, and wasn't just some yokel lookyloo, he warmed up to us. Spend about 20 minutes regaling us with yarns of the railroad. Complaining about "management." Cussing at the idiots who didn't know how to clean up their messes.

But then. . .up drives an official-looking SUV. BNSF Police it says on the side. The guy inside rolls down his window and motions to our new friend to come over. "Who are these guys?" he asks. I quickly shouted (with a smile) "He did his job! Told us to get off the tracks!" Said policeman wasn't amused. "You know you're trespassing? You know I could fine you $250 just for being here? Nobody's allowed on these tracks. If a terrorist blew up that tunnel, you'd destroy the nation's economy!" (I refrained from pointing out that currently Stampede Pass to the south, as well as the mainline through the Columbia River Gorge, were in fine shape and under-utilized, so blowing up the tunnel would be sad and an inconvenience, but wouldn't actually hurt the economy very much.)

It turns out there's now a tall steel tower sitting there about 300 yards from the tunnel entrance. On that tower are no less than three video cameras, giving a direct feed to an office in Texas. Right as we were climbing out of the Jeep and I was enjoying giving Mike the tour, some guy in Texas was gazing into his computer monitor muttering "terrorists, by gum! Terrorists!" and calling up the railroad police to run us off their tracks. Which means no more standing outside the tunnel waiting for trains, no pictures of headlights piercing the darkness, no exploring the remains of the construction village. The whole area is off limits. Go there and they'll think you're a terrorist.

For what it's worth, it wasn't a total loss. The first gentleman we met had to give us a drive back to the Jeep, so we got some more stories. And we discovered the policeman is an avid RC airplane modeler. We ended up having a lovely conversation about model airplanes; he even showed us some pictures. However, when I asked him where we could stand in the future to watch trains, he replied, "Why does anybody care? They're just trains."

Although, it occurred to me that part of the historical romance of the rails was bums running from the railroad cops. Lots of old ballads written about that very thing. So I suppose we just experienced part of the lore of railroading, and got a good story out of it.

But Mike was glad we weren't arrested. He may never have gotten back to his family in Canada.

1 comment:

Lori said...

Headlines for tomorrow's paper:

Scandal: Lakebay Pastor Caught in Terrorist Attempt to Blow Up Cascade Tunnel.
Subheading: Released to custody of his Heavenly Father

If you want, I can volunteer to write the story and sweeten things up a bit.