Milwaukee Road-Side Attractions of Montana

LOWETH, MT: MILWAUKEE ROAD SUBSTATION #2

LOWETH, MT: MILWAUKEE ROAD SUBSTATION #2

Two things are true for every person that drives through Loweth. First, they are not lost; Loweth is at a low point (just 5,800 feet) between Castle Mountain and the Crazies—another mountain range. It’s not the middle of nowhere—it is nowhere. Second, drivers by are looking at the abandoned railroad substation. There’s nothing else to look at, and its orange bricks and harsh geometries stand starkly from the light yellow of the abandoned grades in the hills just behind it, a hint at its past purpose.

Electrical substations marked the route of what was the longest electrified rail system in the world, built by The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, better known as The Milwaukee Road. Every thirty miles, these buildings fed a constant 3,000 volts into the system to keep trains moving over the mountains.

Why so many substations? DC does not transmit well over long distances, but it’s the easiest and safest to use for high output motors, such as those on electric locomotives. So, the railroad bought AC from regional power companies and fed it to the 14 substations across the Rocky Mountain Division, which did the job of transforming AC to DC. There were 22 stations in total between Harlowton, Montana and the Pacific coast, comprising 656 miles of electric mainline. In 1914, construction began for Substation #2, so-named because it was the second most eastern of its kind.

AC power to this particular substation was supplied by Montana Power’s Great Falls hydroelectric dam about 80 miles northwest. At the dam, falling water turned turbines, driving generators that created DC power. That DC was transformed to AC at the plant and sent to Substation #2. Inside Loweth, the 110kV AC powered two big motors attached to generators, which output DC that the railroad could use.

This setup is called a Motor Generator (MG) and proved quite efficient, though today a high-voltage rectifier would be used in its place. To supplement the substations, locomotives were equipped with regenerative braking, meaning their motors would be driven off the substations while going uphill, but going downhill they generated their own current, which was fed back into the system.

Perhaps counterintuitively, it was significantly easier to operate the railroad through the mountains on electric power than steam. Adequate water sources were a major issue and by the nature of steam engines, they can experience extreme power loss in the cold. The Milwaukee Road would also have to build shops and haul in expensive coal from the east. Instead, the railroad built a row of bungalows near the stations for the crews and their families. At Loweth there were three such homes, all of which have been razed to their foundations.

The brick substation and the wooden storage shed are the last two structures from The Milwaukee Road’s operations at Loweth.

There was no passenger stop at Loweth because there was no population to speak of, other than the railroad personnel. Earlier, however, a few farms dotted the area, then known as Summit, Montana. When the Milwaukee Road electrified the mainline, they renamed the area after the railroad’s chief engineer, Charles Frederick Loweth.

Substation #2 ceased operations in 1973 when the railroad abandoned electric locomotives for diesel. The next year, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific Railroad filed for bankruptcy, leading its massive holdings to be sold, split, or abandoned over the next decade. A few other substations besides #2 remain. In particular, my readers might like to see what has become of #10 at Primrose.

References »

  • (1918, September 4). The Northwestern Miller, 115.
  • (1929, July). Milwaukee Road Magazine.
  • (1959). Modern Railroads, 14(1), 136.
  • Drake, J. (1914, April). Milwaukee Road Magazine, 26.
  • Clark, R. A., & Fell, J. J., Jr. (2009). Retrieved July 14, 2017, from http://www.oldmilwaukeeroad.com/content/proud/complete_text.htm
  • HISTORY OF THE LOCATION AND CONSTRUCTION OF THE LINES WEST OF MOBRIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA. (1915). VALUATION SECTIONS AND SUBSIDIARY COMPANIES.
  • McRae, W. C., & Jewell, J. (2009). Moon Montana. Avalon Publishing.
  • Milwaukee Road Historical District, Harlowton [NRHP Nomination Form]. (1988, July 8).
  • Snyder, S. A. (2012). Scenic Routes & Byways Montana. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=MFmBWZQys7IC
  • Stearns, H. J. (1966). History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3594&context=etd