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Steam rotary crew, Snoqualmie Pass, 1916
Steam rotary snowplow crew, C.M. & St. Paul Rwy, 1916, Northwest Railway Museum collection.

The Cascades are noteworthy for heavy snow.  The term “Cascade Concrete” was coined by the earliest railroad workers charged with keeping mountain passes clear of snow.  So it was little wonder that railroads in Washington were early adopters of mechanized snow clearing, and steam rotary snowplows were found on every major road.

In the winter of 1916, just 25 miles from today’s Northwest Railway Museum campus, workers on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway’s Pacific Extension took a brief break from snow clearing operations to pose for a photo by A.J. Holzman of North Bend.  However, a closer inspection of the image around the bottom of the rotary assembly suggests that some components are misaligned.  Was some maintenance being performed on the plow? Perhaps repairs were underway?  It was common for avalanches whether large or small to deposit tree trunks and rocks on the track.  If struck by the plow, this foreign material would shatter one or more of the rotary blade elements and require an immediate repair.

Imagining snow falling at a rate of one foot per hour, you quickly get a sense of how vital steam rotary snowplows were to railroad operations.  It was common for plow trains to have two rotaries, one facing in each direction. With such high rates of accumulation, without a rotary facing in the opposite direction, it was easy for a plow train to become mired in fresh snow on the return movement.

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  • Eagle says:

    Got a question for you Northwest Railroad Museum. I recently was in the Seattle area from Washington, D.C. and visited your railroad museum. When I was at the Northwest Railway Musuem I noticed that you guys have a huge gap in Milwaukee Road equipment. I've been to a lot of railroad museums in the United States but considering your mission, and what you state to preserve and protect; why don't you have a couple of more Milwaukee items? There is still some historic Milwaukee Road equipment from around the country. Just last week I learned that a railroad museum in Oklahoma is preserving the Milwaukee Road 156 Bicentennial SD40-2. The 156 ran heavily in Washington in the 1970s. Was there an effort by a railroad museum in Washington to preserve the 156? And thus do your stated mission of preserving northwest railroad history?

    It was disappointing to see this gap. I knew about the status of the 156 from internet discussion boards over the last few years. Here on the east coast I have seen a few older Milwaukee Road hoppers still in service on CSX trains. Wouldn't there be an effort to try and preserve a couple of more pieces or an engine from the Milwaukee Road at the Northwest Railway Musuem?

  • Eagle says:

    By the way my name is David, that didn't catch when I left the comment.

  • Harvey Girl says:

    Hello David,

    That is an excellent critique of our collection.

    It is in our long-term interpretive and collections plans to represent more Milwaukee artifacts, but the process has been slow. The Northwest Railway Museum(the Museum)’s period of significance is pre-WWII. Therefore, the ideal Milwaukee equipment we would like in the future would be from the early electric era and require indoor storage for the best care. In light of this, we must finish our Roundhouse Exhibit Gallery before accepting such an artifact to the Museum in order to preserve it properly. Our current interpretive plan explicitly addresses this limitation. We are also in talks with the Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area to help them interpret the Milwaukee’s national significance in the coming years at our Museum. So, though the process has been slow, we have some things in the works to address this gap in our collection.

    For some background on our current collection, the Museum started as an organization run entirely by volunteers in the 1950s on a Northern Pacific line. As a result, a good section of the collection in the early years came to the Museum through the special interests or personal connections of individuals involved with the organization. When we hired our first permanent staff member in the 1990s, our collection had over 130 large objects. Many of these did not fit our mission and the representation of many mission-relevant areas needed to be improved.

    Since then, much effort has gone into overhauling our collection by finding new homes for non-mission-related artifacts, building infrastructure to preserve our existing equipment while stabilizing and conserving those pieces, and working on filling mission-related gaps. We have made some progress in expanding our collection to fill those gaps, but we recognize that still have work to do. We are also actively working to keep new artifacts within our pre-WWII era of significance, except for those with substantial local importance, such as artifacts like our recent acquisition – the Talgo VI Series Bistro car.

    That said, I can’t speak to the particular case you’ve mentioned as I am not familiar with the museum in Oklahoma, this specific locomotive, or any history or past interest our Museum may or may not have had with it. However, many times in the museum field, even when one museum asks to be the home of an object that serves its mission, it may go to another or even private collectors. Similar situations have happened in several past cases with other artifacts that area museums, including us, tried to keep local.

    Thank you for visiting our museum and interacting with our blog. If you have any additional questions I am happy to provide an answer here or feel free to email the museum at

  • Eagle says:

    Thanks for your response. I have a few thoughts and concerns about what was articulated. Let me start out by saying I enjoy steam and I think steam needs to be preserved. Your news about preserving the Great Northern steam engine is to be commended. But as a railroad museum I would also suggest that you are coming up short and also repeating the same mistakes that preservationists made in the late steam era.

    When I was in a grad school historiography class it was hammered into me that history never ends. History is ongoing and always up for interpretation. History is alive and always being made. Many people make the mistake of assuming that history is something that happens in the past. That is not true as history is an ongoing, continual process. There were a number of museums or preservationists that made the mistake in the late steam era of focusing just on steam. In the process they ignored, and wrote off many aspects of railroad history. Take the Fairbanks Morse H-24-66. At one point in its history there were over ten railroads that rostered those units across the United States. Because of the focus on steam none of them were saved in the United States. Actually if you want to see one you have to go to Canada to check it out. I would suggest to you that in what you said the Northwest Railway Museum is repeating the mistakes of the past. First by what you said about the pre-World War II, you as a museum have made a conscious decision to write off the Milwaukee Road. In my view you are a museum that is in conflict with its mission. Do you think the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth is going to trade away their Milwaukee Road box cab? Or the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis is going to trade away its Milwaukee Road bi-polar? Not a chance. Also in 2023 most of the steam that exists has long been cut up. That leads little to nothing that can be preserved. Not unless you get a museum to trade an engine or piece or rolling stock.

    But there is another concern that exists. As stated history is ongoing. The Burlington Northern is also history. The Burlington Northern is a deep part of Washington history. I'm 46 and I visited a railroad museum that had historical gaps in its collection. While I love steam engines, younger people will not connect as much to the Northwest Railroad Museum because they do not see a couple of items from their childhood. Part of my youth was seeing and hearing the grinding motors of the Burlington Northern EMD units laboring in Montana. If BNSF offers the Northwest Railway Museum a former Burlington Northern SD40-2, are you going to turn it down by saying, "it doesn't fit into out pre-WW II mission." If so then I would ask the question are you really about history, or are you a group of people who are just steam enthusiasts who think that is all that should be saved? Even the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum preserves a couple of late pieces right to the end of the B & O. But your narrow focus is killing history and also harmful for preservation. And yes, you can't save everything. But right now I saw a railroad museum that almost seems to be in an identity crisis. Why? They say they want to preserve Northwest Railroad History, while actively writing off almost half of it.