It wasn’t long before the railroad found that steam operation in the mountains was difficult for several reasons, one being temperatures that could go as low as 40 degrees below zero.
Keeping in mind that water-power for generating electricity was abundant in the Northwest, and that large supplies of copper for electric wire were available at Anaconda, Mont., the Milwaukee’s board first studied, then approved, plans to construct an electrified operation in the Northwest.
Contracts were made for electric power in 1912, and in 1914 work was begun on 440 miles of electrification between Harlowton, Mont., and Avery, Ida. On November 30, 1915, the road’s first electrically hauled train ran from Three Forks to Deer Lodge in Montana, over 112 miles of track.
The early stages of electrified operation proved so successful that in 1917 it was decided to go ahead with electrification between Othello and Tacoma in Washington. The first test run on that track was on November 11, 1919, and formal operation began in March, 1920. Considerably later, a 10-mile electrified section between Seattle and Black River was constructed and went into operation on July 5, 1927.
One interesting aspect of this operation is that electric locomotives are equipped with regenerative braking. This means that when the electric motors are reversed for braking, they become generators of electricity, so that about 12 per cent of the power used by the trains is recovered during braking. Some of these first locomotives are still in use today, proving their durability and efficiency. The Milwaukee’s 656 miles of electrified operation is the largest such operation in the U.S.
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