The pair worked this route regularly the final month before the railroad was embargoed on March 1, 1980, and lead the final revenue #905 train from Bellingham on March 4. They left the Pacific Northwest for good a few days later on one of the post-embargo “cleanup” trains on March 7, back to continue their lives as branchline stalwarts on the network of light-railed lines they were built for.
It’s pretty exciting to see a manufacturer like Scale Trains announce they’re bringing the SDL39 to market! For years, it’s been a model that die-hard Milwaukee Road modelers would have to walk through fire to end up on their layouts: shell out the big bucks for brass, hack and chop and glue pieces of plastic in a monumental scratch-building effort, or struggle to get one of a number of limited-run resin kits assembled and running. But Milwaukee modelers are a loud and insistent bunch, and Scale Trains are open to such enthusiastic begging!
We live in an amazing age when this Unicorn of Locomotives will finally be a reality—and with quality and features that only a few years ago would have been out of the realm of possibility. There are several Milwaukee Road locomotives that, while certainly interesting, just didn’t fit my fairly narrow era-and-place specific railroad. But the visit of two of these to the branchline I model in early 1980 gave me a reason to add them to my roster. I can hardly wait to add their stubby, almost cartoon-like cuteness to my railroad. .. and with researched unit-specific details and amazing lighting features, I’m guessing they’ll spend more time on my model Lynden Branch layout than they did during their month-long appearance on the prototype in early 1980.
As much as I love the Milwaukee Road, I will admit that I am prejudiced just a wee bit towards the west end of the system. And to me, that means west of St.Maries, Idaho–or during the final years of the railroad’s operation, what would be called the “Washington Division.” The arrival of two of Milwaukee’s unique SDL39s, numbers 585 and 589, in early 1980—just weeks before the railroad shut down western operations—came as a surprise to me, as these were locomotives historically assigned to the upper midwest in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
My little blue notebook from the period recorded the arrival of such exotics to Montana as F-units and GP30s to cover power shortages, so it shouldn’t have surprised me when in the last week of January the two SDL39s showed up, apparently to work the #904/905 trains between Tacoma and Bellingham and the daily turn to the Canadian border at Sumas. Their light axle loadings would have made them perfect for the light rail of that branch (65 lb. in places!), but Milwaukee Road amazingly regularly dispatched heavy U33 and U36Cs on the line.
Arriving in Tacoma on the 27th of January, the next day they made their first trip north towards Canada leading train #904. I managed to squeeze in a detour to college classes that morning to photograph that train twice as it passed through my hometown of Bellevue, crossing the big wooden trestle south of downtown and then on the north side of town heading off into the woods to Kirkland over the Burlington Northern trackage rights on the former Northern Pacific between Renton and Snohomish.
The use of 585 and 589—as far as I can tell the only two SDL39s to operate in the Pacific Northwest—was just a blip in the history of diesel motive power on the Milwaukee Road in the northwest. But with Scale Trains’ announcement that they will bring museum-quality models of these locomotives to market, it will be a blip that I can accurately model on my model railroad of the Lynden Branch in far northern Washington State.
Blair Kooistra is a railroad photographer and historian who lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He is happily married with two sons and has worked as a train dispatcher for “a major western railroad” for the past 25 years. Also a modeler, Blair’s layout covers a tiny corner of the Milwaukee Road, the 5-mile long Lynden Branch in northwestern Washington, circa 1976-1980.