Our First Rail Trip Cincinnati-Seattle And Back
October 20-27, 2002
The two of us talked about rail travel and after researching Amtrak's website and reading books and message boards we decided to book. We found a very good price on a family sleeper, not much more than a standard and ordered our tickets in May 2002. We chose the Empire Builder because of it's reputation and on time record plus the sights we would see. Actually the train was our vacation, destination hardly mattered. As summer passed a lot of our friends became interested in the trip and expected a full report.
Sunday October 20
Seemed like it took all day to pack although we were only carrying a small duffel and a backpack each. Evening we checked train status online and by phone. The Cardinal started out 46 minutes, then one hour nine minutes late. We decided to leave at 11pm, one hour before original departure. Drove to our daughter's house where she would drop us off then pick us up since she lives only five minutes from Union Terminal. After final instructions on care of the cat and birds we arrived at 11:30pm. We found the waiting room not crowded yet. The train was announced as one hour late.
I walked out to the rotunda to take videos of the many murals and the art deco design of Union Terminal. I had been here many times as a child with my dad dropping off a relative. Never thought I would be traveling through here. There is one spot in the corner at the highest point of the rotunda where you can speak facing the wall and the other person at the other side can hear you as your voice travels across the ceiling and down the wall. My dad and I would do this every time. Now most of the terminal is the Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Historical Society. Glad it was saved.
Monday October 21
Back in the waiting room more people were filing in as the counter person announced departure was delayed an hour and twenty minutes while a private car was added.. At 2:20am the train arrived. People meeting arrivals went down first. I counted 29 returning passengers. Then the 15 leaving were told to go down the steps to the train, coach to the left, sleepers to the right. We were riding coach on both legs of the Cardinal, Our car was 25061 with the safety card saying Amfleet I , seats 13 and 14. Not very crowded, half full with many taking two seats. The Conductor took our tickets and put the CHI sign above. Dawn took aisle. Seats comfy with foot and leg rests, large windows and electric outlet.
We grabbed some snacks from our bag as we pulled away and paralleled I-75 toward Hamilton. We were awake all day so we could sleep on the train but who could sleep now. In Hamilton a few boarded as one man complained about the unmanned station. The Conductor told him to write his congressman for more Amtrak support.
Once familiar territory faded we tried to sleep. The aisle seat was very cool but my window seat was warm. We traded seats. In Indianapolis a few boarded plus a new conductor. The station was next to the RCA Dome. It was 5am as we settled down and snoozed until we realized the train was stopped. There was a disabled freight ahead. At 7:30 breakfast was announced for coach. We walked through two more coaches one with a maroon design with some seats facing each other then the kitchen and diner. We were seated with a 23 year old young man from England who was starting a nine day vacation in the U.S. mostly by rail.
The server thought he was too young to drink coffee. His name was Martin and he said he drinks coffee over here because the tea is not very good. We had the French Toast, Dawn had the Continental.
7:45am. We started moving and we returned to our seats. Bright sunny fall day as we enjoyed the scenery. A few more short delays for track maintenance then into Chicago at 11:45am, three hours late. A long walk on the platform to the station. It took us a while to find the Metropolitan Lounge. We checked our two bags, kept our backpacks and went upstairs to get a sandwich, a couple of chardogs. Back to the lounge found it crowded but we found seats and drinks. There was to be a half hour delay for maintenance but it was only 15 minutes.
We found our Family Sleeper at the end of the hall on the lower level, nice clean, roomy with windows on both sides. Met our attendant, Thomas Murray who took care of us splendidly. The Conductor took our tickets and I decided to take a shower. About the size of a camper with a small dressing area. The sign said the temperature is about 100 non-adjustable. It felt like minus 100, cold but I hung in there and finished quickly. Very refreshing.
Next we signed up for the 5:30 meal. The diner staff was efficient as they announced the rules and menu even the special on the Fess Parker Wine (didn't he play Davy Crockett?).
4:45pm stop in Milwaukee. Dawn cleaned the outside window on her side. At 5:30 we got the call to dinner. The diner was the next car. We were joined by a women and her son from St. Paul. Three of us ordered the filet. The boy had the baked chicken. Salad, baked potato. green beans rounded out the meal with cheesecake and apple-cherry cobbler for dessert. We had a nice conversation as I found out Karen was a massage therapist also. Back to the room Dawn decided to shower but it was still too cold. She washed off with cottenell wipes.
Next we walked to the sightseer lounge then checked out the cafe downstairs. I bought an Amtrak blanket then back to the room. Mr. Murray had pulled down the beds. Just in time as we were tired. Dawn tried to sleep in the upper bunk. Didn't like it and decided to sleep in the child's lower -- a lot more comfy. I slept in the lower with Dawn's feet reaching into my side. I listened to my radio in the dark, not many stations. I drifted in and out of sleep. Some rough tracks overnight as we moved quickly over Minnesota and North Dakota.
Tuesday October 22
Dawn woke me up at 6am, then we heard the call to breakfast. Not as crowded as dinner. Seated with a man from Wisconsin, a Packer fan picking up a car in Havre MT and a guy traveling Minneapolis-Seattle. The train stopped at Minot ND for a service stop so I got off to take some video and photos. Back on board we found out the shower was hot when the lever was on cold and vice versa. Dawn showered and enjoyed washing her hair. Next some coffee then to the lounge for the Crocodile Hunter movie and the Minot newspaper. Dawn joined me when her hair dried and read.
Next stop Williston ND, walked outside where the platform was snowy and icy. Also the train is all non-smoking since there was not a smoking car available, so we stopped at all stations for a smoke break.
10:30am. Snowing with the fields covered. You can hear the ice pellets on the bottom of the train. In Montana now and time for a hot shower.
Lunch 12:30-1:00pm. Black Angus Burger, slaw and cheesecake. Dawn had chicken pot pie, fruit and ice cream. Sunny, blue sky Big Sky Country. We were seated with a big guy from Seattle, an Elvis impersonator cab driver, ordained minister. He was very upset about the non-smoking rule. He said five hours between smokes is too long and that he and the other 38 smokers could overtake the train. The other person at the table was a quiet guy from Oregon.
Next stop Havre MT at 3pm. We walked around and took photos and video of the old steam engine on display. It was cold brisk and sunny. On the train Spiderman was announced for 5pm. Dinner was at 5:30 and we were promptly seated with a couple from Oregon returning from a seven week vacation in the east. We both ordered pork roast with zesty ranchero sauce baked potato, green beans and carrots, salad and chocolate pyramid, all very good. Got some video shots of the diner.
We headed for the sightseer lounge where the movie was that Chris Rock, Anthony Hopkins one about CIA etc. It was too cold for Dawn so she went back to the room. I stayed for half the movie, When the train stopped in Essex the smokers poured out.
Back downstairs Mr. Murray was getting the beds ready. No radio stations could be heard tonight.
Wednesday October 23
I woke up in Spokane where the cars to Portland were dropped. Woke again at Ephrata WA, where a bank clock read 4:38am. After returning from the restroom Dawn was awake and we had some coffee. She said she heard that breakfast would be 5-7am. We saw Thomas Murray passing out newspapers at 5:45.
We were the first few in the diner and were joined by a couple from Lake Placid NY to Tacoma. I had the pancakes with sausage Dawn the French Toast with bacon. After chatting we thought we better free up the table.
Our room was made up as I brushed my teeth. Still dark outside Dawn had repacked her bags. Nice thing about the family room, space for our luggage. As it lightened outside we saw more evergreens and mountainous terrain then more houses and traffic. 8:15am, two hours to Seattle. As we saw Puget Sound we knew we were getting close. We arrived on time at 10:20am.
King Street station is an old, old building that is being restored. Through the station and up the stairs where we started walking in the direction we thought our hotel was located. Found Pioneer Square then Yesler Street and there was the Pioneer Square Hotel. Our room wasn't ready so we checked the bags and decided to explore. We walked along the piers seven blocks then up the hill to the Pike Street Market. Up the elevator to the top floor to work our way down. Lots of fruit and vegetable stands, flowers and more flowers, giant dahlias. We watched them throw the fish. Ate some cashews, and meandered down each level to see the knik- knack shoppes, cultural shoppes and restaurants. We tried samples of jelly, mild, hot, xtra hot, and xxxtra hot. Tasty. Dawn bought a jar of hot ginger jelly for son-in-law Andy. Across the alley were more shops. We ate lunch at the Emerald Kettle, chili cheeseburger with fries and clam chowder. One store was selling milk in glass half gallon containers, $2.00 deposit. I haven't seen those in years.
We walked back to the hotel and room 316 was ready. Nice quiet clean spacious room. We both crashed. Dawn took a bath. I woke up and did the same then dressed for dinner. We went across the street to Trattatoria Michelli for a good, filling Italian meal. We walked around Pioneer Square for awhile then back to the hotel. The bed was very comfortable. Watched a couple of TV shows then zonked out. Waking up in the middle of the night to use the restroom it felt like I was still on the train swaying back and forth.
Thursday October 24
Went down for the continental breakfast. Decent. In the room the TV said they caught the snipers. We checked out but checked our bags since the train wouldn't be leaving until 4:45pm. Next we walked along the pier and browsed Ye Old Curiosity Shop and a few more stores on Alaskan Way. Fish bits and steamed clams at Steamers, then up to the Space Needle. It was too foggy to see much so we didn't go up. I saw a phone and decided to call a radio talk/game show since it was 4:00pm in Cincinnati. I got through and they couldn't believe I was at the Space Needle.
Going back to the hotel we rode the waterfront trolley. We had a cup of coffee at Tullys where Dawn bought a pound for our daughter Candy. Then it was to the hotel to retrieve the bags and the walk to the train station.
3:00pm. The King Street Station is old with false walls and ceilings covering the original architecture. They are beginning to restore and it should look nice.
The train pulled in at 4:00pm and we boarded at 4:15. We are in the first sleeper, last time the second sleeper and it is in the same orange, avocado decor. The attendant was Jesus. He was kind of quiet but did a good job. The speaker in the room was not working and it was hard to hear the announcements. A supervisor visited next who we thought was the conductor. He chatted a few minutes before the conductor collected the tickets. Next the dining steward made our reservation for dinner. At 6:00pm we were eating dinner near Everett WA and joined by an Asian girl who was moving from Seattle to New York City. We all ordered the steak which again was very good. The two servers were the same ones we had eastbound.
Back to the room to get comfy where Jesus had gotten the beds ready. I decided to try the upper bunk. We found out that we were the only occupants on this level of the car with only about five or six rooms used upstairs. I hopped in the bunk for the night. Dawn read for awhile. The top bunk is doable but I had no watch to tell time. We made a couple of long stops, one in Spokane to connect the Portland section.
Friday October 25
I woke up at 7:30am, and it was still dark out. Dawn said she had been up reading in one of the other rooms. Talk about having a whole car to ourselves.
At breakfast we were seated with a man who boarded at Sandpoint ID, then another from California who I remembered seeing at our hotel in Seattle. The eggs and bacon and potatoes were good and Dawn had the pancakes and turkey sausage.
Back to the room for the video camera to use in the sightseer lounge. As we passed the Isaac Walton Inn in Essex the people were out on the deck waving to the train. Next was Glacier National Park which was dark on the way out. We chatted with a lady from Salem Oregon going to Chicago then Dayton Ohio. Got some good clips of the mountains and forests. After an hour we went back to our suite. I brushed and shaved while Dawn showered then I took a nice and hot shower. Caught up on this journal then read the morning paper from Idaho till 11:15am MT.
We went to lunch at 12:30 and sat with the lady from Oregon and a Native American lady from Cutbank MT. The Black Angus Burger, veg soup and cheesecake were great as usual. Dawn had the lasagna, clam chowder and ice cream, As we finished lunch we pulled into Havre MT.
The rest of the afternoon we just lounged around the room. Still no one else down here. At the 5:30 dinner we were seated with the lady from Oregon plus the guy from Minnesota from our westbound trip. It was roast pork again and the chocolate pyramid. She said the Big Fat Greek Wedding was showing in the lounge. We wanted to see this movie.
After dinner we walked to the sightseer lounge downstairs to the cafe. Dawn asked when the Greek Wedding movie would be shown again and he said Saturday at 11am. On the way back to the room the cars were swaying pretty good. Got a coffee and at 7:45pm Jesus shaked down the beds.
At 9:22pm CT we stopped at Minot ND and got off as this was a service stop and walked to the station. A little bit of activity here. Inside it was time to snooze and Dawn had a gin and apple juice. I'm back in the lower bunk and she's in the kiddie bunk. We're pretty comfortable. Another rough night in North Dakota on the tracks, same as westbound. We are shaking pretty good. I remember the stops in Detroit Lakes and St. Cloud MN.
Saturday October 26
Waking up around 6:30am, when the breakfast call was made. The Minneapolis-St. Paul stop was at 7:00am and our entire breakfast was as the train was still. We were joined by a guy from Milwaukee and a lady from parts unknown. Milwaukee wanted eggs with his French Toast and was told he had to pay extra. He said OK. I ate the pancakes with sausage. Dawn had the continental.
Next we took our showers then Jesus made the beds while we waited in one of our spare extra rooms. More video was taken in Red Wing MN and some shots of the Mississippi River.
At 9:40am up to the sightseer to see if the Greek Wedding movie was on. Of course it was half over. Dawn went to the next coach to read since she didn't want to watch the last half of the movie. I stayed but mostly looked out the window. Then I told Dawn that the movie was over and we went back to the lounge. We then watched one hour of the Spiderman movie.
Back to the diner for lunch, our last meal on the train, with a couple from Minneapolis going to Milwaukee. I had the chicken pot pie, slaw, soup,ice tea and cheesecake. I must have eaten a year's worth of cheesecake on the train. Dawn ate the turkey club, slaw, tea and cobbler. Back to the room to gaze out the windows and snooze. Milwaukee at 2:00pm half hour early.
At 3:10pm I gathered my stuff and packed then read the paper. Arrived in Chicago on time and made the long walk to the gate. When we checked our bags with the attendant in the Metropolitan Lounge he told us the Cardinal would be two hours late.
We walked outside and saw the Sears Tower. Went inside and rode the elevator to the ticket level. The price was $9.50 and the wait was 45 minute. We walked around downtown and checked out a few restaurants and found one with reasonable prices. The B&B was kind of a Greek restaurant so I ordered a Reuben and Dawn had the ham steak.
We then found our way back to Union Station. Now we were two and a half hours down because of a crew delay. Sat in the Metropolitan Lounge and watched the crowd dwindle with each departing train. Soon there were a half a dozen of us left. The sixth game of the World Series was on the TV. They took the first class passengers to the diner for their meal since the train would be late. Some who had arrived earlier were given ten dollars for a meal.
At 10:00pm the lounge was closed and we were herded to seats near the gate to wait, At 10:20pm we were called to board. The attendant told us to sit anywhere we wanted. Plenty of room. We found seats that weren't ripped and with working footrests.
Train started moving at 10:50pm, three hours late. Once out of Chicago they announced the cafe would be open for snacks and drinks until midnight. I got White Castles and a drink. As we settled down Dawn sat behind me so we both had two seats. I kind of snoozed off and on but the aisle ceiling lights were a little bright. At 6:00am the snack bar was opened and Dawn got a cup of coffee. The restroom on this train was worn with duct tape holding part of it together.
Sunday October 27
At 7:00am we were in Hamilton OH and Dawn called Candy to tell her we would arrive at Cincinnati Union Terminal 7:30am. We had made up one hour due to the time change and we didn't lose any time. Departing the train we walked up the stairs as Candy and Andy came down to help us with our luggage. Through the terminal and to the car. Then breakfast where we filled in the kids on all the details.
Our lasting impression on our first rail journey: the ride was smother than I imagined, the food tasted better than it had a right to, the sightseeing was awesome, the employees helpful and friendly, plus all the interesting people we met in our little train community. We are ready to go out and try a new and different route next year. Maybe two!