Riding the 75th Anniversary Empire Builder Trains
June 11-15, 2004
Well, I'm sure by now most of you are tired of all my posts (on various on-line locations) about the 75th anniversary of the Empire Builder, and are glad that the date has come and gone so you don't have to hear any more of this. But you're not off the hook that easily..here's how my last four days went riding the Empire Builder, including the 75th anniversary trips:
I arrived at Seattle's King Street Station about 200 PM on June 11, well in advance of the festivities for the 75th anniversary celebration. The people from WashARP were still setting up shop, and the podium for the speakers and accommodations for the musical entertainment were also just being put together (nothing fancy, mind you). Already set up was a great display by the Washington DOT (Department of Transportation) about the Empire Builder featuring a giant E unit that really jumped right out at you! The Washington Association of Railroad Passengers (WashARP) was well represented, as was the Great Northern Railway Historical Society (GNRHS). Amtrak had a television set up and showed a video commissioned by Amtrak for the train's 70th birthday. I couldn't hear it, but it featured some great scenery, and music by Rob Quist (a native of Cut Bank, Montana) and his band, Montana (for those that know him, he used to lead a group called the "Mission Mountain Wood Band."). Amtrak also furnished the obligatory birthday cake (there were actually cupcakes and refreshments available to everyone.this cake went on board the train).
For those of you that haven't been to King Street Station in awhile, the speeches and entertainment took place on the north side of the waiting area in an area that used to be Amtrak offices, but now has been opened up in anticipation of the upcoming King Street Station renovation. Entertainment began at 300 PM included the Ballard Sedentary Sousa Band and a male chorale group which I believe was called the Seahorsemen, but I could be wrong on this. The Sousa band played all the classic marching tunes from their namesake. They were a bit loud, and the leader, a clarinetist in the first row, lacked a microphone, so she had to scream out the pending musical selections. The male choir was an a cappella group which sang many popular songs, and could be quite entertaining at times. Unlike the Sousa Band who were pretty much all in uniforms, but all of different kinds, the choir members were all dressed in tuxedos.
Prior to the commencement of the speakers at 400 PM, one of the interesting things about the event was the bewildered look of some of the passengers arriving to board the Empire Builder and other trains. Certainly, they didn't have any idea what was going on, and sadly, no members of the media turned out for this event. Very sad.
About 345 PM, the star of the day's festivities arrived, and it went largely unnoticed. It was the Empire Builder itself! The train headed north into the tunnel beyond the station, and then backed south through South Portal into King Street to spot for boarding. Nothing special about the consist EXCEPT for this trip only, Amtrak provided a Sightseer Lounge Car. Normally, the Sightseer Lounge car departs from Portland, and the dining car from Seattle providing food service on their respective legs of the trip. On this day, however, the Seattle section had both a diner and lounge, while the Portland section only a Sightseer Lounge. East of Spokane early the next morning, the train ran all the way to Chicago with TWO Sightseer Lounges, certainly a rare sight on an Amtrak train!
Just a bit after 400 PM, the speakers began, and the ceremony was emceed by Gil Mallory, President of Amtrak West. First, a moment of silence was observed in honor of former President Reagan. The speakers were all pretty good, though when Mr. Mallory introduced GNRHS member and historian John Strauss, he called him John Sousa (yup, just like band), but no one seemed to notice. Mr. Strauss recalled how he, like the Empire Builder, was turning 75 this year, and that he has had the privilege of riding all eight versions of the Empire Builder (I will have to count up later to see if I can come up with eight versions!). Also speaking were US Representative Jim McDermott of Washington, Don Welsh of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, at least two other pro-rail state representatives, a gentleman representing Washington governor Gary Locke (who also issued a proclamation acknowledging the Empire Builder's 75th), and Seattle City Council President Jan Drago (plus maybe someone else I have forgotten. All the speakers were very good and some quite eloquent, in spite of recurring troubles with the microphone setup at the podium. The best speaker, by far, with regard to eloquence and speech content was United States Senator Patty Murray of Washington State. She arrived a bit tardy, but delivered an awesome speech that was interrupted on numerous occasions by applause. She emphasized that rail passenger service is not only for those between Boston and Washington, DC or up and down the west coast, but for ALL of Washington state and other states, too. In somewhat borrowing a line from Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Murray said, "I look at Amtrak and do not see what is. I look at Amtrak and see what can be." She continued by stating how it will be impossible to provide mobility for Americas purely by using highways and airports. She also wasn't afraid to be a bit political and went right to the point that indeed the Bush administration seeks to slash funding for Amtrak, which will eliminate the Empire Builder, and probably most other Amtrak trains.
By the time the speeches were finished, it was about 435 PM, and boarding for the 75th anniversary trip of the eastbound Empire Builder commenced through King Street Station, Door 2. The door was surrounded by an arch made of balloons in red, white, and blue, and a ribbon was cut by Senator Murray to begin boarding. And, to her credit, the Senator stood on the platform and mingled with the passengers as they boarded the train. I had the opportunity to meet her and tell her I appreciated her support for long distance passenger trains and I told her how the Empire Builder was a lifeline to me when I resided in the Seattle area in the early 1990s and had to tend to my dying father back in Montana. The Senator came across very much as a "real" person, and I know that I am not the only person that was impressed with her. (And, I had a friend take a photo of me with her, which I will shamelessly post on the "gngoat" Yahoogroups site!)
In spite of all the activities, boarding proceeded quite rapidly, and though I didn't have time to look, the Empire Builder departed on its 75th birthday trip probably only 5 minutes or so late. I had splurged for this trip, and purchased space in a deluxe bedroom.all the way to Chicago. By buying it some 11 months previously (the maximum allowed by Amtrak), I saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars over what it would have cost that day. Actually, however, all the sleeping space seemed to be sold out which is not an uncommon occurrence for this train during the summer months.
Between Seattle and Edmonds, I had the honor of being accompanied by GNRHS member Scott Tanner. Everyone on board the train that day received a gift bag from Amtrak. The bag itself was plastic with logos of the operating railroads, Amtrak, and information specific to the 75th anniversary of the Empire Builder. Inside, there was a commemorative mug, a button touting the anniversary, and reproduction of a TRAINS magazine article by Joe Welsh (printed about 4 years ago I believe) mostly in full color (really nice), a copy of "Empire Builder" magazine with emphasis on the anniversary. Also included was a brochure with information about the time line of the train. The brochure was created by Scott Tanner, who also did about 99% of the footwork involved in getting it produced. Amtrak was so impressed by it, that they agreed to augment the number of brochures being printed and will distribute them abroad the Empire Builder in the future. Scott's hard work is a great boost for the GNRHS! Thanks, Scott! (And it is very nicely done.)
Scott detrained at Edmonds, as did quite a few other people that evidently were along to partake in the 75th anniversary festivities. Edmonds and Everett featured local officials meeting the train and there was a good-sized crowd at both locations on hand to see the train go through.
I've ridden the Empire Builder through this area literally scores of times, but never in a Sightseer Lounge, so that was quite a treat for me! Amtrak, to its credit, staffed and stocked the lounge. Later in the evening, after most of the people had their diner, the car nearly filled up, so obviously (if Amtrak had the equipment to do so) running this car was a hit! Now, if they would just dispense Coca Cola products instead of that dreaded Pepsi stuff, everything would have been perfect! (But I knew better and brought some Coke on board anyway.!) The ride across Western Washington on the former GN main line is easily one of the most scenic anywhere, and this trip was no exception. National Park Service personnel were on board for this trip to explain the scenic highlights as well as to give historical information about the route. One of the main topics they elaborated upon, of course, was 7.79-mile long Cascade Tunnel, which remains the longest tunnel in the United States, opened by the Great Northern in 1929, the year the Empire Builder was born.
Other than the lack of media coverage at Seattle, I think the only other disappointment for me on this day was the lack of participation in this event by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Clearly, they are responsible for some of success of the Empire Builder given the good handling the train regularly receives. Such handling was obvious on this 75th anniversary trip. When the Empire Builder emerged from Cascade tunnel at Berne, westbound BNSF trains occupied every siding from there to Wenatchee, as well as at Malaga and Albus (formerly known as Columbia River) east of Wenatchee. All waiting for the Empire Builder.
Evidently, there wasn't supposed to be anything planned for the station stop at Wenatchee that evening, so the Amtrak employees were initially unprepared for the large crowd (over 100) that greeted the train's arrival. It was the largest crowd so far, but not unexpected because as the train moves east, its importance to the communities it serves increases due to the lack of transportation alternatives available. WashARP Chairman Chuck Mott (who was making a round trip to Havre on the Empire Builder) and I were on the platform at Wenatchee when a lady (and I'm sorry that I don't recall her name) "drove" up in an electric cart with WashARP membership brochures in her basket. She had been distributing them to the crowd. Her disability wasn't going to stop her from taking advantage of this event to promote passenger trains. This is the kind of person that U.S. Representatives Inhofe (of Oklahoma) and DeLay (of Texas) need to talk to so they can tell her to her face why they seek to limit her mobility by eliminating long distance passenger trains!
Departing Wenatchee, the transition from forest to orchards to desert is complete and I returned to the Sightseer Lounge to take in this part of the trip. Chuck Mott and I (and others) visited about the future of passenger trains and we all agreed that the infrastructure of the freight railroads has to be addressed before expansion of passenger trains can occur. This is a big concern in Washington State, as container traffic in and out of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma continues to grow, and is limited, in some form or the other, by capacity restraints on the three crossings of the Cascades within the state. Truly, this country needs to develop some kind of national transportation policy where there currently is none.
Nothing out of the ordinary greeted the train at Ephrata, though there were some passengers. There are very few Empire Builder stops that are not used on a daily basis. It's part of the strength of this train, and why it's so needed. Shortly after departing Ephrata, I retired for the evening. It's been awhile since I had the opportunity to experience the luxury of a deluxe bedroom on Amtrak. The bed was good, but the inside of the car, like most Superliner cars, is showing some wear. It was a bit of a chore to get the seats made down into the bed in the evening as well as to get the overhead bunk to drop as intended, but I managed eventually. I didn't think I slept too well, but when I woke the next morning, we were inside America's second-longest tunnel, Flathead, and I knew I only had 45 minutes to get ready to detrain that morning at Whitefish.
There was a big crowd greeting the train at Whitefish, but not for the 75th anniversary trip. There's always a big crowd here..after all it does have the second-highest ridership of any intermediate station along the Empire Builder route (only St. Paul is higher, and Whitefish posts higher ridership than somewhat larger cities like Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Dallas, and San Antonio). GNRHS member Max Ulver was on the platform distributing Empire Builder commemorative items. In addition, there were numerous people just riding the anniversary train to Havre and back on the westbound train that evening.
When I purchased my ticket to ride this train in July of 2003, my intention was to ride all the way from Seattle to Chicago. As it turned out, train 7 departing Chicago on June 11 would be the primary celebratory train, but I wanted to ride former Great Northern rails (or at least the original route) right out of origin, and this would not be possible departing from Chicago, so I chose train 8 from Seattle. In the end, I wouldn't ride all the way to Chicago, either, because June 12 turned out to be the date of a wedding I very much wanted to attend in my home town of Cut Bank, Montana. Initially, I was disappointed that I would not ride the Empire Builder over the entire route, but then really, what is the Empire Builder for if not to give access to the transportation-starved communities of Northern Montana?
The Eastbound Empire Builder arrived in Cut Bank about 5 minutes early and I detrained. I learned from some friends that continued on the train to Havre to return on No. 7 that evening that the Amtrak staff, at my request, did have a drawing among coach passengers for the occupancy of my room east of Cut Bank. Rather than cancel the space and resell it, I requested that since it was paid for, that someone else be allowed to ride in my deluxe bedroom. A couple riding coach to St. Paul won the drawing and moved into my room. I never did find out how the determination was made, but the point is that the Amtrak crew was happy to do this, and didn't simply throw the space back into the computer system for sale as they could have done.
The wedding on a rare wind-free day in Cut Bank (I think I was about 15 years old before I knew the existence of vertical snow) was a great success with over 200 people in attendance. At the reception that followed, I told Aaron and Rachel that I interrupted my trip on the 75th anniversary of the Empire Builder just to attend their wedding, and that in 2029, I also plan to ride the Centennial edition of the train (I hope I make it that long) and that I'd better also get to detrain en route to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary!!!
Ducking out of the reception early, a friend of mine and I were back at the Cut Bank Amtrak station at 700 PM to board the westbound edition of the 75th anniversary train. Due at 550 PM, the train actually arrived about 85 minutes tardy. The train was harpooned not so much by celebratory activities along the way, but rather by a BNSF freight train which unintentionally extracted multiple knuckles in the path of the Empire Builder near Trenton, North Dakota. The stop off in Cut Bank turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave me a chance to ride this westbound train which had ex-GN and ex-Empire Builder full length dome lounge car "Ocean View" (now just identified by its number, the Amtrak 10031). This is the only remaining dome car Amtrak owns. There were no festivities surrounding the Empire Builder anniversary in Cut Bank, but I did distribute the GNRHS brochures to about 20 people entraining, detraining, and meeting people at the station that day. Everyone, without exception, was aware of the anniversary, which was probably the case everywhere on Montana's Hi-Line.
The westbound Empire Builder arriving in Cut Bank on June 12 was a very unique train. Not only was the "Ocean View" in the consist (second car from the rear), but so was Amtrak business car "Beech Grove" trailing. The train also was configured differently than normal: The Portland section of the train was directly behind the locomotives (normally, it trails), followed by the Seattle section with the transition dorm trailing, which allowed access to the " Ocean View" and "Beech Grove". The only down side of this lineup was that the dome car was directly behind the bi-level transition dorm, which eliminated direct viewing of the train ahead. And one unexpected bonus: The locomotives pulling the Empire Builder on this westbound 75th anniversary train this day..what else? The 7 and 31, corresponding to the current train number of the westbound Empire Builder and the train number of the dome version of the westbound Empire Builder respectively! This couldn't be a coincidence! What a nice touch by the people at Amtrak!
Usually, I dislike to ride coach on the Empire Builder in the summer. The train tends to always be full, and finding two seats together can be difficult. There were four of us boarding in Cut Bank for Whitefish, and I was impressed that the crew already had seats assigned, even though the tickets didn't list specific seats. This is a nice touch and should be done everywhere when the train approaches capacity. After the conductor lifted our tickets, I requested that we be able to visit the Great Dome car and President David Gunn, who was also on board. I didn't really expect this to do the trick, but since there were several Amtrak people on this train that had also been on train 8 with me from Seattle (and had ridden as far as Havre), I knew I'd have a recourse if this didn't work. Amazingly, about 30 minutes later, the conductor stopped back at our seats and told us that "Dave" will see you after 930 PM..he'll be busy until then. For a moment, I didn't know who the hell "Dave" was, just because it's a rare instance where employees would actually use a first name like that to address the president of the company, but it does say a lot about the kind of atmosphere Gunn is attempting to create.
I love the ride west of Cut Bank, especially when it's in daylight, which is not always the case (depending on the time of year) with the Empire Builder. After climbing out of the valley of Cut Bank Creek, the Rocky Mountain Front of Glacier National Park looms to the west in stark contrast to the relatively flat prairie. In 50 short minutes, the train is crossing the highest bridge on the former Great Northern (above the Two Medicine River, the site of the 75th anniversary poster of the train by artist J. Craig Thorpe) and arriving at Glacier Park Station. On this evening, in honor of the 75th anniversary, the parking lot was jammed with jammers! In this case, about a dozen of the red open-top buses famous for traveling the roads of Glacier National Park were dispatched to greet the Empire Builder on its 75th birthday. The buses, put in service in Glacier Park in 1937, have been around almost as long as the Empire Builder, so they're a fitting tribute. Missing, unfortunately (as I had heard otherwise) were Blackfeet dancers meeting the train, as was commonplace in Great Northern Days. GNRHS members were on hand here, too, and one (whose name escapes me) wore an authentic Great Northern conductor's uniform in honor of the celebration.
While all these things were a great reminder of the way things used to be, when I look past the log ex-GN station at Glacier Park up the flower-lined walkway to the Glacier Park Lodge one realizes that the really great thing about Glacier National Park is that even on days when the Empire Builder specifically isn't being celebrated, it's the best example of linking today's railroading with that of the past. In other words, there are lots of places where you can visit a museum and knowledgeable people can show you the way things used to be, but only in Glacier National Park can you still take a passenger train that's run for three quarters of a century directly to the park, board buses that have been around almost as long as the train, and go to hotels and lodges still in use and built by a railroad that helped create this part nearly a century ago. I recently had a conversation with a GNRHS member that first visited Glacier National Park in 1994. He said he saw all the pictures of the Glacier Park Lodge and the Glacier Park Station and tried to prepare himself for a letdown that would surely come when he detrained from the Empire Builder and found that things just didn't look that way anymore..that's until of course he got off the Empire Builder and found that things really do look just about identical to the way they did in 1964 or 1954 as well as in 2004! Such is another beauty of Glacier National Park, and the Empire Builder, along with the many GN-built structures, reminds everyone of the importance of the railroad in the area today and yesterday, with no indication that tomorrow will be much different. (And the GN-inspired paint scheme BNSF uses doesn't hurt either.)
Shortly after passing the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex (we didn't stop on this trip; Essex is the only flag stop along the Empire Builder route, so the train only stops when there are passengers to entrain or detrain), we headed back through the train (we were in the Portland coaches) and into ex-Empire Builder Great Dome "Ocean View". I asked to see either Mr. Gunn or Mr. Thorpe, but both were in "Beech Grove" so we toured the "Ocean View". What a great car with an incredibly smooth ride! The configuration of seats is different than in Great Northern days. The upper level, once home to 78 seats (which allowed the dome version of the Empire Builder to claim more dome seats than any other regularly scheduled passenger train) is now a mixture of table seating and seats facing various directions. Few people were in the car, as access was only for those invited, and for the "dignitaries" (no, that doesn't include me!) that rode en route. As stated earlier, the car was placed directly behind the transition dorm car, which is a bi-level Superliner car. Because of this, seats at the front of the Great Dome car did not afford much of a forward view, but of course this was not the case when in regular use on the Empire Builder! The best part of the seating in the upper level was evident when I was in the rear of the dome and gazed through all that glass to locomotives 7 and 31 leading our Empire Builder around the sweeping curve just prior to passing the east absolute signal at the east siding switch at Belton. Even though the car ahead limited the view, the sheer amount of seats under glass compensated allowing for fantastic views around curves from the rear half of the car. I was reminded of some who have actually expressed their preference for the short dome cars, stating that they allowed for a superior view of the scenery. While everyone is entitled to their preference, it became obvious that such opinions have little merit. Having just ridden the Budd domes of VIA's "Canadian" two summers before, I can truly say the view from this Great Dome was very much the equal of those of the VIA "short" domes..and really, just having that much room under glass is just so impressive! So much so, that one can be pretty much mesmerized by just sitting there and taking it all in! But the downstairs was equally impressive! In honor of that day's trip, the downstairs of "Ocean View " was staffed by an Amtrak attendant and a huge variety of food and beverages. all complimentary, of course! Fresh fruit, candy, beverages, snacks. Amtrak went all out, and even though the car had been used to entertain many by the time it got to this location, it was still fully stocked with goodies. Also in the lower level was the Empire Builder history display that was located in Chicago Union Station prior to the departure of the westbound 75th anniversary train. All kinds of timetables and advertisements for the train over the years..really a GREAT effort!
We returned to the upper section of the dome and I finally got to speak with noted artist J. Craig Thorpe, who was riding all the way from Chicago to Seattle. I had spoken with Mr. Thorpe a couple of times in the previous months. It was nice to meet the artist responsible for creating the 75th anniversary poster for the Empire Builder, which has proven very popular! He told me about the celebrations surrounding the westbound train at Chicago and other cities. From what I have learned from him and others, celebrations went something like this: Chicago had a cake for Amtrak employees and some other commemorative items. There was a similar display in Milwaukee, and participation from the Wisconsin passenger train advocacy group ProRail. No specific information about St. Paul, but I understand there was the standard cake and representation by the GNRHS here, too. Someplace that really impressed Mr. Thorpe (and I knew that this town would turn out) was Rugby, North Dakota. He didn't give specifics, but there were many people to meet the train. Once the recipient of Amtrak's "Station of the Year" award, the citizens of Rugby are rabidly pro-Amtrak. Minot had a good turnout with numerous state and local officials. The Williston Chamber of Commerce provided a cake for the event; the Wolf Point Chamber was to do the same, though I don't have verification of this. Havre was Montana's biggest celebration with members of the chamber and GNRHS. There was a birthday cake, and many people rode train 8 into Havre from points west to await westbound train 7. During the layover, the Havre Railroad Museum ran trains on its model railroad layout. Local and State officials gave speeches as did Amtrak president Gunn when he arrived. There was a cake at Shelby, too, and about 50 locals turned out in appreciation of the train.
Other people we spoke with in the Great Dome car included a couple from Indianapolis (in their 60s) who were on their honeymoon. Somehow, over the course of the trip, the Amtrak president found out they were honeymooning, and visited their sleeping accommodation and invited them back to the Great Dome car. They went back someplace in North Dakota and were still there as dusk settled on the train as we talked with them in Bad Rock Canyon. All day, they got to see people come and go, and partake of the free goodies downstairs. Also in the dome were the park service people who provide information and history about the route. There were four of these people on this trip, but usually there are one or two (this service is available only during the summer; they usually board train 8 at Edmonds and ride to Shelby and then return on train 7). These people were exceptionally entertaining, I must say, and greatly added to the overall travel experience for all on board.
Whitefish came WAY too soon (how time flies in a Great Dome!) and we detrained without meeting David Gunn on the train. He was obviously back in "Beech Grove" and since there appeared to be no one willing to escort us back into "his" car, I felt it improper to enter on our own. However, he was not riding all the way to Seattle, but rather was also detraining at Whitefish to catch the eastbound Empire Builder the next morning. I spotted him on the platform dressed in a blue blazer, sweatshirt, and jeans, and approached him and thanked him for all the 75th anniversary festivities. He remembered the letters I had written him and asked why I didn't come back and see him on the train..he was expecting me. Well, I guess, I'm just not as used to the president of the company being as down-to-earth as are the Amtrak employees! Anyway, I also told him I appreciated that with regard to the Empire Builder, that he "gets it". He understands the vital service this train provides to the communities along the route, something that was not always in evidence with other Amtrak leaders. When I told him that it was absolutely imperative that the Empire Builder continues, he said, "Oh, I think we'll be able to keep it. Or, they'll have to fire me first." Wow. What a heartening response without any of the standard political doublespeak.
Because the anniversary train arrived in Whitefish over an hour late, it actually missed its own party. There was a band and food. But the band quit playing when it got too dark to read the music, but supposedly over 200 people were on hand to celebrate at one time. By the time the train arrived, there were easily still 100 in attendance, and the party atmosphere continued well after the ditch lights of "Beech Grove" faded into the west. David Gunn gave a short speech here, and continued to mingle with passengers and locals.
By the time my traveling companion and I got to bed that night, it was after midnight, and we got up at 630 AM the very next morning to catch the eastbound Empire Builder back to Cut Bank! Yes, didn't get in enough visiting at the wedding reception, so needed more time to do that (plus there was all the food left over to clean up!). Train 8 on Sunday morning, June 13, arrived and departed a few minutes late. The whole place seemed kind of quiet compared to the night before, but still many boarded, including Amtrak's president, who rode the lead locomotive out of Whitefish. Like the night before he milled around among the passengers..and we got to talk with him again. He is very personable, but seemed tired (understandably so). With him in his entourage was..no one! He carried his down duffle bags down the platform and climbed on the engine.
The trip back to Cut Bank was without incident and the Empire Builder was not delayed. Again, too bad that BNSF chose not to participate in the celebration of this great train as they really do well moving it across the railroad. After meeting a few trains on the mostly double track between Whitefish and Summit, our train 8 encountered westbounds in the siding at Bison, the end of two main tracks at Grizzly, the siding at Browning, two trains at the end of two main tracks at Blackfoot, a westbound on the No. 2 main at Meriwether, and another between Piegan and Cut Bank. All things considered, I bet Mr. Gunn was pleased with the handling. Meanwhile, back in the train, I enjoyed breakfast in the dining car. This meal, like all the Amtrak service on the trip, was superb, and the staff exceptionally attentive. Going to and from the diner, I checked out the destinations on the hat checks over the seats of the passengers. Stanley and Detroit Lakes were the only two destinations west of St. Paul I didn't see. The Empire Builder, even in the summer, is far from a tourist-only train. There is business to nearly every station stop along the route every single day, truly a tribute to the train's utility.
Arrival back in Cut Bank was a few minutes late and then it was over to visit a friend in town before going to the home of the groom's parents to watch the newlyweds open about a trillion wedding gifts. I have never seen so much stuff in my life. If I had known they were going to get all that they did, my gift to them would have been a storage shed. Actually, watching this activity is only interesting for about 20 minutes (must not be a "guy" thing), so we took off and visited the Glacier County Museum located on the Northeast edge of Cut Bank. We had not been there before, and the manager of the museum is the son of a former GN and BN telegrapher who worked in Great Falls, Cut Bank, and Browning. Needless to say, he has a great interest in railroad history, and is planning to do a display on the Empire Builder. The primary point of interest for any railfan is the interlocking plant that handled the dual controlled switches in the Cut Bank area. This was Montana's last manual interlocking, and was replaced by CTC in January of 1983. I found it of particular interest because I had actually worked the machine as a telegrapher, as did my Dad many years previous. In addition, there is a BN caboose and numerous old photos that make the museum one of Montana's undiscovered gems. Unfortunately, the museum site is about 1 mile off U.S. Highway 2 at the east end of town, which means it's off the beaten path, but if you're ever in the area, check it out as it has features on Glacier National Park and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. After all, it is the Glacier County museum, and as a reminder, Glacier National Park is in two counties, Glacier and Flathead, and anyone can tell you that all the really good scenery is on the Glacier County side of the park!!!
After departing the museum, we returned to continue visiting family and friends, and then for the second night in a row, left for the depot to board the westbound Empire Builder. I would be boarding alone that night (the train was on time to the minute), but my friend would be returning home to Havre. All in all, there were seven people boarding the Empire Builder that evening in Cut Bank, including three others that had attended the wedding! They were returning home to Whidbey Island, Washington and were traveling to Everett. They had not been on train in a number of years, and just couldn't say enough great things about their experience on Amtrak. From the service on board, to the price, to enabling them to access Montana's Hi-Line, it's something they'll certainly do again. As for me, I rode only as far as Whitefish that night, and stopped for 24 hours to visit friends in the Flathead Valley. Then on Monday night, I boarded train 7 (my 5th Empire Builder segment in just over 3 days!) and returned to Seattle, arriving about 40 minutes tardy.
I have probably ridden the railroad between Cut Bank and Whitefish over 100 times through the years, but it's a railroad that's not easy to get tired of! From the southern boundary of Glacier Park to the incredible diversity of the Wenatchee-to-Seattle segment (what route anywhere can top it for scenery?), it's always a great trip!!! In summary, it was a great Empire Builder experience.
Many thanks to Amtrak president David Gunn (and really everyone at Amtrak) for all that was done to celebrate this trip! It's generally accepted that Amtrak has few resources to devote to such activities, but I believe for this event, Amtrak did more than could ever have been expected. In addition to the items I've mentioned previously, Amtrak also operated a second section Empire Builder between Chicago and St. Paul on June 11 to handle roadrailers and express that normally would be handled on the rear of train 7, but could not due to the presence of "Ocean View" and "Beech Grove" (the train also had a deadhead coach). All this shows a true desire to mark a significant milestone in the history of what can still be called the "Incomparable" Empire Builder, truly America's Train! Can't wait to see what the Centennial celebration will be like!!!!