U.S., Great Northern To Amtrak Empire Builder History: With Competition From The North Coast Limited, Mainstreeter and Olympian Hiawatha

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 15, 2021

Amtrak’s Superliner Empire Builder is the only train in the long distance/inter-regional national system named in honor or a real person, James J. Hill, who created the Great Northern Railway, the original home rails of the Empire Builder. Hill, who was born in Canada lived from 1838 to 1916 and was nicknamed the “Empire Builder” because of his prolific work as a railroad tycoon creating new railroads and consolidating others into his empire.

Today’s Empire Builder, in non-pandemic times consists of a baggage car, transition-dormitory car, three sleepers (in peak consists), a diner, a Sightseer lounge car and five coaches (in peak consists). The Builder operates from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, and the train splits/is joined in Spokane, Washington, one of only three splits/joins in the Amtrak national system.

In pre-Amtrak times, there were three ways to reach Seattle/Portland from Chicago via streamliners: the Great Northern offering the Empire Builder and The Western Star, the Northern Pacific Railroad offering the famed Vista Dome North Coast Limited and the Mainstreeter and the Milwaukee Road’s Super Dome Olympian Hiawatha. In conjunction with Union Pacific Railroad, The Milwaukee Road also offered the Domeliner City of Portland which had through-cars to Seattle-Tacoma.

It’s notable that for both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific trains, each used the Burlington Route/Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad to access Chicago from St. Paul, Minnesota.

The July 1956 edition of The Official Guide of the Railways shows these travel choices:

Great Northern Railway

The Empire Builder, Trains 31 and 32, Daily
Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Spokane, Seattle and Portland with Direct Connections to and from Tacoma, British Columbia and California
No Extra Fare. All Accommodations Reserved.

Modern Streamlined Equipment.

Coach, Chicago – Seattle, 60 reclining seats

Great Dome Reclining Seat Coaches (Reserved at no extra charge – Seats in Dome section not reserved.)

Chicago – Seattle, 46 Seats – Leg Rests

Chicago – Seattle, 46 Seats – Leg Rests

Chicago – Portland, 46 Seats – Leg Rests

Spokane – Portland, (S.P.&S.) 60 Seats – not reserved

Ranch – Lounge (Meals – beverage), Chicago – Seattle, Lounge for Coach and Pullman passengers.

Diner (Dinner reservations.), Chicago – Seattle – Portland

Sleepers.

Chicago – Portland, 2 sleepers, Sections, Duplex Roomettes, Roomettes, Bedrooms, Compartments, Drawing-rooms

Chicago – Seattle, 4 sleepers, Sections, Duplex Roomettes, Roomettes, Bedrooms, Compartments, Drawing-rooms

Spokane – Seattle, 16 Duplex Roomettes, 4 Bedrooms

Spokane – Portland (S.P.&S.) 6 Roomettes, 3 Bedrooms, Buffet-Lounge

Great Dome Luxurious Full Length Dome Lounge with colorful beverage lounge in lower section, Chicago – Seattle

Note – Pullman space on the “Empire Builder” for intermediate travel between any two stations west of Havre or between any two stations east of Havre may not be reserved until 24 hours prior to train departure time eastbound from Seattle-Portland or westbound from Chicago.

Tickets – All one-way and round-trip tickets will be honored except as follows: Tickets endorsed Clergy, Charity, Employee, D.V.S., V.A.H., Blind and Attendant, Blind and Guide Dogs, will not be honored. Circus, Show, Banana Messenger, Drover’s or Caretaker’s tickets and Live Stock Contracts will not be honored.

A full page advertisement from the Great Northern appears next to the Empire Builder listing in The Official Guide:

Great Way to California via the Pacific Northwest

Rail Fare to San Francisco is no more on Great Northern’s incomparable Great Dome Empire Builder

To delight travel-experienced patrons who are planning a full trip to California, suggest that they route themselves via the Pacific Northwest.

Great Northern’s EMPIRE BUILDER, now with Great Domes for both coach and Pullman passengers, takes the northern route across the nation – more than two thousand miles of truly superb scenery.

Your patrons will thank you for sending them on a route where they can see the Mississippi River Palisades, Glacier National Park, the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Idaho, the Cascades of Washington and Oregon.

Connections with fine trains to and from California in Seattle or Portland. Rail fare from Chicago to San Francisco is no more via Great Northern.

For information: –

P.G. Holmes
Passenger Traffic Manager
Great Northern Railway
St. Paul 1, Minnesota

The Western Star, Trains 3 and 4, Daily
Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Great Falls, Glacier Park, Spokane, Seattle and Portland via St. Cloud with Direct Connections to and from Tacoma, British Columbia and California and Direct Connections at Great Falls and from Helena and Butte

Modern Streamlined Equipment

Reclining Seat Coach, St. Paul – Seattle, 60 Reclining Seats

Day – Nite Reclining Seat Coach, Chicago – Seattle, 48 Seats, Leg rests.

Day – Nite Reclining Seat Coaches. (Seats reserved at no extra charge.)

Chicago – Seattle, 48 Seats, Leg rests.

St. Paul – Seattle, 48 Seats, Leg rests.

Dining Car, Chicago – St. Paul and Spokane

Coffee Shop Car, St. Paul and Spokane

Pullman Sleeping Cars.

Chicago – Portland, 4 Sections, 8 Duplex Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – Seattle, 4 Sections, 8 Duplex Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – Seattle, 16 Duplex Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – Seattle, 16 Duplex Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms

Spokane – Portland, 16 Duplex Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms

Spokane – Seattle, 16 Duplex Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms

Spokane – Portland (S.P. & S.), 8 Sections, Buffet – Lounge

Observation – Lounge, Chicago – Seattle (Beverages)

There is very little food service west of Spokane because the scheduled arrival time of The Western Star was 5:30 a.m. in Seattle and 6:00 a.m. in Portland. The eastbound departure from Seattle was 10 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. from Portland.

Northern Pacific Railroad

North Coast Limited – Completely Air-Conditioned, Trains 25 and 26, Daily
Wire-Recorded Music, Controlled Radio Reception, Stewardess-Nurse Service.
(Operates via Butte)

Observation-Lounge Sleeping Car, Chicago – Seattle, 4 Double Bedrooms, 1 Compartment, Lounge-Buffet Radio.

Pasco – Portland (via S.P. & S. Ry.)

Pullman Standard Sleeping Cars

Chicago – Portland, Vista Dome, 4 Double Bedrooms, 4 Duplex Single Rooms, 4 Roomettes (VIA S.P. & S. Ry. Pasco to Portland)

Chicago – Portland, 8 Duplex Roomettes, 1 Compartment, 3 Double Bedrooms, 6 Roomettes (VIA S.P. & S. Ry. Pasco to Portland)

Chicago – Seattle, Vista Dome, 4 Double Bedrooms, 4 Duplex Single Rooms, 4 Roomettes

Chicago – Seattle, 6 Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms, 8 Duplex Roomettes

Dining Cars

Chicago – Seattle

Pasco – Portland (VIA S.P. & S. Ry.)

A la carte service; also club breakfast, $1.25 to $1.95. Table d-hote dinner $2.90. Special plate luncheons and dinners $1.85. Table d-hote luncheon $2.15

Vista-Dome Reclining Chair Coaches (Leg rests)

Chicago – Portland (VIA S.P. & S. Ry.)

Chicago – Seattle

Seats in Dome sections are not reserved. All other seats are reserved, at no additional cost.

Reclining Chair Coaches (Leg rests) All seats reserved at no additional cost.

Chicago to Seattle (2 Coaches)

Lewis and Clark Traveller’s Rest Buffet-Lounge Car, Chicago – Seattle. Featuring select and a la carte meals and snacks, beverages.

The Mainstreeter – Completely Air-Conditioned, Trains 1 and 2, and 43-1 and 2-42, Daily

(Operates via Helena)

Lounge Sleeping Car, St. Paul – Seattle, 8 Sections, Lounge-Buffet

Pullman Standard Sleeping Cars

Chicago – Seattle, 8 Duplex Roomettes, 6 Roomettes, 3 Double Bedrooms, 1 Compartment

Spokane – Portland, 8 Sections, Buffet Lounge (VIA S.P. & S. Ry.) At Spokane through passengers will make station to station taxicab transfer at no additional cost.

Pasco – Seattle, 10 Sections, 1 Compartment, 1 Drawing Room

Dining Car, St. Paul to Seattle. A la carte service; also club breakfasts, $1.25 to $1.95. Table d’hote dinner $2.90. Special plate luncheons and dinners $1.85. Table d’hote luncheons $2.15.

Reclining Chair Coaches

Chicago – Seattle

St. Paul – Seattle

St. Paul – Winnipeg (No. 13 from Manitoba Junction).

Spokane – Portland (VIA S.P. & S. Ry. Pasco to Portland)

The Mainstreeter, Trains 43-1 and 2-42, Daily

Lounge Sleeping Car, Billings – Seattle, 8 Sections, Lounge-Buffet

Pullman Standard Sleeping Cars

Omaha – Billings, 8 Sections, 5 Double Bedrooms

Billings – Seattle, 8 Duplex Roomettes, 6 Roomettes, 3 Double Bedrooms, 1 Compartment

Spokane – Portland, 8 Sections, Buffet-Lounge, (Via S.P. & S. Ry.) At Spokane through revenue passengers will make station to station taxicab transfer at no additional cost.

Dining Car Service, Lincoln – Billings. Billings – Seattle

Reclining Chair Coaches

Kansas City – Billings

Billings – Seattle

Spokane – Portland (Via S.P. & S. Ry. Pasco to Portland)

The Milwaukee Road

Chicago – Milwaukee – St. Paul – Minneapolis – Gallatin Gateway – Butte – Missoula – Spokane – Seattle – Tacoma

Super Dome Olympian Hiawatha, Trains 15 and 16, Daily
Between Chicago and Seattle-Tacoma
No Extra Fare
Regularly Assigned Cars Are Air-Conditioned

Pullman Sleeping Cars

Chicago – Seattle-Tacoma, 8 Double Bedroom Skytop Lounge

Chicago – Seattle-Tacoma, 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms

Pullman Touralux Sleeping Cars

Chicago – Seattle-Tacoma, 14 Sections

Dining Car, Chicago – Seattle-Tacoma

Super Dome Car with Café Lounge, Buffet Service and Beverages, Chicago – Seattle-Tacoma

Reclining Seat Lounge Coaches with Leg Rests, Chicago – Seattle-Tacoma (4 Coaches)

Westbound, the Olympian Hiawatha carries a Parlor Car from Chicago to Minneapolis. Does not carry coach passengers locally from Chicago to Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Road and Union Pacific Railroad

Chicago – Omaha – Pocatello – Shoshone – Portland – Seattle

Domeliner City of Portland, Trains 105 and 106, Daily
All Cars Are Air-Conditioned

Dome Observation Lounge Car.

Pullman Sleeping Cars

Chicago – Portland, 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – Portland, 11 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – Portland, 5 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – Seattle, 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms

Dome Dining Car, (Club and a la carte service)

Café Lounge Car (For Coach passengers)

Dome Coach, (Seats reserved) – Dome seats not reserved.

Reclining Seat-Leg Rest Coaches (All seats reserved) (2 coaches)

Coach, Portland – Seattle

Much of The Milwaukee Road no longer exists; tracks were removed from the right-of-way. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, created in 1847 was sold in 1986 after much of its Pacific Extension was abandoned in 1980. It’s successor was the Soo Line Railroad. Remaining parts of the railroad are now owned and operated by BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, Canadian Pacific Railway and Wisconsin and Southern Railroad.

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