U.S., Amtrak and before: Serving the Pacific Northwest with the Empire Builder and multiple transcontinental trains

Amtrak’s Empire Builder at Maple Springs, Minnesota along the Mississippi River, 2018. The Minnesota /Wisconsin border is in the middle of the river. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 19, 2023

If you wanted to get from here to there in 1956, there were multiple ways of doing so. That’s if “here” was Chicago and “there” was either Seattle, Washington or Portland, Oregon.

It was a hot competition between Great Northern Railway’s Empire Builder and Western Star, Northern Pacific Railway’s Vista-Dome North Coast Limited and Mainstreeter, The Milwaukee Road’s (Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad) Olympian Hiawatha and Union Pacific Railroad’s City of Portland.

The four primary trains all carried various types of dome cars, including the exclusive Union Pacific dome diner.

The glamorous transcontinental travel was to the south with the Chicago to Los Angeles competition of Santa Fe Railway’s Super Chief, Chief, El Capitan, San Francisco Chief, Texas Chief and others against Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles and Challenger along with the joint Southern Pacific Lines and Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad’s Golden State and Imperial.

The Hollywood royalty – those being seen and wishing to be seen – traveled on the Super Chief, Chief, and City of Los Angeles. Mingling with the chic and lesser beings on the Super Chief and City of Los Angeles were those just wanting a dependable ride on a passenger train with superb service.

A Santa Fe Railway ad for the Super Chief, 1948. This was an era when daily newspapers and newsreel producers in Los Angeles stationed photographers at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (as it was known then) just to catch news photographs of celebrities coming and going on passenger trains. Wikimedia Commons image.
Santa Fe’s westbound Super Chief at war, 1943. The Super Chief is being serviced at Albuquerque, New Mexico and there is plenty of railroad activity in addition to passengers entraining and detraining. The station building in the photograph was destroyed by fire about 45+ years after this photo was taken and has since been replaced by a new station. The original station was designed by Santa Fe’s famous inhouse team of renowned architects and designers. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A 1969 view of the Santa Fe Super Chief’s Pleasure Dome lower level. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Union Pacific advertisement for the City of Los Angeles and City of Portland in 1959 featuring future United States President Ronald Reagan. The future president enjoyed train travel; at the time of this ad he was President of the Screen Actor’s Guild and was hosting a weekly television show. Note he is wearing one of his signature brown suits. Internet image.
ABOVE and BELOW: The City of Los Angeles and City of Portland dome diners featured the Gold Room private dining room underneath the dome dining area, rivaling Santa Fe’s Super Chief Turquoise Room. Below is featured the dome lounge card room on both trains. Internet images.
It’s December 1970 in Utah and the City of Los Angeles will be gone in less than six months on Amtrak Day, May 1, 1971. By the last six months the train was slimmed down, but the onboard level of service never deteriorated as long as the train ran. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Less than 30 days before Amtrak Day, May 1, 1971 in El Paso, Texas and the joint Sunset Limited and Golden State share signage. After Amtrak Day the Sunset would continue, but the Golden State would not. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Rock Island Railroad and Southern Pacific Lines shared the operation of the Golden State between Los Angeles and Chicago. Here, in Rock Island territory the Golden State is still an impressively long train in 1965. Wikimedia Commons photo.

On the Pacific Northwest transcons, patronage was more of a mixture of tourists sightseeing the spectacular mountain scenery, going to and from famous national parks such as Yellowstone National Park or visiting Glacier National Park and the Glacier Park Lodge which had been built by a subsidiary of Great Northern.

By railroad, by train:

Great Northern Railway, The Empire Builder

Amtrak’s Empire Builder passes the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex, Montana; the station is just outside of this photograph. From Wikipedia: “…It was originally built as the Izaak Walton Hotel in 1939 by the Great Northern Railway as a soup kitchen and lodgings for railway workers. The hotel was also originally envisioned as a potential official southern gateway to Glacier National Park, hence its size, but World War II intervened and that plan never materialized. Today, the inn is served by Essex station, the only request stop on Amtrak‘s Empire Builder route. A van from the inn meets both the morning eastbound and the evening westbound Empire Builders to convey passengers between the station and the inn.” The inn was sold recently and is undergoing renovations. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Amtrak Empire Builder at Glacier Park, Montana in 1973. This was still during Amtrak’s “rainbow period” when cars from any railroad which joined Amtrak could show up on any train anywhere in the country, depending on equipment requirements. Note the lime green Volkswagen Beetle in the lower right hand corner of the photo; such was the 1970s. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A circa 1950s Great Northern Railway publicity photo of the Empire Builder at Marias Pass, Montana displaying the Great Dome. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A contemporary photograph of the main lobby of the Glacier Park Lodge at East Glacier Park, Montana. The lodge was built in 1913 by a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway with the express purpose of attracting tourists on its trains to the mountains of Montana. This was the same model Henry Flagler and Henry P. Plant used on both coasts of Florida during the period immediately before the Glacier Park Lodge was constructed; instead of waiting for someone else to build attractions for their trains, the railroad owners themselves built the attractions. The Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway followed the same pattern with their chains of hotels and resorts (all of which continue today under new ownership), including Canadian Pacific’s Banff and Lake Louise world-famous resorts in Alberta. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Contemporary photo, Great Northern wing of the Glacier Park Lodge. Wikimedia Commons photo.
  • Sole surviving Amtrak Pacific Northwest transcontinental train operating Chicago to Seattle and Portland
  • Serves Glacier National Park
  • Train split/joined in Spokane, Washington for Seattle and Portland sections
  • 1956 consist: Coach, two Great Dome Coaches, Ranch-Lounge, Diner, eight Pullman Sleeping Cars, Pullman Great Lounge with colorful beverage lounge in lower section

Great Northern Railway, The Western Star

Great Northern’s Western Star may have been the companion or second frequency train to the Empire Builder, but it was still an impressive train in its own right. The Western Star did not carry dome cars, but the onboard service was at the same high level as the Empire Builder. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Great Northern publicity photo of the Western Star, available to the print news media which in the 1950s was almost exclusively black and white. Wikimedia Commons photo.
  • Secondary frequency train to The Empire Builder
  • Served Glacier National Park
  • Train split/joined in Spokane, Washington for Seattle and Portland sections
  • 1956 consist: Reclining Seat Coach, Day-Nite Reclining Seat Coach, two reserved Day-Nite Reclining Seat Coaches, Dining Car, Coffee Shop Car, six Pullman sleeping cars, Observation-Lounge which served beverages

Northern Pacific Railway,

Vista-Dome North Coast Limited

1959 Northern Pacific system timetable cover, featuring the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited. Wikimedia Commons image.
Northern Pacific 1950s publicity photo for the Lewis & Clark Traveller’s Rest coach passenger lounge on the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited featuring the ever-helpful onboard nurse and stewardess. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Messy tracks, but a sparkling clean Vista-Dome North Coast Limited train at Auburn, Washington. Date unknown; internet photo.
North Coast Limited’s dining car feature, the Idaho Great Big Baked Potato, where each potato weighed at least two pounds and was served with butter for over 50 years. Internet image.
Each Vista-Dome North Coast Limited consist carried four dome cars, all in the distinct greens which became signature colors for the Northern Pacific Railway. Internet image.
  • Advertising said, “Four Vista-Domes,” “A Lovely Stewardess-Nurse,” “The Traveller’s Rest buffet-lounge … most unique car we’ve ever seen … captures the flavor and romance of the West”
  • Route celebrated Lewis and Clark Expedition commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson
  • Northern Pacific passenger trains were promoted as “Main Street of the Northwest”
  • Train split/joined in Pasco, Washington for Seattle and Portland sections
  • 1956 consist: Observation-Lounge Sleeping Car, Lounge-Buffet-Radio, two Pullman Sleeping Car Vista-Domes, two Pullman Sleeping Cars, Dining Car, two Vista-Dome Reclining Chair Coaches, two Reclining Chair Coaches, Lewis and Clark Traveller’s Rest Buffet-Lounge Car featuring select and ala carte meals and snacks, beverages

Northern Pacific Railway, The Mainstreeter

A Northern Pacific publicity photo for the Mainstreeter, the companion/second frequency train of the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited. The Mainstreeter carried mail and express cars; the North Coast Limited did not, nor did it carry dome cars. Internet image.
The Mainstreeter’s Holiday Lounge for Pullman sleeping car passengers. Internet image.
  • Secondary frequency train to the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited
  • Part of route in Montana varied slightly from Vista-Dome North Coast Limited route to provide service to other cities
  • Train split/joined in Pasco, Washington for Seattle and Portland sections
  • Carried mail and express cars that Vista-Dome North Coast Limited did not
  • 1956 consist: Lounge Sleeping Car, three Pullman Sleeping Cars, Dining Car, four Reclining Chair Coaches

The Milwaukee Road,

Super Dome Olympian Hiawatha

Circa late 1940s/early 1950s Milwaukee Road publicity photo of the Olympian Hiawatha with electric locomotives under catenary wire with a Skytop Lounge car. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Milwaukee Road inaugurated new Olympian Hiawatha post-war streamlined equipment in 1947, and, for some reason mercifully lost to history, the company had the conductor, engineer and fireman all dressed in formal white tie and tails; they couldn’t resist mugging for the camera. Internet image.
A 1948 view of a new Skytop Lounge outfitted in a Union Pacific paint scheme. Internet image.
  • Operated from Chicago to Seattle and Tacoma
  • 645 miles in two separate sections of the 2,200 route miles were electrified and the train ran under catenary wire similar to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City. The Milwaukee Road’s electrified railroad was built and operated successfully two decades before the Pennsylvania’s NEC
  • Carried the exclusive Skytop Lounge sleeper/observation car
  • Was the only pre-Amtrak Pacific Northwest transcontinental train to be discontinued prior to Amtrak Day of May 1, 1971. The Olympian Hiawatha was discontinued in 1961
  • Skytop Lounge cars were sold to Canadian National Railway after the commencement of Amtrak service
  • 1956 consist: Pullman Skytop Lounge and three additional sleeping cars, two Pullman Touralux Sleeping Cars, Dining Car, Super Dome with Café Lounge, four Reclining Seat Lounge Coaches with Leg Rests

Union Pacific Railroad, City of Portland

Union Pacific Railroad pre-war publicity photo of the City of Portland. Domes would not be added until after World War II. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Circa late 1950s Union Pacific publicity photo of the City of Portland including coach and Pullman sleeping car dome lounge cars as well as the dome diner which featured the private-dining Gold Room under the dome. The City of Portland and City of Los Angeles operated with identical consists. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Contemporary panoramic view of Sun Valley, Idaho. Wikimedia Commons photo.
W. Averell Harriman (left), chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1935 looks over Sun Valley construction with Steve Hannagan, an early public relations genius who worked closely with Harriman to create Sun Valley and essentially give birth to the American winter resort ski industry. Sun Valley opened in 1936 and was served by Union Pacific’s City of Portland passenger train which was inaugurated in 1935. Internet image.

A newspaper advertisement for 1941’s Sun Valley Serenade starring Sonja Henie, John Payne, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra as well as Milton Berle, Joan Davis and the Nicholas Brothers. Internet image.
Ernest Hemingway, novelist Clara Spiegel, and famed actor Gary Cooper at Silver Creek, Idaho (Sun Valley), January 1959. Hemingway owned a home in Sun Valley and ended his life there in 1961. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
President John F. Kennedy and Ambassador W. Averell Harriman at the White House in 1961. After his chairmanship of Union Pacific Railroad in the 1930s and the creation of Sun Valley, Harriman spent the remainder of his life in politics, including serving as Governor of New York State. He served in distinguished appointed positions for Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Hanna-Barbera’s Yogi Bear, who likes to remind everyone he’s smarter than the average bear, does not live in Yellowstone National Park. Wikimedia Commons image.
Original RCA Victor Bluebird record label of Glenn Miller’s hit song, Chattanooga Choo Choo, which was featured in the movie Sun Valley Serenade in 1941. Wikimedia Commons photo.
  • Operated Chicago to Portland via Shoshone, Idaho (Sun Valley and Ketchum)
  • Ski-enthusiast and Union Pacific Railroad Chairman W. Averell Harriman in 1936 created the modern American snow skiing industry with the creation of Sun Valley Ski Resort, America’s first destination winter resort which also included the world’s first ski lift. Prior to Sun Valley, the popularity of snow skiing was primarily for Americans traveling to Europe and elsewhere for winter skiing. Sun Valley kick-started the domestic skiing industry making it popular for everyone, not just the wealthy. Sun Valley contributed heavily to the success of the City of Portland. To help in the effort, Twentieth Century-Fox in Hollywood produced Sun Valley Serenade in 1941, starring Sonja Henie and John Payne with Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Originally released in May 1941, Miller’s passenger train anthem Chattanooga Choo Choo gained full fame by being heavily featured in Sun Valley Serenade and reached Number One on the charts on December 7, 1941
  • The City of Portland and more famous City of Los Angeles had identical consists with both featuring the Union Pacific exclusive dome diner and the private-dining Gold Room under the dome area
  • During the high-season summer months, special service was available to West Yellowstone, one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park, considered by many to be the first national park in the world. Yellowstone is the location of the famous Old Faithful geyser, but while similar in name, is not the home of Yogi Bear, Boo-Boo Bear or Park Ranger Smith in Jellystone National Park, even though Yogi was well know as being smarter than the average bear.
  • 1956 consist: Pullman Dome Observation-Lounge for sleeping car passengers, five Pullman Sleeping Cars, Reclining Seat-Leg Rest Coaches, Dome Coach, Café Lounge Car and Dome Dining Car.
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