Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Empire Builder ...

Today marks another railroad anniversary with strong Montana connections. Eighty years ago today, the Great Northern Railway's Empire Builder passenger train began its first trips between Chicago and Seattle. Named for James J. Hill, the man who created the Great Northern, the Empire Builder has served the residents of northern Montana ever since. And though I think the Olympian Hiawatha was probably Montana's most beautiful passenger train, there's no doubt that the Builder was the state's premier service. Today it remains the premier long-distance train on the Amtrak network, and is the most-ridden passenger train in the country.

This morning's photo is an old railroad publicity shot of the eastbound train, taken in about 1957 near East Glacier Park. The Empire Builder was at its peak then, with two kinds of dome cars, a round-end observation, and a handsome orange-and-green paint scheme.


  1. I count myself lucky ( and OLD ) to have traveled by rail. It was a delightful and relaxing experience. I was fortunate to have ridden the Santa Fe Super Chief, and the Santa Fe El Capitan.

    Those days are gone, but not forgotten.


  2. I don't have quite that much tenure on this earth, but I still love riding trains ... ridden most of Amtrak's long-distance routes end to end. I'd love to have a time machine, though, to be able to experience the great passenger trains of the 1950s -- what an era that must have been.

  3. Thanks for remembering the "incomparable" Empire Builder on its birthday!

    The Empire Builder turns 80

    June 11, 2009, is marks 80 years since the very first Empire Builder passenger trains departed Seattle and St. Paul on the tracks of the Great Northern Railway. The Empire Builder is named after James J. Hill, creator of the Great Northern Railway who “built” his “empire” in the Northern Tier of states (and Canada). Today, the Empire Builder is one a small number of long-distance passenger trains surviving in North America. For the past 5 years, ridership on the Empire Builder has made it America’s single most-ridden passenger train, and it’s the second-longest continuously-operated passenger train in the United States. (Only the Sunset Limited - or "Sunset" on occasion, inaugurated in 1893 – the year the Great Northern’s transcontinental route was completed – has operated longer.)

    To put things in perspective about 80 years of the Empire Builder:

    James J. Hill, the “Empire Builder” died in 1916 at age 77.

    It was 13 years after Hill’s death, that the Empire Builder was inaugurated in his honor.

    The Empire Builder operated with non-streamlined equipment for 18 years (1929-1947).

    The Empire Builder operated with streamlined equipment for 62 years (1947-present).

    The Empire Builder operated with dome cars for 24 years (1955 to 1979).

    The Empire Builder operated with Superliner equipment for 30 years (1979 to present).

    The Empire Builder operated as primarily a Great Northern train for 41 years (1929-1970).

    The Empire Builder operated as a Burlington Northern train for 1 year (1970-1971).

    The Empire Builder has operated as an Amtrak train for 38 years (1971 to present).

    The Empire Builder running mate “Oriental Limited” operated 30 years (1905-1931 and 1947-1951).

    The Empire Builder running mate “Western Star” operated for 20 years (1951-1971).

    The Empire Builder rival “North Coast Limited” (CB&Q/NP/SP&S and later BN) operated for 71 years (1900-1971, with 23 of these years being a streamliner).

    The Empire Builder rival “Olympian” (Milwaukee Road) operated for 50 years (1911-1961) with its streamlined version (the “Olympian Hiawatha”) running from 1947 to 1961.

    The Empire Builder rival “City of Portland” (primarily Union Pacific) operated for 36 years (1935-1971).

    The Empire Builder running mate “North Coast Hiawatha” (Amtrak) operated for 8 years (1971-1979).

    The Empire Builder running mate “Pioneer” (Amtrak) operated for 20 years (1977-1997), though the train was a combination with another train (the San Francisco Zephyr until July 1983, the California Zephyr thereafter) between Chicago and or Denver, Salt Lake City, or Ogden, and didn’t begin through car service between Chicago and Seattle until 1981.

    Just a perspective of what 80 years means.....

  4. Thanks for your comment, and I"m glad to see that you're reading! I follow your railroad posts in the various Yahoo groups fairly religiously. :)

    And your list of superlatives is quote interesting. The thing that strikes me the most about them is the fact that the Builder stands a very good chance of becoming America's longest-running name train fairly soon, if Amtrak's plans to reconfigure the Sunset come to pass. That will be bittersweet, indeed.