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1947 Empire Builder travel article

This article is from a pamphlet touting the amenities of the new 1947 Empire Builder
written by Lucia Lewis, Chicago Daily News travel editor. It is not clear if this piece was commissioned as a public relations project, or a reprint from a story that ran in the Daily News. It is interesting to those interested in the process of designing a streamlined train interior as the author cites P-S sources about the thinking behind the design decisions, and some detail of the colors and finishes.


It all started with those stripes in the Coffee Shop car. The colors were refreshing and different, and yet they seemed vaguely familiar. So I asked the designer of the new Empire Builder how he happened to select them.That simple question unlocked a story which went back over the years and around the world. I heard about a shopping tour which made my search for nylons and beef look like mighty puny efforts. And, I learned why this new train was so appealing-like a perfect home where the owner has planned and shopped to create the harmonious atmosphere which makes guests happy.

The Great Northern Railway’s new Empire Builder makes its guests feel at home because it is more than a shiny, 1947 wonder-a fleet of streamliners which cost Great Northern several million dollars. True, it is the first transcontinental sleeping car-coach train to be built since the war. It introduces the first modern postwar coaches at the standard low rates and other new types of travel accommodations on the Chicago-to-the Pacific Northwest route. Great Northern owns four of the five trains; Burlington owns the fifth.

But much more than millions of dollars, something more even than luxury and service has gone into the new Empire Builder. That something more makes this a distinct personality among trains.

The vast Northwest Empire, which the Great Northern has helped to develop over the past 55 years, is built into this train.

Its resources, its enterprise, its traditions, Its color and beauty are a part of the streamlined Empire Builder.

Even in minor details we find an authentic note of the old Northwest.

Those stripes are taken from the briliant Hudson’s Bay blankets, which are a familiar note throughout the far north.

Since 1670, when King George II granted a charter to the “Governor and Company of Merchants -Adventurers trading into Hudson Bay”, those colors have been splashed across the Northwest from “old Oregon county” to the Canadian Arctic. Once, on the blankets and coats of the Hudson Bay trappers and traders, they were a challenge to the settlers who fought their way into the feudal territory. The famous “54-40 or Fight” boundary dispute started with the clash of American settlers and traders at the Hudson’s Bay outposts in what we now call the Pacific Northwest.

Today the Hudson’s Bay stripes have become a symbol of the close ties between two countries whose borders are marked by an international Peace Park. Here, where Glacier National Park meets Canada’s Waterton Lakes Park in Northwestern Montana is one of the magnificent scenic areas on the route of the old traders and the new Empire Builder.



Too many things are standardized today.

The Empire Builder is unique because it is “individualized”. When the new fleet was ordered, Great Northern didn’t say: “Build us five new trains-best modem streamline design.”

Instead, engineers, designers, artists, railway operating men, and historians went into huddles on planning and research.

Sketches and blueprints were drawn and analyzed, re-drawn and re-analyzed. Hundreds of products and ingredients were tested in laboratories and in actual operation. When final plans were on paper the talents and skills of two organizations—Great Northern Railway and the Pullman- Standard Car Manufacturing Company—began turning dreams into realities.

All during the war and after, in a period of shortages and confusion, the plans progressed; slowly, at times, because there was to be no substituting for quality.


While engineers were testing and proving equipment, historians were delving into the archives of Western history. Artists were seeking designs and colors from the Pacific Northwest coast to Lake Michigan.

PS ad1947 Pullman-Standard ad that ran in the Saturday Evening Posts featuring the Empire Builder's coffe shop. The bright interior colors were chosen to chase away the post-war blues (olive drab).

Every color in the new Empire Builder has meaning.

“With the end of the war, the world is coming out of uniform,” said Ralph Haman, Engineer of Color and Design for the Pullman- Standard Car Manufacturing Company. “Every one is tired of olive drab and same-ness. We are ready for gaiety and beauty, and the new Empire Builder will have these qualities. No more pale and frightened colors!”

That is what you first notice in the cars of these new trains. They are harmonious and restful, but the colors are strong and clear, as exhilarating as the Western spaces through which they race. In fact, those Western spaces inspired the color ranges that have aroused comment among designers all over the country.

Each coach car is a blend of different colors. Passengers can easily identify their own car. Each coach is easy on the eye in two ways. It has a fresh beauty, but it also is restful for relaxed traveling.

Restful, but not insipid. Instead of nondescript beige we have the ripe gold of Minnesota, Dakota and Montana wheat fields. No ordinary pale blues, but the uplifting horizon tones we see beyond the Cascades in Washington. The greens, in many gradations, recall the clear waters of tumbling mountain streams, the deep spruce of forests of Idaho’s and Oregon’s panhandle country or the placid ripples of the Upper Mississippi.

Murals in each coach give a preview of these scenes along your Great Northern route, while the harmony of color makes you feel that you have taken a long step into the West when you step aboard the new Empire Builder.

GN Artwork from 1947 GN brochure "Through the Car Window"

Color is important for practical reasons, also. After exhaustive tests for visibility tho deep green and brilliant orange of the Diesel engine were determined. These brilliant colors can be seen at great distances -a definite safety factor in highspeed operation. Green and orange paints were subjected to blazing sunlight, steam, boiling heat, freezing temperatures, showers of rain, every light and climatic condition on the North American continent.



The West, however, is not just a splash of color in the new Empire Builder. It is a basic part of the architectural scheme.

Built into the panels between your tables in the diner are exquisite facsimiles of the wild flowers which delight visitors to Glacier National Park.

In 1926-27 the American artist, Walter Loos painted the wild flowers of Glacier Park. His oil reproductions of American flora rank with the bird paintings of Audubon. These rare paintings, now owned by Great Northern, are reproduced in their original beauty

In Glacier Park the wild flowers are reflected in the sublime blue of the glacial lakes, a blue unlike any other shade. This same blue, repeated in draperies, rugs and upholstery, is the setting for the Laos flower paintings. As precisely as man can duplicate nature the artists and technicians bring the breath-taking blue of St. Mary Lake into the dining car.


In our big cities we forget that the palefaces were not always welcome in this land. When we get to the plains and mountains the exciting lore of our childhood begins to come back to us. We find that the Indian is not a legendary vanishing figure.

When you visit Glacier National Park in Montana you meet the Blackfeet, one of the noblest tribes in America. They fought fiercely against the trespass of the white man. They reciprocate by welcoming us to their tribal homeland and introducing us to their distinctive culture.

reiss calendar
Winold Reiss was an artist and illustrator who did many calendar designs for the Great Northern. Links to information about the artist »

Some of the beauty of that culture—the magnificent coloring, the priceless beadwork, the rare arts and crafts of the Blackfeet-has been revealed to the rest of the country in the famous paintings of Winold Reiss. In museums, in the decorations of smart restaurants in New York, in the Union Terminal in Cincinnati, in books and paintings the Reiss collections are well known to all art lovers.

Some of the finest of the Winold Reiss paintings set the motif of the observation car on the new Empire Builder. The wealth of color and decorative detail in these Blackfeet paintings is not an artist’s idealization. For these are actual portraits, most of which have been reproduced as Great Northern calendar subjects.

Yon will see costumes and ceremonials just as colorful when YOU see the Blackfeet in Glacier Park.

By encouraging art schools in Glacier Park, books and exhibits all over the country, Great Northern has long stimulated interest in the history and culture of the Blackfeet. It has sponsored the work of Winold Reiss in this connection, and has distributed reproductions of his authentic portraits to schools and art exhibits throughout the country.

While ancient Blackfeet arts and traditions are being preserved, the living members of this tribe continue to make new traditions. Those chiefs and Indian mothers whose faces you see in the Empire Builder contributed generously to winning the war. Their sons are listed many times among the winners of Distinguished Flying Crosses, Air Medals, Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. The Blackfeet still are ferocious when they go forth to fight, and it is fitting that this great tribe should be honored in the new Empire Builder.

The observation car of the Empire builder definitely is a pioneer car. Designers planned to incorporate the themes of Pioneer life, with none of the pioneer hardships. Indians, the Hudson’s Bay tribes in drapes and the great paintings of the Western master, the late Charles M. Russell, all offer a vigorous contrast to the delicacy of the dining car.

russellReproductions of Russell paintings adorned the observation car's interior.

A Montana cowboy, who was largely self-taught, Charlie Russell lived to see his pictures of the early West move from the bunkhouse to the museum, and to the pages of magazines and art books. His breezy and prolific talent charmed both the connoisseurs and the plain people of the West. Travelers from the West will feel immediately “at home” with the reproduction of his Blackfeet Indian oils and water colors in the observation car. Important collections of Russell’s work are on exhibition in The Mint in Great Falls, Montana.

The reproductions of the Russell paintings are by courtesy of Mrs. Kenneth Egan, Maurice Egan and Gene Robertson, owners of the collection.

Throughout this car the furnishings are designed to stimulate that easy conviviality so typical of the West. Ralph Haman discarded the bright metals of modem Eastern decorators for the warm glow of Montana’s copper. The leather of the wainscotting is reminiscent of the sturdy comfort of a ranch house. Pardner, you sure can relax here!


Every car on the new Empire Builder helps to relax nerves and muscles. No trifle was overlooked in the effort to get the ingredients of solid comfort into this train.

In the coach cars the forethought which achieved such a harmony of color was equalled by the skilled planning that went into seating arrangements. Huge windows provide an unusually spacious view at every seat. Venetian blinds control the glare from the outside and ingenious lighting controls the interior.

Ceiling lights are so devised that the cone of light is directed just to the edge of your seat. It does not hit you in the eye when you lie back to rest! Individually controlled reading lights make each passenger the master of his own comfort.

Of course, you will walk around and enjoy the feeling of generous space on the Empire Builder. But, as an experiment, it might be interesting to “stay put” for a few hundred miles, just to see if it is possible to develop a kink or ache in these new coach seats.

They are the first of their kind on the Pacific Northwest route, and somewhat of a scientific miracle.

You have, in effect, been measured for these seats. The “you” is the anthropologist’s average person, determined by measuring and studying the sitting posture of 3,867 persons.

Dr. Earnest A. Hooton, chairman of the Harvard Department of Anthropology, supervised the studies made by scientists in Boston and Chicago. From his measurements and conclusions the manufacturers designed the “Sleepy Hollow” chair in the Day-Nite coaches to give maximum comfort and adjust itself most readily to every individual’s height, weight and posture.

Added to the easy-riding chair is the newest of coach improvements -a comfortable leg rest. This feature also was long-tested during the war and has now come out of the laboratory in perfected shape.

When the leg rest slides out and the coach seat is tilted back you have a chaise longue comfortable enough for miles of sleep.



Individualism again is emphasized in the variety of sleeping accommodations. The men who developed this new streamliner recognized that travel tastes differ decidedly. After extensive questioning of all types of travelers they provided sleeping quarters and conveniences to suit as many tastes and purses as possible.

There are low-cost coaches, in which appointments surpass the first-class accommodations of pre-war trains. In the sleeping cars passengers have their choice of four different types of travel equipment.

Duplex roomettes, bedrooms and drawing rooms provide the utmost privacy and comfort. Surveys showed that some passengers, especially those traveling in groups together, prefer the sociability of open sections by day. Their desires were not neglected and the new Empire Builder includes open sleeping sections of the latest type.

Details give the rooms all the comforts of a deluxe hotel. There is ice water on tap instead of the awkward water bottle. Toilet facilities and wardrobes are concealed

Bedroom washstands convert handily into tables when the tilt top is pulled down. Lights and temperatures are individually controlled. Sofas and chairs make each room a pleasant traveling lounge by day. At night, the 6-foot, 5-inch beds in the duplex roomettes are large enough for even oversize passengers.



Great Northern definitely is thinking of feminine travelers. Researchers sought ideas from women on how to make travel more pleasant.

One of the things they discovered was that women disliked —those miniature shelves in train lavatories.

For years we have been irritated by having our handbags falling off and spilling their contents. Now, I can gratefully report, the shelves in the New Empire Builder’s powder rooms will firmly support our bulkiest purses.

Another thing the researchers learned was that women loathe making up in a dim light. Presto! They made the mirrors of the coach car dressing rooms large enough for a stage star. They illuminated them so that we don’t emerge in the morning light looking like one of our Blackfeet friends in a Sun Dance ceremony.

There’s space enough to spread out.

Fixed, revolving chairs mark off a generous section for each passenger before the mirror. Lounge chairs are invitingly at hand if you are waiting

Thorough research in sanitation advances also produced those enclosed wash bowls and the generally ship-shape look.

The most finicky housewife couldn’t find a dust or dirt catcher anywhere in these dressing rooms.


These are a few of the attractions and conveniences we can see on the new Empire Builder. Other factors in the train’s construction are not so apparent but they are even more important in contributing to our comfort and safety.

We are hardly conscious of the air-conditioning system. All we know is that the weather is fine, no matter what it looks like outside those hermetically sealed windows

We take for granted the easy glide of the train, and starts and stops without a jolt-the smoothness of powerful diesel-electric locomotives, designed and built for Great Northern by Electro-Motive Corporation.

Years of experience and experiment are behind that even temperature . . . that fresh, washed air . . . those cushion-ride trucks and that precise braking . . . the sturdy construction which guards your progress across the country.

Those years of sound railroad operation go back to 1873 when James J. Hill acquired control of the 600 miles of line known as the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. His portrait in the dining car is that of a genuine Northwest pioneer and builder. Born in a log house in Canada; then a grocery clerk, steamboat agent, fur trading factor, steamboat and freight operator in the Red River country, Mr. Hill grew up with the Northwest. His faith was unshaken by panics or by “authoritative” reports that area west of St. Paul was little better than a desert.

One of the greatest of American railroad geniuses James J. Hill pushed his miles of steel, link by link, to the Rockies and beyond.

As head of the Great Northern Railway from 1873 to 1912 he kept step with the progress of the West. His share in that progress earned him the title of “Empire Builder”.

Now a New Empire Builder sweeps into the future, revealing the resources and beauties of that Northwest empire to a new generation of Americans. James J. Hill would be proud of his namesake. The traditions he loved, his unyielding, sound principles, and his daring vision are a part of this train.