The story and photos below are courtesy of Tom Biery, who, at the tender age of 15 was allowed by his parents to take a train trip out West on his own. The Empire Builder was detoured via Great Falls and on the Northern Pacific between Havre and Spokane due to massive flooding around Glacier Park at the time Tom took this trip.
Summer of ’64 Rail Adventure
By Tom Biery
More than forty years have passed since my ride aboard the Great Northern Railway’s famous passenger train , The Empire Builder. The trip would be my first without dad or mom accompanying me. I had a keen interest in railroads and wanted to ride a western streamliner. Being 15 years old my only previous train rides were over the Atlantic Coast Line, Pennsylvania, New York Central, Lehigh Valley, Reading and Jersey Central. Public sentiment for rail travel was declining during the 1960s. By 1971 most lines called it quits and handed all operations to Amtrak.
Pennsylvania Railroad station, Harrisburg, in 1966, 2 years after my trip.
How I convinced my parents to allow me to make a coast-to-coast trip by train is beyond the scope of this narrative but some how it happened. My rail journey would begin in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Railroad called itself the Standard Railroad of the World and in 1964 they still offered you a great ride on their line. The PRR offered a number of overnight trains between Harrisburg and Chicago. I was ticketed for The General, train number 49 leaving at 8:36pm on Sunday June 21, 1964. The Pennsy Harrisburg station was a large brick colonial building with two large fireplaces in the waiting hall. The waiting room was crowded with travelers. The multiple ticket windows were busy with passengers purchasing tickets and making arrangements for travel. The train announcer would use the public address system to call out the arriving and departing trains by platform number. He would then make the announcement to make your way down the steps to the waiting train. He would then list the cities and towns served by the train. Two large train sheds covered the many tracks and platforms. An enclosed overhead corridor accessed the many boarding platforms over the tracks but still under the huge train shed above.
Harrisburg was also the beginning or end of the electrified lines. All passenger trains from the east swapped out their electric GG-1 locomotives for diesels. Train 49 arrived into Harrisburg on time at 8:18 p.m. and would leave precisely on time at 8:36 p.m. Eighteen minutes were allowed for change of motive power, adding cars from the Washington, DC section, and the loading of passengers, baggage and mail. My train today would consist of 4 EMD E-8 locomotives and 20 passenger cars of different configurations. First, the Railway Post Office, then baggage and mail, coaches, dining car, lounge car and finally the sleeping cars.
We headed down the stairs to the waiting train and there I said good-bye to my parents. This was going to be a big adventure. My accommodation on this part of the trip would be a Pennsy P-85BR reclining 44-seat long distance coach.
Enroute to Chicago
June 21st is the day with a maximum number of daylight hours, especially important when traveling! Train 49 pulled smoothly away from Harrisburg heading north to a crossing of the mile wide Susquehanna River at Rockville, Pennsylvania. After crossing the great stone arch bridge number 49 began to pick up speed heading west on a four track mainline. I settled back in my seat taking in the beautiful Juniata River scenery.
Also aboard were Boy Scouts on their way to Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico. I spent some time playing cards and talking to them until midnight. Some Scouts stayed up very late while I dozed off to a deep sleep. The ride was very smooth over Pennsy tracks and I slept until morning. I awoke as train 49 was racing across the flat Indiana countryside. The conductor called out the stops, Fort Wayne, Warsaw and Valparaiso. We were on time and operating 15 minute ahead of the Broadway Limited. The Broadway left New York 55 minutes after The General’s departure time 5:05 p.m.. Making fewer stops on its route to Chicago the Broadway Limited an all sleeping car train was now 15 minutes behind.
During the last hour and before our arrival into Chicago the passengers began to stir. Like passengers on a Southwest Airline flight today they began to pull their belongings together, gather their suitcases and form a line up through the car before our arrival.
The pace of train 49 slowed as it approached Chicago Union Station and arrived precisely on time at 8:45 a.m. Central Daylight Time. Once on the platform I made my way with suitcase in hand to the main concourse. The morning was sunny and refreshing and there were throngs of passengers on the platforms and inside Union Station.
Chicago and Union Station
Walking along the platform with the arriving passengers I passed wisps of steam escaping from the passenger cars and then the noise of the 4 diesel locomotives at the head of our train. Continuing into the main concourse I witnessed the masses of people scurrying about to other trains and to the stairs exiting the two great rooms of Chicago Union Station. In the center of the concourse were shops selling magazines, newspapers and souvenirs. Only the great hall exists today as the smaller concourse building was demolished and made smaller in 1969.
Passing New York Central freight near Chicago
Chicago Union Station Concourse
Chicago Union Station: Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited near
Burlington Route trains, Chicago Union Station.
My next train was CB&Q number 31, The Empire Builder at 2:30 p.m., which gave me plenty of time to look around the station and close-by Chicago sights. Union Station hosted trains from the Pennsylvania, Gulf Mobile & Ohio, Milwaukee Road and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. There were many opportunities for great photographs. I visited some of the platforms and made photos.
Aboard the Builder
After lunch I retrieved my suitcase from the locker and made my way to the boarding gate. About 1:00 the conductor set up a table and chair in front of the gate. All sleeping car passengers were advised to check their ticket and accommodations and then were allowed on the platform to board their assigned sleeping car. I checked in with the conductor and then headed onto the platform to sleeping car 312, roomette 4.
A very nice Pullman Porter met me at the car steps, picked up my bag and showed me to my room.
Once aboard, I immediately became aware The Empire Builder was the pride of the Great Northern Railway. My sleeping car, a six roomette, 5 double bedroom, and 2 compartments was immaculate, super clean, had that special Pullman car smell, and was very quiet. This would be my home for the next two days. The Porter told me how everything worked in my roomette and that he would turn down the bed in the evening. I settled into my seat and waited for the 2:30 p.m. departure. After departure from Union Station I made a quick tour of the entire train and returned to the top deck of the Great Dome Lounge Car. This car was reserved exclusively for sleeping car passengers. This was my first dome car experience. This full-length dome was fitted with 75 seats under glass and an empty seat could always be found during the trip. Time spent here was very relaxing and the view fabulous. The car rode very smoothly as did the entire train.
Anyone who has taken a ride on Amtrak can attest to the general atmosphere of squeaky door hinges and springs, passengers rushing between cars, cell phone and two-way radio chatter. This type of distraction and general commotion was non-existent. There was an ambiance of a land cruise, a peaceful train ride. The first 427 miles from Chicago to St. Paul was operated over the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The nineteen car Empire Builder made seven stops and ran off the 427 miles in 405 minutes. It was one of North America’s fastest passenger trains in 1964.
Soon after departure from Savanna I made my way to the Ranch Lounge Car, took a swivel counter seat and ordered the special: Chicken in the Basket. The food was very good and very reasonably priced. The Ranch Lounge was designed with the look of a western chuck wagon, including wood log trim and western scenes. The car seated 14 at the counter, 12 in the dinette and 19 in the lounge section.
Mississippi River near Savanna, Illinois.
There are plenty of seats aboard the Great Dome !
Grain elevator, North Dakota
The Wisconsin dairy country whipped by hour after hour. It was already dark when we arrived in St. Paul on time at 9:15 p.m.. Here the CB&Q diesel locomotives would be uncoupled from our streamliner and replaced with Great Northern passenger locomotives. Also added to the train would be a baggage car / storage mail and a railway post office car. Total cars in the train were now nineteen: A-B-B-A F7 diesels, Mail storage, Railway Post Office, Mail storage, Baggage dormitory, Coach, 2 dome coaches, Ranch Lounge, 2 coaches, dome coach, 2 sleeping cars, 36-seat diner, Great dome lounge car, three sleeping cars and Lounge observation car. The entire train wore the Pullman green and Omaha orange paint scheme.
The 35-minute stop in St. Paul gave me ample time to venture off the train and up the steps to the great waiting hall. On display in the hall was the first locomotive to operate in Minnesota, the 4-4-0 William Crooks built for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. The entire station was very quiet at this time of night and I headed back to my sleeping car before departure time of 9:50 p.m.. In the meantime the sleeping car porter had lowered the bed in my roomette and I was ready to turn in for the night.
Across North Dakota
I fell into a deep sleep, as the train made its way smoothly across Minnesota and into North Dakota. Sometime at dawn I awoke, dressed and made my way to the Great Dome car to get a better view of the great expanse of prairie we were crossing. The sun was just breaking the horizon as we stopped in New Rockford at 4:53 am. There was a little activity of passengers in front of the little depot. The automobiles and pick up trucks parked by the depot were covered with the mud of dusty gravel farm roads. I was beginning to understand the rural environment I was crossing by train.
Empire Builder station stop Minot, North Dakota. June 23, 1964.
Near Havre, Montana.
View from Great Dome Car while rounding a curve near Fort Benton, Montana.
Flood-ravaged Missouri River near Fort Benton, Montana.
Crossing the muddy Missouri River in Great Falls.
A freight train waits for the Empire Builder to pass in the Great Falls yard.
Western Star passes
near Wolf Creek.
Late evening we are finally on Northern Pacific tracks at Helena Junction and
waiting for a clear signal west ! Ahead is Mullen Pass.
View of the Columbia River from the train.
A very late Empire Builder is serviced, then reassembled into Portland and
Seattle sections. Normal arrival time for the westbound is 11:50pm.
The Spokane clock tower reads 6:45 a.m. !
Minot 109 miles west was carded for 99 minutes of running time. The track was straight and The Empire Builder made better than a mile a minute run over the single track mainline. The weather was clear and warm as we pulled into Minot on time at 6:40 am. The eleven-minute stop presented me with a photo opportunity as I walked along the sleeping cars snapping a photo of the train.
The day was sunny, the ride was smooth and the scenery totally different than anything I had seen before. My biggest surprise was still ahead. As the day progressed, stops were made at Williston, Wolf Point, Glasgow and Malta. Right on time we pulled into Havre, Montana at 1:00 p.m. Mountain Time. After a ten minute stop the train proceeded 3 miles west to Pacific Junction. This was the beginning of the detour to Great Falls and Helena, Montana. I had no advance knowledge the train would be making a grand detour south to Helena and then to Spokane over the tracks of the Northern Pacific.
An unexpected detour
The train was now heading southwest toward Great Falls. Somewhere south of Havre we ran around a north (east) bound freight train, which was holding for us in a passing siding. This train was being pulled by American Locomotive Company “ALCO” demonstrator diesels, painted with a gold color paint scheme.
South of Havre we made good time on the single-track railroad line. The Missouri River at times was visible in the distance from the dome car. The train entered the city of Great Falls by way of a bridge over the Missouri River. There were great views of the beautiful falls and rapids, which the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered here on June 13, 1805. The Empire Builder crossed to the Missouri’s south shore by way of a high truss bridge with the muddy Missouri below. The famous falls were raging with angry foaming white water!
A few minutes after crossing the Missouri River we made a stop in downtown. Standing in the vestibule with our Conductor, I overheard details of the operations here. The railroad bridge in downtown was completely covered by the Missouri River earlier in the week. Today’s crossing was not as dramatic, but the train made no more then 10 miles per hour crossing the structure. The river at flood stage was wide, high and muddy in color. The nineteen-car train made it across safely! After passing through the rail yard on the opposite bank we picked up speed and headed toward Helena, still on Great Northern rails. This section of line was much closer to the river and we passed thru a number of short tunnels. It was still a sunny day with a beautiful blue sky.
About 6 p.m. we entered a siding and were held for an eastbound Western Star passenger train. The only signs of activity near the rail siding were a lumber mill with a smoking teepee burner! I used the time to retire to the Ranch Car for dinner. After more than an hour the Western Star approached and passed on its trip east. The Western Star was a beautiful train similar to our Empire Builder with slightly older equipment.
Close to sunset we arrived in Helena and entered the Northern Pacific mainline. I snapped a photo of the mountains that lay ahead. It was a beautiful sunset.
At night the train was like ones own bedroom before retiring at night. In the coaches many passengers changed into nightclothes and prepared for sleep with a blanket and pillow. Lights were turned low and the talk turned to a whisper. I spent some time in the lead dome car to watch the diesel’s piercing headlight. Ahead the Northern Pacific signals changed from green to red as we passed thru the night. This train was given top priority.
Back in the diner the crew were vacuuming the carpet and cleaning the car before retiring to the crew dormitory car. The train remained spotless throughout.
It was time for me to return to my sleeping car and turn in for the night. My roomette was complete with a full bed, daytime sofa chair, sink and toilet. My sleeping car rode very smooth and quiet, so much so I awoke sometime after our arrival in Spokane. The entire train had similar smooth riding characteristics. The train handling was also exemplary, no sudden stops or jolts, ever!
Late into Spokane
I awoke early and realized we had arrived in Spokane. The time was 6:45 a.m.. Normal arrival time was 11:15 p.m. and departure time was 11:45 p.m.., the night before! The thirty minutes were spent switching the train into Seattle and Portland sections and train servicing. Each car was watered and interior lightly cleaned.
Departure was some time after 7:00 am. From Spokane westward our train would be operated over the tracks of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway. Running time for the 380 miles to Portland was seven hours and ten minutes. The scenery changed from tall fir trees to a desolate high desert landscape. I stopped by the diner for a free complementary breakfast and enjoyed the view of the Columbia River with its many dams. Mid way through morning a snow-capped Mount Hood was visible. Shortly after 2 p.m. we crossed the Columbia River and made a final station stop in Portland, Oregon. I would continue my journey here aboard a Southern Pacific train.
Looking back forty plus years I realize now how magnificent this entire trip was. The extra comfort afforded rail travelers in the glory days has vanished but you can still relive some of this glory by making this run with today’s Amtrak Empire Builder. Its not quite yesterday’s train, but you may relive some of the thrill with a two day land cruise between Chicago and Portland or Seattle!
February 1, 2010