The Empire Builder

Great Northern Empire Builder

The Great Northern's Empire Builder first operated between Minneapolis/St. Paul an Seattle in 1929. Named after James Hill the " Empire Builder" trains 1 and 2 were the premier train to the Pacific northwest. The Great Northern bought 4-8-2 Mountain type steam locomotives to speed this glamorous train across the northern tier states. Over the years, there have been a number of different versions of the Empire Builder from Heavyweight to streamlined to Amtrak, but the train has pretty much stayed the same. Amtrak took it over in 1971 and some things changed.


1929 Empire Builder

A postcard of the 1929 version of the Empire Builder
A postcard of the 1929 version of the Empire Builder | Source

1929 Empire Builder

There were four distinct Empire Builders. the inaugural version on the builder was a heavy weight 5 star hotel on wheels. There were chair cars (also known as coaches) that were in a 78 seat configuration. These cars were for passengers that didn't want to pay first class fares or weren't traveling that far. The next two cars on the train were 16 romette sleepers called tourist sleepers, These were for coach class customers, that wanted a little upgrade, and were on the train overnight.. The next car was the dining car that could seat 36 patrons at a time,the next three cars were first class sleepers of different configurations. The last car was the lounge obervation car.

Some of the amenities that were offered then but not now was a barber shop, and a valet service. A men's haircut was 50 cents and a have was .25 cents, these were two of the number of services that the barber would offer to first class passengers. The women weren't left out, they could get a Hair bob for 75 cents, or a Plain Shampoo for $1.00. If you wanted your trousers pressed for dinner or a vest pressed you could for .35 cents or .25 cents respectively. All of these services were offered in the observation club car.



1929 Consist

Class P-2 Mountain 4-8-2 Steam locomotive - St Paul-Wenatchee/Skykomish-Tacoma

Class Y Electric Motor - Wenatchee/Skykomish (over Stevens Pass)

Railway Post Office/ Baggage Car- St. Paul - Tacoma

Dormitory Coach Smoker Lounge - Chicago- Tacoma

78 Seat Coach - Chicago - Tacoma

78 Seat Coach - Chicago - Portland (via Spokane)

Tourist 16 Section Sleeping Car - Chicago-Tacoma

Tourist 16 Section Sleeping Car - Chicago-Tacoma

36 Guest Dining Car - Chicago-Tacoma

First Class 8 Section 2 Compartments 1 Drawing room Sleeping Car- Chicago - Tacoma

First Class 8 Section 2 Compartments 1 Drawing room Sleeping Car- Chicago - Portland (via Spokane

First Class 12 Section 1 Drawing room Sleeping Car Spokane-Tacoma

Buffet Lounge Solarium Observation Car- Chicago- Tacoma


Great Northern Empire builder waiting for meet in Montana
Great Northern Empire builder waiting for meet in Montana | Source

The 1947 Streamlined Empire Builder

By 1947 the nation was finally in peacetime mode after the soldiers returned from World war Two. The nations railroads were worn out, They had carried more passengers and freight than any time in their history from 1942-1946. It was time to refurbish the premier train. The GN management foresaw the need for five brand new sets of equipment to protect the Empire Builders schedule. They had placed the order with Pullman Standard in 1942, but understandably the war came first and so the Great Northern waited. When the war board returned companies to peace time manufacturing in 1946, the 5 sets were immediately built and placed in service in 1947. Unlike most railroads that would put the cars in revenue service as they were received, the Great Northern kept them out of service until all 5 sets were ready to go.

February 6th 1947 was a great day on the Great Northern. The Empire Builder left Chicago at 1 pm for is 45 hour run to Seattle, with two shiny E class locomotives of partner railroad Burlington Route, arriving 6 hours and 45 minutes later in St. Paul; where the Es of the Burlington were replaced with two new 2000 hp E7 type locomotives of the Great Northern for their trip to Wenatchee, where the Es would be replaced with a class W or Y electric locomotive for the trip over Stevens Pass, then another set would take it from Skykomish to Seattle.

The train was a grand affair, retiring the heavy weight consists and ushering in the streamlined era was a great move. It was soon found that the E-units could not handle the rigorous schedule and kept burning out their traction motors so by1949 the Great Northern replaced them with regeared freight locomotives.


1947 Streamlined Empire Builder

This is the first Streamlined version of the Great northern Empire Builder
This is the first Streamlined version of the Great northern Empire Builder | Source

1947 Consist

Railway Post Office Baggage Car- Chicago- Seattle

60 Seat Coach- Chicago- Seattle

48 Reclining Seat Coach - Chicago- Seattle

48 Reclining Seat Coach - Chicago- Seattle

48 Reclining Seat Coach - Chicago- Portland via Spokane

Coffee Shop Lounge - Dormitory - - Chicago- Seattle

Dining Car - Chicago- Seattle

4 Section- 8 Duplex Roomettes- 4 Double Bedroom Sleeper - - Chicago- Seattle

16 Duplex Roomette - 4 Double Bedrooms Sleeper - Chicago- Seattle

16 Duplex Roomette - 4 Double Bedrooms Sleeper - Chicago- Seattle

4 Section- 8 Duplex Roomettes- 4 Double Bedroom Sleeper - Chicago- Portland via Spokane

Two Double Bed Rooms - 1 Drawing room - Buffet Lounge- Observation Car - Chicago- Seattle



The 1955 version of the Empire builder after the dome coaches and the full length dome was added to each consist.
The 1955 version of the Empire builder after the dome coaches and the full length dome was added to each consist. | Source

1951 Consist-Mid Century

Just 4 years after the initial streamlined Empire Builder made its debut, the Great Northern surprised the passenger train industry by reequipping the Empire builder with 5 brand new 15 car train sets, christened the Mid Century Empire Builder. There were two more sleeping cars as well as a brand new car called the Ranch Car that replaced the Coffee Lounge Car. The Ranch car was made out in Western motif and the GN even registered its very own Brand the G-N for the purpose. The following consist is a Summer consist of the Mid Century Empire Builder:

Three unit set F units St Paul- Wenatchee/Skykomish to Seattle

Class W or Y Electric Motors - Wenatchee - Skykomish

Railway Post Office-Storage Mail Car- Chicago- Seattle

Baggage-Dormitory Car - Chicago- Seattle

60 Seat Coach- Chicago- Seattle

48 Reclining Seat Coach - Chicago- Seattle

48 Reclining Seat Coach - Chicago- Seattle

48 Reclining Seat Coach - Chicago- Portland via Spokane

The Ranch Car - Chicago- Seattle

Dining Car - Chicago- Seattle

4 Section- 7 Duplex Roomettes- 3 Double Bedroom - 1 Compartment Sleeper - Chicago- Seattle

6 Roomettes - 5 Double Bedrooms-2 compartments Sleeper - Chicago - Portland via Spokane

4 Section- 7 Duplex Roomettes- 3 Double Bedroom - 1 Compartment Sleeper - Chicago- Seattle

4 Section- 7 Duplex Roomettes- 3 Double Bedroom - 1 Compartment Sleeper - Chicago- Seattle

6 Roomettes - 5 Double Bedrooms-2 Compartments Sleeper- Chicago- Seattle

Buffet Lounge- Observation Car - Chicago- Seattle

6 Roomettes - 3 Double Bedrooms-2 Sleeper - Spokane - Portland (SP&S)




Domes

The Great Northern was falling behind with its competitors, sure it had a great schedule, however the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road all placed orders for dome cars for their Midwest to Pacific Northwest trains. The Great Northern followed suit in 1955 with three dome coaches replacing the 48 reclining seat coaches in each consists. Later in the year the full Length domes were placed in service for the first class passengers. These domes cars allowed unparalleled views of Glacier National Park as well as the plains.


One of 6 Full Domes that entered service in 1955.
One of 6 Full Domes that entered service in 1955. | Source

BN Empire Builder

In 1970, the Great Northern merged with the Northern Pacific, Chicago Burlington and Quincy, and the Spokane Portland and Seattle Railway. During this 13 month period, the BN operated the Empire Builder much like the Great Northern had. It was combined with the Afternoon Zephyr and the North Coast Limited from Chicago to Minneapolis, and with the North Coast Limited to Chicago much like the Burlington had from 1967 onwards.

Amtrak's Empire Builder

Amtrak took over intercity passenger trains on March 1st 1971. With the exception of a handful of railroads, private passenger travel ended at 12:01 am on March 1st 1971. The Empire builder was no exception, and it might have been the only train that had its wrote drastically changed. The Empire Builder's route changed from a Burlington Northern routing between Chicago and Minneapolis to a Milwaukee Road Route between the same two cities. Milwaukee retained passenger service while towns like Aurora, and Savanna Illinois lost service to the Pacific northwest. Its schedule was also altered to mimic the Milwaukee Road's Afternoon Hiawatha. The schedule has the trains leaving their end points Mid to late afternoon, and have arrival at their end points late morning to early afternoon. The Empire builder Schedule can be found here

The Empire Builder was the first train to have its Steam heated equipment removed and new Superliner equipment in 1981. The equipment was patterned after the Santa Fe's El Capitan Hi-liner cars, and a few of those cars are still in service today on the Coast Starlight between Seattle and Los Angeles.

Empire Builder on Marias Pass
Empire Builder on Marias Pass | Source

Spokane Split

UStarting in 1929, and for every night since, the Empire Builder pulls into Spokane Wa, in the middle of the night, and three cars gets pulled out and added to the Spokane Portland and Seattle train headed to Portland. The SP&S was built by James J. Hill to reach Portland in 1905, and operated a Portland section of the Empire Builder. In Spokane, the three cars from the Empire Builder would be joining the baggage, coach, sleeper and diner, that the SP&S operated. The sleeper was available at 9pm in Spokane as the departure was after midnight.

Today Amtrak continues the tradition, with a lounge car, two coaches and a sleeper taken to Portland, turned and run back to Spokane and reassembled with the Seattle section on a nightly basis.

Bibliography

Strauss Jr, John F
Great Northern Pictorial Vol 3
Fours Ways west 1993
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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