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Empire Builder History

1838

James J. Hill is born near Guelph, in what would become the province of Ontario, Canada. He moved to St. Paul, Minnesota at the age of 18, and eventually entered the steamboat business along with other partners. His finesse for business led him to become the General Manager of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway in 1879. As this railroad expanded westward, it became the Great Northern Railway, which was completed between St. Paul and Seattle in 1893. Hill saw to it that his Great Northern was operationally superior to his competitors; The Great Northern was also most noteworthy for being privately financed, and built without land grants (though some predecessor railroads received some land grant area). It was also known as one of few transcontinental railroads never to declare bankruptcy at the end of the 19th century. Hill and his Great Northern came to eventually control rival Northern Pacific Railway and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Hill tried to merge the GN, NP, and CB&Q, but the deal was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1904 (and the dream was not realized until 1970). Hill then built the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle railroad, and also acquired the Colorado and Southern Railway (which included the Fort Worth and Denver Railway) to link Denver with the Gulf Coast in Texas. Hill died in 1916. Due to the substantial railroad empire he built and the vast area settled by his railroads, he was known as the “Empire Builder.”

1929

On June 11, six new consists of luxurious, heavyweight equipment began service as Great Northern's premier passenger train, the Empire Builder. Named for GN's founder, James J. Hill, these Chicago to Seattle trains operated on a 63-hour schedule westbound (Train 1) and 61 hour, 15 minute schedule eastbound (Train 2).

The train took advantage of significant route improvements in the Cascade Mountains. These included the new 7.8 mile Cascade Tunnel and the Chumstick Valley line change.

Motive power was either a P2 class 4-8-2 or S2 class 4-8-4 steam locomotive. Between Skykomish and Wenatchee, electrics handled the consist due to the lack of ventilation in Cascade Tunnel. Punctuating the train was the last car, an 89' buffet-lounge-solarium-observation with a sun room replacing the traditional open platform.

Empire Builder ran between the Seattle and St. Paul on the Great Northern and on the Burlington Route between St. Paul and Chicago (and from Portland to Spokane on SP&S).

1931

The Empire Builder had a slightly faster running time of 58 hours 45 minutes westbound and 56 hours, 25 minutes eastbound. Its companion train, the Oriental Limited was discontinued on March 29 due to reduced demand with the Depression.

1935

Air Conditioning was introduced on the Empire Builder.

1937

58 seat, semi-streamlined luxury coaches are added to the train.

1942

With the United States' entry into World War II, the Empire Builder began running in sections to handle the increased passenger traffic. First sections of the trains were sleeping cars, and second sections were coach accommodations. Any additional sections were generally troop trains or "Mains".

Glacier Park was closed during World War II.

1943

Burlington Route and Great Northern jointly order new streamlined Empire Builder consists.

1945

Between April and June, pairs of E7A diesel passenger locomotives arrive from EMD. These would be initial power for the postwar Empire Builder.

1946

Glacier Park reopens after the end of WWII.

1947

February 23 saw the inauguration of the postwar edition of the Empire Builder. These five consists of 12 streamlined cars each were built by Pullman. The trains were given a 45 hour schedule between Chicago and Seattle. These trains were decked out from E unit to River series observation car in an eye-popping Omaha Orange, Pullman Green and gold stripe paint scheme. What came to be known as the "Empire Builder scheme" became the standard for GN passenger trains for the next 20 years.

1950

E7 diesel passenger locomotives experience overheating problems in the mountains. They are replaced by an A-B-A set of EMD F units (F3's and F7's). Great Northern modified these units into "Passenger F's" with higher gearing for greater speed and boilers for steam heat.

1951

Great Northern stuns the railroad industry and completely re-equips the Empire Builder. In a joint order with Pullman and American Car & Foundry, GN inaugurates give all new 15 car consists. These became known as the "Mid-Century Empire Builder".

This edition of the Empire Builder introduces the tall-windowed Mountain-Series observation cars and famous "Ranch Cars", a western-themed lounge car featuring the G Bar N brand as its trademark. Meant to emulate a western chuck wagon (complete with pinto leather seats and huge coffee pot), these quickly become the most popular car on the train.

On June 3, the "Oriental Limited" name is retired and replaced with "Western Star,” which uses the equipment from the original 1947 postwar Empire Builder. This cements the Great Northern as the premier rail passenger carrier between the Midwest and Pacific Northwest fielding two bona fide streamliners. Great Northern is so confident in the appeal of both its streamliners on the route, that only the Western Star directly serves Glacier National Park at the Glacier Park and Belton stops. (The nearest Empire Builder stops to Glacier Park are Cut Bank and Whitefish.)

1955

May 29 sees the introduction of Budd-built "short" domes, three to each consist. October of the same year, the Budd-built full-length dome lounges for first-class passengers arrive, one for each consist. Great Northern refers to all dome cars as “Great” domes. With 150 seats under glass, the Empire Builder offers more dome seats than any other American streamliner.

The 1955 edition of the Empire Builder represents the zenith of the train's evolution on the GN. To pull the heavier consist, the train is assigned 4 EMD F units (Passenger F's) arranged in A-B-B-A fashion. The schedule is reduced to 43 hours, 50 minutes westbound and 44 hours, 30 minutes eastbound.

Because of the additional first-class lounge space afforded with the addition of the Great Dome full-length loung cars, former River-series observation cars (from the 1947 Postwar Empire Builder) are remodeled into Coulee Series observation cars with additional sleeper accommodations. The Mountain-series observation cars move to the Western Star.

1956

On April 29, the Empire Builder begins operation as trains 31 and 32 (on GN).

Cascade tunnel electrification ends July 31, and the Empire Builder operates from Chicago to Seattle with diesel-electric locomotive power.

1960

Beginning in February, the Coulee-series observation cars are removed during the “off” season.

The schedule of the Western Star is speeded significantly (as Great Falls and Grand Forks are served by connecting trains rather than directly), but continue to be the sole passenger trains serving Glacier Park.

Running times between St. Paul and Seattle in the late 1960s are (westbound):

  • Empire Builder, 35 hours, 30 minutes
  • Olympian Hiawatha (MILW), 38 hours, 8 minutes
  • North Coast Limited (NP), 38 hours, 15 minutes
  • Western Star, 40 hours, 15 minutes
  • Mainstreeter (NP) , 48 hours, 35 minutes

Running times between Seattle and St. Paul in the late 1960s are (eastbound):

  • Empire Builder, 36 hours, 50 minutes
  • Olympian Hiawatha (MILW), 38 hours, 22 minutes
  • North Coast Limited (NP), 39 hours, 10 minutes
  • Western Star, 40 hours, 20 minutes
  • Mainstreeter (NP), 46 hours, 33 minutes

1961

Competitor Olympian Hiawatha (Chicago to Seattle/Tacoma via Milwaukee Road) is discontinued.

1962

The “simplified scheme” appears on the Empire Builder's Passenger Fs (as well as future orders for freight engines). Designed to save a day's time painting, it features orange on top, green on the bottom and no gold stripes. Passenger cars retain the traditional orange/green/gold stripe Empire Buiilder paint scheme.

1966

Though combined with the Afternoon Zephyr (westbound) and North Coast Limited (eastbound) between Chicago and St. Paul on CB&Q in previous years, beginning in the fall of 1966, Empire Builder is combined with the North Coast Limited between Chicago and St. Paul on a regular basis until Amtrak day 1971.

As the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited were previously (since 1952) combined on SP&S between Pasco and Portland, the Empire Builder is slowed some 90 minutes between St. Paul and Portland to match the slower running time of the North Coast Limited to allow consolidations at St. Paul and Pasco.

1967

May 11 is the beginning of the "Big Sky Blue" era. Passengerequipment begins to receive the blue, gray and white paint scheme replacing the traditional Empire Builder scheme.

Coulee Series observation cars are permanently removed from the Empire Builder (and are later rebuilt into coaches).

More powerful SDP40 (1966) and SDP45 passenger locomotives are received from EMD to replace the tired Passenger Fs.

In the fall, all RPOs (Railway Post Office) cars are terminated by the Post Office, signaling a large loss of revenue for the Empire Builder.

1968

Owing to the longer running time (per the schedule change in fall of 1966) and declining patronage, the Empire Builder begins stopping during the summer season at Glacier Park and Belton, and also assumes operation of the Glacier Park tourist sleeping cars, previously were handled by the Western Star.

Experimental Cascade Green paint schemes begin to appear on some GN passenger equipment (a harbinger of the upcoming Burlington Northern merger).

1970

GN (Great Northern), (NP) Northern Pacific, (CB&Q) Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, (SP&S) Spokane, Portland, and Seattle, and Pacific Coast railroads merge on March 2 to form Burlington, Northern, which assumes operation of the Empire Builder.

1971

Amtrak begins operation on May 1, 1971, taking over the operation of most of America’s intercity rail passenger service, but resulting in about two-third of the trains being discontinued. The lone passenger train in the Amtrak system between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest is the Empire Builder, but on a much different route: Chicago-St. Paul, Milwaukee Road; St. Paul-Fargo, Burlington Northern (pre-Amtrak route); Fargo-Minot, ex-GN, Burlington Northern via Grand Forks (instead of the pre-Amtrak route via New Rockford); Minot-Sandpoint, Burlington Northern (pre-Amtrak route); Sandpoint-Spokane-Yakima-Seattle, Burlington Northern, ex-NP. The Portland section of the train is discontinued. The lone stop in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area is the ex-GN Burlington Northern station.

1977

September: Because of a shortage of operable aging equipment, the frequency of the Empire Builder is reduced from daily to four days per week. (The other three days per week, Chicago-Seattle service is the North Coast Hiawatha, a descendent of NP’s North Coast Limited running between St. Paul and Seattle via Staples, Minnesota, Southern Montana, and the pre-Amtrak Empire Builder route through Wenatchee, Washington).

Starting in the late fall, the Empire Builder/North Coast Hiawatha began operating overnight between Chicago and the Twin Cities and across Montana, which proved to be unpopular. The trains reverted to a their more-classic scheduling with a new timetable in April of 1978.

1978

March 1: The Empire Builder begins serving the new "Midway" station in St. Paul, Minnesota, and all passenger service ends at the former Great Northern Station in Minneapolis, which had been in use continuously since 1913. The former GN station in Minneapolis was demolished in 1978 and replaced with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.

1979

October 1: The North Coast Hiawatha and several other Amtrak trains are discontinued in a major downsizing of the long-distance Amtrak system. The frequency of the Empire Builder is further reduced to just three days per week (its all-time low). The train is rerouted off its ex-GN route between the Twin Cities and Moorhead, MN to an ex-GN/NP route between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, and ex-NP route between St. Cloud and Moorhead (Fargo).

October 28: The Empire Builder becomes the first long-distance train to be given the new bi-level Superliner equipment. At this time, the Superliner lounge cars have yet to be placed into service and the train runs with as few
as two coaches, a diner, and one sleeping car on a tri-weekly schedule; certainly, the lowest point of available passenger-carrying capacity.

1981

Owing to a desire by Burlington Northern to downgrade the former NP main line between Pasco and Auburn in Washington State, the Empire Builder resumes its pre-Amtrak and ex-GN routing between Spokane and Seattle via Wenatchee, and for the first time as an Amtrak train, receives a Portland section from Spokane via Pasco and Wishram. The faster routing between Spokane and Seattle allows a major schedule change, that with the new Portland
section, provides much improved connections to other Amtrak trains in Chicago and Portland.

1982

The Empire Builder (operating tri-weekly since 1979, except during summer and holiday seasons) begins a seasonal daily operation over the Christmas 1981 and New Year's 1982 holiday period, but in January 1982, Amtrak announces that the train will not revert to a tri-weekly operation and will remain daily. Reasons for the upgrade in service were given as good patronage (helped by the new routing and Portland section implementation a few months previously), securing a mail contract, and influence by Senator Mark Andrews of North Dakota, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Amtrak dedicated a new station in Grand Forks, North Dakota on December 16 that eliminates the need for the Empire Builder to back out of the downtown station. (Actually, this backup move had been eliminated some months earlier with the train stopping in "West Grand Forks" – on the wye west of the University of North Dakota - and passengers bused to the ex-GN/Amtrak station downtown.)

1995

Citing a budget crunch, and in a move reminiscent of 1977, Amtrak reduces the frequency of the Empire Builder on February 1 from daily to four times per week west of St. Paul, in spite of being Amtrak’s best-patronized long distance train in 1994. On the days that the Empire Builder does not operate, the Pioneer (started by Amtrak in 1977) runs on its tri-weekly schedule between Chicago and Seattle via Omaha, Denver, Laramie, and Boise (more or less on the ex-UP City of Portland route), creating one daily train between the endpoints of Chicago and Seattle.

1996

The Empire Builder Interpretive Guides program is started sponsored by the Great Northern Railway Historical Society through the 2000 season. These guides ride the Empire Builder from Edmonds to Shelby informing passengers about the local history, flora, fauna, and geology of the route.

1997

Citing a continued shortfall of operating funds, Amtrak announces the discontinuance of tri-weekly Chicago-Seattle Pioneer. Amtrak restores the Empire Builder to a daily operation over the entire route. The Empire Builder again becomes the sole remaining Chicago-to-Seattle/Portland passenger train.

2001

The National Park Service Trails and Rails partnership with Amtrak takes over Empire Builder Interpretive Guides program.

2004

Empire Builder celebrates its 75th Anniversary, June 11 with celebrations along the entire length of the route.

2005

Amtrak announces refurbished equipment and upgraded amenities on board the Empire Builder.

2012

Ridership explodes in Western North Dakota where the Empire Builder is nicknamed “The Bakken Streetcar.” Ridership tops 10,000 at Stanley and 54,000 for FY2012 at Williston.

2014

Various amenities, such as wine and cheese tastings, travel kits, and chocolates are removed for sleeping car passengers.

The schedule of the Empire Builder is lengthened 90 minutes westbound and 3 hours eastbound to accommodate the actual operating conditions of the route which has been severely affected by a phenomenal growth of freight traffic due to the Bakken oil boom in Western North Dakota and Eastern Montana. The new schedule eastbound severs the connection from the northbound Coast Starlight to the Empire Builder in Portland, actually improves train times in Spokane, but creates a middle-of-the-night departure at Whitefish. The schedule remains in effect through January of 2015. The return to the “normal” schedule was a result of BNSF investing billions to upgrade its “Northern Transcontinental” route used by the Empire Builder. Highlights of the upgrade included a second main track from Minot to Williston, and upgrading the Devils Lake and Hillsboro subdivisions (used by the Empire Builder) to be, in effect, a second main line between Minot and Fargo for BNSF to use in conjunction with its KO subdivision through New Rockford, North Dakota.