In the early 1930s the Empire Builder was a train famous enough to have a weekly NBC radio program named after it. Each installment was a paean to industry and progress. Then the announcer came on for the close: “Hours slip away like magic for travelers in the luxurious trains of the Great Northern Railway,” he intoned. “Their pathway lies past the emerald lakes of Minnesota, through evergreen forests and fragrant valleys, along the course of ten great rivers, beside tumbling cataracts and lacy waterfalls—through a land of romance.”
These days, if we think about cross-country train travel at all, it’s probably with a pang of regret for an adventure long gone. And yet, as I learned recently, Amtrak, our national passenger service, is still very much in the game, offering a range of long-distance trips so appealing it’s hard to choose just one. Last May I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. The route’s broad arc across the roof of this country covers 2,206 miles and takes the better part of two days.
I had read that the Superliners operating west of Chicago were mostly double-deckers (Eastern tunnels are too low to permit this). Still, it was a surprise to find myself trackside staring up at a silver sleeping car fully two stories high. For passengers most of the action takes place on the upstairs level, which is gained by a narrow, twisting stairway in each car. I was occupying a “Deluxe” bedroom, which certainly was spacious enough, although I found its tan and umber color scheme and metal and plastic fittings somewhat drab. On the Western trains these are the only accommodations that come with facilities, including an artfully conceived shower. Closet space is at a minimum, so prepare to live out of a small bag for a day or two, and know that the rest of your luggage—as much as you wish—will be stored below. The room was furnished with a comfortable couch that can be turned into a bed, a small armchair, and a table that slides out from the wall. A second bunk bed can be pulled down from on high.
Amtrak is trying hard to make friends with its passengers. With this in mind they’ve appointed a Chief of On Board Services for each Superliner, a concept born in 1983. My train was in the hands of Ernie Howard. He supervised the dining-room staff and car attendants and acted as ombudsman for the passengers, ready to field complaints and to right problems. Howard used the public-address system to provide information about the sights we were passing, and he ran Bingo games and showed movies in the lounge car. It was somehow very comforting when he announced to boarding passengers at every stop, “I’ll be with you all the way to Seattle.”
The car attendant, Reggie Harris, a sixteen-year veteran of the railroad, was just as helpful. He’d bring drinks and meals, provide early-morning coffee, and slip a newspaper under the door. At night he’d make up the bed, leaving a chocolate on the table.
The train slid away right on time at 2:45 in the afternoon. I stayed close to the window, absorbed in the first sights from a train heading west. Industrial garbage dumps were quickly followed by a perfect old suburb, its park abloom with cherry trees and dogwood. A duck took wing directly over the train. The loudspeaker announced Hospitality Hour in the bar, with bargain-priced Tequila Sunrises. Fields green as lollipops gave way to piles of rotting tires; then the scene shifted again to a cluster of barns and silos edging black, tilled earth. For a moment I could look straight down a leafy residential street in Watertown, Wisconsin. Wheat bent in the rising wind. A man and three blond children stood in an absolutely isolated field, grinning as the train went by.
It doesn’t take long to start musing about America when you’re seeing it through a train window. About its promises, its failures, its gains and losses. Conversations in the dining car with total strangers tended to revolve around social and political matters. Coming off a long spring of political primaries, I thought, “This is the way the candidates should travel.”
The Empire Builder bears the nickname of the founder of the Great Northern Railway. And indeed, James J. Hill’s empire stretched from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound, from Canada to Colorado. Arriving in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1856, an impecunious eighteen-yearold, Hill stayed on to make himself a legend. Fired with a vision of a railroad connecting the northern Pacific Coast to the Midwest, with goods then shipped on to New York, he bought up smaller lines, lured settlers to what previously had been considered the wastelands of North Dakota, Idaho, and Montana, and overcame every difficulty of terrain to throw his rails across the Rockies and over the Cascades. Hill shipped timber and wheat east, sent cotton west for Japan. Towns sprang up all along the way. By 1893, when the Great Northern reached Seattle, Hill’s empire was in place.
The Empire Builder made its first departure from Chicago on June 10, 1929. A rail journal of the time reported on the train’s luxurious decor: its solarium with silk-cushioned wicker chairs, door frames of hand-carved walnut, drawing rooms trimmed with “old gold.” Flowers came from the line’s own greenhouses, and on each trip in summer the Builder slowed at Stryker, Montana, so the telegraph operator could hand the cook freshly caught trout for the evening’s dinner.
Half of North Dakota and all of Montana took up the next full day of my trip. I spent most of it in the lounge car, where huge dome windows offer the best possible view. I’d been warned of the flatness of this stretch of country. And so it was, except that the drama of changing shape and color kept it from being boring. At breakfast I spied a herd of buffalo, magical creatures from a Catlin painting. They’re being bred with cattle, said my tablemate, and raised for buffalo burger. As the morning progressed, the sky seemed to grow to occupy two-thirds of the panorama, the nearly treeless land a sliver of terra cotta baking in the sun.
When a new conductor came aboard in Minot, North Dakota, we were treated to a good spiel of local history over the PA system. A native of Havre, Montana, the conductor, Don Danell, pointed out Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains. There, in 1877, Nez Perce Chief Joseph made his poignant surrender speech, “I will fight no more forever.” Near Saco, Danell announced that we were in the artist Charlie Russell’s country. Later he told us about how Kid Curry robbed the Great Northern near Malta. After Danell disembarked in Shelby, I went back to consulting the informative route guide provided by Amtrak, looking up just in time to spot a herd of antelope scattering across the plains.
For many, the trip’s highlight comes when the Empire Builder skirts the southern border of Glacier National Park, a one-million-acre preserve in the Rockies of western Montana. A National Park since 1910, this has always drawn Great Northern passengers, and the road built many of the sprawling hotels that still stand in the park.
It was after Hill’s engineer, John Stevens, plotted a route through this mountain pass in 1889 that the railroad’s future was set. To find the Marias Pass, half-known through Indian lore, Stevens trekked through December temperatures of forty degrees below zero. We made it through just at sunset on a clear spring evening, somewhat behind schedule. To the joy of the passengers, there was still enough light to see by. The train moved very slowly and almost silently, its mournful whistle suspended in the air. Separate snow-covered mountain peaks, each with its own crown of feathery cloud, seemed to pause in the frame of my window. Time stopped. And then we moved on.