Empire Builder Reaches 75 Years: Amtrak & Others Celebrate Northernmost U.S. Transcontinental Train

WASHINGTON – The Amtrak Empire Builder, one of the great trains in American history and the northernmost U.S. transcontinental train, will celebrate its 75th anniversary of service on June 11, 2004.

“The Empire Builder is an essential public transportation connection across the upper United States,” said Amtrak President and CEO David L. Gunn. “We are the steward of three-quarters of a century of reliable passenger train service to an otherwise isolated area of the nation.”

Celebrations are scheduled at each of the three Empire Builder endpoints – Chicago, Seattle and Portland – and at the Milwaukee; St. Paul-Minneapolis; Edmonds, Wash.; Everett, Wash.; Wenatchee, Wash.; Bingen, Wash.; Minot, N.D.; Havre Mont.; and Whitefish, Mont., stations. The events in North Dakota and Montana will be held on June 12, which is the day the westbound Empire Builder will arrive in those two states after departing Chicago on June 11.

National, state and local officials will speak to the public and be available to the news media at each of the 12 designated stops. The events are scheduled to begin shortly before the scheduled departure of each train.

Passengers riding in either direction on Empire Builder trains originating on June 11th will receive a complimentary gift package commemorating the anniversary of the train. The westbound train will feature an Empire Builder history lecture between Chicago and Milwaukee by author Joe Welsh, along with lectures and autograph sessions by Empire Builder poster artist J. Craig Thorpe between Chicago and Seattle.
Both Welsh and Thorpe will speak in the only remaining dome car in Amtrak service, car number 10031, which is a former Great Northern Railway “Great Dome” car previously used on the Empire Builder. The car is usually used in charter service on the West Coast and rarely operates east of the Rocky Mountains.
At Seattle, rail historian John Strauss will speak at a King Street Station ceremony for the eastbound train on June 11th. Strauss worked for Great Northern Railway as an Empire Builder Traveling Passenger Representative in the 1950s and 1960s, witnessing many of the changes in rail service on the Empire Builder during those years.

As of June 3, 2004, more than 230,000 passengers have ridden the Empire Builder, an increase of 7.6 percent. Last fiscal year (Oct. 2002-Sept. 2003), the Empire Builder carried 415,722, an increase of 12.9 percent.

Inaugurated amid much fanfare by the Great Northern Railway (GN) in 1929, the Empire Builder has been providing vital transcontinental service since 10 p.m. Central Time, June 10, 1929, when the first Empire Builder train departed Chicago. The train carries the nickname of James J. Hill, a Canadian who was dubbed The Empire Builder for building the GN.
The train was originally operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad – later the Burlington Northern Railroad – from Chicago to St. Paul. Departing St. Paul, the location of the GN corporate offices, the Empire Builder was operated entirely by the Great Northern, to Seattle and Portland via Glacier National Park
The first eastbound Empire Builder departed Seattle at 10 p.m. Pacific Time, June 11, 1929.
At the time, Great Northern advertising proudly declared the westbound Empire Builder would make the trip from Chicago to Seattle in only 63 hours. Today’s Empire Builder, operated by Amtrak, connects the same cities in just 47 hours, boasting an above average on-time performance with the assistance of the two freight railroads that dispatch the train, the Canadian Pacific Railway between Chicago and St. Paul and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) between St. Paul and Seattle/Portland.

Locally known as the “High Line,” the BNSF route is far from any freeway or expressway, with sparse air service and limited motorcoach options. A study carried out for the state of Montana found the Empire Builder has a total economic impact in that state of nearly $14 million, provides good-paying jobs, reduces highway maintenance and brings in at least $5 million tourist dollars a year.
The Empire Builder also draws customers from across the border in Canada, since passenger rail service in some of the western Canadian provinces operates far from the U.S. border.