By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
More than 100 people were waiting for the westbound Empire Builder as it pulled into Havre on Saturday, nearly two hours behind schedule, 75 years to the day since the first Empire Builder came into town.
Some were waiting to board the train when it pulled in about 4:30 p.m., others came to celebrate and see the anniversary train arrive.
"We're just interested in it," said 16-year-old Christine Ekness.
Ekness and her twin sister, Kelsey Ekness, of Massachusetts, were there with their grandfather, Sherman Ekness of Havre, and their cousins, Jesse and Thayn Ekness of Great Falls, 16 and 8, respectively.
Sherman Ekness said the timing of his grandchildren's visit just happened to be during the Empire Builder celebration, so they all decided to come to the event.
"It was an added plus, I guess," Christine said.
Dignitaries at the event gave very short speeches, saying they wanted to try to get the train back on schedule. A freight train had broken down west of Williston, N.D., and the Empire Builder had to wait until the track was cleared.
Montana Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, state Department of Commerce director Mark Simonich and Travel Montana division administrator Betsy Baumgart joined Amtrak president David Gunn on the train in Havre. The state officials rode with Gunn to celebrations in Shelby and Whitefish.
The Havre celebration began earlier in the day at the Havre Railroad Museum, where members of the Pacific Junction Railroad Club ran model trains of the Empire Builder all day, in all of its various incarnations.
Ross Coons, who was working the reception desk, said more than 100 people had come through the museum by 4 p.m.
The state officials, who were in Havre for the Empire Builder's scheduled 2:45 p.m. arrival, took advantage of the delay to tour Havre Beneath the Streets for the first time, guided by Frank DeRosa, who heads the attraction's board of directors.
"Actually it was a blessing the train was late because we were able to do that," Baumgart said.
Gunn, who came out of retirement to become Amtrak's president in the spring of 2002, said at the depot celebration that Friday wasn't the first time he had boarded the Empire Builder.
"I first rode this train in the '40s, believe it or not," he said. "I remember going through here."
Gunn added that he has ridden the Empire Builder some 20 times since then, including three or four times after he became Amtrak president.
He took over the passenger rail system when it faced a possible reduction of service or shutting down completely due to a budget shortfall. The Bush administration has requested $900 million for Amtrak. Gunn has said the service needs $1.8 billion to continue operating.
"I'm glad to be here and we're going to keep it running," Gunn said.
Simonich said people on the Hi-Line understand the importance of the Empire Builder to the rest of the state. The people who work for Amtrak in Montana, the money the company spends in the state and the passengers who get off the train add millions of dollars to Montana's economy, he said.
"Those are dollars that are very, very important to our economy in the state, especially on the Hi-Line," Simonich said.
Ohs, who grew up east of Malta, also reminisced about riding the Empire Builder. Since Havre was a main stop to board or get off the train, it was a common trip for his family, Ohs said.
"We came to Havre many, many times," he said.
During one of those trips, world heavyweight champion boxer Floyd Patterson got off the train, and Ohs said he met the famous athlete.
Ohs said continuing the passenger rail service is crucial for Montana, where towns and stops are "long and far between," and in some cases no other public transportation is available.
The anniversary celebration brought back many memories for people waiting at the depot.
Wilbur Rolston said he rode behind the very engine on permanent display west of the depot, or one just like it, while he worked for the U.S. Rail Postal Service from 1935-1938.
Frances Hatler was waiting to meet a passenger. The celebration just happened to fall on the same day, but she said she was happy to be there for the event.
"I've ridden it for many years," she said.
The train brought her to Havre, Hatler said, when she rode it from Whitefish to attend Northern Montana College in 1942.
Vicki Parker, waiting for the celebration to start, said that when she was growing up in Shelby, her family rode the train many times.
Parker and Sandy Anderson, who owns Boxcars in Havre - a restaurant that supplies food to the Empire Builder when it comes through Havre - each won two round-trip tickets to Seattle on the Empire Builder in a raffle held by the Montana Association of Railroad Passengers.