By Tim Leeds
A mainstay of transportation on the Hi-Line is celebrating 75 years of operation - under the management of three companies - with a gala in Havre on June 12.
The first Empire Builder passenger train left Chicago westbound and Seattle eastbound on June 11, 1929. Its successor, Amtrak's Empire Builder, will pull into Havre carrying dignitaries including Amtrak president David Gunn.
Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, along with state Department of Commerce director Mark Simonich and Travel Montana administrator Betsy Baumgart, are scheduled to meet the train in Havre.
The anniversary trains - regulars cars filled with normal passengers and a special section set aside for dignitaries - will leave Seattle and Chicago next Friday.
Frank DeRosa, president of the board of the Havre Railroad Museum, said a special celebration will be held June 12 at the museum, including scale models of a steam-driven Empire Builder and the modern incarnation, running on the museum's tracks from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"We'll also have some old-timers lined up," DeRosa said. "They promised me they would be there to reminisce if people want to talk to them." People who want to share their memories of the train are urged to attend.
Sarah Swain of Amtrak corporate communications in Oakland, Calif., said the celebration at the Havre depot is set to start at 2:30 p.m., with the train scheduled to arrive at 2:40 p.m. The gala will include speakers, refreshments and giveaways, she said.
DeRosa did some reminiscing himself during an interview Wednesday. The first Empire Builder was crucial to the development of the area, he said, as one of the only forms of transportation available.
"I would say if it wasn't for that transportation in and out of here would have been almost impossible," DeRosa said. "Not many people had cars in those days."
He remembers his mother loading the family on the train with packed lunches for a day trip to Glacier National Park. They'd catch the return train home that night.
Ray Lang, an Amtrak director of government affairs and policy, will be riding the westbound train with Gunn.
"I am looking forward to the trip," he said. "We're honored to be a part of this."
Celebrations are planned at Shelby and Whitefish as well during the anniversary ride through Montana. Dignitaries will get off the train and join the celebration at each depot, and a raffle will be held. Each location will draw two winners for a pair of round-trip tickets to Seattle on the Empire Builder.
Tickets for the raffle, costing $5 each, will be for sale at each depot. The proceeds will go to the Montana Association of Railroad Passengers, a group that has advocated continued service by the Empire Builder.
Celebrations are also planned in Chicago, St. Paul, Minn., Seattle, and Portland, Ore., and at other stops in the states the Empire Builder passes through.
Swain said the number of riders on the Empire Builder jumped more than 12 percent from 2002 to 2003, from about 368,000 riders to about 415,700. Amtrak is confident that ridership will continue to be high, she said.
The numbers compare well with those of similar Amtrak trains. The California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., had almost 327,000 riders in 2002 and about 323,300 in 2003. The Coast Starlight, which connects Seattle and Los Angeles, had about 445,600 in 2002 and about 444,400 in 2003.
Amtrak took over operation of the train from the Burlington Northern Railway in 1971. That was one year after Burlington Northern was formed by the merger of four companies including the Great Northern Railway, the original owner of the Empire Builder.
The Empire Builder, named for the founder of the Great Northern Railway, James J. Hill, was considered the premier passenger train of the Great Northern, according to the Great Northern Railway Historical Society Web site. As it does now, the original route started in Chicago and ran across the northern United States, with the train splitting in Spokane to provide service to both Seattle and Portland.
DeRosa said the train also split in Havre at one time, providing three cars for daily passenger and freight service from Havre to Butte.
He said the Empire Builder's arrival - two trains were westbound, two eastbound and one in preparation every day - was a familiar sight in Havre, with some interesting accompaniment over the years.
One of the stories DeRosa told was how a wagon would be waiting for the train to pull in. Workers would drive the wagon down the length of the train, washing the tall windows and domes at every stop.
Every day in the summer, workers pulled 300-pound blocks of ice from an ice house to load under the passenger cars, which provided air conditioning.
Several passenger trains have shared the route of the Empire Builder, and the Empire Builder has gone through many changes over the years itself.
The Oriental Limited, an older train that began service in 1905 and was shut down in 1931, also ran along northern Montana.
The original Empire Builder cars were replaced in 1947. The 1929 cars were reintroduced using the name Oriental Limited. In 1951, the Empire Builder trains were again replaced. The original Empire Builder trains were retired, as was the name Oriental Limited, and the 1947 trains operated under the name Western Star.
According to the Great Northern Railway Historical Society Web site, the 1951 replacement was a complete renovation in style and the new train was called "The Mid-Century Empire Builder." The trains included Mountain Series observation cars with tall windows, and the Western-themed Ranch cars, lounge cars resembling a Western chuck wagon.
The Empire Builder went through several paint schemes. The 1947 streamlined model used orange and green with gold stripes, and the style became standard for Great Northern passenger trains for nearly two decades.
In 1967, the paint scheme was changed to a pattern of blue, gray and white. Cascade green began to appear on Empire Builder cars in 1968, a prelude to the 1970 merger that created Burlington Northern Railway and its official green cars. Burlington Northern ran the Empire Builder for one year, before the newly created Amtrak took over in May 1971.
The train went through several transformations with Amtrak in the last three decades, including, in 1979, becoming the first Amtrak train to use the bi-level Superliner passenger cars.
Other changes weren't as beneficial. Amtrak reduced the operation of the train, down to three times a week in 1979. It later was restored to daily operation.
It was cut back to four times a week in 1995. After Amtrak discontinued several other trains, including the tri-weekly Pioneer that ran from Chicago to Seattle, Empire Builder service was increased back to daily operation.
The fight over funding for Amtrak - and the Empire Builder - has been in the news over the last few years. In 2002, company president George Warrington said that unless the company received the full $1.2 billion it requested from Congress, it would start shutting down long-distance routes.
The question of how much federal funding Amtrak should receive is almost as old as the passenger rail service. When Congress created the service, it was with the intention that Amtrak eventually would become self-sufficient. But the railroad has never had a year in which its income met its expenses.
In the spring of 2002 Warrington left Amtrak and was replaced by Gunn, who said he would not single out long-distance routes: If the company ran out of money, all operations would shut down.
Amtrak has continued with some help, including a special appropriation and a loan guarantee in 2002 to keep the trains rolling.
Lang said the amount requested by the Bush administration is far less than Amtrak requested, but it's still early in the budget process. Amtrak requested nearly $1.8 billion; the administration's request is $900 million.
Lang said last year's appropriation will carry the passenger service through this fiscal year.
"But we live from year to year," he added.
State Commerce director Simonich said that with the passenger rail service facing uncertain funding, the state wants to show its support. Amtrak has always been an important part of Montana, both for travel within the state and to bring tourists in, he said.
"We thought the 75th anniversary was a good place to show our support," Simonich said.
On the Net: Great Northern Railway Historical Society: www.gnrhs.org