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Hi-Line Living: Empire Builder closes in on a century


Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Tensions about funding and operations of long-distance rail only underscores the legacy that service has on Montana's Hi-Line.

At the National Rail Passengers Association Northwest Division annual meeting in Cut Bank last weekend, part of the discussion was of the importance of passenger rail service and its continuation in the United States, but a large portion was also celebrating the 90th anniversary of The Empire Builder, the premiere passenger rail service that has run from Chicago to Seattle and Portland since 1929.

The train was named in honor of Great Northern Railway founder James J. Hill, the man for whom Hill County was named and who built the high line of his railway that created the Hi-Line.

The Empire Builder went through many changes and faced - and still faces - many challenges in its 90-year history, but NRPA President and CEO Jim Mathews of Washington, D.C., said in Cut Bank Saturday that support for the National Passenger Rail Corp. - Amtrak - seems strong in Congress right now and the focus seems to be more on how to improve passenger rail, rather than cutting it.

"Small communities have a right to exist," Mathews said. "... This is, I think, a really exciting time to be in rail advocacy. We have a Congress that is largely unified in its desire to maintain and grow rail service."

Building a railway

The story of the Empire Builder begins with its namesake, James. J. Hill, known as the Empire Builder.

"Grits, Guts and Gusto: A History of Hill County," reports Hill caught his vision of a rail line from Minneapolis-St. Paul to the West Coast while visiting his friend Paris Gibson in Great Falls in 1882.

In 1887, the federal government gave Hill permission to build his railway, including obtaining space for railway stations no more than one for every 10 miles of track.

Hill's Great Northern Railway, which grew out of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, a company he and other Canadian investors had bought out of bankruptcy and revitalized, is listed as the only successful railway built entirely through private investment with no government subsidies.

At the time Hill started building his northern "high line" across Montana, some towns were in existence in north-central Montana, including Cypress on Big Sandy Creek a few miles west of Bullhook Bottoms, where Bullhook flowed into the Milk River and where Havre would later be established.

Cypress sprang up to serve Fort Assinniboine a few miles south, which had been commissioned in 1879. "Grits, Guts and Gusto" describes Cypress as "a tough town" "composed mostly of bars and such establishments."

When Hill's railway reached Bullhook Bottoms in 1887, he decided to use that location as a main division point on his railway. Great Northern Railway then built lines south to Great Falls and Helena, before once again pushing the line west to Seattle.

About this time, "Grits Guts and Gusto" says, Fort Assinniboine had pretty well made Cypress off-limits to the soldiers at the fort, and that town dried up with many of its residents resettling in Bullhook Bottoms.

The rail line reached Seattle in in 1893.

Towns along the Hi-Line

By the time people were taking advantage of the Homestead Act of 1909, which doubled the acreage allowed to homestead, beginning another push for homesteading - something Hill heavily promoted along his rail line - towns had sprung up along the northern rail line, "on the Hi-Line."

Towns were located about six to 10 miles apart on much of the line, with some - such as Yantic, later renamed Lohman, and Burnam and Fresno - now mostly just names.

But many continued to thrive.

Hill invested heavily in the community that was incorporated as Havre - named for Le Havre, France, the home town of the parents one of the original settlers in Bullhook Bottoms, Gus Decelles - in 1893. The Great Northern Railway erected facilities including a depot, long a major center for Havre, a roundhouse and living spaces for employees at Bullhook Bottoms.

"Grits, Guts and Gusto" reports that between 1891 and 1893 the operations of Great Northern Railway were consolidated in what became Havre - by 1902 the Great Northern roundhouse and shop employed about 200 men - and Havre's relationship with what is now BNSF Railway continues to be crucial for the town and the railway.

Passenger rail on the Hi-Line

From its start, passenger transportation along with freight and mail transportation was an integral part of the railway. In 1909, it reached a new level with the luxurious Oriental Limited passenger train first coming through Havre.

That service stepped up another notch in 1929, with the start of the operation of Great Northern Railway's premiere passenger train, The Empire Builder, named in honor of Hill, who died in 1916.

The train ran on the Burlington Route from Chicago to St. Paul, and on the Great Northern route from St. Paul to Spokane, where it split into two sections, one going to Portland and one to Seattle.

"These trains were the last word in comfort, amenities and speed for their day," The Empire Builder page of the Great Northern Historical Society says. "Punctuating the train was the last car, an 89-foot buffet-lounge-solarium-observation with a sun room replacing the traditional open platform."

Great Northern Railway Historical Society reports the Oriental Limited was discontinued in 1931, and improvements continued on The Empire Builder, with air conditioning introduced in 1935 and 58-seat, semi-streamlined luxury coaches added to the train in 1935.

With increased traffic during World War II, the line was split into sections with sleepers, coaches and additional sections as "troop trains."

In 1945, diesel locomotives that would be the initial power for The Empire Builder arrived and, in 1947, the postwar edition of the passenger train was introduced. They were painted in a scheme using Omaha Orange, Pullman Green and gold stripes in a style that came to be known as The Empire Builder scheme and became the standard style for Great Northern passenger trains for the next 20 years.

In 1951, Great Northern completely re-equipped The Empire Builder including with new Mountain Series observation cars and Ranch Cars that were styled after a chuck wagon, with pinto leather seats and a large coffee pot.

In 1967, the train was re-colored with a blue, gray and white scheme replacing the former Empire Builder scheme.

Amtrak takes over The Empire Builder

By 1971, railways were struggling financially to continue passenger rail service, which was becoming unprofitable.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act, which created the nonprofit National Passenger Rail Corp. to do business as Amtrak. In 1971, 20 rail companies agreed to turn over their intercity rail passenger routes to Amtrak. The Empire Builder was Amtrak's sole Chicago-to-Seattle passenger train.

The running of The Empire Builder faced problems almost from the start. In 1971, the Portland-Spokane route was terminated, and in 1977 the frequency of the train was reduced to four days a week. In 1979, it was reduced to three days a week.

But upgrades also continued. In 1979, The Empire Builder was the first long-distance train to be given bi-level Superliner equipment.

In 1982, The Empire Builder started doing daily runs over the Christmas season, and in January 1982 Amtrak announced it would remain daily.

But in 1995, citing a budget crunch, Amtrak reduced its run again, to four days a week west of St. Paul, although the Pioneer still helped provide daily service between the endpoints of Chicago and Seattle.

In 1997, Amtrak discontinued the Pioneer and with equipment from that route restored The Empire Builder to daily operations and it again becomes the sole Chicago to Portland and Seattle passenger train.

Last decade, funding for Amtrak became a regular struggle, with members of Congress fighting to continue paying for the service while budgets proposed severe cuts to or even elimination of funding.

In 2002, Amtrak brought Canadian railroad executive David Gunn out of retirement, hiring him as president. Gunn began investing in Amtrak, straying from previous president's attempts to make the rail service sulf-sufficient and profitable in the short term. Gunn said no form of passenger transportation is self-sufficient, citing federal subsidies in highways, airports and air traffic control. He reduced the amount of middle management in Amtrak and began investing in infrastructure including tracks, locomotives and passenger cars as well as promoting the service. Amtrak, including The Empire Builder, saw an increase in ridership over this period.

Gunn was fired by Amtrak's board of directors in 2005, over his refusal to split the company in preparation for privatizing the service, with Gunn saying the reason Amtrak existed was because private railroads did not want to operate passenger rail.

In the past few years, Amtrak has pushed to save costs, saying it must be a good steward of taxpayer money, taking actions such as cutting back on meals on some long-distance routes, proposing cutting part of the Southern Chief route between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Dodge City, Kansas, and busing passengers along that part of the route, and eliminating ticket agents from some stations including the Havre and Shelby stations on The Empire Builder Route.

It has previously eliminated ticket agents from other stations including The Empire Builder station in Wolf Point in 2016.

Congress pushed back this year. In its funding resolution passed in February, Congress ordered the Southwest Chief continue is current route and ordered Amtrak to bring back customer service agents in the station where ticket agents were eliminated. Amtrak has said it will upgrade its station caretakers to perform customer service in those stations, but will not bring back ticket agents.

Benefits to passengers, routes

Mathews said Saturday that the long-distance trains like The Empire Builder provide many benefits aside from providing transportation to its passengers.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Aside from daily Essential Air Service Flights to and from Billings and twice-a-week North Central Transit bus runs to and from Great Falls, The Empire Builder is the only public transportation in Havre and for many communities on the Hi-Line.

But Mathews said the service also provides benefits to the communities and states through which it runs. People come to towns and spend money, people who otherwise would not be there.

He said the Empire Builder brings $3.4 million in additional spending in Montana alone.

"That's a pretty good return on investment," he said. "These communities make money and thrive because we have an Empire Builder."


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