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Empire Builder - Seattle to Chicago - 2,205 miles, July 7 - 11, 2016

America by Amtrak, Coast-to-Coast and Border-to-Border

le to Chicago 2,205 miles

July 7 - 9, 2016

Photography and by Carl Morrison

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My first Empire Builder ride past Essex, Montana, and Matthew's first Empire Builder ride at all left Seattle on time at 4:40 pm, July 7, 2016.  This would be the second leg of my son, Matthew Morrison, and my "America By Amtrak" Tour.

Seattle King Street Station

Recently renovated interior of the King Street Station, Seattle.


Both professional football and baseball stadiums are within walking distance of the King Street Amtrak and Sounder Station in this photo from the Pedestrian Walkway.


Centurylink Field from the King Street Station pedestrian walkway.
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On this 2,205 mile leg on the Empire Builder, we left on Thursday, July 7 at 4:40 pm and arrived in Chicago Saturday, July 9 at 3:55 pm.  We had a Superliner Roomette.


I recognized the Ballard Locks that we had visited on our Seattle Shutter Tour earlier in the day.  We were crossing the draw bridge shown in the Seattle portion of this report.


The Empire Builder follows the Puget Sound north for several miles and port towns.


A driftwood beach on Puget Sound.


With all the rain, the Puget Sound's beach vegetation is always many shades of green.


I am always impressed with the Washington State Ferry System.


Docked in Mukilteo, Washington.


Mukilteo, Washington Lighthouse and keepers houses.


Matthew enjoying the Puget Sound view in our roomette on the Empire Builder headed for Chicago from Seattle.


Working barge in Puget Sound.


Cranes for loading ocean-going containers.


"Pause, Rest, Worship" roadside chapel reminds me of other countries that provide wayside chapels for weary travelers.


I love photographing barns, some even claim I was born in one.  That is nearly correct since I was born in a farm house near Hayden, Indiana with a barn with the same roof line as this one a few steps from the house.  I helped the family milk cows in our barn until I went to college in 1960.


This red barn was a dairy barn with hay storage in the loft.  The white framed door under the eve is where loose hay is hoisted up then back on a track into the mow and dropped.  The solid red door below would be where hay could be taken out of the mow to be sold or used in an outside feeder in good weather, or when baled hay came into being, an elevator could be put in this large red door to put bales into the mow.  This barn may not be in sight from the train much longer judging from that blackberry bush growing on its side.


Typical market you'll find in every state, newspapers, lottery tickets, handicapped parking, firewood and an electric horse kiddie ride!


Since the Empire Builder parallels Hwy. 2 for many miles, I could photograph many old barns from the train.  This barn looks like it has had one or two additions with metal roof.  Does not appear to be long for this world.  As friend Bob Williams told me, once the roof goes bad enough to allow water and snow inside, it soon collapses because of the high cost of reroofing an unused building.


This area's agricultural product seems to have been pears.


This Amtrak Route also had a National Parks "Trails and Rails" onboard commentary by Bill and Bill.

Bill told passengers in the Observation Car to look for herons, Canada geese, and bald eagles along the waterways. He explained that an estuary is a mixture of salt and fresh water.  He said Highway 2 parallels our route all the way to Michigan.  It is the northernmost transcontinental highway.  We went through the 7.8 mile long tunnel in the Cascades.


Empire Builder menu


As it turned out, this was the Amtrak Menu, the only thing that changed on our six long-distance train journey was the cover!  Soon Matt and I didn't need to look at the menu, we ordered the "Special" at breakfast - one piece of French toast, 2 eggs, 2 bacon or sausage with OJ and decaf.  For dinner we had steak with baked potato - the most expensive thing on the menu, but is included in the price of the sleeping accommodations.  Lunch was usually Angus Steak burger.  Occasionally, I had the delicious pork shank for dinner, with the barbecue sauce making it very tasty.  I always had the no-sugar-added vanilla pudding for dessert...I thought pudding was sugar so I didn't understand the title, but did enjoy the pudding.


After a meal is a good time to walk back through the coaches to the last one and the "railfan window" that looks out directly onto the trailing track to show the local terrain.


We enjoyed waiter Chris who replied to the question, "Where are we?" with "Near Cascade Tunnel."  (They do not have time to look out the window with their waiter duties so they do not know the landmarks along the way.)


At Leavenworth, WA, I walked back to see how many cars were on our half of the Empire Builder with the other half coming from Portland.  I found the front of the train, after the single locomotives, is the baggage car, Transition Sleeper (1/2 passenger roomettes and 1/2 crew roomettes), 2 sleeping cars, the Diner, followed by 2 coach cars.  The Observation car with be with the train set from Portland. I went to the back to look out the "Railfan Window" as writer Henry Kisor calls the last window in the last car looking out on the trailing track to the horizon.  While in the last coach car, the car attendant looked at me and said, "I  have a photo of you and me together."  Wow, I was recognized for the photos I've posted at as part of the over 100 rail travelogues I've posted there!  All that has changed for me is that I'm older, fatter, and balder.


Zachary, car attendant on this trip who I had met long ago and who had taken a photo of us at that time.

Casey, our 0831 Car Attendant made an announcement that 9:30 p.m. would be "Last Call for help setting up your bed."  That is earlier than any Car Attendant has made the last chance to have your bed made up.  I asked why so early and he replied, "That is when they stop paying me."  I thought they got paid all hours of the run, I'll have to ask a conductor about that.  When he made up the bed, he just threw the blanket, still in the plastic wrapper on top of the sheet-covered mattress.  I asked, "Don't you put the blankets on the beds?"  He said, "The Coast Starlight is the only one that does that, this is how I was trained."  Then he proceeded down the hall asking the passengers, many first-time train riders, "Do you need help with your bed?"  Is he just making his own rules?

I communicated this to the manager of the Coast Starlight who said that putting the blankets on the beds within the plastic bag shows the passenger that the blanket is newly cleaned...a question passengers had in the past.


The following morning, we paralleled the Flathead River toward Essex, Montana which is between West and East Glacier Entrances.


Plenty of glacier green water in the Flathead River on July 8.


Keeping an eye out on this slow, twisting rail ride along the Flathead River, I spotted one of the many tunnels west of Essex, Montana.


In a flatter section of the river, one could see where high water had cut grooves in a sand bar.


As we crossed a bridge, I caught water in the foreground with mountains in Glacier Park in the background


Thoughtful property owners placed signs identifying mountains and their height along the right-of-way



Approaching Essex, Montana, a flag stop between West and East Glacier, I recognized the helpers and rail yard adjacent to the hotel which is a former RR builder's lodging.


This former railroad workers accommodation when this route was being built was planned to be a lodge for a 3rd entrance into Glacier Park.  However, the war canceled that funding, so it is now a fantastic place to stay for the railfan.  In fact, I have several rail travelogues about staying here at the Izaak Walton Inn at: 






That Great Northern No. 441 locomotive has been converted to luxury accommodations.  Inside shots in the 2012 report above.


The Lodge van drives up this curve 1/8 mile to the platform to pick up or deliver guests to the train.


There is a new platform so the van can quickly load or unload hotel guests in inclement weather.  Upon our departure one year, there was a bear crossing the tracks just east of this platform, but we stayed safely inside the van until the train arrived, scaring the bear further into the woods.


The train continued climbing east of Essex, Montana to Marias Pass (el. 5213 ft.), the reason for helpers located here in Essex.  The Marias Pass is also the Continental Divide and the highest point in Montana on the railroad and adjacent Hwy. 2.


Teddy Roosevelt Memorial Obelisk at the Continental Divide on Hwy. 2 at Marias Pass.

A Bit about Slippery Bill Morrison (no relation to the author)


The Roosevelt Memorial Obelisk was built at Marias Pass on the Continental Divide in 1931. Congress appropriated $25,000, for the monument; Representative Scott Leavitt introduced the bill.

William H. "Slippery Bill" Morrison, claimed "squatter's rights" to the land at Marias Pass. Through diplomatic negotiations by the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce and others (including Supervisor Hornby of the Flathead National Forest), Morrison agreed to donate his rights to this land for building a monument to Theodore Roosevelt. Morrison stipulated that no concessions, "hamburger stands" as he referred to them, would be built on any of this property during his lifetime.

He also agreed to relinquish his right to the rest of his land at the time of his death. He died in March 1932 and is buried in the Conrad Memorial Cemetery. This land now belongs to the Federal Government.

The obelisk is 60 feet high and extends 19 feet into the ground. It has a tapering cement core covered on all sides with 7-inch slabs of Montana granite quarried near Helena.

The cement core has a 5/8-inch copper cable, running from the seven short platinum points at the apex through its center to the bottom of the structure for lightning protection.



Scenery between Marias Pass and East Glacier Amtrak Station.


Glacier Park's East Entrance Amtrak Stop with lodge and mountain backdrop.


Glacier Park Lodge from the Empire Builder at the Glacier Park Station
"while Dancing Lady mountain looms in the backdrop."

Guests can relax in the lobby and cozy up by the fire, surrounded by towering Douglas Fir trees or walk the beautiful gardens that line the front lawn of the property while Dancing Lady mountain looms in the backdrop. For your convenience, complimentary WiFi is available throughout the hotel. The Lodge is also home to a 9-hole golf course and 9-hole pitch n’ putt course. Glacier Park Lodge is the perfect place to unplug, and immerse yourself in a Glacier Park vacation.   2016 Operating Dates: June 7 - September 21

Note the late opening and early closing dates.  I've been here before they opened, but enjoyed the park and the Izaak Walton Inn as well.

The Great Northern Railway built Glacier Park Lodge over a century ago. Situated on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the hotel site was purchased from the Piegan, a tribe of the Blackfeet Nation. This site was in a settlement then known as Midvale. When the present railway depot was built in 1912, the area was renamed Glacier Park Station and then became known as East Glacier Park in 1950.
Often referred to as “Big Tree Lodge,” the immense timbers that support the Lodge were approximately 500 to 800 years old when they were cut and all of them retain their bark. There are a total of 60 timbers, 36 to 42 inches in diameter and 40 feet long. The timbers which support the lobby and verandas are Douglas fir and cedars from Washington State. Today, 162 rustic, yet comfortable guest rooms can accommodate over 500 people



Glacier Lodge's 9-hole golf course.


View from on Two Medicine Creek Bridge.

View of the bridge from my 2008 visit at:


As we head east we exit mountain views and high plains farmland.


Even though the scenery gets flat in eastern Montana, passengers migrate to the Sightseer/Lounge Car for various activities including listening to Bill and Bill's Rails and Trails trip narration.




Cut Bank, Montana, often listed as the coldest place in the lower 48 US states.


Bill related that there are 8 western states that have similar characteristics:  Few Trees, Few Rivers, and Fertile Land.  Montana gets only 3 to 8" of rain a year.  The Homestead Act gave 160 acres for 5 years with some stipulations.


"UPS drivers lead a lonely life in Montana."


This Montana Wind Farm is owned by a Spanish firm that feeds Southwest Energy with electricity.  Research shows that 35 mph is the optimum speed for a wind turbine.


A little after 11 a.m. we were at Shelby, Montana.


A good place to stretch you legs.  When walking to the front of the train, be sure you have time to get a photo like this realizing that to reboard the train you must walk past 2 locomotives, the baggage car, the transition car and half way into the first sleeper to find an open door.


Any Amtrak stop when you are given some time off the train is a good time to get a photo of your car attendant since they must stay near the door to help passengers with the step down to the platform.


Sometimes a photo of nearby businesses give some clues to the town such as "Oil City" and the light pole sign.




Not me, I prefer a 35mm DSLR.


East of Shelby, Montana it took me a while to realize these were all horses!  First thought it would be a cattle feeder lot.


Some ghost buildings with a nice church among the abandoned buildings.  Looks like the wind has taken many roof shingles and siding pieces off through the years.


Very large hay field.  You would put quite a few miles on your vehicle just to collect the bales.


Railroads are still the most economical way to move bulk goods except for river barges.


Local music on the Empire Builder in Montana as part of the Rails and Trails.


With the Cafe Attendant having a stereotypical Russian Accent and other employees on the PA, we began to think we were in the middle of a Saturday Night Live skit.


Bulk grain plant, with a pile of grain that will not fit into the bins, ready for shipment by covered hopper cars while a ballast gondola train waits on a nearby siding.  Treeless Montana extends to the horizon.


Appropriately named Badlands, but nice crops being grown nearby.


Mary "Super" Hooper, Car 30 Attendant.  It was a pleasure walking through her car to the diner.  She took extra care to have a spic 'n span car including fresh flowers in the center of the car.  However, car attendants agree with passengers that the Empire Builder should recycle!

Marlon was our breakfast and lunch waiter in the Diner.  Overall pleasant crew which just happened to walk into the hotel where we stayed in Chicago as their crew hotel.


ILSX 1362 along the route.

Zack W on Flickr says, "ILSX EMD GP5#1362  Former Great Northern GP9 rebuilt as a GP5 At Willison, ND. Owned by the Independent Locomotive Service."



Great Northern No. 3059 on display at Williston, North Dakota.


BNSF locomotives reflect in a pool with used rails as our eastbound Empire Builder awaits.


Typical train storage silos and covered hoppers for transportation.


No one seemed to know, not even local conductors, what this yellow field's crop was.

One question on the Internet produced this information:

Canola is a crop with plants from three to five feet tall that produce pods from which seeds are harvested and crushed to create canola oil and meal. These plants also produce small, yellow flowers, which beautify the environment.

Canola seeds contain about 44 percent oil. This large percentage of oil comes in a small package; canola seeds are similar in size to poppy seeds, though brownish-black in color.

Although they look similar, canola and rapeseed plants and oils are very different. Canadian scientists used traditional plant breeding in the 1960s to eliminate the undesirable components of rapeseed* and created "canola," a contraction of "Canadian" and "ola." Canola oil is prized for its heart-healthy properties with the least saturated fat of all culinary oils.

Canola belongs to the same family as mustard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Besides the U.S., it is grown in Canada and Australia, but canola oil is consumed all over the world. In the U.S., the ratio of supply versus demand of canola oil is about 1:3, which presents a huge opportunity for U.S. producers to grow more canola.

About 1.5 million acres are currently grown in the U.S., predominantly in North Dakota, but also in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and several other states.



Traveling in July gives plenty of late light to enjoy the landscape as shown in this 9:36 pm photo at Minot, ND.



A good night's rest followed and we awoke for another Amtrak breakfast.


What's wrong with this picture?  I'm on a train, on a bridge crossing a river and the shadow shows the draw bridge is UP!  (I lived through it.)


Winona, Wisconsin about 10 a.m.





A train trip always allows for a closeup look at modern railroad maintenance equipment.  I have seen this apparatus in action tamping ballast around and under new ties.  If you have the chance to see one of these working, just look for the dust cloud that it sends up working with dirt and rock.



West of the Winona Station is an old freight house with electrical insulators on crossbars built right into the building.


Winona, Wisconsin

"Winona", sounded like a name that would work in a limerik: 

There once was a Miss from Winona,
A brand new car she did ownah,
In a terrible rain
she ran into a train,
Because she had too much Corona.

(I do not thing I need to copyright that!)

Our crew on the Empire Builder was straight out of Saturday Night Live.  We had a Cafe Car attendant with a heavy Russian Accent.  She made all the required announcements, but each time she spoke over the PA, I could see Gilda Radner talking in my mind.  A coach car attendant used the PA for announcements in her own car.  Evidently she is also responsible for cleaning the observation car and raked people for not picking up their own trash in a Kindergarten-level tone.  She threatened to close the lounge and chase everyone out to clean if they did not put their trash "and garbage" in the trash recepticals.  As a fellow passenger of ours remarked, "She always sounded tired."  Waiter Chris was about the size of Penn of Penn & Teller, with an equally long pony tail.  He was always upbeat and comedic. The Dining Car Steward, Orlando or something like that, gave lengthy instructions each time he called a time for lunch or dinner guest to come to the Diner.

Met a young rail traveler couple on the Empire Builder, thanks to Car Attendant, Zack, who knows me and pointed them out to me.  They also have a blog of a multi-train trips they took by coach car:

"We actually read your blog prepping for the trip. We got the 15 day rail pass, and we've been on Lake shore Limited, Southwest Chief, Pacific Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and the Empire Builder.  We are staying in Chicago tonight and heading home on the Lake shore tomorrow. This was Julianna's first trip west of Ohio, and my first US train trip more than a few hundred miles. She has taken over 450 pictures and we are planning on blogging our experience titled,  "Traveling the country on a tight budget".

Zack said he was a friend of yours, and he's by far the best coach attendant of our trip."
Ian and Juliana

Ian, Zack, and Juliana


We crossed many Wisconsin rivers as we headed east then south to Chicago.



Churches are always recognizable, but their architecture is varied across the US depending on the era in which they were built.  I found this chimney interesting in its height to reach above the peak of the roof to benefit the draft in the stove inside.


South of Columbus, Wisconsin more time at the "Railfan Window" as we paralleled an Interstate and passed new cross ties ready to be used.  I remember puffy clouds in the blue skies when I lived in the Midwest.


One and one-half hour north of Chicago.

_MG_0982.JPG   _MG_0983.JPG

Two Chicago Metropolitan Lounge Hostesses welcomed us to the new Lounge which had only been open a few weeks.


A relaxing environment with the Chicago hustle going by on the street outside.


Several levels within the Chicago Metropolitan Lounge with nice furniture throughout.


View from the Metropolitan Lounge of the historic waiting area.




I made good use of the coffee machine.


Our accommodations while in Chicago, about 4 blocks from the station, was the Holiday Inn & Suites Downtown Chicago, 506 West Harrison Street, Chicago, Illinois.  As it turned out, this was the hotel of Amtrak crews as well.

My long-time friend, Bob Williams came in from Huntley, Illinois on Metra Rail each day to help us take luggage to the hotel or take us touring around downtown Chicago.


We used Uber in all 5 cities. Here's a free Uber ride (worth up to $20) on the Uber app
 To accept, use code 'carlm3106ue' to sign up. Enjoy!
Details: (The code will already be entered)

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