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BNSF stack train at La Plata, MO

April 4-9, 2011

Photos by Henry Kisor,

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1st of 5 parts: Chicago to La Plata, Missouri

vacationing like wealthy swells of a century ago?

They often took a leisurely train to a luxurious "destination hotel" that sat right by the tracks, then took the air, the waters or the links without leaving the property, winding up their evenings with brandy and cigars in a rocker on the verandah. Sometimes the hotels also served as a base of operations for forays into the countryside.

You can do the same thing today (but hold the cigars).  And you don’t need to be Mr. and Mrs. Gotrocks, for most of today's railroad-oriented destination hotels are quite affordable.

For instance, the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana, attracts not only rail buffs riding Amtrak's Empire Builder but also skiers and hikers bound for Glacier National Park next door.

In the park proper, Glacier Park Lodge at East Glacier on the same line is a favorite of train-borne summer campers and hikers.

On the route of the California Zephyr, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, features a number of hotels either at or within walking distance of the station and a hot springs pool complex across the tracks.

If you can afford to spend large coin, the storied and super-luxurious Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on the route of the Cardinal attracts wealthy golfers and spa-loving matrons.

Last week my wife, Debby, and I visited two destination hotels on the route of Amtrak's Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. One of them, the Depot Inn and Suites in La Plata, Missouri, is a mecca for hardcore railfans. The other, La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, is a grail for Southwest-minded art lovers and gastronomes.

These two hostelries differ vastly in ambience and amenities, but share three similarities: They are in the midst of interesting places, they lie right on the tracks (and therefore are easy to get to), and neither is expensive.

Crowd in Chicago Union Station

There was an unusually large crowd for a Monday in April in the passenger lounge at Chicago Union Station.

We began our journey on a Monday afternoon in early April. Surprisingly, the passenger lounge at Chicago Union Station was packed with travelers, as if it were the eve of a holiday and everybody was heading home. Long, long lines snaked through the south concourse gates for the Texas Eagle, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief. Boarding for each train started a full hour before departure time instead of the usual 20 minutes.

Shortly after the Southwest Chief pulled out for Kansas City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles at 2:45 p.m, the conductor announced on the intercom, “We had expected a light load today, but the train is full because Southwest Airlines has canceled all its flights and Amtrak is receiving its passengers.”

Weary passenger at Chicago Union Station.

A refugee from Southwest Airlines hoping to escape Chicago?

Involuntarily my eyes shot to the ceiling before it hit me that a stainless-steel Superliner roof isn't going to peel away like fatigued jetliner aluminum, creating inadvertent outdoor seating.

It was spring break, too, and many of the passengers on the Chief were college students. Debby and I were heading for La Plata just five hours from Chicago, so we chose to ride thriftily in coach instead of our usual roomette in a sleeper, our preferred occupancy for overnight trips.

The Southwest Chief heads west

The Southwest Chief bears west at the south end of the Metra commuter train yards.

Within half an hour of departure the reek of cigarette smoke wafted up from the lower level, and Sue, the coach attendant, righteous fire in her eye, dashed downstairs. A few seconds later a young man climbed up and slouched to his seat, embarrassed guilt in his eye.

Sue followed. “Told him if he tried it again he'd be put off the train,” she growled. She was small, and she was round, but she was tough.

Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) north of CUS

Shortly after departure we caught a last glimpse of the Willis Tower and downtown Chicago.

Unfortunately, with a passenger load that heavy, Sue and the two conductors couldn't be everywhere. Every half hour or so the young man went below, followed shortly afterward by the sickening smell of tobacco. Everyone in the car knew what he was doing, and some of the passengers gave him a piece of their minds, but evidently the crew had to catch him in the act themselves in order to banish him from the premises. Uncannily the kid knew where the authorities would be every time he needed to feed his jones.

He was not, however, the student or students whose behavior provoked Steve, the lounge car attendant, to announce more than once, “Although I may look young and people might think I haven't been anywhere or know much, I can tell when someone has had too much to drink and I mean it. You may say you only had one beer on the train, but that does not include the twenty-four you had before. I alone decide whether to sell alcohol or not. There is no discussion. I want everyone to enjoy adult beverages, but I have no tolerance for overuse of alcohol which is why I quit drinking seven years ago.”

Students in the lounge car

Students on spring break filled the lounge car.  Most of them were courteous and well behaved.

When Debby went forward to buy a bottle of water to wash down our dinner sandwiches–we bought them from the Corner Bakery (highly recommended for traveling provender) in Chicago Union Station's fast-food mezzanine–she saw that the lounge-car attendant was a grizzled, white-haired veteran, not a callow rookie. One wonders how many times in his career he had delivered that spiel.

I hasten to add that other than these two incidents, the students were well behaved, polite to their elders and helpful to those with disabilities, at least until we detrained at La Plata at 7:45 p.m., five hours after departing Chicago. The tobacco fiend hadn't yet been busted, and we hoped very much that somewhere down the line the crew would nail him red-handed.

Native American in the lounge car

Perhaps this Native American was on his way to Albuquerque and the great Navajo Reservation.

Western Illinois

Farmland in western Illinois on a gray and chilly spring day.

Depot Inn sign

Night had nearly fallen when we reached our target for the first day.