Alaska Railroad’s posh business car Denali was recently resurrected from seeming retirement, going from a weed-overgrown storage track to full Denali’s most recent overhaul wasn’t the first, or even the most drastic, in its colorful life.
Denali was built by the Pullman Car & Manufacturing Company in June 1930 in Chicago, IL. At that time, Pullman was the operator of all of the sleeping cars on the nation’s railroads. As built, the car was an otherwise unremarkable 14-section sleeper, floor plan 3958A, one of seven identical cars built in that lot. (Section sleepers had seats that faced each other by day, then could be converted into a bed at night.)
It was given the name Archibald Guthrie, after the railroad contractor who plotted the Great Northern railroad throughout much of the Midwest, but carried no other number. Appropriately, the Archibald Guthrie eventually found its way into regular service on the GN.
In 1939, the Archibald Guthrie went through its first overhaul. The interior was stripped out, and replaced with six sections and six double bedrooms, under floor plan 4084B.
The Pullman Company was sued under anti-trust laws in 1940, and was ordered to separate its sleeping car service from the railcar manufacturing business, and divest itself of one. As a result, the Pullman sleeping car service was sold to a consortium of 57 railroads.
In December 1948, the Archibald Guthrie passed into the ownership of the Great Northern Railroad as part of that sale. The GN retained the cars name, but assigned it the number GN 1011.
By the time it joined the GN fleet, the Archibald Guthrie was showing its age. Like many other sleepers, the car had been worked hard transporting troops during World War II, and as one of the last heavyweight cars built by Pullman, it was obsolete in comparison to the sleek, lightweight streamlined cars that were in favor during the post-war years. As such, it was used mainly in tourist service.
1957 was to be the Archibald Guthrie’s year of transformation. The car entered the GN shops (probably the shops at St. Cloud, MN, but this is not confirmed) along with several other older cars to be rebuilt and modernized for business service.
In the process, the car had nine feet of another car’s center sill spliced into the midsection, the riveted steel skin on the car had been replaced with smooth welded skin, and its classic clerestory roof was lowered and rounded to give it an appearance similar to the streamlined cars of the GN’s flagship passenger trains. The most dramatic part of that transformation was the addition of a lounge and open-air observation platform on one end.
When it emerged from its rebuild later that year, the car had been fitted with three double bedrooms, quarters for the secretary, cook and waiter, a kitchen, pantry and dining room, and the observation lounge. The rebuilt car was given the number A-30, and lost the name Archibald Guthrie for good.
According to a 1961 GN car diagram, the A-30 measured 81 feet 3.5 inches over the framing, with 62’6” truck centers. It stood 13’5” tall, and was 10 feet wide. Weight for the car was listed at 197,000 pounds. The A-30 was assigned to the Vice President of the Operations Department in St. Paul, MN.
In 1969, in anticipation of the GN’s merger with the Northern Pacific and several other railroads to form the Burlington Northern, the car was renumbered again, this time to A-3. It became the Burlington Northern’s A-3 at the railroad’s formation in 1970.
The GN (and BN after the merger) served the Alaska Railroad’s land connection in Seattle, WA, and several GN officials had served on the Alaska Railroad board as well. In 1972, the A-3 was deemed surplus by the BN, and arrangements were made for sale of the car to the Alaska Railroad to replace its 1917-vintage business car Caribou Creek.
The A-3 was sold to the Alaska Railroad on December 10, 1971, and given the name Glacier Pass. Though sources aren’t clear, it appears that the Glacier Pass served as the Alaska Railroad’s “home away from home” for its officials down on the mainland US until 1979.
In 1979, the Glacier Pass was renamed Denali in honor of Alaska’s major scenic attraction. By that time, the car was in Alaska and would see use more as an entertainment car for VIPs, shippers and politicians than as a mobile office for railroad executives.
In 1985, the car was rebuilt again to better serve its entertainment purposes. The secretary’s quarters were removed to make way for an enlargement of the observation lounge, and the upper berth in the cook/waiter’s sleeping section was removed and replaced with storage lockers.
In 2000, the Alaska Railroad completed the purchase of glass-topped observation car Aurora from Colorado Railcar. With its open floor plan, the Aurora was perfectly suited for the function that Denali had served, and the older car was put out to pasture. In 2002, it was formally retired and offered for sale.
The car was then given modern electrical systems, updated climate controls, larger windows, a new generator, new liquid storage tanks, and a thorough overhaul of its trucks and mechanical systems. The rebuild was topped off with a new interior floor plan and an elegant decor.
In its present configuration, Denali’s observation lounge has been enlarged to take up almost a third of the car, and shares room with a spacious mid-car dining area. An executive bedroom with lavatory and shower sits behind the dining area, and the cars modern galley sits at the end.
Denali was released from Colorado Railcar on November 8, 2006, and began its journey back to Alaska on the tail end of Amtrak’s California Zephyr on November 11. The renewed car was unloaded off of the barge used to transport railcars between Alaska and the “Lower 48” on November 30, hopefully to begin a long (and hopefully less eventful) career that no doubt couldn’t have been envisioned with it rolled out of Chicago 75 years before.
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