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By Jack M. Turner

Photos By John C. Turner


    Traveling to the west coast by rail from our home in North Florida has been complicated since Amtrak's suspension of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.  The normal alternative has been to use Jacksonville as our origin point, however, for our summer 2009 journey we selected Birmingham.  Beginning our trip on Amtrak's Crescent would offer different scenery and a better arrival time into Washington, DC than the Silver Meteor.  Joining me were my wife Christine and son John.
   We made a two hour evening trip to Dothan, Alabama on June 19 to allow a more leisurely trip to Birmingham the next day.  Our overnight stop at the Courtyard by Marriott in Dothan permitted us to avoid a pre-dawn departure from home.  This business oriented hotel is convenient for travelers arriving in Birmingham by train and heading to Florida's Panhandle as it is just 3 1/2 hours from Birmingham and a couple hours from Panama City Beach and Tallahassee and only slightly farther from Destin.

    The next morning's drive through rural Alabama led us through Montgomery and on to Birmingham where we had time to enjoy lunch at the popular Dreamland barbecue restaurant which has been featured on ESPN's college football broadcasts and various travel programs.  Following lunch we headed to the nearby Amtrak station to check luggage that we would not need until later in our trip then I dropped our rented vehicle off at the Birmingham airport.  The drive around Birmingham brought back memories of Fall 1976 when I attended grad school in this city.  At that time both Amtrak's Floridian and Southern Railway's Southern Crescent served Birmingham.  The privately owned midwest AutoTrain was tacked on the end of the Floridian at that time as well.

    The northbound Crescent departed at 2:47pm after we settled into Bedroom B in sleeper Palisades View.  The overnight trip would be a bit crowded with three of us, however, past experience had shown us that it was acceptable for one night.  Thankfully we had packed our travel fans as the sleeper's air conditioning was sub-par; again, experience taught us to always carry fans.

    East of the Birmingham station the Norfolk Southern rail line passes through industrial areas of this former steel mill city then enters a rural region where rich forests, milky rivers, and broad valleys dominate the scenery.  Passing under the former Seaboard Silver Comet route and then old Central of Georgia line that hosted the City of Miami and Seminole made me wish I could turn back the clock and ride those streamliners through this area.  Fortunately I did often ride the Illinois Central's City of Miami in Florida during
the 1960s and early '70s.

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The view from the rear of the Crescent passing through a cut east of Birmingham
Exiting Cooks Springs Tunnel east of Leeds, AL

    An hour into our trip the Crescent crossed the Coosa River whose waters were filled with pleasure boats of all types.  Soon the massive Anniston Army Depot came into view on the north side of the tracks and many army tanks were spotted atop flatcars prepared for shipment to their next assignment.  An hour later our train crossed into Georgia as we headed to dinner in the dining car.  The diner crew on this run was very disorganized and our dinner entree finally arrived an hour after we were seated.  Salad and rolls came later with our beverages arriving well into dinner only after we practically tackled the waiter.  Following dinner we enjoyed the view of the Atlanta skyline at sunset then watched its northern suburbs pass at twilight.  We turned in at Greenville, SC and awoke at 7:15am in Charlottesville, VA.

Crossing the Coosa River
Sleeper Palisades View on the rear of the northbound Crescent in Atlanta

A restored Southern Railway caboose at Manassas, VA

    Breakfast service lived down to the prior night's service but fortunately the food was again very good.  The lovely Virginia countryside set the stage for a nice day and when train 20 arrived in Washington 26 minutes early at 9:44am we were ready to do some sightseeing.  A rental car was secured from the Hertz desk in Union Station and shortly we were off to visit the Air and Space Museum Annex adjacent to Dulles Airport.  This facility houses just about every type of civilian aircraft imaginable from the Pan American Clipper to the Boeing 707 jetliner to the Air France Concorde.  In the military arena the facility showcases the Enola Gay bomber, a stealth bomber, a Russian MIG, and a variety of other craft.  Space Shuttle Enterprise, capsules from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, and a host of unmanned spacecraft occupy the space wing of the museum.  An observation tower allows visitors an eagle's eye view of the endless parade of planes arriving and departing from Dulles.

An Air France supersonic Concorde and an original Boeing 707 at the Air & Space Annex at Dulles Airport
A Pan American clipper

Space shuttle Enterprise

    Back at Union Station we cooled our heels in the posh Club Acela until boarding time for the westbound Capitol Limited.  Superliner sleeper 32097 New Hampshire would be our home overnight and we occupied Bedroom F, the family bedroom on the lower level.  The name New Hampshire had been removed from the exterior during the car's latest overhaul, a practice that is disappointing as car names give the sleepers personality much as ships are named.  Additionally, the presence of car names makes it easier for passengers to identify their car when passing through the train.  Perhaps for this reason, the car name had been left on the interior car doors.  Also curious was the designation of our room as Bedroom F as most Superliner cars show this car as Bedroom 15.  Bedroom F (for Family) was the original designation when Superliners were new and it was nice seeing this in place again.
The author and family board the Capitol Limited at Washington Union Station

    Our car attendant Ben was interested in making his passengers enjoy the journey and he and another attendant announced scenic highlights along the way.  As we departed the nation's capitol, the Washington Metro's Red Line paralleled our route through Silver Spring and Rockville.  Later in our trip we learned of a horrible Metro accident along this stretch that took several lives.  

    The classic Point of Rocks, Maryland station came into view shortly and minutes later train 29 passed through a tunnel leading us into Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  This Civil War town has been designated a National Historic Park and the view of the town, mountains, and Potomac River is impressive.  A half hour later we headed to dinner in the dining car as the Capitol Limited paused at Martinsburg.  There we viewed the oldest active train station in America and the restored roundhouse across the tracks.  Our dinners were excellent and service was efficient and friendly.   My flatiron beef entree resembled a tender pot roast while Christine and John enjoyed crab cakes.  The Cross Country Cafe diner-lounge car was attractive inside and seating was comfortable though the placement of some tables facing the aisle was unusual.

The unique Point of Rocks, MD station
Dinner in the Cross Country Cafe on the Capitol Limited

The restored roundhouse at Martinsburg, WV

    The vistas of the West Virginia countryside evoked memories of John Denver's tune Country Roads as our train passed through mountainous terrain while following the Potomac River.  We crossed back into Maryland and stopped at Cumberland where there was ample time to stretch our legs and photograph the train before resuming westbound.  Shortly we entered Pennsylvania, followed scenic rivers through the mountains, and made the trek up Sand Patch grade.  Freight traffic was heavy but the Capitol Limited was expedited without delay.  Sleep came easily as our sleeper was pleasantly cold and we missed Pittsburgh, awaking only for a meet with the eastbound Capitol a at 2:23am and arrival in Cleveland 12 minutes later.  Our alarm clock awoke us at 7:45am at South Bend, Indiana after a great night's slumber.

The Capitol Limited pauses at Cumberland, MD
Looking west at Cumberland

A well designed postal service sign beside the Cumberland station

    We sat at one of the inward facing tables for breakfast but didn't mind as the experience was new and the scenery did not demand full attention.  Back in our room, we marveled at the old steel and coke mills lining the railroad near Hammond then watched the skyline of Chicago begin to dominate the view as we drew ever closer to the Windy City.  Arrival at Union Station came at 8:33am, 7 minutes early and, since the train pulled in, the walk from our sleeper into the station was very short.

    Our layover of just under six hours passed quickly as we checked our carry-on luggage at the Metropolitan Lounge then met our friend LouAnn who traveled to the city from suburban Northbrook on a commuter train.  A pleasant stroll across the Chicago River followed by a long lunch at an Au Bon Pain restaurant a couple of blocks past Sears Tower consumed much of our layover as we enjoyed our first visit with our friend in the past few years.

    The Empire Builder departed a few minutes late at 2:22pm but this would be made up quickly.  Sleeper 32009 George M. Pullman was an old friend as we rode it on a three day journey from New Orleans to Miami on the media inaugural of the Sunset Limited extension east of the Crescent City.  We raced through Northbrook minutes after LouAnn's Metra train had dropped her off then continued on through Deerfield to Milwaukee.

The Chicago River seen from the Empire Builder soon after departing Union Station
Private varnish parked at the Milwaukee station

    Dinner was especially nice as the Empire Builder has an upgraded menu and other amenities that make it a step above many of its sister trains.  A delicious steak dinner was enjoyed as train 7 stopped at Portage and Wisconsin Dells and a tasty slice of peanut butter pie left us with a smile.  Our table companion, Pete, was a retired Army man from Washington State whose annual trip to the Carolinas and back home is made by rail.  

    The windows of Family Bedroom 15 (note the numerical designation) provided evening views of White Bluff State Park where families tossed footballs beside a lake, little league baseball games in small towns, and evening walkers strolling along the streets of LaCrosse.  At a quarter past seven the Empire Builder crossed the mighty Mississippi River and entered Minnesota for a spectacular sunset run along the river for over an hour.

Wisconsin Dells station
The Wisconsin River at Wisconsin Dells
Sunset on the Mississippi River seen from our bedroom
The beautiful sunset lingered for many miles along the Mississippi

    The approach to the Midway Station in St. Paul over the Minnesota Commercial Railroad was extremely slow yet we arrived 10 minutes early.  The 53 minute stop allowed time to walk the well lighted platform to watch the local coach being switched out and inspect the train station.  A first class waiting area inside reminded me of the station in Miami where sleeper passengers have a private albeit limited-amenity place to wait.  A house track across the platform housed a few private cars including a Milwaukee Road super dome and Milwaukee skytop observation car Cedar Rapids.

Midway Station, St. Paul, MN during a late night servicing stop
A Minnesota Commercial Railroad engine switches out the Empire Builder's local coach
Restored Milwaukee Road Super Dome at Midway Station
Art deco styling on the rear of Skytop car Cedar Rapids

    Overnight on the Empire Builder was smooth and we slept soundly for over 7 hours before awaking in Devils Lake, North Dakota at 7:35am.  After breakfast there was time to walk the platform during a 20 minute stop in Minot where cool temperatures were a welcomed change to the 100 degree heat at home a few days earlier.  The morning scenes were dominated by grasslands waving in the wind, grain silos, and small lakes with whitecaps whipped by a northerly wind.

Westbound Empire Builder at Minot, ND
Grain silos in northern North Dakota

    During lunch we passed through massive Fort Peck Indian Reservation while enjoying conversation with a pair of 80 year old ladies who had decided it was time to see the west.  Our waiter Gerard added a touch of humor to all of our meals as he pleasantly tended to all of our dining needs.  Meanwhile, John was enjoying some down time in our bedroom giving Christine and me time to socialize with our tablemates at lunch.  John's lunch was delivered by us while the train breezed toward Wolf Point.

    The reason for Montana's nickname Big Sky Country was evident as blue skies dotted with an endless number of small white clouds stretched as far as the eye could see.  The 30 minute stop in Havre was perfect for walking the platform and photographing the preserved Great Northern steam engine and a nifty statue recognizing US-Canadian friendship that graced a small park beside the train station. 

Mounds in eastern Montana under the state's big sky
Preserved Great Northern steam locomotive at Havre, MT
US-Canadian friendship statue beside the Havre station
Sleeper George M. Pullman at Havre

Westbound Empire Builder at Havre

    We sat with Pete again for dinner and learned that he and a pair of friends plan a road trip to visit every state including military battlefields next spring.  Their plan reminded me of the cross country journey of the characters in Field of Dreams.  While we dined, several antelope could be seen in the plains east of Shelby.  Soon the snow capped Rocky Mountains loomed ahead and by 7:20pm the mountains were close by as the Empire Builder stopped at East Glacier where the temperature was a brisk 56.  Large numbers of passengers detrained at East Glacier where they would spend the night before visiting Glacier National Park on subsequent days.  For those of us aboard the train, the southern perimeter of the park would yield changing vistas of the snowy mountains, the green tinted Flathead River, U-shaped valleys, and the many snow sheds that protect the railway from potential avalanches.  The stark contrast in elevation between the railway's crossing of Marias Pass and the high elevation of Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier Park is amazing.  On a visit to Glacier Park in 1999 we drove that breathtaking road which was probably the most challenging highway we have ever traversed.

Ice laden clouds east of the Rocky Mountains
East Glacier station
The Empire Builder at East Glacier
Glacier National Park

Marker at Marias Pass
Scene from the Empire Builder at Glacier Park's southern boundary
Evening passage along the border of Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

A mountain stream empties into the Flathead River
Sunset near Belton, MT

    Another opportunity to stretch our legs came during a 40 minute stop in Whitefish to service the train and add a private car to the rear.  The chilly temperature was fitting for the Swiss chalet style Whitefish station.  Inside the station a Hertz rental car agent was on duty even at 9:45pm.  As we prepared for bed, the Empire Builder passed through seven mile long Flathead Tunnel. 

A restored touring vehicle at Whitefish
The swiss chalet style of the depot at Whitefish
Our excellent dining car steward Dustin
Statue honoring Rocky, the Great Northern's mascot

    Sleep was briefly interrupted by switching at Spokane as the private car had to be set out on a house track to allow the Portland section of our train to be set out on the main through track.  This necessitated another backup move for our Seattle section to reattach the private car before departing Spokane at 3:05am.  The well maintained BNSF line was conducive to sound sleep until Wenatchee, Washington where it was time to get ready for breakfast.  We headed to the dining car at 6:30am and enjoyed a nice continental breakfast while passing fertile valleys where apples, peaches, and other fruits are grown.  We shared our table with Hugo, a retired 30 year Army veteran who was making his first long distance train trip and enjoying it.  Meanwhile, US Highway 2, our companion for much of the journey, continued to parallel the railway just outside our window.
   By 7:30 we were ensconced in Cascade Tunnel which carries the rail line through the Stevens Pass area.  This passage through darkness consumed 16 minutes and deposited us in a lushly forested region of the Cascades along the Wenatchee River.  We officially reached the west coast at our 9:25am stop in Everett as the rail line turned south and followed the shore of Puget Sound for most of the run to Seattle.  Our four day journey ended as the Empire Builder arrived at Seattle's King Street Station at 10:26am, just 6 minutes late.

The westbound Empire Builder crosses a trestle in the Cascades
The view of the stream from the trestle
Puget Sound seen from the Empire Builder near Edmonds, WA
A sailboat heads towards the locks in the canal leading from Lake Union in northern Seattle

Amtrak's King Street Station in Seattle

Union Station, former Seattle home of Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road passenger trains

Touring The Pacific Northwest

    An Avis rental car agent picked us up promptly at the train station and soon we were on our way in a fully equipped Town and Country minivan.  The Avis rental office on 5th Avenue provides complimentary pickup service at the rail and cruise terminals which is very convenient.

    We headed south on I-5 and noticed a new light rail line under construction south of Seattle's city limits.  At Olympia, we turned southwest, heading toward the coast.  A couple of hours later we reached the Columbia River near Seaview, WA.  The 4.2 mile long US 101 Astoria Bridge over the Columbia, opened in 1966, was spectacular and at the midpoint land disappeared from sight as this was a misty day.  The bridge remains the longest continuous through truss bridge in use today.  Over 2,000 ships pass beneath the Astoria Bridge annually en route to ports such as Vancouver, WA; Kelso, and Portland.  At the south end of the bridge we were deposited into Astoria, Oregon where we would spend the night.

US 101 Astoria Bridge seen from the Washington side

    The Holiday Inn Express in Astoria was one of the most pleasant surprises of our entire trip.  Brochures and the hotel's online website showed the hotel located beside the Columbia River at the foot of the massive US 101 bridge.  We were pleased when we found the location to be even better than pictured as often advertisements take liberties with hotel locations.  Our oversized room on the 4th floor had a commanding view of the river which yielded views of a half dozen oceangoing ships passing below the bridge during the afternoon and evening.  The view was so compelling that I skipped a planned swim in the hotel's inviting indoor pool.

An oceangoing freighter passes beneath the Astoria Bridge as seen from our room at the Holiday Inn Express in Astoria

    A former Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway branch line linking Portland with Astoria and Seaside, OR passed between the hotel and the river.  The city of Astoria today operates a vintage trolley along 3 1/2 miles of this route along the riverfront which a few years ago hosted the Lewis and Clark Explorer tourist train.  Number 300 was built in 1914 by American Car Company in St. Louis and operated in San Antonio until 1933.  It then sat on the grounds of the San Antonio Art Museum until 1948 with little maintenance.  After a few years as a residence, number 300 was restored to trolley status in the mid-1990s at the Willamette Shore Trolley line between Portland and Lake Oswego.  Today 45 volunteers work on the trolley operation along with 3 paid staff members to offer daily service between Memorial Day and Labor Day with less frequent service at other times.

    The trolley stops directly behind the Holiday Inn Express and we climbed aboard, each paid the one dollar fare, and rode to the western end of the trolley route, a quarter mile west of the hotel.  The trolley then reversed directions and headed back east, traveling below the US 101 Astoria Bridge, past the Holiday Inn Express, and passing numerous local sights such as the cannery, the US Coast Guard station, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, various shops and restaurants, and an elementary school where the movie Kindergarten Cop starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was filmed.  Along the way we also saw a building on stilts in the river that was used in the filming of the movie Free Willy and caught a glimpse of the old SP&S railway station that served Astoria.  Numerous stops are made at these sights as well as at a couple of other hotels.  The husband and wife team of Bob and Aletha Westerberg alternated roles as trolley driver and tour guide.  Our hour long ride was definitely a highlight of the day and provided reason enough to visit this charming community. 

Astoria Trolley # 300 passes behind the Holiday Inn Express
The Astoria Trolley crosses a bridge adjacent to the Holiday Inn Express along the Columbia River's south shore
Bob Westerberg, trolley driver/tour guide aboard the Astoria Trolley
A view from the Astoria Trolley during its 3 1/2 mile run along the shore of the Columbia River

One of many ships seen from the trolley

    The next morning we made a short drive to the Lewis and Clark Historical Park across Youngs Bay from Astoria.  There we explored a replica of Ft. Clatsop, a log fort built in 1805 by the Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  Costumed interpreters depicted life in the fort and told tales of life in this frontier territory.  The wooded grounds surrounding the fort were navigated via pleasant hiking trails which meandered past lush forests and past a spring.

Fort Clatsop, winter headquarters for Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery just south of Astoria, Oregon

A musket demonstration at Fort Clatsop

    From there we headed south on Highway 101 to explore the beautiful Oregon coast.  At Cannon Beach we viewed Haystack Rock, a huge rock formation rising out of the wave-whipped Pacific Ocean.  The town of Cannon Beach was charming with flower boxes adorning the quaint homes and motels throughout the village. At Garibaldi we stumbled upon a pair of rail diesel cars lettered for the Port of Tillamook Railway and a few blocks to the south found the Oregon Coast Scenic Railway's fleet, an F unit in Great Northern colors, a steam engine, numerous open air excursion cars, and a caboose.  The OCSR operates to Rockaway Beach over a former Southern Pacific branch line that follows the edge of Tillamook Bay.  Near Tillamook we diverged onto the Three Capes Loop for a scenic drive to Cape Meares State Park where a short walk led to 38 foot tall Cape Meares Lighthouse perched atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific.  We continued our trek along the coast to Depoe Bay where hefty waves rolled upon the rocky shore and created a fine spray as they reached a blow hole pierced into the rocks.  A few miles south we gave in to the late hour and turned eastward at Newport to allow us to make our overnight stop at Roseburg by dark.  There we tied up for the night at the Holiday Inn Express located on the North Umqua River.

Haystack Rock stands in the turbulent Pacific Ocean at Cannon Beach, Oregon
The Pacific south of Cannon Beach
A rail diesel car parked at Garibaldi
A restored F unit in Great Northern colors at Garibaldi

A steam engine at the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad facility in Garibaldi
An Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad caboose
Cape Meares Lighthouse

The Pacific Ocean churns against the cliffs at Cape Meares.

The Pacific seen from a cliff adjacent to Cape Meares Lighthouse
Crashing waves at Depoe Bay

An evening view of the North Umqua River at Roseburg, OR


   An early start the following morning was rewarded with a beautiful drive east along the river as we made our way toward Crater Lake National Park.  Along the way we stopped at a couple of waterfalls with Clearwater Falls our favorite.  State Road 138 offered a gradual uphill trip which included beautiful views of sparkling Diamond Lake.  Our first reaction upon spotting Crater Lake was stunned silence as we reverently looked at one of God's most beautiful creations.  In the crater of a once violent volcano, a pristine azure hued lake had formed, surrounded by a snow covered rim.  Our visit was rewarded with a cloudless day and the 1,548 foot deep lake waters were perfectly calm thus reflecting the rim and other features in a mirror image.  It was hard to fathom that we were at an elevation over 7,000 feet as the roadway had made such a gentle climb.  Wildlife was in abundance here with chipmunks, squirrels, and a variety of birds clearly visible.  Departing the park a wolf ran across the highway in front of us.

Clearwater Falls between Roseburg and Crater Lake

Diamond Lake
Jagged Mt. Thielsen
Crater Lake's placid waters defy description
Wizard Island is the volcanic cone protruding above Crater Lake
A variety of views of Crater Lake are available from the Rim Drive
The southern side of Wizard Island
Snow still covers higher elevation land near Crater Lake
Magnificent Crater Lake

Crater Lake invites photographic imagination
Chipmunks are in abundance at Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake is an excellent bird watching area

    The drive from Crater Lake National Park to Eugene took us through Chemult, a tiny town that is served by Amtrak's Coast Starlight then northwest on a scenic route past beautiful Odell Lake.  The Coast Starlight route appeared out of a heavily forested area and passed over State Road 58.  Awhile later the railway paralleled the highway along the Willamette River as we continued our drive toward Eugene.  After a driving tour of the University of Oregon campus we made a beeline for Portland, our overnight destination. 

The Coast Starlight route seen from the highway between Chemult and Eugene

    Our hotel this night was the Courtyard by Marriott, North Harbour, located north of the city not far from the airport and the Columbia River.  This hotel is situated in a quiet area and offers nice views of a marina and a canal that connects to the Columbia.  Secure parking below the hotel made it convenient to move luggage from our van into the hotel and we enjoyed our corner suite which included two televisions and a pullout sofa bed in the living room and bedroom.  The hotel offers courtesy shuttle service to a nearby light rail station and our intention was to ride the light rail train downtown to attend the Portland Beavers AAA baseball game that evening.  However, our late arrival after a busy day of driving and sightseeing nixed that plan and we elected to rest in our lovely suite after picking up a delicious dinner at BJ's Restaurant.

A brightly colored MAX light rail train seen in Portland's northern suburbs
Courtyard Marriott, North Harbour, Portland, OR

Boat marinas and a waterway behind the Courtyard by Marriott, North Harbour, Portland

    Morning found us on the road again as we drove back into Washington and headed for Mt. St. Helens.  The drive east toward the mountain was scenic with changing views of small towns, deep forests, and eventually the starkness of a volcano ravaged land where bare logs blanketed the ground.  Stops at two excellent visitors centers provided information about Mt. St. Helens; the second of these had a wonderful restaurant, the Fire Mountain Grill, where we greatly enjoyed regional specialty sandwiches.  Back in Seattle we proceeded to Kirkland, a nice community across Lake Washington from the city, for a restful night at the Courtyard by Marriott.  This hotel features a unique rounded front section located adjacent to a street corner.  The attractively designed hotel is close to several popular restaurants and has quiet, comfortable rooms overlooking the hotel courtyard and swimming pool.  We found it helpful to be able to check some of the luggage we only needed during our train travels while we were on an Alaska cruise for a week.  We would retrieve these bags seven days later.

A deer wanders up to our minivan during the drive to Mt. St. Helens
Mt. St. Helens
The explosive force of the volcanic eruption carved out one side of the mountain
Family portrait at Mt. St. Helens

Forests knocked down by the eruption are slowly regenerating
The uniquely shaped Courtyard by Marriott in Kirkland, WA