1:45 pm – Great Hall, Chicago Union
Back in the day, the Pennsy and the New York Central offered through Pullman service from coast to coast. But that was then – the golden era of rail travel. Today, pretty much any rail journey from one coast of the United States to the other, requires a change of train at Chicago’s Union Station. The impressive Beaux-Arts building dates from 1925, and although it has been expanded considerably since, one would be remiss not paying a visit to its magnificent Great Hall. Flanked by two grand staircases – one of which was the setting for the most memorable scene in The Untouchables – the sweeping marble-floored atrium, topped off by a vaulted skylight, continues to provide a befitting gateway to any transcontinental journey.
The station still operates an exclusive lounge for sleeper class passengers, and it is here that the four of us convene, from different corners of the country, to embark on a 2,206-mile (3,550-km) journey to Seattle, aboard the Empire Builder.
4:10 pm – Smoke Stop, Milwaukee
No sooner have we cleared the suburbs of Chicago, Dorothy, our carriage attendant, shows up with a handful of Mimosas, Amtrak’s way of saying, “welcome aboard”! She generously leaves behind additional bottles of the sparkling stuff, just in case we’re in the mood for late afternoon bubbly. We settle into our roomettes, imbibe some of the good stuff, and then make our way through a handful of “Superliners”, to the Sightseer Lounge.
An assortment of passengers occupy the view-focused seats here – seasoned travelers, young families, elderly couples, and plenty of Amish folk. By the time it gets to Seattle, the Empire Builder would have traversed no less than 7 states – 8 if you include the portion that goes to Oregon – and 3 time zones! For many, like the Amish, the train is the only means to get to their destination. For the rest of us on board – making the trip from end to end – the journey is very much the destination!
Of the 40 stops our train will make on its 46-hour journey west, through passengers may only alight at 7. The longer halts offer a chance to stretch one’s legs, and for those hankering nicotine, let some smoke out! Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, is our first such “smoke stop” for the day.
7:15 pm – Dinner along the Mississippi
Milwaukee’s storied industrial past is more than evident in the vicinity of the station, and soon after our departure from there, we pass the Miller Brewery. In a city once known for being the brew capital of the country – thanks in no small measure to a large number of German immigrants who settled there – this is the last major brewery still operating!
Seating for the dining car begins as early as 5:45 pm, and typically, last orders are taken no later than 8:30. All meals are included in the price of a sleeper class ticket, and given that a total of 5 meals are served during the course of a journey, it is exceptional value indeed! The food, all of it prepared on board, is fairly palatable too – some meals more memorable than others – and at any rate, a whole lot better than the stuff they dole out on airlines.
Closer to 7 pm, our “party of four” is announced over the PA system, and we duly proceed towards the dining car. Charred Salmon, seasoned brown rice and mixed greens is my selection from the options available, and a Sierra Nevada (Amtrak needs to work on their “craft beer” options!) to chase it all down. We depart the town of La Crosse, just as dinner arrives, and moments later cross over the Mississippi River into the State of Minnesota. The last time I saw the mighty Mississippi was all the way south in Louisiana! This evening, as we dig in, the Empire Builder will run along its course till dusk falls…
10:20 pm – Fireworks, outside the Twin Cities
The distant lights of the Twin Cities, St.Paul – Minneapolis, are visible for quite some time before the station is reached. We are now running to the north of the Mississippi, having crossed it a little while ago. On our left runs a promenade, and several cars can be seen parked along it, with revelers out and about. Just when it appears that we’ve probably missed all the action, our train comes to a premature halt.
The fireworks go off almost on cue, and for the next five minutes we are treated to a captivating display of light and sound. So close are we to them that the smell of burning sulfur percolates through! The PA system comes to life once again and the train conductor announces that every year, the Twin Cities time their 4th of July celebration with the arrival of the westbound Empire Builder!
Midway station serves the Twin Cities, and is located in the Saint Paul side of town (the river splits the two). The Empire Builder is the only train that calls on it, and the train itself is named after a Saint Paul native, James J.Hill, who was responsible for building most of the railroads in the area – connecting them with the rest of the US and Canada – and earning him the nickname “The Empire Builder”.
7:30 am – Breakfast on the Prairie
At some point, in the middle of the night, the Empire Builder crosses into North Dakota, and stops briefly at Fargo – a station I am determined to alight at, if only for a few seconds. Even though the namesake film by the Coen Brothers was never actually shot there, it had since sparked my intrigue in the name! Instead, we all sleep through it, and awake just as the train pulls out of Devils Lake, a desolate town named after the largest natural water body in the state.
Breakfast is on a first-come, first-served basis, and our group manages to score another good table in the dining car, where our first meal of the day is accompanied by brilliant morning light. The Great Plains are ours to savour this morning, as the Empire Builder charts a course through North Dakota.
Passing through the Devils Lake region, we are struck by the amount of farmland that lies inundated. The lake, which lacks a natural outlet, is known for wide variations in its levels, which invariably causes flooding in the surrounding, low-lying Prairies. Two summers ago, the Empire Builder’s route was blocked by this very flooding!
11 am – Canola on the Dakota, and plenty of oil!
Rugby, some 880-miles west of our origin, is considered to be the geographic centre of North America, but having lost over an hour since she left Chicago, the Empire Builder barely pauses there for a minute! At Minot, some 60-miles further, it makes a much longer stop, and we get a chance to step out and check off North Dakota from a list of states visited!
West of Minot, we cross the Gassman Coulee on a high level steel trestle, and this effectively marks a dramatic shift in the landform, the flatter Prairies giving way to more rolling countryside. Canola, one of the dominant crops in this part of North Dakota, lends a striking hue to the landscape, and the meadows it adorns are themselves lush, and naturally manicured to golf course-like perfection!
At Williston, we wind our watches back, as we cross over to Mountain Time. Williston lies in the centre of the Bakken formation, which, by some estimates, has higher reserves of oil than Alaska, and has contributed in making North Dakota the second largest producer of oil in the US.
Passing through the area, we get to see, first hand, an oil boom in the making – towns, made up mostly of RV’s and trailer homes, that have cropped up overnight; freshly laid rail sidings; tanker trains hogging up the yards; under-construction refineries, and all too often, oil wells in the middle of nowhere…
4 pm – Big Sky Country
Lunch in the dining car is followed by an invitation to another freebie, wine and cheese tasting. On offer are four varieties of cheese, all sourced from Wisconsin (the leading producer of dairy in the US), and an equal number of wines from Washington – both States served by the train. I manage to win a bottle in the trivia quiz that follows, but sadly, it isn’t the wine of our liking!
Decent-sized hills and buttes mark the westernmost reaches of North Dakota, offering a tantalizing glimpse of what lies ahead in Montana. The little towns of Wolf Point, Glasgow and Malta are dispatched in quick succession, but Montana offers us no more than expansive tracts of farmland. The Great Plains are back, and for another 150-odd miles, here to stay! We are now riding through the heart of “Big Sky Country”, a nickname the State has earned in recent times, attributed more to its eastern half, where an uninterrupted skyline often overshadows the landscape.
Neatly stacked bails of hay, and humongous sprinkler systems, break the monotony from time to time, with alternating patches of brown and green – the telltale signs of rotation farming – providing a splash of colour in between. Closer to Shelby, large windmill farms loom on the horizon, backed by threatening storm clouds, the weather change signaling a closer proximity to higher elevations.
7:30 pm – Glacier National Park
West of Cutbank, two National Park Rangers join us in the Sightseer Lounge, handing out maps and brochures to those interested. They will accompany us till Seattle, providing insightful information about sights along the way, and answering any questions we might have. The Two Medicine Trestle, named after a river that originates in the Rocky Mountains, is crossed shortly after 7 pm, and marks our entry into Glacier National Park.
Three stations serve the massive park, and the Empire Builder takes two leisurely hours to traverse its 60-mile route through it, all the while offering a ringside view of magnificent snow-capped mountains and dense conifer forests. Being so far west, and north (at one point just 20-miles from Canada!), we have plenty of daylight left, and it will remain so till 10 pm!
Its tough deciding which side to sit on, so we dart back and forth between windows. It begins to rain. The aqua-coloured waters of a meandering river emerge on our right. We commit to that side. The train dives into a tunnel. Dinner is served. When we emerge, its coming down a lot harder. I try and focus for a minute on my Amtrak Signature Steak, but the colours of a constantly evolving sky leave me spellbound. Dinner can wait. At this point, anything can wait…
6:45 am – Through the Cascades
At about 2 in the morning Pacific Time we pull into Spokane WA, where the train is partitioned, and we lose two of our traveling companions to its Portland half. Anticipating the “all aboard” call, Dorothy ushers us back in after we have bid goodbye to them, and we tuck in for a few more hours of sleep.
The first rays of light catch my eye – it is a little past 6 in the morning. Outside lies the Wenatchee Valley in the State of Washington. We have just pulled out of Leavenworth, a town on the eastern edge of the North Cascades. Although a lot drier than the central and western parts of the mountain range, the area is no less beautiful. We run parallel to the Wenatchee River for a while, one that is hemmed in by apple orchards and vineyards, with the sandstone spires of Peshastin Pinnacles State Park providing a fitting backdrop.
The dining car is a lot less busy this morning, as we settle down for breakfast. Moments after placing our orders, the Empire Builder gets swallowed by the Cascade Tunnel. At 7.8-miles in length, it is the longest in the US, and takes the better part of ten minutes to cross!
West of Stevens Pass (under which the tunnel is bored), the North Cascades present a very different face – tall, thick forests full of Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, revealing little by way of vistas. Looking back, we can see the last few carriages of our train negotiating a tall curved trestle. Below us flows a picturesque alpine creek, one of many that channel off the larger Snohomish River.
10:15 am – An early arrival at Kings Street Station, Seattle
Probably best known for its humongous Boeing assembly plant, the city of Everett is considered to be the northernmost suburb of the Seattle metropolitan area. The 30-mile run south to Seattle hugs the coastline for most part, offering stunning views of Puget Sound and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains beyond – a route I’ve done previously, but could never possibly tire off.
For a train that’s not known to be the most punctual, our arrival at Kings Street Station is 10-minutes early – no small feat that! A quick check in with our friends on the Portland leg reveals similar results. We are truly impressed!
It is a brilliant day in Seattle – the weather god’s always seem to favour me in this town – as I make my way over to Pike Place Market. I walk down to the Elliott Bay waterfront to soak up some sun – truth be told, we haven’t had a lot of it on our mini platform excursions – and then head over to an old haunt, Matt’s in the Market. I proceed to order my staple, a grilled tuna sandwich, and some “real” craft beer!
In a matter of hours, the four of us will board flights to four different destinations, none of those taking any longer than it took the Empire Builder to cross Wisconsin! You certainly save a lot of time when you choose to fly, but you gain almost nothing 😉
A full set of pics from the journey can be seen here.