Empire Builder, Train # 7, Travelogue by Ed Alexander
Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2000
Chicago to Essex, Montana (Izaak Walton Inn); Essex-Whitefish, Montana
1:30pm Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2000 Chicago Union Station
Announcement made to line up to board.
1:50pm "Welcome aboard the westbound "Empire Builder." Train #7 is parked on the 3rd to the last track, with a full view of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We're on track 19. The lady in the next sleeper mentioned that she'd made coach reservations, but they called her to offer discounted accommodations.
2000 Feb. 15 Tuesday 2:10pm (2:10pm scheduled) CST Chicago
Underway. Welcome announcements from Onboard Services Mgr. Meg Collins
2:14pm Emergency stop just north of Blomer Chocolate Company. More introductions come over the speaker system. Rose introduces herself as lounge car attendant and lists her offerings. Next it's our sleeper attendant, Thomas Murray. "Welcome aboard the Empire Builder. We are the 1st passenger car." He continues with dining times, breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at noon. Then he tells us, "From my vantage point I see no visible cause for the emergency stop. But not all causes are visible."
2:37pm The Onboard Chief comes on the intercom to tell us that conductors are walking the train.
2:47pm "Attention, please," begins an unidentified voice, who explains that an air hose on the rear car was too short, so it separated. We needed a replacement, which has now been done. At 2:52pm we are underway.
3:00p Sleeper attendant Thomas Murray comes by to personally introduce himself. I asked about his professional sounding voice, and he tells me he did a radio show in high school in the sixties, and now does commercial voice work in L.A. and Chicago.
3:10pm Pass the Pisa tower in Niles, Illinois
2000 Feb. 15 Tuesday 3:17pm(2:34pm scheduled) CST Glenview, Ill.
Glenview is our 1st scheduled stop, with a fine brick and wood depot with arched doors.
2000 Feb. 15 Tuesday 4:30pm(3:50pm scheduled) CST Milwaukee, WI
Depot directly across from Miller brewery. Seven-minute stop.
5:10pm Early supper seating. I have the 10oz NY strip steak. It is perfectly done, medium-well as ordered.
2000 Feb. 15 Tuesday 11:12pm (10:25pm scheduled) CST Minneapolis, MN
Switching freight cars delays us a half-hour while we move back and forth. Went to sleep while train was in freight yard.
4:00am 45minute delay in switching freight in Moorehead, MN freight yard.
2000 Feb 16 Wednesday 5:00am (3:44am scheduled) CST Fargo, ND.
Arrive Fargo after crossing small Red River. Amtrak has its own station, while the original depot has been converted to the Great Northern Brewing Company. Huge stainless steel brew vats gleam behind the large windows. Our sleeper has been cold since Moorehead. I put on my long underwear. 5 min. stop.
7:00am Shower room towels are all used, I found more in the luggage area. There is no hot water in the shower, only a trickle. Tom Murphy our attendant says he checked it and the line was frozen.
7:30am Breakfast with a typically friendly Australian. Pancakes were nice and fluffy, but bacon strips were tasteless and all they had for syrup was diet, which is terrible! This is the only bad stuff I've ever had on Amtrak.
8:30am Classical music softly wafts through our sleeper, courtesy of our attendant. I've only heard of this once before, on one of Steve Grande's trips to Florida.
2000 Feb. 16 Wednesday 8:42am (7:21am scheduled) CST Rugby, ND
Another ice-covered town with trailer homes by the track. An announcement comes on that they are "working on the lead unit for 10-15 minutes." In 10 minutes we move ahead 2 car lengths, then stop. A minute later, an air hose is heard being disconnected. Resume at 9:30am.
2000 Feb. 16 Wednesday 10:30am (8:36am scheduled) CST Minot, ND
Detrained and walked up a hill to town, but no drugstores or bars were close by. When I got back to the Empire Builder, workers were in our car with a blowtorch and had thawed the shower...in 15 minutes!
2000 Feb 16 Wednesday 10:45am(8:56am scheduled) CST Minot, ND
Depart Minot, and shortly to the south, I see a small lighthouse on a hill behind the Ho-Hum Motel.
2000 Feb. 16 Wednesday 4:28pm (3:33pm scheduled) MST Havre, MT
Arrive Havre after a fifteen-minute stop for refueling.
I wait in the lounge car before supper, and get a classic hobo story from a guy about 55 who'd ridden outside and inside freight cars from Minneapolis to Seattle. He remembers getting off in Minot because of a tip from a couple of Indians who told him about a bakery with cheap day-old doughnuts. To thank them for the info, he shared a can of sardines with them. He says he carried an air mattress along, and the roughest ride was in a gondola car and next roughest in a flatcar. The best ride was in a UPS cushion car. And the preferred drinking container for old hobos was a glass jug.
5:00pm Fascinating international supper with French girl, Aussie mate and local Native-American math teacher from Wolf Point, MT, our first stop in this state. The Australian is a world traveler. Back at lunch, he had drawn me a map of Australia, and noted the best places to go, including a rail line that runs through the interior to Alice Springs. (My tablemates were so fascinating that I did not note what I had to eat.) I did note the name of the dining Car attendant: Jonathan Davis. I noticed an elderly woman ordering him around, asking for tea, lemon, honey, and more. And she asked for a half order of supper. The attendant didn't bat an eye but brought everything right to her. I commented on that to him, and he said, "I just give 'em what they want!" I tipped him $10 because he is a man of extraordinary patience who makes train travel a joy.
8:00pm Going through Glacier Park, the moon on the snow covered mountains is spectacular, and the French girl from supper, who happens to be in my car, invites me into her compartment to look out the window on her side of the train. I remember another travelogue that mentioned how everybody on a train feels safe.
2000 Feb. 16 Wednesday 8:45pm (7:36pm scheduled) MST Essex, MT
The conductor sticks his head out the window and radios to the engineer where to spot my car. I get off and 25 get on. It is just a snow-covered road that leads to the Izaak Walton Inn, about ¼ mile away. Their van is waiting.
I overnight at the Izaak Walton Inn, a former "section hotel" for railroad men who shoveled snow from the mountain pass. Opposite the front desk is the sitting room with fireplace and ram & sheep heads and log furniture. Creaking up the carpeted wooden staircase to room #13, I find a Great Northern Railway goat emblem on the bedspread, which is made of RR overall fabric. The room is brown varnished real-wood paneling, with railspike bedside lamps with a Great Northern goat emblem on the shades. Railspikes make up the base, while a RR tie date-nail is the toggle to turn the switch on. My own corner wood-walled bathroom is bordered on top by glass panels with Great Northern RR etchings. Towel holders, toilet paper roll holders and closet handles are all railspikes. The radiator is under a window overlooking the track, with idling helper engines barely audible. The hot water pipes banged loudly a few times overnight, the price to pay for quaint oldtime heat. The mattress is soft but firm. It's the only mattress I've found that is more comfortable than mine at home. On the bed are 5 (count 'em FIVE) pillows, 2 red & 3 blue. (Great Northern colors.)
2000 Feb. 17 Thursday
Spend the day at Izaak Walton Inn. Breakfast buffet is $7.95 for oatmeal, cubed fruit and muffins. I pass. Instead I stay in my bed and write in my journal, and even sketch the scene out my window. This room is RR heaven. I don't leave it until checkout time.
After stowing my bags in a room off the bar, I head off to Glacier Park, which is just across the main highway. From the Inn, I go toward the BN buildings, take that road right, to the hotel access road. Then it's left onto the access road, and then a right onto the main highway and across the bridge. And there's Glacier! Just inside the park is Walton Ranger Station, from which leads a 7 mile trail. 4.3 miles along that is Scauplock Mountain. The highlight of the trail is a plank suspension bridge with the sign "Limit 1 Hiker." The trail twists around and goes high above a clear, rushing little river. I hiked along until the snowpacked path became lost in the curve of the steep hill, and if I slipped I wouldn't be seen again.
On the way back to the Inn, while walking along the highway, I notice the snowsheds high up the mountainside along the rail line. I count about three of them. But it is too much for even the zoom lens on my little camera to capture.
I was starving when I got back to the Inn and waited until the grandfather clock struck 5 to signal suppertime. I was the first one in "The Dining Car," the name of the Inn's restaurant that is lit with train signal lights. Began with a huckleberry milkshake, followed by flame grilled chicken sauteed in onion and olive oil, and covered with huckleberry sauce. Fennell seed cabbage on the side. Every bite was a symphony of taste. I was sorry when I was full. Soup was chef's wife's French Onion, which I came back for another helping of later.
Between dining I hiked across the tracks to the lighted ski trails, and then relaxed back in the mountain lodge's sitting room, complete with roaring fireplace and a friendly mountain goat head looking at me.
2000 February 17 Thursday 9:50pm (7:26pm scheduled) MST Essex, MT
Westbound Empire Builder arrives to continue my trip. The chef took me in the Inn's van to the train. That's how I know how he prepared last night's meal. The chef enjoys photography, and being at the edge of Glacier Park offers him limitless great shots.
10:27pm Pass Belton, MT lodges.
10:38pm Over a huge span of bridge.
10:40pm S curve in river as we ride a high bank. Ten min. later is Whitefish.
2000 February 17 Thursday 10:48pm (9:03pm scheduled) MST Whitefish, MT
Arrive Whitefish's alpine style depot.
The Whitefish depot is a busy place. Probably 50 people get off here, since there's a big ski event this weekend. Motels are almost full, but there's room at the Downtowner Motel maybe 6 blocks from the station. It is connected to a gym, so exercising and the outdoor hot tub are free. It wasn't in the AAA tourbook, so I looked it over first. The room is a bit worn, but my window affords me a view of the ski mountain. And it is the closest motel to the depot. Not bad for $45.
The reason I came to Whitefish is the brewery in town. It is a marvelous three-story structure with a lot of glass. I saw an ad in the Empire Builder onboard magazine. (One was left behind on the City of New Orleans a few months ago, proving they use the same trainset.) I looked up the brewery online at blackstarbeer.com, which includes webcams. There are no brewery tours, and the building is closed all day, except 3-7p for the Tasting Room. One is allowed 3 sample glasses of beer, and it is a zoo! Of course, I am here during a big ski event.
Just because I came by train doesn't mean I can't get up the mountain. The city runs a free shuttle bus all around town and up to the ski area about every 90 minutes. The motel told me about it. The bus goes up a winding road with cliffside scenery. I relax and watch the occasional skier wipe out, then go to a store advertising Internet connections and check my email, responding with what a great time I'm having on my trip.
After two nights in Whitefish, it's a 7:30am departure for the eastbound Empire Builder tomorrow.