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Welcome to Travelling in the Northwest U.S. Article!
This article is a fascinating trip report of Hannu Peltola from his recent trip in the Northwest U.S. in 2011. We will work on the article more during the coming weeks so to add the still missing part of the story.

Created for by Hannu Peltola and John McKey. Pictures by Hannu Peltola and Gerry Putz.

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Metra MP36PHI-3C number 419, downtown Chicago, U.S.A.
The trains traffic in the U.S. differs in many ways from the European. The railroad companies are private and often compete against each other and other forms of transportation fiercely. In the years past the passenger transportation was a special pride to many of the operators: the companies competed who had the most luxurious fleet of coaches and the passenger transportation also served as an advertisement for the freight side.

Now this time is history. The last 40 years the passenger traffic has been a dedicated operation of Amtrak. The passenger traffic however is still grand and comfortable. This article takes a look at that on the way from Chicago, IL. to Seattle, WA. on the Amtrak Empire Builder.

1. Welcome aboard the Empire Builder!
2.  The Great Northern Railway...
3.  The Empire Builder...
Metra MP36PHI number 149 with dd stock in Chicago,I.L., U.S.A.


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  1 - History of the Railroads in the U.S.

Shay at Cass West Virginia, U.S.A.

The first railroad connection in the New World was a Baltimore & Ohio railway, opened in 1827. In Europe the traffic begun already in the 1810s and in some remote countries like Finland not before 1862. In U.S. the development differed from Europe in several respects:

  • Railroads were private operations in the U.S. and there was no public sector railway created initially.
  • From the beginning the competition of the customers was fierce, as of the best routes for the railroads.
  • Railways quickly rose to the most important employer and a very significant industry.

The boom of railway building got in the 19th century such measures, that for instance the early 21st century IT boom seem like a cheap copy of that! The railroads have been key factor in the creation of many American cities and much of the industrialization. For instance the rise of Chicago, Illinois to a million city was based on the cheap transportation offered by railroads and possibility to create greater industrial units.

Railroads also played role in the 19th century end severe depression in 1873 and in the beginning of the 1890s. In both cases the railroads stocks were unrealistically overvalued, the prices rocketed further and investors encouraged all that could to create their own railroad. In the end this lead to bubbles, which bursted creating depressions.

ICE / DME manifest near Chicago, U.S.A.
Northwestern industries
   2 - The Great Northern Railway Story
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  2 - The Great Northern Railway Story

Central Pacific number 1 in Sacramento California railroad museum, U.S.A.

Great Northern railway is an excellent example of the railways birth and the significance to the whole society. The founder James J. Hill started as a young man with a post on the ferry traffic in Minneapolis. Soon he noticed that the river traffic would loose in the competition against the railways, sold his boating company and with a few investors bought a 340 kilometer long St. Paul & Pacific railway in Minnesota. James J. Hill was a natural director and a businessman. Hill's railroad grew quickly and he bought many competing railroads around the Minneapolis.

However, the great dream of James J. Hill was to create a true national level railroad. This dream became true in 1893 when Hill's railroad reached the Pacific ocean north of Seattle. It was time to change the name of the railroad to more describing Great Northern Railway! Hill himself had by then gotten a well suited name "the Empire Builder".

Central Pacific number 1 in Sacramento California railroad museum, U.S.A.
Central Pacific number 1 in Sacramento California railroad museum, U.S.A.

The Great Northern Railways was a company of many exceptions. It was the northernmost of the so called Pacific railroads, these leading from inland to the Pacific ocean. Great Northern was also the only mainline built with private investment money alone. The competitors got substantial support from the states for example in the form of land grants. The Great Northern line was also a relatively late newcomer, the competitor Northern Pacific built their line to Tacoma on the Pacific shores already in 1873.

James hill of GN was very strict about the tracks lining and building. The route from Minneapolis, the starting point, to Seattle, on the Pacific coast, runs across two major mountain ranges the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades. To pick the line Hill set out a survey, who found a route through a pass that earlier only the local Indians knew. This pass enabled cheaper crossing of the mountains than the competitors had and was named Marias pass.

Plate girder bridge of Great Northern, NW USA
BNSF at Cascades tunnel entrance, Northwest, U.S.A.

Even with Marias pass in use the route across the mountains was a challenge. Especially on Cascades Great Northern had to rely initially on serpentine route to navigate through the passes. Hill considered the straightest route possible as a key to the success of the railway and great sums were spent on building large tunnels under the mountains. The newer cascades tunnel kept the world record at the time of opening in 1929, it is a total of 12 kilometers / 8 miles long, and remained a champion for decades! This is the route trains still run today.

BNSF at Cascades tunnel entrance, Northwest, U.S.A.
BNSF at Cascades tunnel entrance, Northwest, U.S.A.
BNSF C44-9W number 729 leading a grain train, Northwest, U.S.A.

James J. Hill had a strong vision that the Great Northern will grow and thrive only if the area around the line is strong and productive. Hill arranged cheap loans for the farmers moving near the track, trained them to new productive methods in agriculture and saw that farming progressed, even by building irrigation systems.

The farmers naturally used Great Northern to transport their products to the markets. The biggest developments of business were done in the middle of Washington state, where a half desert was turned to opportune Apple growing area, numerous farmers arrived and the Washington apples brand still known today was built.

In passenger railroading the most important venture was the creation of the Glacier Park natural park in the Rockies. This was the first natural park in the U.S. and the railway used it for decades in its adds. Naturally, to go to and around Glacier park was arranged by Great Northern railways.

GN caboose on display, NW USA
BNSF bridge over Crooked river gorge, Oregon, U.S.A.

The story of the Great Northern Railway goes on with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe / BNSF Railway formed through a series of mergers. BNSF today is the second largest railroad in U.S. almost equal to its rival Union Pacific Railway. The BNSF today has 51000 kilometers rail network with some 6000 locomotives to serve it.

BNSF ES44DC waiting, rear view, Northwest U.S.A.
   3 - The Empire Builder

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  3 - The Empire Builder


Amtrak P42 with coaching in the Midwest , U.S.A.

Amtrak Empire builder on bridge at Flat head river, West Java, Montana, U.S.A.
   4 - Getting Ready for the Journey
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© Railroad Reference 2004 - 2012   -   Created 2.10.2011 Hannu Peltola, John McKey, Updated 1.2.2012