USA ’22 #9: The Empire Builder [Chicago to Seattle]

USA ’22 #9: The Empire Builder [Chicago to New Orleans]

Monday 9th to Wednesday 11th May 2022

The Amtrak service between Chicago and the Pacific northwest coast is called the Empire Builder which seemed a strange choice of name to us having spent several days in Boston learning about the American struggle to escape the shackles and restrictions of the British Empire.

Empire Builder was however James J. Hill’s nickname. This gentleman acquired several failing railroads and reorganised them into The Great Northern Railway described as the ‘only successful attempt at a privately funded transcontinental railroad’. The first ever Empire Builder was inaugurated on June 10, 1929 and named after James J. Hill – the company’s founder.

We had again booked a roomette. Cody our charming sleeper car attendant greeted us as we boarded.

This time, however, there was no personal toilet in the roomette so it was marginally narrower with a little less space for changing and undressing once the beds were made up.

One of the dining car attendants went through the train to confirm what time people wanted to have their evening meal. We had a momentary trans-Atlantic mis-communication when Robert asked for the ‘half seven’ sitting. An international incident was avoided when we realised we needed to say seven thirty in future to be understood.

On departure, the train includes an observation car above the café but the Empire Builder splits at Spokane and part of the train continues on to Seattle with the dining car and the other section goes to Portland with the café car so that all the passengers continue to have access to refreshments.

Consequently, we would not be able to enjoy the views from the observation car on the final morning and realised we needed to make the most of it while we could so, having booked our dinner sitting, we went to find ourselves some seats with a view.

At the start of the journey the train track runs alongside the Quabaog River and through small towns.

Two volunteers boarded the train to provide a train enthusiasts’ and geological commentary for those passengers in the observation car.

We were told that we would be crossing the Continental Divide, which runs from the Bering Strait in the north to the Straits of Magellan and separates the watersheds and rivers that flow into the Pacific from those which flow into the Atlantic.

We sat next to a gentleman who was not particularly enjoying the volunteers’ commentary but who like Matilda, enjoyed catching sight of deer on the edge of the woods and they both pointed like excited children then struck up a conversation. He lived in La Crosse and explained that it was the birthplace of the game of the same name which was started by the Algonquin tribe of Native Americans. However, later on the journey when Robert was checking our progress on his phone he saw another town named La Crosse and Matilda subsequently discovered that there are eight places in America with the same name. No doubt the residents in each of these towns all make the same claim.

We would pass through Wisconsin Dells, a town on the Wisconsin River in a region of glacier-carved sandstone formations. Our volunteer commentator also explained ‘double spotting’ or ‘double stopping’: when the train is too long for the platforms at some rural stations it has to stop twice or more, to let sleeping car passengers and then coach passengers on and off. 

The food on the Empire Builder is fresher and tastier than on the Lake Shore Limited. We rarely have desserts but as it was included we thought we would indulge in chocolate torte [Robert] and Philadelphia cheesecake [see Dish of the day] although Matilda still has her heart set on cheesecake in both Philadelphia and from Eileen’s in New York.

Although we had travelled hundreds of miles since leaving Chicago, the scenery had not changed significantly during that time.

A storm was brewing while we ate and even the dining car attendants were exclaiming at the sky. We went to the observation car where the lightening and eerie green light seemed to be reflected inside.

The light was truly quite extraordinary, making the vegetation a vibrant green and the atmosphere almost orange although we found that photos and videos taken through glass did not do this justice.

The storm, whilst visually arresting, caused delays and by sunrise we were running one hour behind schedule.

The following morning Matilda woke early, possibly because of the one hour time difference, and went up to the observation deck to secure good seats. She passed Cody on the way and asked which side of the train would have the better views. On balance, he advised sitting on the right.

We were surprised to see a rather large fellow passenger join us about 07:15 and open a can of IPA. This was his chosen beverage throughout the day.

We did not have to book a time for breakfast and having settled into some of the best seats in the observation car we decided to go and breakfast separately so that we could keep our prime position. We went for quite different options from the set menu.

Matilda’s [left] and Robert’s [right] breakfast choices

The train stopped to refuel. At this point engineers were called to assess a wheel-bearing which was running hot.

After some discussion and head-scratching it was decided that the carriage with the fault would be taken out of service. Fortunately there were sufficient empty seats that the passengers in this carriage could easily be accommodated elsewhere on the train, including an extended Amish family who had to move.

This unprecedented manoeuvre involved quite a bit of shunting and since we were in the observation car which was next to the carriage which needed to be taken out of service, we had an excellent view.

As several passengers stood by the door watching, taking photos and filming, a member of staff on the ground spotted us and started to gesticulate with some consternation for everyone to get back and stay a safe distance from the entrance. This seemed unnecessarily cautious but we realised why when a guard came to lock the door which had been left unsecured.

This process added several hours to the delay which meant we would be reaching the most scenic part of the route, through The Rockies, after dark.

We were surprised to see drifts of snow in places where it was lying so deep it had not yet fully thawed.

Lunch aboard the Empire Builder

Sometimes, you need to play a game of patience while you are waiting to get to The Rockies.

We were not due to reach the mountains until after we had eaten but we were gradually making up some of the lost time.

And eventually, the land did start to become more rugged and craggy as the sun was going down. Walking back to our sleeping compartment we passed the Amish families who were now in the same carriage as some very loud brash families and we felt sorry for these quiet unassuming people as they had to try and sleep while a mother shouted and swore at her daughter. The trip would have been educational in more ways than one.

We woke early the next morning to see the mountains snow-topped and bathed in sunshine.

Matilda was amused as Robert’s technology tried hard to keep the reflection of his face in focus while we were going through a tunnel.

On the approach to Seattle, the tracks run alongside the water’s edge.

We had found it slightly disconcerting to pass places with such familiar names: our train took us through or near to Rugby, Glasgow, Malta and Essex.

We arrived at King Street Station in Seattle on time and we were greeted by the sight of a clock tower which is based on the San Marco Campanille in Venice.

At the end of our journey aboard the Empire Builder, we had covered 2,205 miles and travelled right across the country from the east to the west coast.

Video of the day:

Freight trains are long in the USA and, since the freight train companies own the track, they take priority. We can confirm, in the video below, that freight trains are just over three minutes long.

Selfie of the day:

Dish of the day:

Route Map:

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