Share the Knowledge

North America: USA

Seeing the Empire from a cushy seat on the Empire Builder

by Jim Holmly

My two grandsons (14 & 16) and I, boarded the Empire Builder in Fargo, ND on a balmy June morning at 3:00 AM; we were wide awake. They, because they’d never been west of their home state of North Dakota, me because I was going to see my daughter and her three children in Federal Way, WA, south of Seattle. My daughter and her kids had the temerity to leave the frozen north for the Pacific Northwest and are “never moving back” I’m told, so I travel.

The train was heading northwest, from Fargo to Minot, ND then from Minot to Williston, ND which is where we pick up the story:

Picking up speed, heading out of Williston and paralleling the Missouri river we saw high, bare, white clay bluffs on the North side of the train. This, in contrast with a broad river valley on the south sporting irrigated farmland in the river bends. Cottonwood trees, native to the area and tall as the small town grain elevators, lined the river banks.
Endless floods, not to mention glacial scouring and runoff created this rugged yet fertile landscape along the North Dakota-Montana border and the boys were quietly taking it all in.

Heading west into Montana, good sized ranches appeared here and there, almost always tucked into the valleys of rolling hills. Often, the ranches were ringed by rows of small trees which were probably planted by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). There were big trees here once, probably Siberian Elm and probably also planted by the SCS in the 1960s; they lived their natural lifespan, died, and were dozed into piles and burned. I saw this cycle firsthand while growing up on the prairies of North Dakota.
Of course, since this is cattle country, there were row upon row of large, 1500 pound, round hay bales looking like bigger versions of the shredded wheat cereal we ate as kids.

Lots of shiny new power lines glistening in the sun, taking wind generated power from the wind farms just being built, and scattering it across the countryside to supply the oil boom. Energy for energy.

Our train, the Empire Builder, was like a little town on wheels; there was power for a phone or a laptop, bathrooms, showers, a dining car where dinner was by reservation, sleeper cars (motel?) a combination lounge and snack car, plus workers to help us sort it all out.
We brought a cooler, as was suggested by an old acquaintance of mine who works for Amtrak, so our dinner hour was by choice, as long as the meal was sandwiches, chips and diet cola.

Still heading Northwest , passing through the Montana towns of Wolf Point, Poplar and Glasgow, cool names, I think.

A few reservation villages go past our windows; pockets of govt. sponsored poverty. You can feel the hopelessness in the faded, cookie cutter homes, some have windows covered with plywood, some have broken cars jacked up in the front yard and some are pristine (the writer in me says there’s a story in all of them).
I was eating licorice from my bag while the conductor announced lunch in the dining car, there was a twenty minute wait.

The trains are routed on the backside of most towns; we saw the scrap metal dealers, power lines, tire storage, graffiti and deteriorating buildings of every sort. It’s amazing how many big, old buildings some of these small towns once supported. Only the new (mainly steel) buildings are obviously still in use.

We saw our first Mormon tabernacle of the trip in Glasgow MT, they appear to be a plain but imposing bright white structure. I wonder, what’s inside?

From our lower level seats, we climbed the spiral staircase leading to the upper level seating and wobbled down the aisle. Occasionally lurching, in sync with the train, toward a seated passenger who had seen this behavior before and grinned at us as we passed. In this fashion we passed through the upper seating levels of two cars on the way to the observation car, which the train folks refer to as the lounge car. Beneath it, down another spiral staircase, was an actual lunch car, complete with counter, and a lounge that sells booze and snacks.

Our fellow travelers were an eclectic bunch; groups of tourists with name badges, young families on vacation, retired people travelling for fun and one or two people travelling for business. I recalled an older version of this train in 1969, I was on it, travelling from Minot to Seattle, then to Fort Lewis and basic training. A scared, excited, eighteen year old heading out into the big world via the Empire Builder; I’ll never forget the sights and sounds from that April trip, nor the hangover I had the first day in the Army.

We were West of Malta, MT, headed for Havre, MT which is the half-way point between Minneapolis, MN and Seattle, WA; it was in Havre that the Great Northern Railroad built it’s locomotive shops when the line was originally built in the mid 1890s. The trains must have needed maintenance before or after the mountains, depending on which way they were headed.

It’s about 2:30 PM (MT), we haven’t slept since about midnight, time for a nap…..