The Empire Builder
The Empire Builder is a cross country scenic railway that runs between
Chicago and Seattle/Portland through the Northwestern United States. It
was created and operated by the Great Northern Railway Co. beginning
service in 1929 and named for the nickname given to GN's founder,
James J. Hill.
Before the age of jet aviation and interstate highways the train
operated in both directions daily with scheduling arranged to provide
daylight scenic views of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains and
The Empire Builder at Whitefish Station, MT - ca.1940s
Photo courtesy Dale Jones and
Railroads of Montana
The train ran between the Pacific Northwest and St. Paul on the Great
Northern and on the Burlington Route between St. Paul and Chicago. The
trains made stops along the route in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota,
North Dakota and Montana and in Spokane, Washington it separated, or
joined depending on the direction, to complete journeys to/from both
Seattle, Washington or Portland, Oregon. These luxury trains, initially
steam powered operated on a 63 hour schedule westbound and 61 hour, 15
minute schedule eastbound.1
The Great Northern Empire Builder,
East of Glacier National Park in Montana - ca. late 1950s.
Photo from Bill Yenne's
Great Northern Empire Builder courtesy
By the 1950s, reequipped to all diesel driven the trips were
reduced to under 45 hours with average speeds about 50 mph. In 1955 the
"Great Domes" were added, three
Budd-built "short" dome cars and one
full-length dome lounge for first-class passengers for each train,
providing 150 dome seats for passengers. Like most transit by rail
however, the Empire Builder was also beginning to feel the impact of
transcontinental jet airplane business travel as the use of the
private automobile continued to grow and the federal highways were
improved, developing eventually into the beginnings of the Interstate
Highway System by the end of the decade.1
Great Northern's Empire Builder descends from Marias Pass
at Bison, Montana - 1957
In 1957, at the end of August, Elvis, Scotty, Bill and
DJ began their second of three, short, tours that year. This tour was in
the Pacific Northwest and began in Spokane
with dates also in Vancouver,
and concluded in Portland. While Scotty,
Bill and DJ drove from Memphis, Elvis and his entourage which included
Gene Smith, Lamar Fike, George Klein, Cliff Gleaves and Louis Harris,
Panama Limited at Central Station on the 27th for the overnight trip
to Chicago where they would board the Empire Builder. The Panama Limited
was Illinois Central's sister train to
The City of New Orleans with each immortalized in song, the former
Bukka White and
Rush and the latter by
3rd Avenue looking north towards train depot in Havre, Montana
On the 28th they along with the Colonel and his
entourage that included Tom Diskin, Lee Gordon the promoter who had
booked this and the last tour, and likely Al Dvorin, who hailed from
Chicago, and the rest of the opening acts boarded The Empire Builder for
the trip to Spokane. The trip would take them through several cities
that Elvis and the boys had previously performed in, like
La Crosse, St. Paul and
Minneapolis, not to
mention Chicago itself where they had
appeared only several months earlier. The Colonel, ever thinking of
promotion, had likely tipped off the press ahead of time in several
stopover towns along the way of Elvis' schedule through them. In several
at least the crowds came out to greet him.
GN publicity shot of the eastbound Empire Builder at
Presley to Stop in Havre Briefly Thursday
Contain yourselves Elvis Presley fans. The sensational young singer who
accompanies himself on a guitar and rotates his pelvis every which way
is going to be in Havre for a few minutes on Thursday noon.
Idol of millions of bobby soxers and some oldsters too, Presley will be
on the Empire Builder enroute from Minneapolis to Spokane.
There is no guarantee that the man who has wowed ’em will descend to the
platform at the depot but chances are that he will be much in evidence
and a large crowd is expected to be on hand to try and obtain his
autograph and to see what he looks like.
It looks like sideburns will be in vogue for some time after Presley
visits and the filberts who follow the progress of the ex-truck driver
who became a big-time entertainer say you'll be nothin’ but a hound dog
don‘t show up Thursday. The arrival time is 12:15 p.m. and departure
time is 12:25 p.m.
Havre Daily News - August 26, 1957
Rock 'n Roll Idol to Be Here
Elvis Presley. movie star, television and stage celebrity who did it all
with a guitar and a movable pelvis and a unique style of revivalist type
of singing, will be in Havre for about 20 minutes Thursday noon.
The youthful singing star will arrive on the Great Northern Empire
Builder at 12:15 noon, enroute to keep a show engagement in Spokane.
Presley has made two motion pictures, both a success at the box office,
it was reported, and cut any number of records, all of which together
have sold into the millions.
His "All Shook Up" and "Ain’t Nothin' But a Hound Dog"-—both records
still in demand among the teenagers and adults—confirmed Presley’s front
- rank standing among popular singers and entertainers in this country.
Thursday noon, when Presley stops in Havre until departure time about
12:30, swarming crowds of Havre teenagers and curious older people ere
expected to be on hand to meet him.
Presley, a tall, dark slim, handsome man in his early twenties, is said
to have done as much as any top TV and stage artist to establish the
Rock 'n Roll type of music in this country.
Havre Daily News - August 28, 1957
Much to the dismay of the crowd that had gathered at the station in
Havre hoping to see Elvis during the stop on August 29, 1957, he didn't
leave his compartment.
WHERE'S ELVIS PRESLEY?
-- This is part of the huge crowd that turned out this noon to see
Elvis Presley, the famous singer, when the Great Northern Empire
Builder with Presley aboard pulled into Havre for about 20
minutes. The hundreds of persons on hand were disappointed when
the singer kept to his compartment on the train, too tired to meet
his public. However, Sheriff Deputy Al Holladay of Havre got to
meet Presley and obtained an autograph for a youngster.
Helmbrecht Studio Photo
Deputy Sheriff Only One to Get Presley Autograph
By L. A. BACH
Hill County Sheriff Deputy Al Halladay was the only
person in Havre who got Elvis Presley's autograph and briefly
interviewed the famous Rock 'n Roll singer at noon today.
The biggest crowd of Havre residents ever seen at the Great Northern Ry.
Co, station turned out to see Presley, and was disappointed.
Halladey was able to see, Presley with the help of a conductor who took
the deputy to meet the singer's manager in Presley's private
"I told the conductor that I wanted Presley's autograph for a kid, and
then he took me to the compartment." Halladay told a Daily News
Presley was en route to Spokane to fulfill a show engagement:
The Empire Builder pulled into Havre at 12:30 noon sharp and took 10
minutes to come to a halt. By then crowds, standing 30 deep, had formed
in front of car 312, when it was learned that was Presley’s car on the
When Halladay asked Presley for the autograph for a child, the famous
singer declared, "I'm pretty tired." But he obliged with the autograph,
attired in dark robe over light colored pajamas, and bedroom slippers.
"He was having a glass of orange juice when I came up to him," the
Halladay offered Presley his fountain pen and the singer took up a
coaster on his breakfast tray and scribbled "Elvis Presley" on the
That satisfied Halladay, but Presley had second-thoughts, deciding that
the first signature on the Great Northern coaster was too light in
color. Bearing in mind that the autograph was for a child, as the deputy
had mentioned, Presley took the coaster and again signed his name.
Halladay boarded the car in front of 312, where most of the waiting
crowd was densely, packed hoping to catch a glimpse of the celebrity.
"I was taken through the car to 312 to Presley's compartment," the
deputy stated. "What looked like strongarm men were posted outside the
Mayor James Davey was on hand to officially greet Presley if and when he
debarked from the train. The mayor stood in front of car 312, on the
station pavement, waiting to meet the Rock ‘n Roll king.
H. A. Swisher, Whitefish, a Great Northern conductor, who was waiting to
board the Presley Train to go on duty, was asked his opinion of the size
of the waiting crowd.
Great Northern Railway drink coasters
"It's the biggest I've ever seen in the Havre station," Swisher said. He
has been with the Great Northern 42 years as a conductor.
Three Havre police officers, Leon Davidson, Ed Divish and Woodrow
McLain, who were on duty at the depot, to keep the huge throngs under
control, after awhile were literally swallowed up by the packed crowds.
During the 22 minutes the train was in the station, with Presley still
to appear on the car platform, the crowds took up the chant "We want
Elvis!" at intervals.
One passenger aboard the train, on the platform of car 312, volunteered
that Presley was asleep in his compartment. That was when the chant
first went up in a high-pitched chorus.
About 50 percent of the crowds was made up of teenagers, about 40
percent being youngsters under teen-age, and some 10 percent comprised
adults at the station.
Halladay, asked why Presley did not meet the waiting crowds in Havre,
said Presley told him he was exhausted from the riotous greetings he
received in Minneapolis.
Havre Daily News - August 30, 1957
Though Elvis explained his reasons for being tired and not greeting the
crowd on "riotous greetings" in Minneapolis, nothing found in any of the
papers of the day reported this. The crowd at the stop at
Whitefish around 6:00 P.M. later that day had better luck.
Great Northern Railway Whitefish Montana station sign
photo courtesy ebay
Elvis Presley fans were "All Shook Up" yesterday
when he appeared in a white sport coat (no pink carnation) as his
train, long as a "Hound Dog," stopped briefly in Whitefish. Fans
yelled "Love Me Tender," but couldn't tell if he was wearing "Blue
Suede Shoes" since he didn't leave the train. He was on the way to
Spokane for a special show.
Photo courtesy FECC/pingpong
Elvis Excites Fans In Short Stopover
By TOM O'HANLON
Inter Lake Staff
Elvis Presley stopped for a few minutes in Whitefish last
night and "the call of the wild" was heard for blocks.
But it was those on the other side of the cage that were giving the
call. Presley, whose eccentric singing style has brought him to a unique
position in American entertainment, came to the door of his railroad car
to wave to the fans a few moments before his train, the Empire Builder,
He wisely did not step into the crowd to sign autographs.
A crowd, estimated at 800 composed mostly of teenage girls with a
liberal sprinkling of jealous boy friends, small children, and curious
mothers and townspeople jammed the station platform long before the
train pulled in at about 6 p. m.
Pony tails and Italian cuts, skirts, sweaters, starched dresses and
Bermuda shorts - the clothes were varied, but the girl's excitement was
the same. Presley, a handsome young Mississippian, seemed to be used to
mob scenes. He stayed on the steps of the railroad car and the only
personal contact made was by a few high-jumping girls who managed to
touch his hand. This apparently was enough to satisfy them and excite
their friend's admiration and envy.
Whatever Presley has, it certainly seems to be in big demand by the
bobbie sox brigade.
Daily Inter Lake - August 30, 1957
Great Northern Railway Looking Back and
The Empire Builder stops at the Winona Junction, WI - June 1958
Postcard photo by Donald E. Smith courtesy
In 1970 the Great Northern, along with the Northern Pacific, SP&S and
Burlington, merged to form the Burlington Northern Railway which took
over operation of the Empire Builder until the following year when
Amtrak began operating most U.S. passenger train service. At
that time Amtrak suspended the Empire Builder's service to Portland
until 1981. In 1995 the Burlington Northern merged with the Sante
Fe Railroad creating the Burlington Northern
Sante Fe Railway.1
The platform and Whitefish Station, MT - 1971
Photo courtesy Dale Jones and
Railroads of Montana
In 1979, The Empire Builder became the first long-distance train to be
given the new bi-level Superliner equipment. At this time, the train
runs with as few as two coaches, a diner, and one sleeping car on a
tri-weekly schedule, the lowest point of available passenger-carrying
The station house and the Superliners of the Empire
Builder at Whitefish, MT - July 13, 2006
Today, it is again operated daily and is Amtrak's busiest long-distance
route, carrying more than 500,000 travelers annually from 2007-2010. The
current route runs from Chicago, Illinois, to the Pacific Northwest.2
The Superliner, platform and the station house at Havre,
MT - July 13, 2006
The train passes through the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota,
North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Layovers (train
service stops) are made in Saint Paul, Minot, Havre, and Spokane. Other
major stops on the route are Milwaukee; Fargo; Whitefish, Montana; and
Vancouver, Washington. Host railways include BNSF Railway's northern
route from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota Commercial from Minneapolis
to St. Paul, Canadian Pacific from St. Paul to Glenview, and Metra from
Glenview to Chicago.2
Page added November 30, 2012
Special thanks to
for the Havre Daily News articles and inspiration for this page.
1 according to
Railway Historical Society
2 excerpt from Wikipedia's entry on
The Empire Builder
Check out views from the observation cars and other
photos from a
1964 Empire Builder trip (and
detour) courtesy of the
Great Northern Archive.