Sunday, July 10, 2016

The first electric locomotives on the Great Northern Railway

Magazine advertisement, McClure's Magazine, 1900

On July 10th, 1909, the Great Northern Railway began electrified operations in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. But before the electric motors went into service, the GN had to get their trains over the Cascades via a series of switchbacks. This was a terrible waste of time and effort (but at the time, it was unavoidable). In 1900, the GN opened a tunnel of about 2.5 miles in length.
This tunnel eliminated the switchbacks. However, the combination of heat and smoke emitted by steam trains operating through this first Cascade Tunnel was so overwhelming that engine crews and even passengers were overcome. So in 1909, an electricity-producing power plant was built on the Wenatchee River not far from Leavenworth, and a section of the line about 4 miles long was electrified through the first Cascade Tunnel.

Cover of GE Bulletin No. 4755, dated June, 1910

Here are a few images and historic descriptions of this electrification effort.

On August 27, 1909, a trade publication called Railway World published the following explanation of the GN’s strategy to electrify the 4-mile section of their operations over the Cascade Mountains:

This tunnel has always been a nightmare to passengers and to trainmen. It required an hour after each train passed to clear it of smoke sufficiently to pass the next, and its capacity was thus limited to twenty-four a day. To remedy this, a river beside which the railway runs has been dammed twenty-four miles from the tunnel and harnessed to an electric generator. Four electric locomotives are in service and trains can now be sent through – with comfort to the passengers – as often as the speed regulations will permit.

On November 14, 1908, the Railway and Engineering Review published this article about the GN electrification project:

               The General Electric Co. has completed several electric locomotives for the Great Northern Ry. on its order for rolling equipment for the Cascade Tunnel section of the road. This part of the line is now in process of electrification and the electric locomotives will be used for hauling both freight and passenger trains through the tunnel and over the heavy grades adjacent. The length of this tunnel—about 2 3/8 miles—together with the fact that it is unequipped with ventilating shafts of any description, has rendered the employment of some motive power other than the steam locomotive almost a necessity. In addition to the danger arising from the gases emitted by steam locomotives, and the possible obscuring of signal light by smoke, the accumulation of sooty matter has given rise to a slipperiness of the rails that materially increases the difficulties of the grade, which, throughout the tunnel, is 1.7 per cent.

               To meet the requirements of the traffic, four of the electric locomotives have been ordered. Each of these units will have a weight of approximately 113 tons, this weight being entirely on the drivers, and will be equipped with four 400-h.p. three-phase induction motors mounted on two articulated bogie trucks. The locomotive units are designed to be operated by the Sprague-General Electric multiple unit control, so that three or four may be operated from one controller on any unit.

               In normal operation, two of these units will haul a train having a gross weight of from 1200 to 1500 tons up a grade varying from 1.6 to 2.2 per cent at a speed of 15 miles per hour. The motors will be wound for 500 volts per phase, and will be fed from two step-down transformers located on the car. They will be controlled by resistance steps in the secondary or armature circuit.

               On down grade the motors will tend to control the train by regeneration, and at any speed in excess of 15 miles per hour, will return energy to the line, thus tending to assist other trains that may be ascending the grade at the time. If, at the moment, there is no such train to utilize this returned energy, it will be dissipated by water rheostats at the power house. An additional advantage in thus using the regenerative feature of the motors on a descending grade is, of course, the braking effect and the consequent saving of brake shoes and tires.

               Electric power will be supplied from a hydraulic plant located on the Wenatchee River, and distant about thirty miles from the tunnel. The generating equipment will consist of two 2000-kw., 25-cycle, three-phase generators, which will be driven by water power. From the station the power will be transmitted at 30,000 volts by means of duplicate transmission lines, and will be stepped down by transformers at the mouth of the tunnel to 6600 volts. The locomotives will take the current from an overhead wire, which will be of a modified catenary type, utilizing the new fish tail strain insulator of the General Electric Co. The voltage on the trolley wire will be 6600, and this pressure, as indicated above, will be stepped down before entering the motors by transformers on the locomotive to a maximum of 500 volts per phase.

The locomotives placed in service on the newly electrified section were numbered 5000, 5001, 5002, and 5003. According to the seminal work by Ken Middleton and Norm Keyes on GN locomotives, published in 1980 in RLHS Bulletin #143, these four electric motors were delivered to the GN by General Electric in February and March of 1909. The motors remained in service until they were replaced by new locomotives in the mid to late 1920s, in preparation for the extension of electric operations all the way from Wenatchee to Skykomish.

On November 12, 1909, a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers was held in New York City. The keynote speaker of the event was Dr. Cary T. Hutchinson of the Great Northern Railway. Dr. Hutchinson provided the essence of a paper he wrote titled “The Electric System of the Great Northern Railway Company at Cascade Tunnel.” Part of his abbreviated material was published in an issue of the Electrical Review and Western Electrician. Here are some comments Dr. Hutchinson made regarding the first operations of the electrified section in the Cascades:

               The electric service was started on July 10 last, although one or two trains had been handled previously. From that time to August 11 practically the entire east-bound service of the company had been handled by electric locomotives. During this period there were 212 train movements, of which eighty-two were freight, ninety-eight passenger and thirty-two special. In each case, the steam locomotive was hauled through with the train. The total tonnage hauled was 275,000 tons.

Dr. Hutchinson concluded his remarks by enumerating several distinct advantages of electrified locomotion in this instance:

1.      Maximum electrical and mechanical simplicity
This point is of great importance and was one of a number of reasons for using the three-phase system. The motors will stand any amount of abuse and rough use.

2.      Greater continuous output within a given space than can be obtained from any other form of motor This is shown by comparison with other electric locomotives, which is due to the fact that the losses can be kept lower in the three-phase motor than in any other type.

3.      Uniform torque
This is important, particularly at starting. The three-phase motor will work to a three or four per cent greater coefficience of adhesion than a single-phase motor of fifteen cycles.

4.      The possibility of using twenty-five cycles
This is important, as it leads to a less cost and a better transformation of power-station apparatus; moreover, it is standard and the power supply can readily be used for other purposes as well as for traction; a commercial supply can be provided.

5.      Constant speed
This is ordinarily stated as a disadvantage of the three-phase motor. But it is a distinct advantage in mountain service, particularly the limitation of the speed on down grades. It has also an advantage on up-grades: meeting points can be arranged with greater definiteness.

6.      Regeneration on downgrades
This matter has been discussed since the earliest days of electric traction, but has not been, up to the present time, put into practice. Although this result can be attained with other forms or motors, yet it is most perfectly attained by three-phase motors. There being no complications involved. This is of importance in reducing the power-house capacity required for a given space. Although no doubt the saving in power-house capacity will not be as great as indicated by theory, owing to the various emergencies that must be provided for; nevertheless, there will be a material saving.

7.      Excessive short-circuit current is impossible, and consequently destructive torque on the gears and driving rigging is eliminated
There will be no necessity for the complication of the friction connection between the armature and driving wheels, as in the recent large direct-current locomotives.

8.      Impossibility of excessive speed
Even when the wheel slips the speed remains constant. Therefore, the maximum stresses put on the motor are less and are more accurately known than with any other form of motor.

To be even-handed about the thing, Dr. Hutchinson then enumerated six issues he framed as “the principal disadvantages of three-phase motors for traction use” that were commonly stated to be the following (although he also countered several of those points as they applied to the GN operations):

1.      The constant speed
This is rather an advantage for this class of service.

2.      Constant power
The fact is that the motor is a constant power motor, and therefore requires the same power at starting and accelerating as at full speed.

3.      Small mechanical clearance
In this particular motor the clearance is one-eighth of an inch, which is ample for all practical purposes.

4.      Inequality of load on several motors of a locomotive due to differences in diameter of driving wheels
To meet this, an adjustable resistance is included in the rotor of each motor. The motors are then balanced up and no further attention is required as long as the wear on the driving wheels is approximately the same.

5.      Low-power factor of the system
This does not seem to be borne out by practice. The power factor, as shown by the switchboard instruments in the power house, is eighty-five per cent.

6.      Two overhead wires
There is no doubt that two wires will cause more trouble than one, and in case of complicated yard structure, it might not be practicable to use two overhead wires.

One of the attendees of the banquet in New York was J. H. Davis, electrical engineer with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Davis marveled at the success of the Great Northern Railway in conquering their motive power issues through the Cascade Tunnel, saying: “It is the first attempt in this country to use the three-phase induction motor for handling heavy passenger and freight trains on a trunk line railroad.”

Dr. Hutchinson practically made a second career for himself on the speaking circuit, trotting the fruits of his work in the Cascades to countless groups of professional electrical engineers. One of those sessions was held in Pullman, Washington, with a group gathered at the State College of Washington (later to be named Washington State University – my alma mater, coincidentally). Some in attendance had worked on the tunnel the previous summer.

Less than a year after the GN instituted electrified motive power through the Cascade Tunnel section, a massive avalanche swept down through the little railroad village of Wellington (later renamed Tye). This disaster has generated a great deal of research and reporting. Even the community of electrical engineers had their angle on the tragic events:

               It may not be generally known that the avalanche which occurred at Wellington, at the western end of the tunnel, on March 1, caused considerable damage to the equipment of the system. All four of the electric locomotives, with two trains, three steam locomotives, and a rotary snow-plow, were swept away by the slide. Some idea of its force may be gained from the fact that the weight of each of the electric locomotives is 230,000 lb. A portion of the overhead catenary construction was also swept away. The extent of the damage to the electric locomotives has not yet been determined. If much of the apparatus has to be rewound, it may be six months before the electric service can be resumed, as the locomotives will probably have to be sent to Seattle or some other city for repair.

I don’t know anything about the efforts that took place putting the line, and the electrification system, back in service after the avalanche, but suffice it to say the repairs were eventually accomplished. Jumping ahead several years, a new fleet of electric motors was purchased to operate over the dramatically lengthened section of electrified railroad between Wenatchee and Skykomish. The four original electric motors were retired in May of 1927 as they were replaced with the new Z-1 and Y-1 electrics from about 1926 to 1928, just prior to completion of the new 8-mile Cascade Tunnel.

From a November 14, 1925, article published in Railway Age, here is an explanation of how the electric motors were operated in conjunction with steam engines, and the typical times involved with running this motive power mix over the Cascade Mountains:

               A 2,500-ton time freight, out of Seattle, or rather Interbay, the terminal yard, consisting of about 60 cars, covers the 80 miles to Skykomish in approximately 5½ hours when hauled by a 250-ton Mikado type 2-8-2 oil burning locomotive having a normal tractive power of 64,300 lb. At Skykomish, two 2-6 + 8-0 mallet type locomotives of 260 tons and developing a tractive effort of 78,300 lb., are cut into the train at about uniform distance apart, to assist on the 2.2 percent grade to Tye. Including a delay at Skykomish for this operation of one hour and for water at Scenic of 20 minutes, the 21.4 miles to Tye is covered in 4½ hours. On arrival at Tye, the steam helpers are replaced in 30 minutes by the electric locomotives located two ahead and two in the center of the train, and from Tye, the run to Cascade tunnel station is made in 22 minutes. Allowing 15 minutes at Cascade tunnel for cutting out the electrics and inspecting air brakes, the train when reassembled completes the remaining 53 miles to Wenatchee in four hours.



Additional sources of information about Great Northern Railway electrification:

                              Web site devoted to Milwaukee Road electrification – has a ton of great GN material too



·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #18 (April 1976), Great Northern Three-phase Electric Locomotive by William McGinley, Michael Oltman, James Vyverberg, Kenneth Middleton, and Charles Wood

·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #58 (September 1983), Great Northern Modernized Class Y-1 Electrics by Stan Townsend

·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #210 (December 1993), Z-1 Class Electric Locomotives by Fr. Dale Peterka

·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #316 (September 2003), Great Northern Railway Electrification by Stan Townsend



Friday, June 10, 2016

June 10, 1929 - The First Run of the Great Northern Railway's Empire Builder

       This date – June 10th – is quite significant in the history of the Great Northern Railway. It was on this date in 1929 that the Great Northern inaugurated one of the most successful and popular transcontinental passenger trains in the nation – the Empire Builder. The name of the train service paid homage to the founder of the Great Northern Railway, James J. Hill. I don’t know when exactly the public began to refer to Hill as the “Empire Builder,” but he earned that nickname early in his railroading career, and it stuck.

James J. Hill - the Empire Builder
When Hill died on May 29, 1916, people across the nation mourned his loss and recounted many of his remarkable accomplishments. Hill’s insightful approach to building his transportation empire included the practical notion that he must help build up the territory served by his railroad in order to provide the commerce required to make the railroad a success. It was vertical integration at its finest. His railroad was among the last to be constructed across the western U.S., but it was arguably among the most profitable, and certainly among the most impactful on the growth of the west. The formula for success employed by James J. Hill was to operate the longest trains, with maximum tonnage, over the straightest tracks, using the least change in elevation. He helped expedite the growth of ranches, farms, and whole communities across the Pacific Northwest. A book could be written on this topic alone. In fact, several such books have been written.

Early view of Wellington, Washington, and the Cascade Mountain switchbacks of the Great Northern Railway

            When Hill’s Great Northern Railway reached the Cascade Mountains of Washington, the railroad met what was arguably the most formidable obstacle on the entire system. Even crossing the Rocky Mountains in Montana was easier by comparison. A route through the Cascades was located, and when the line was completed in 1893, a series of switchbacks were employed to move trains up and over the steep slopes and high elevations of this mountain range. By 1900, a tunnel of about 2 miles in length was constructed to eliminate the switchbacks. Still, there were much greater efficiencies to be had, and frequent winter snow slides continued to plague the line. Just a few years after the death of James J. Hill, the men with whom he had surrounded himself to run the railroad finally helped fulfill one of his goals – to dig an 8-mile tunnel under the Cascade Mountains and make that portion of the line much more conducive to safe and efficient operation of the railroad.

            The decade of the 1920s was among the most impactful periods of time in the operation of the GN. Construction on the new 8-mile Cascade Tunnel was underway by 1926. It was completed in late 1928, and was officially opened to daily operations on January 12, 1929. Then, just five months later, the railroad inaugurated its new premier passenger service. The train service itself was called the “Empire Builder,” but individual Pullman coach cars were named to honor many other “empire builders” of the northwest.

First advertisement for the Empire Builder in the Seattle Times - May 20 1929


            For weeks prior to the unveiling of the Empire Builder train, the Great Northern Railway spread the word that its new varnish would soon be traveling the span between Chicago and the coast with such speed as to “save a business day.” This was very big news to many businessmen in those days – very big indeed. The route was structured so as to operate trains westbound out of Chicago as trains simultaneously operated eastbound out of Portland and Seattle. The Portland section would meet up with the Seattle section at Spokane, where they would be consolidated as one train for the remainder of the trip to Chicago. In the same fashion, the westbound Empire Builder split at Spokane, with sections continuing to Seattle and Portland. When you consider the “chicken and the egg” scenario as it applies here, it is easy to understand that the new service was not inaugurated at all until complete train sets were positioned at both ends of the route. This, too, was an advertising opportunity in itself. Just prior to inauguration of the new service, the trains were put out on static display, and local citizens were encouraged to come out and see the lovely new passenger cars for themselves.

The actual routing of the Empire Builder has been altered a few times over its first 87 years, but the map above shows (in red) the primary route.

            The basic mainline route of the Great Northern Railway was between the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota (Minneapolis and St. Paul) and the coastal cities of Seattle and Portland, with several vital branches and trunk lines. You’ll notice (if you weren’t already aware) there is no mention here of Chicago. So the obvious question is: why would the Great Northern start up a new high-class passenger service that connected Chicago with the west coast if they didn’t even operate trains in and out of Chicago? If it’s true that the Twin Cities location was basically the eastern-most extent of the GN mainline, what’s up with bringing Chicago into the mix? How did GN trains operate between Chicago and the Twin Cities?

            Well, that can be a longer story than you might imagine, but to be brief, the GN had a “close” business association with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (a.k.a., the CB&Q, the Burlington, the “Q”, the Burlington Route, etc.). In fact, the “Burlington” in the company’s name is the same Burlington that paired up with the “Northern” in the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific names to form Burlington Northern in 1970. But that’s another story for another time. In any event, the answer to bridging the apparent gap between Chicago and the Twin Cities lies in that close business relationship. It was the CB&Q that actually operated the Empire Builder trains between those points – not just on the introduction of the new service, but from 1929 until 1970, when the Great Northern Railway morphed into the Burlington Northern (with the “Q” as one of those companies that merged together).

            So now we’re back to the inauguration of a new passenger service that will depart Chicago westbound and two locations – Seattle and Portland – eastbound. From whence will the first train depart? Chicago? Seattle? Portland? Perhaps simultaneously from all three? Simple answer: Chicago.

            Many enthusiasts of the Great Northern Railway and/or the Empire Builder passenger service (myself included) have for many years now considered June 11, 1929, as the start of this notable train. Aside from a few service setbacks, this passenger train has operated continuously (if not daily, throughout its entire history) since 1929. In fact, Amtrak has now been operating a passenger train on this route and under this name for more years than it was operated under the GN. In 2004, I participated in a sizable observance of the 75th anniversary of the Empire Builder train.


As a member and representative of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, I designed a commemorative pinback button to share with train riders and other enthusiasts on that occasion. I also edited and did the layout for a brochure that Amtrak partnered with and which was included in a bag of treats presented to everyone riding the Empire Builder on its 75th anniversary. The date on which we celebrated 75 years of service of the Empire Builder was June 11, 2004. We were, technically, a day late. [but in our defense, the brochure I helped to produce did point this out]

Back in 1929, the two Empire Builder train sets from the west coast did not depart Portland and Seattle until June 11, which was a Tuesday. However, the westbound Empire Builder departed Chicago on the night of Monday, June 10. The misapplication of June 11 as the date when the service began is almost like saying the historic WWII Allied Forces invasion of Normandy occurred on June 5th, since in fact it was still the evening of the 5th everywhere in the U.S. except the east coast when the invasion was first reported. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would suggest the history books be rewritten to say D-Day happened on June 5th. The event itself was on the northern coast of Normandy, and in the English Channel it was at the break of day on June 6th.

As for the confusion among us historians and GN enthusiasts, there is a logical and very supportable distinction about these competing dates. None of us went completely batty and jumped on the wrong date arbitrarily. Remember, this was a Great Northern train, and GN territory didn’t extend any further east than the Twin Cities, corporate headquarters of the GN. Although the Empire Builder train did depart Chicago on the night of Monday, June 10, 1929, it did not enter Great Northern territory (and hence begin operation completely in the hands of Great Northern train crews and other employees) until it travelled 430 miles and reached St. Paul the next morning. Throughout its 81-year corporate history, the Great Northern Railway conducted executive-level business at its corporate headquarters in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. Passenger timetables issued to advertise routes and schedules were generally limited to those train miles where the GN actually operated their own trains. So despite the arrangements made with the CB&Q to bridge the gap between Chicago and the Twin Cities (or more precisely, St. Paul), the Empire Builder train was only operated by the GN between the coast on the west end and St. Paul on the east end of the line. The GN’s passenger timetable issued to coincide with the inauguration of the new Empire Builder train service was issued with an effective date of June 11, 1929. It was about 8 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, June 11, 1929, that the first westbound Empire Builder train arrived in St. Paul from Chicago and actually began operation as an exclusively GN train. In the meantime, Empire Builder trains departing eastbound out of Portland and Seattle did not depart until all the hoopla on the east end of the line died down – it was later in the afternoon of June 11 that these trains began operation.
Cover of passenger timetable issued by the GN
at the commencement of the Empire Builder service out of St. Paul

I think it was a defensible position to say the Great Northern Railway began operation of the Empire Builder train on June 11, 1929, but for the sake of historical accuracy, I would say we have to massage that a little and say the Empire Builder train has been operating since June 10, 1929. Even longer than most of us ever imagined – by the margin of, well, just about a business day.

The grand inauguration of the new Empire Builder train was an ambitious and in some ways taxing event. Commemoration of this new passenger service between Chicago and the coastal cities of the Pacific Northwest occurred during the one-hour special radio broadcast on June 10, 1929. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Robert P. Lamont, participated from Washington, D.C. After a few laudatory words heralding the positive economic contributions to be made by this new, faster train service, Secretary Lamont tapped at a specially wired telegraph key, an action that triggered a large gong in Chicago. The sound of the gong signaled time for the train to pull out on its inaugural run to the coast.

A remarkably serious-looking Commerce Secretary, Robert P. Lamont,
as he readies to tap the telegraph key on June 10, 1929
Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society

The radio broadcast included speeches by several notable individuals, including a key representative of the railroad: the vice-president of Operations of the Great Northern, Mr. Charles O. Jenks.

During the ceremonies captured on that Empire Builders radio program, the Old Timer (actor Harvey Hays) actually boarded the Empire Builder train and rode it out to Seattle. This must have been a real hoot for fellow passengers, once they realized who he was. If they did, it probably would have been because they first recognized his voice rather than his face.

The "Old Timer" (actor Harvey Hays) and Miss Chicago Commerce (Bess Mullen)

Also traveling on that train were some other dignitaries and representatives of the east, including Miss Chicago Commerce (Miss Bess Mullen). A small band supplied by the GN was aboard, as was the singing group that often represented the railroad, the “Great Northern Quartette.”

In fact, so many fare-paying passengers were travelling on the first Empire Builder, and so many additional people were along for the festivities, that not one but two sections of the Empire Builder train were operated westbound out of Chicago. Onboard the first section was Operations vice-president C.O. Jenks, but he elected to keep a low profile so he could concern himself with operating matters. Also on the first section was W.A. Wilson, assistant general passenger agent of the GN. It fell to Wilson to marshal the activities and appearances of the Old Timer (Harvey Hays) and Miss Chicago Commerce (Bess Mullen). The GN’s vice-president, George R. Martin, represented the railroad onboard the second section. One news report of the day indicated the crew of the first section to depart consisted of locomotive engineer Anthony Zinns and conductor Thomas F. Burke. The second section departed Chicago twenty minutes after the first. It was piloted by engineer M. Belknap and had John Needham as conductor.

Stops were made at significant stations along the route and brief photo ops were exploited. Miss Chicago Commerce presented letters of greeting to the various chambers of commerce in the major cities where the train stopped – the letters were issued by Frank F. Winans, president of the Chicago Association of Commerce.

Rare view of actor Harvey Hays (The Old Timer) speaking to the throngs of people greeting the first Empire Builder at St. Cloud, MN, on June 11, 1929
Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, the new Empire Builder arrived at the railroad station on June 11th at 10:30 a.m., “on-time to the split fraction of a second.” The St. Cloud Daily Times trumpeted the news that the exciting new train was welcomed there by over 4,000 local citizens.

Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society

At Minot, North Dakota, the first westbound Empire Builder train was scheduled to arrive at 8:30 p.m. on the 11th. Three days prior to this, the Mayor of Minot issued a proclamation heralding the new train and beseeching as many Minot residents as possible to turn out at the depot for the big event.

When the first westbound Empire Builder arrived in Seattle, someone had the silly idea to bring a billy goat for the photo op.
At least nobody was dumb enough to drag some poor mountain goat out from the city zoo instead.

In Seattle, both Hays and Mullen (and a few select GN officials) met with members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Hays and Mullen even participated on the air in Seattle, on a 30-minute program broadcast over the NBC affiliate KOMO.

The following day, Mullen thought she was free of appearance obligations, so she went shopping in Portland. She missed an event at which she was expected, and, to her dismay, it made it into the newspaper that she had “gone missing.” Ooops. Thus are the perils of newly-acquired “fame.”


If you have never travelled on the Empire Builder train, you still can. And you certainly should. Check it out here:
or just call Julie at:
She’ll set you up.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

What this blog is about

I have a strong interest in the history of the Great Northern Railway. My plan is to use this blog as a platform to share information about that history. There are thousands of possibilities, especially when served up in “bite-sized” portions.

I’ve been collecting Great Northern Railway artifacts and memorabilia for over forty years. I do have a few areas of this history that are particularly intriguing to me, and that focus is reflected in both the types of things I’ve collected and in the subjects I have elected to learn more about.

One thing you will notice quickly as you see the things I post is that I have very little interest in or knowledge of the actual railroad operations. To many, that must seem pretty odd. But right from the start I was drawn in more to the aspects of advertising and human interest. I’m one of those people, kind of like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” who thinks the three most exciting sounds include train whistles. They represent the opportunity to travel somewhere and have great experiences.

George Bailey: [George hears a train whistle] “There she blows. You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?”
 Uncle Billy: “Uh huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served; dinner... ”
George Bailey: “No no no no. Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.”

Here's a web site with a bunch of information about the locale where that train station scene was filmed back in 1946: 

Over the years, I have gravitated to the following topics: the promotion of Glacier National Park; Great Northern passenger train service (mostly the promotion thereof); advertising art of the Great Northern (especially the Blackfeet Indian portraits of Winold Reiss); the origin of place names attributable to the Great Northern Railway; and the topic that has really grabbed ahold of me the past 8-10 years, the GN’s radio advertising campaign called “Empire Builders.” At least through summer of 2016, most of my blogging will be focused on the Empire Builders story. You can find my blog devoted to that topic here:


My efforts with this blog are driven by two significant factors: the time I can find to devote to this; and my degree of interest in a topic (ultimately, I will do whatever I find enjoyable).

Is there a particular topic of Great Northern Railway history that you want to know more about? Shoot me an email and let me know.
I might very well use your ideas or questions as a topic of a future blog essay.
Did you have a relative who worked for the GN? Please share their story.


My collection of GN artifacts is fairly extensive, but there are certain items that I’m always on the lookout for. Please contact me if you have any of the following items that you are interested in parting with, or would be willing to photograph or scan for me (as appropriate):
·        Anything related to the Empire Builders radio series, but particularly the following:
o   Copies of original scripts (“continuities”)
o   Tickets or other passes issued to attend a live broadcast at the NBC studios in NYC or Chicago
o   Vintage press photos showing the performers and/or technicians
o   Vintage press photos of the “Old Timer’s Tour” of Glacier Park in July, 1931
o   Actual off-the-air recordings (on original aluminum discs)
·        Early copies of the Great Northern “Goat” magazine, from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s 
·        The Great Northern Railway “Semaphore” magazine dated July, 1924 or September, 1925

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmastime 2015 - a train for the Christmas tree

How iconic it has become to add to the Christmas ambiance by setting up a model train around the base of the Christmas tree. I've wanted to do this for years, but have always had my heart set on using a locomotive and a set of cars that date back to the late 1920s.

Several years ago I discovered some pre-war American Flyer O-gauge passenger cars marked with authentic Great Northern Railway logos and (most of them) bearing the "name-train" moniker of Oriental Limited. Over time I picked up over a dozen of the cars, nearly all through eBay auctions.

Over the past summer I finally got to searching for one or two operating American Flyer locomotives of the same vintage as the passenger cars I had been accumulating. I found two in short order, and took them both to Eastside Trains in Kirkland, WA, for servicing. Neither one required significant repairs (although one was not initially operating). Both were cleaned and lubricated, and they run fine.

A circa-1928 American Flyer 3112 box cab electric locomotive,
like the one I have and used in the video below.

As Thanksgiving neared (and with it, the pivot point on the calendar where the last morsels of leftover turkey are quickly disappearing and the Christmas decorations are going up in earnest), I went back to Eastside Trains and picked up a sufficient number of Fastrack curved sections to run a complete 5-foot diameter circle under our tree. I also bought an MTH RailKing Z-1000 transformer to power the train.

I laid down the track and hooked up the transformer. To accommodate the power cord for the Christmas tree lights, I put down a vintage O-gauge pressed steel tunnel that I had picked up in November at the annual Boeing Employees Model Railroad Club swap meet. The power cord lays over the tunnel so as to not interfere with the train and tracks.

I'm not much for "smart phones." They intimidate me to no end. They make me feel dumb. They're "smart," and me, not so much. "Oy vey!" as my Scandinavian forebears used to say. (that's a joke. Uff da!)

Anyhow, I finally figured out through trial and error (mostly error) how to shoot some video with my smarter-than-I'll-ever-be phone. I managed to download it to my computer, and edited the video by adding a couple of opening and closing frames and a sound track of the Glenn Miller Orchestra performing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." If you are a fan of the Christmas standard "Christmas Story" that came out in 1983, you'll likely recognize this tune from the closing scene of the movie.

So, here it is, my first and fledgling effort at slapping together a video with my smarter-than-I'll-ever-be phone, and some video editing software.

And to paraphrase Glenn Miller and his orchestra,
I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Search This Blog