All Aboard for Glacier National Park

When Glacier National Park, Montana, celebrated its centennial last year, 2.2 million visitors came to the park, setting a new attendance record. While Amtrak’s Empire Builder serves the park, most of today’s visitors arrived by plane and automobile.

The park’s hotels and early infrastructure were developed by James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway (GN), now a part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (see downloadable history), as a means of increasing passenger rail traffic on the route between Minneapolis and Seattle. The route, which went through North Dakota, Montana and Idaho, is the northernmost transcontinental railroad in the United States. Hill and his railroad prided themselves in the fact that, unlike other transcontinental railroads, GN used no federal land grants to built the track.

Before Amtrak took over most U.S. intercity passenger rail service in 1971, Great Northern delivered visitors to East Glacier and West Glacier via many named trains over the years, the last of which were its premier Empire Builder and the Western Star. Considered a secondary passenger train, the Western Star (train #27) left Minneapolis daily for the west coast, arriving in East Glacier before breakfast the following day. When Amtrak took over passenger service on the route in 1971, it kept the Empire Builder and discontinued the Western Star which had been in operation since 1951.

Carol Guthrie’s All Aboard for Glacier National Park (2004) captures the heady days of passenger rail travel and the park.  Even though the trains are mostly gone, you can still see the Great Northern Railway’s influence throughout the park, especially in the hotels managed by Glacier Park, Inc. (The company was owned by the railroad until 1960.)

When I worked as a bellman at the park’s Many Glacier Hotel in the 1960s, I traveled from my home in Florida to the park by rail, and that included the Western Star. The railroad still offered hotel employees reduced-fare tickets even though most railroads’ passenger trains were, by then, operating at a loss. Since the train ride was part of my Glacier National Park experience, I couldn’t help but include the Great Northern Railway and the Western Star in my novel Garden of Heaven. (Now out of print.)

Garden of Heaven Excerpt

In the novel, my main character David Ward gets to do what I always wanted to do: run the Western Star for a few miles just east of Glacier National Park:

“Climb up, Mr. Ward, it’s only 24 miles, and I’ll be close by.”

“You run like a god damned freight engineer,” said Jim as he lit another cigarette, “and there will be hell to pay.”

“I won’t spill a drop of coffee,” said David.

They followed him up into the cab. Jim slouched in the fireman’s seat with his newspaper and Big Ed stood by silently while David sat, noted the positions of the brake handles and the needles on air gauges, then looked out the window at the track ahead of them. There was seldom any rust on these rails lying easy on the fine, well-drained roadbed, and now as the day wound down, the tracks were becoming a true hi-line into night. Ahead, in the middle distance, two tall trees stood equidistant from the center of track—the right bathed in full sun, the left now in shade—a gate to the future, all aboard for Blackfoot, Sundance, Cutbank, Shelby, and points east with connections to RTC Great Lakes and Vietnam. He stepped on the dead man’s pedal and looked back at Ed and said he was ready.

“It’s 5:12 and we are clear to proceed,” Ed said. “You won’t need the transition lever, go easy out of here and then one day tell your grandkids you ran the Western Star.” Ed punctuated the sentiment with two loud blasts of the horn.

He put the reverser lever in forward, pushed the throttle into notch 1 and felt the engines load as he carefully feathered off the independent brake.

“Good,” said Jim. “Big Ed didn’t leave any slack in the train.”

“Damn sure didn’t,” said Ed. “I care very deeply about those Pullman passengers and their eagle eyes conductor back there.”

David eased the throttle out a notch at a time, slowly, so far so good, he hadn’t jostled anybody, felt the automatic transition as they passed between the two trees and throttled back to avoid any wheel slip, then began easing the throttle forward again until they reached track speed.


SunSinger4coverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure woman’s Cat” and “The Sun Singer.” “The Sun Singer” is set in Glacier National Park.


2 thoughts on “All Aboard for Glacier National Park

  1. I’ve wondered what it would be like to run one of those. Last year we trained with the railroad folks and I got to stop an engine, but not run one. Amtrak is still running on the high line but I haven’t been on it. That would make a nice approach to the park though.

    1. We ran smaller engines at the rail museum, but occasionally the railroad lent us a large one for display, and allowed us to run it back and forth on a short section of track. Quite an experience just being in a locomotive of that size. Glad you got the chance.

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