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Friday, April 22, 2011

A Virtual Visit to Whitefish, Montana

Sitting at home today, I was browsing a blog that led me to a controversy about the members of the board of trustees at a community college in Northwest Montana. That soon led me to a Google Map of the area and I realized that it was not terribly far from Whitefish, Montana.

That, in turn, caused me to remember my last train ride in the United States.

The year was 1968. I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and had decided to travel home to Portland, Oregon, by train for the Christmas holidays. I left Minneapolis and headed west on the Great Northern Empire Builder. I had told my girlfriend (now my wife, by the way) that I'd be back on the 31st of December to celebrate New Year's Eve. After a pleasant visit with my family, I began my trip back to Minnesota around 6 p.m. on the afternoon of December 29th. The schedule called for about 37 hours to complete the trip with arrival in Minneapolis on the morning of December 31st.

Before leaving home, my wonderful aunt Frances handed me a large bag of cookies and a healthy supply of cake. I squeezed them carefully into my suitcase.

The train left Portland at 3:00 p.m. bound for Spokane.

In Spokane the cars we were on joined up with the real Empire Builder, coming from Seattle. I recall that we sat in the Depot in Spokane for quite a while waiting for the connection. I could see a bank thermometer from my seat while we waited. It was flashing -16.

We pulled out of the Spokane depot and began heading up into the mountains of Idaho and Montana where it began to get cold.

The National Weather Service records for the time list these temperatures:
Date Minimum Maximum
Spokane, WA 30-Dec -22 -11
Whitefish, MT 31-Dec -24 -7.1
Havre, MT 29-Dec -43.1 -29

As we climbed into the mountains east of Spokane, I noticed that a few passengers from the car behind us had moved up into my car. "No heat back there," one grumbled. Soon it began to feel chilly in my car. The window frosted. Breath became visible. It was cold. More passengers came to enjoy the relative warmth, though.

It's about a five hour ride from Spokane to Whitefish. By the time we pulled in to the depot we were very cold. The conductor had us all leave the train and enter the depot. They would get the heat going again while we warmed up inside.

Now here is where memory gets warped. I've told this story many times over the years. Each time I tell it the Whitefish depot gets smaller, the number of passengers gets larger and the heat source in the depot becomes more like a glowing coal stove. Imagine my surprise this morning when I Googled up a few pictures of the depot and it looked like this:

That looks large and comfortable. I was just sure that there was a wood or coal stove in the middle of the tiny waiting room.

Streetside view from
which is in Steve Brown's wonderful Flickr Photostream at

A photo recently for sale on eBay shows an older view of the depot.

Trackside view from

While we spent two or three hours in the Whitefish Depot, railway crews were outside applying acetylene torches to some of the pipes on the side of the passenger cars. We were told that the heat was back on and loaded back up.

I don't know how far we made it before the next freeze-up. Maybe a hundred miles? And this scene repeated itself all the way across Montana and North Dakota. Instead of New Year's Eve in Minneapolis, I celebrated it on a railroad siding in Devil's Lake North Dakota. And the train was out of both food and beverages by that time as well as out of heat. But I had cookies. And cake!

Since this was long before cell phones, I sent a telegram to Linda telling her the sad story. When we finally arrived in Minneapolis about noon on January 1st, we were 30 hours late.

As I said, this was my last train ride in the United States.

But the train rolls on! Here is a clipping from December of 1990 noting an Empire Builder 24 hours behind schedule when it reached Fargo.