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The Empire Builder

March 25, 2014 | 5 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I very much enjoyed your "There's No Place Like Home" essay in the February issue of the National Geographic.

I do have a question. Twice in the article, you make reference to the Empire Builder (passenger train) suggesting that your father was a mail clerk on that train. However, when accessing your Dad's obituary online, it mentions that he was an RPO (Railway Post Office) clerk between St. Paul and Jamestown, ND. This would have meant that he worked on a Northern Pacific Railway train (like the North Coast Limited or Mainstreeter); the Empire Builder, back when you were a kid, was operated west of St. Paul by the Great Northern Railway.

As someone who is very interested in the history of the Empire Builder (growing up along its route in Cut Bank, Montana, and riding it back to the Twin Cities on numerous occasions....and it STILL RUNS!), I'm interested in even anecdotal history about the train, so I'd appreciate a clarification.

Mark Meyer
Fort Worth, TX


It's eagle-eyed readers like you, Mr. Meyer, who keep us writers as honest as we are. Without you, and people like you, out there, I would've had the Empire Builder wandering down through Wyoming and putting it on a barge to cross the Great Salt Lake. You are, of course, right. It was the NP, not the GN. My dad John P. Keillor (1913-2001) worked that St. Paul-Jamestown run, sorting mail as the train raced north and west, throwing bags of mail out the open door as the train sped through small-town stations as a hook on the side of the car picked up the bag of outgoing mail that the local post office had hung on an arm. The postal clerks were armed with snub-nose revolvers, lest anyone attempt a Great Train Robbery, but my dad never used his: it was only for show. I drove him to work at the Union Station in St. Paul which now, glory be, has been beautifully restored and will soon see passenger trains stopping there once again. When you come north, be sure to visit it. I can't wait to go there on our new light-rail cars (in operation starting in June) and catch the Empire Builder to Chicago, a beautiful route along the west bank of the Mississippi to LaCrescent and then across and into Wisconsin. If I have the time, I'll catch the California Zephyr in Chicago and ride it through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and into Oakland, crossing the Rockies and the Sierras, the most wonderful train ride in the U.S. But of course you know that already. (P.S. The train called the Prairie Queen that I wrote about years ago in The New Yorker, in a story called "My North Dakota Railroad Days," was a piece of pure fiction, and I loved the argumentative letters I got from railroad buffs insisting that there was no such train. Some of them were rather incensed, as if I had perpetrated a hoax. I took their letters as great praise.)


I respectfully disagree with the assessment that the CZ is the "most wonderful train". The final day on the Empire Builder after crossing through the cascade tunnel is by far a more striking sight than that of the jagged rock valleys through which the CZ traverses.


I hope you do get on that California Zephyr. It's a magical trip. Midwinter is best with the snow in the Rockies and Cascades, and the plow on the rails ahead as you round a bend and see through the pelting snow that someone is doing an amazing job with a huge plow on a little engine. The dining car is especially nice, and the seats are comfy. I was too excited to use my bed to sleep but I did catch a nap in the observation car. I hated missing a moment. Lovely.


I agree: The California Zephyr (which actually terminates now in Emeryville, California, not Oakland), pales in comparison to the Empire Builder. Of course "wonderful" is very subjective, but the Empire Builder (North America's single most-ridden passenger train for 10 straight years) still does what passenger trains are supposed to do: serve isolated communities in places like Montana and Norht Dakota that allow people to come to St. Paul and see A Prairie Home Companion! In addition, the Empire Builder is known as "The Bakken Streecar" due to the many people who are working in the oil boom area around Williston, ND who ride it. You can also detrain from the Empire Builder at Glacier Park Station (East Glacier) and walk the flower-lined walkway to Glacier Park Lodge built by the Great Northern Railway (101 years old this year). Indeed, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park has the greatest collection of railroad-built (Great Northern Railway) hostelries still in use in one location in all of North America. The Great Northern touted its Empire Builder as "incomparable", and as it turns 85 on June 11, 2014, in many ways, it still is!

Oh yes, the "Empire Builder" A magical ride , boarding late at night in St. Paul, awakening to North Dakota, Montana landscapes, and on to follow the Columbia River (seems like a few feet from the shoreline,)for hours and hours until rolling into Portland Oregon,and if between trains in Portland, walk to Powell's Books, buy a Garrison Keillor book to read on the "Coast Starlight" to continue the joy to California.

Except the Empire Builder is hours late arriving at its destination, thanks to BNSF and oil/coal train routing.

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