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.
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.)