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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: 50 years ago, private passenger trains left Spokane on their final journeys

The streamlined Empire Builder of Great Northern Railway travels westward through the Rocky Mountains in Montana in this 1971 photo.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

Jim Caskey finds there’s just something lacking about passenger train rides today compared to his pre-Amtrak excursions of yesteryear.

The 86-year-old Spokane resident has a passion for trains, one that’s carried into a model train hobby and yearslong memberships with Great Northern and Northern Pacific historical societies.

He said he took train rides whenever he could throughout his life, both before and after Amtrak was established by the federal government 50 years ago this month.

It’s not to say Amtrak is somehow a lesser train operator, Caskey clarified, saying the people he’s encountered aboard Amtrak trains have been nice and he’s had no complaints.

“It’s doing the same thing, but it’s not the old-time passenger cars and stuff. They’re all new, nice and modern,” he said. He added, laughing, “I’m still back in the ’40s and ’50s and the ’60s. I haven’t advanced very far.”

Passenger trains were once the leading mode of travel until around the 1950s, when state and federal highways, as well as airplanes, started to help derail that notion, said local railroad historian Jerry Quinn.

As a result, private rail companies then began to forgo their passenger train services, as carrying passengers was a costly endeavor, Quinn said.

“When the passenger service drops off and you have a half-empty train, you’re going to lose money,” he said. “Passenger trains require so much attention for the people on the train, that you cannot just load them up like you do a boxcar or any other kind of car.”

To have the federal government take over passenger rail operations from the private companies, President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970, which created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation – later known as Amtrak. Amtrak officially went into service May 1, 1971.

That day, a Saturday, saw the Spokane community bid farewell to some of the more prominent “great-name” passenger trains that serviced the area, according to The Spokesman-Review archives. That included the North Coast Limited, Western Star, Main Streeter and Empire Builder.

Inaugurated in 1929, according to Amtrak, the Empire Builder was named in honor of James J. Hill, the founder of what became the Great Northern Railway.

“If you wanted to ride the Empire Builder, you were riding a premier train of the United States,” Quinn said. “Top of the line, epitome of service.”

Amtrak still operates the Empire Builder today along a route from Chicago to Seattle.

The transportation service saw ridership levels drop this past fiscal year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of riders aboard the Empire Builder was down from 420,855 in 2019 to 253,486 – approximately 40%, according to Amtrak statistics.

Spokane has long been a stop for the Empire Builder as it was for some of the major rail operators across the Inland Northwest at the time, Quinn said, including Great Northern, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway and Northern Pacific.

“That was a main reason why Spokane survived. If you didn’t have trains, passenger or freight, you weren’t much of a town,” he said. “Spokane was a railroad town, no doubt about it.”

The three merged with Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads in 1970 to become the Burlington Northern, which operated the Empire Builder until Amtrak took over operations in 1971, according to Amtrak.

“For people who are afraid of flying, Amtrak’s a logical answer to get to at least a region, but it’s a different kind (of travel). You get to see the countryside … Montana, the Rockies, the wheat fields and everything else along the way, and you get to socialize,” Quinn said. “You do an airplane, you’re hesitant about talking to the next guy next to you. He’s stuffed in his chair and wants to get somewhere real quick. It’s a different mindset.”

Caskey remembers a particular trip to Spokane from Seattle that he, his wife and their four children took aboard the Empire Builder in the 1950s or ’60s.

One night, when the family dined in the Empire’s dining car, Caskey saw he was undercharged with the dinner bill and informed the steward of the mistake, he said. Thankful, the steward – unprompted, Caskey said – later brought a tray with coffee, hot chocolate and cookies to the family’s room in the train’s sleeping car.

For Caskey, the old privately owned passenger trains “were the most wonderful things to ride in the world.”

“You don’t find that today in travel,” he said. “It’s the only way to go, as far as I’m concerned.”

Work to watch for

Wall Street in downtown Spokane will be closed in all directions between Sprague and Riverside avenues beginning Monday for work on the Spokane City Line bus rapid transit project from Spokane Transit Authority.

Ninth Avenue between Cowley Street and Rockwood Boulevard on the South Hill will be closed Monday for Rhodes Crane work.

STA work to install bus stops on Grand Boulevard will begin Wednesday south of 31st Avenue. Grand south of 31st will have one southbound lane closure through the end of May. Grand between 37th and 39th avenues will have alternating southbound and northbound lane closures beginning Wednesday.

Mission Avenue will be closed Monday through Friday between Standard and Hamilton streets near Gonzaga University for Cameron Reilly work.

In the county, Weile Avenue will be closed between Bigelow Gulch Road and Thierman Road starting Monday as part of the ongoing Bigelow Gulch project.