The name Empire Builder dates from 1929. It honors 19th century Minnesota rail tycoon James J. Hill, who built this whole line, originally called the Great Northern, in the 1880s and 1890s. In addition to growing rich transporting freight by rail, he had a vision to transport tourists to what is now Glacier National Park. After Glacier became a national park in 1911, passenger travel there expanded. One 1930s brochure advertising the Empire Builder waxed, “You relish Empire Builder meals. You sleep exceptionally well. You meet worthwhile people. … Here indeed is an extra fine train.”
These days, the Empire Builder has a comfortable dome observation car, which is a splendid way to see just how big this country is. The prairie and farmland and waterways pass like watercolor illustrations from a book about scenic America. Although the train has its big-city stops in Seattle, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, it seems most at home on the prairie. It pauses at Fargo, N.D., famed for the movie that bears its name. It stops in Williston, N.D., an oil boom town. It regally passes several tattered, windswept spots that look shabby enough to blow away in a strong Montana wind.
Ride the Empire Builder, and you get a strange sense of still being part of the rich historical timeline of the West. Trains helped settle this country. Two big Indian reservations along the way — the Blackfeet and Ft. Peck (for the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes) — still speak to the heartbreak of loss, the vanished buffalo and the first people on these lands. And always the waving grasses spread out to the rolling distance, showing the sweeping America that Empire Builder transits every day.
Finally, we spotted the snow-covered Rockies jutting from the distant landscape, and then we were at East Glacier on the edge of Glacier National Park.
That’s where I got out.