Facebook Page
Where are the Skytops?

Where are the Skytop Lounges?

Playing Detective: Tracking down the Milwaukee Road Skytops

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Published: April 26, 2016

Co-authors Robert & Kandace Tabern pose with Milwaukee Road Skytop Lounge "Cedar Rapids" in October 2015

Without a doubt - we (Robert & Kandace) are both Milwaukee Road fans. We guess that comes as no surprise with Robert growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago and with both of us now calling Wadsworth, Illinois home. Even though we are both too young to actually remember them in actual revenue service, our favorite passenger car of the old Milwaukee Road was no doubt the Skytop Lounges. The rear of these cars were made of 90% glass, with multiple rows of windows reaching up to form the ceiling. The interior featured wood paneling, characteristic of Milwaukee Road designs. But, where are these cars today?  How many are still even around -- and if so, where -- and can you ride on any of them?

Before we delve into that question, a little overview about the Skytop is in order. In 1935, the Milwaukee Road introduced the original Hiawatha between Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities with much acclaim. The new trains covered 420 miles in just seven hours. Their equipment included the popular "Tip-Top-Tavern" and the distinctive "Beaver Tail" lounge observation cars (pictured below). From the beginning, the Hiawathas were known for speed and stylish design. Such was the success of the train that the Milwaukee Road would introduce new equipment again in 1936, 1937, 1938, and 1942. However, during World War II, additional improvements were temporarily put on hold.

Milwaukee Road "Beaver Tail" observation car that was used in the 1930's and 1940's between Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities
(Courtesy: Milwaukee Road Historical Association)

Shortly after the conclusion of World War II, Milwaukee Road officials decided they needed a total of 10 Skytop cars built. All were designed by famed industrial designed Brooks Stevens and put into service between November 1948 and January 1949. These posh and fashionable cars provided a lounge area for guests to relax and enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience while traveling at the same fast speeds that the Hiawathas had come to be known for. Of the 10 Skytop cars, four parlor-style cars were built by the Milwaukee Road and six sleeper-style cars were built by Pullman Standard. The parlor-style cars were outfitted with just one drawing room and 24 parlor seats, while the sleeper-style Skytop cars featured eight bedrooms and a 19-seat lounge area. There were also some subtle differences that could be seen on the exterior of the cars. The sleeping accommodations had paired window arrangements, the larger lounge area required an extra course of windows in the Skytop, and the silver band around the rear of the car was fluted rather than smooth, mirroring the fluted nose treatment on the Erie-built diesels originally assigned to pull the Olympian Hiawatha. Since they were designed more for overnight long-distance travel, the six sleeper-style Skytop cars were used on the Olympian Hiawatha, which operated between Chicago Union Station and Tacoma, Washington. Likewise, the four parlor-style cars, which were designed for shorter travel in-mind, were used on the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which operated between Chicago Union Station and the Twin Cities. The six sleeper cars were part of the creek series. Each sleeper was given a creek name: Adler Creek, Arrow Creek, Coffee Creek, Gold Creek, Marble Creek and Spanish Creek. The parlor cars were named after rapids: Cedar Rapids, Coon Rapids, Dell Rapids and Priest Rapids.

A diagram of the Skytop Lounges: exterior of the sleeper-style cars (top image), sleeper-style interior diagram (middle image), and parlor-style interior diagram (lower image)
Courtesy: Friends of the 261 & Clint Chamberlain's "Northeast Rails"

While this article will mainly focus on the possible "where-abouts" of the four parlor-style Skytop cars, it should be noted that the six sleeper-style cars were used by the Milwaukee Road on the Olympian Hiawatha for just over a decade. They were pulled from service in 1961 and sold to the Canadian National in 1964, which re-named them "Skyview cars"; they were mainly used on the CN's Halifax to Montreal service trains from 1965 to 1969, including the Ocean Limited and the Scotian. Canadian National also used the cars on the Montreal-Toronto corridor in 1969. They were then moved to the Canadian National's Gaspe-Montreal and Jasper-Prince Rupert routes until they were withdrawn from service in September 1971. Sadly, these beautiful cars ended up being no longer complaint with Canadian fire regulations (due to have only having just one exit door). As a result, two of the sleeper-style Skytop cars (Alder Creek and Spanish Creek) were scrapped in Canada; the other four were sold off to private rail car operators back in the United States. According to other TrainWeb sites dealing with Skytop Lounges, Marble Creek was sold to a private car collected in Pennsylvania, but also ended up being scrapped at some point. The cut-up shells of Arrow Creek and Gold Creek are now located at the Milwaukee Road Heritage Center in Montevideo, Minnesota, following a failed attempt to turn them into a "floating restaurant" that was to be called the S.S. Lansdowne. Meanwhile, a 2014 Trains Magazine post reports that funds are being raised by Iowa Pacific to fully restore Coffee Creek for service on the back of Amtrak trains in the future; the car reportedly remains at their repair facility in Alamosa, Iowa.

The cut-up shells of Arrow Creek and Gold Creek are now located at a museum in Montevideo, MN
(Courtesy: Milwaukee Road Heritage Center)

Now that you have insight into what happened to the six sleeper-style Skytop cars, let's turn our focus to the four "Rapids-series" parlor-style Skytop cars. While their long-distance sister cars were traversing Canadian rails, the Milwaukee Road continued to operate the Cedar Rapids, Coon Rapids, Dell Rapids and Priest Rapids on its Hiawatha service between Chicago Union Station, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities through early 1970. With the cars being more than 30 years old at that point, railroad officials decided they would simply cost too much to maintain and overhaul. To our horror today, the Priest Rapids was soaked in oil and then burned; it was cut up and sold for scrap in August 1970. Interestingly enough, a Wisconsin railfan photographed the car after the fire (see below) - resulting in the gutted and wrapped car appearing in Trains Magazine. The backlash was reportedly so harsh from this "unauthorized" photo that the Milwaukee Road confiscated cameras from those who were allowed to go on future shop tours, all the way into the 1980's. On the positive side, some say the publication of this photo also saved the three remaining Skytop parlor-style cars from receiving the same treatment.

One of the four parlor-style Skytop Lounges met its maker in 1970; the Priest Rapids was set on fire and scrapped
(Courtesy: Milwaukee Road Historical Association)

And then there were three... Unfortunately, the verified whereabouts of Coon Rapids appear to remain a mystery to us, at least for now. According to several online reports, the car was sold off by the Milwaukee Road in the mid-1970's to Dave Vannes of Madison, Wisconsin. He moved it from Milwaukee to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and even ran it on several excursions during 1974 on the privately-owned short line Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad (from Escanaba to Channing, Michigan). Check out the photo below that was taken by Tom Farence. We were told that Coon Rapids was kept outside and received some serious damage due to the area's harsh winters that occurred in 1978-79. The car was then apparently repossessed by John Larkin for back payments owed to the former owners after his purchase of the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad during the 1980's. At last report, the car remains "in storage" at an indoor facility in Wells, Michigan. Outside the Rails @ TrainWeb made multiple attempts to contact the individuals and railroad mentioned in this paragraph, however our phone calls and e-mails were not returned. The condition of this car is also not known, but since the most recent photo of Coon Rapids that we could track down is more than 40 years old now, one could presume that it would likely take a large sum of money to ever return it to a good state of operation.

One of the last known pictures of Coon Rapids - taken during a private excursion in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1974
(Photo Courtesy: Tom Farence)

Luckily, for the sake of this article, the two other remaining Skytop lounges were a lot easier to track down. On December 31, 2015, we paid a visit to Daytona Beach, Florida, to see the Dell Rapids, which is currently on permanent display at the Museum of Arts and Sciences. So how does a historic railroad car go from nearly being scrapped in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to being beautifully displayed at an art museum in Florida?  We met up with Andrew Sandall, the facility's Executive Director, who was more than willing to share the story and give us a tour around the stunning indoor rail history display. In 1970, following the PR debacle with the "unauthorized photo" mentioned above, the Milwaukee Road was more than eager to sell off Dell Rapids to Chapman S. "Chappie" Root, who lived in Daytona Beach. The Root family is very well-to-do, with Chapman's grandfather being the inventor of the modern-day glass bottle Coca-Cola would go on to use. Needing repairs before it could be regularly used again, Dell Rapids was sent to Omaha, Nebraska, where it was refurbished and repainted. However, during delivery, the car was involved in a wreck of the eastbound Burlington Northern freight it was traveling on. So, it was returned to Omaha where it was once again rebuilt, and once again sent on its way to the Root Family in Florida. The Roots also owned ex-Burlington dome car Silver Holly (which is also on display at the museum), and would use the cars to take family cross-country vacations to the National Park Service sites of the Western U.S.  The cars, which were kept at a train yard in Sanford, Florida, began to deteriorate again through the 1980's and 1990's. Upon Chapman Root's death, his memorabilia collection - which spans from Coca-Cola memorabilia, to teddy bears, to Dell Rapids, was donated to the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. Dell Rapids was originally on display in an outdoor area of the museum, but began to suffer from extreme wear and tear, due to the salty air (it's located just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean). A project that cost over $1,000,000 has recently been completed - and now Dell Rapids sits in an enclosed wing of the museum. The interior of the car is not open to the public and the car is not in operating condition. However, the interior of the car is in its original condition/colors and fabric (even the Milwaukee Road headrests are original) - the only one of the four Skytop parlor-style lounges who can claim this distinction.









Various photos of Dell Rapids taken at the Daytona Beach, Florida Museum of Arts and Sciences on December 31, 2015

Out of the original ten cars, the only remaining Skytop car to actually be Amtrak-certified today is the Cedar Rapids; it is owned by the Friends of the 261 and kept at a rail storage repair facility outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Yes, sadly, this is the only one you can ride anymore and have the same experience that passengers of the 1940's and 1950's did. Unable to find a buyer, but unwilling to scrap it following the incident with the leaked "unauthorized photo" of Priest Rapids, the Milwaukee Road kept Cedar Rapids in storage at its West Milwaukee shops through the 1970's and early 1980's. Railroad historians have evidence that the original seats in the Cedar Rapids were removed, a sign the car might have been very close to being scrapped. It is believed that seats from a Creek-series car or the Milwaukee Road shops were later re-added so the car could be re-sold.

When the Milwaukee Road was acquired by the Soo Line in 1985, Cedar Rapids was sold to Dave Stevens as a Christmas gift for his father, who is also the son of the original car designer. The car was kept at the East Troy Electric Railway Museum; it was here that the car was cleaned up, repainted in orange and maroon, and Milwaukee Road-style lettering was applied. During the late 1980's, the car was operated by a group calling themselves "First Premier Express" based in Chicago, with the car operating on excursions out of Milwaukee. The car was sold in 1990 to William Nicholson who formed a rail excursion company called Cedar Rapids, Ltd.; it operated for several trips on the back of Amtrak's California Zephyr out of Denver, traveling up the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. For much of the 1990's, however, the car was placed in storage when Amtrak required new rules for hauling private passenger cars that the Cedar Rapids was not compliant with. In early 1999, the car returned to the Midwest when it was purchased by the Friends of the 261.  It operated on its first excursion in about 10 years during the weekend of May 22 and 23, 1999, pulled by Milwaukee Road Steam Locomotive #261.

The first time Robert got to ride in the Cedar Rapids was in June 2006, when the Friends of the 261 was offering a round-trip excursion between Milwaukee and New Lisbon, Wisconsin. After having coach tickets for the first half of the trip, being upgraded to the Skytop Lounge was a real treat for the ride home. Robert rode in the Cedar Rapids every year after that on various excursions - some pulled by Milwaukee Road #261, other steam locomotives, and behind various Amtrak passenger trains. The most distinctive feature of these cars is the rear solarium lounge, with a curved "turtle-back" contour and windows extending above the normal height up the sides and end into the roof. Unlike most observation cars, the lounge seats in the Skytop solarium all faced inward. While this reduced the ability to view the scenery along the Mississippi, it facilitates conversation and allows for more seats in the limited space. The Skytop lounge is separated from the rest of the car by a pair of shoulder-high flower boxes.

In 2010, Robert became a 'lifetime member' of the Friends of the 261 and began doing narration for Premium Class passengers in the Cedar Rapids and its sister car, Super Dome #53. The following year, Robert published a route guide book for the route between Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul; it is called "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Paul". Robert was asked by Friends of the 261 CEO Steve Sandburg to sell copies of his book on Friends of the 261 cars, including the Cedar Rapids, to help raise money for the organization. When Kandace moved to the Midwest in January 2012 and became engaged to Robert, she also joined the Friends of the 261 and also began volunteering on many of their excursions.

In October 2012, we decided to share our love for one another... and railroads... by chartering several cars that belong to the Friends of the 261, including the Cedar Rapids, for our wedding reception. On Sunday, October 14, 2012, our wedding party rode in the Cedar Rapids on a round-trip excursion between Minneapolis Junction, Minnesota and La Crescent, Minnesota. The day was filled with friends, family, food, and fond railroading memories. We were glad that we could expose some of our wedding guests, who were not railfans, to what a cool experience it was to ride on a historic private railcar. They especially enjoyed it when we told them that the Cedar Rapids was one of Frank Sinatra's favorite and most-requested private cars!  We even had a film crew from the Travel Channel Show Tricked Out Trains aboard to film what we were doing. The following day, on Monday, October 15, 2012, our wedding guests rode in three private Friends of the 261 cars on the back of the Empire Builder from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Chicago Union Station. We even made stops at the Wisconsin Dells and Milwaukee for guests who lived in those areas.

Today, the Cedar Rapids remains one of the premier cars of the Friends of the 261 and can be seen on various excursions. We are also still active doing narration and selling route guide books for the organization, now through an affiliation deal they hold with the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) Rail Rangers program.










Various photos of the Cedar Rapids during our wedding reception charter train on October 14, 2012
(Photos by Robert Tabern, Bob Cox, and Amy Cox)


A promotional shoots for APRHF Rail Rangers on the Cedar Rapids in October 2015 - notice the new carpeting and upholstery
(Photos by Delano DuGarm)

NEXT MONTH'S ARTICLE:  May 2016 - Rail Rangers' Chicago to St. Louis Excursion on April 23 & 24, 2016


TrainWeb Skytop Lounge Page | TrainWeb Milwaukee Road "Skytops" Page

Daytona Beach, FL Museum of Arts & Sciences | Friends of the 261Milwaukee Road Heritage Center
| Milwaukee Road Historical Association 


Top of this page
| APRHF Rail Rangers Website | APRHF Rail Rangers on Facebook | Robert Tabern on Facebooks

Outside the Rails Route Guides on Facebook
| Purchase Copies of Outside the Rails Route Guides

 Silver Rails Country | American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) | | Other Rail Travelogues |