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Amtrak Empire Builder 75th Anniversary

Chicago Illinois to Seattle Washington

June 11 to June 13, 2004

By Richard Elgenson, RailNews Network

By mid morning, new digintaries were on board and at least one was dressed in cowboy garb including the boots and hat.  The 75th Anniversary Empire Builder train pulled into Minot North Dakota to a large enthusiastic crowd.  The early highlight of the day for station stops was Minot, North Dakota, where the Empire Builder was met by the largest crowd. There was about a 15 minute commemoration with the National Anthem sung by the very young Greenhead boys.  There was the usual introduction of local, state and federal dignitaries.  Minot is known as the "Magic City" a nickname bestowed on the area when the Great Northern Railway halted construction for the winter trying to bridge the Gassman Coulee gap.  The town sprung up in 1886 as a tent city and was named for Henry David Minot, a railroad investor and friend of James Hill.  Minot was incorporated on June 28, 1887.


The crowd broke out into a loud round of applause.


Minot May Curt Zimbelman introduced a Minot native John Hoeven, now the Governor of North Dakota.  Governor Hoeven said hello to Congressman Earl Pomeroy and also noted the presence of the CEO of Amtrak Mr. David Gunn "fresh off the train."  The Governor noted Mr. Gunn being "from Nova Scotia and he really likes our balmy warm weather here in North Dakota.  So welcome to warm North Dakota and it's good to have you.  This is a fun and special day."  He noted his father who was in attendance.  "The big reason we are here today is to celebrate the Empire Builder which was started in 1929, so 75 years of tremendous service from Chicago to Seattle.  And it has been a tremendously important transportation link for North Dakota for those many, many years serving communities from Grand Forks to Williston and many in between and doing a tremendous, tremendous job!  So we are very excited about celebrating this 75 anniversary for Amtrak and for the Empire Builder."  He recounted his first trip to Chicago on the Empire Builder as a teenager and commented on the group of high school students about to embark onto the Empire Builder for a trip to Seattle.  "...this is also about the future.  It's about the building our future in North Dakota, it's about growing and making good things happen.  And in that process, we are always looking for good partners to grow with us, to do things with us." 


Governor Hoeven continued "And so, Mr. Gunn,  it's good to have you here, because we look forward to a very strong partnership with the Empire Builder and with Amtrak for many, many years to come!  ...David Gunn is doing an outstanding job with Amtrak  In North Dakota, our ridership was up about 22% last year, but systemwide ridership is up strongly.  Mr. Gunn has an outstanding track record and he is going to continue to do tremendous things with this railroad and we look forward to partnering with him.  We need the railroad to move people and we need it to move goods..."  Governor Hoeven read a lengthy proclamation thanking the Empire Builder from its beginnings in 1929, serving 45 stations along the route, including 7 in North Dakota, its role in boosting tourism and the economic development through the the State of North Dakota, transporting 415,000 passengers in 2003, achieving the most on time performance of all long distance trains, remaining the most heavily travelled east-west transcontinental train, Amtrak employing 3,000 people in states served by the Empire Builder, for fiscal year 2003 extended 100 million dollars in goods and services, grand views of the state's natural scenery and heritage, following the Lewis and Clark trail, for continuous operation between chicago and the Pacific Northwest via North Dakota. " Governor of the great State of North Dakota, I do hereby proclaim June 12, 2004 Empire Builder recognition day in the State of North Dakota.  Congratulations Mr. Gunn."

Before introducing other legislators, Governor Hoeven quipped that "... it always goes better for me when I introduce the legislators" who included Representative John Nelson, Senator Ryan Taylor in the cowboy hat, and one in particular, Representative Andy Maragos from Minot who happens be a ticket agent at the Minot Amtrak Station.  "Hard working employee Mr. Gunn."  The Governor then noted a group of youngsters from Sunny Lutheran Church from Wilton, North Dakota, who were going to Seattle on a service mission to work in shelters and food kitchens that serve people in need.


Mayor Zimbelman returned to the podium and noted that Rubgy Mayor Dale Niewonder, known as Mr. Amtrak, was also at the ceremony.  Next up was U.S. Congressman Earl Pomeroy.  He noted the importance of the Mayors in the advocacy for Amtrak funding.  He thanked Mayor Niewonder as a tough advocate for Amtrak, the toughest advocate "in all of the United States."  Congressman Pomeroy also introduced several North Dakotans who played a role in the railroad.  One individual worked in the Grand Forks office some 60 years ago.  In reviewing the tape, I just cannot decipher that persons name.  Next was an engineer, Wally Klein, who drove the last Great Northern Empire Builder into Minot before Amtrak took over.  He was an engineer for 44 years!  The Congressman commented that it was a thrill for everyone to have Mr. Gunn present.  He added that it is important for Amtrak to remain "a national passenger rail service, not just the run of the little stretches between big cities ...out here in the heartland.  We know that Amtrak has never had a better leader than Mr. Gunn. He has taken the case of Amtrak to Congress and I am very pleased to work with Senators Conrad and Dorgan in terms of trying to get the money needed to keep passenger rail available on a national basis.  We put taxpayer money into highways, we put taxpayer money into air, as well we should.  But just a little bit of taxpayer money to keep Amtrak national, that's importat to us, the heartland deserves passenger rail too and Mr. Gunn and I are working on making sure that happens.  And all of the volunteers (Rails and Trails) Amtrak has enlisted to help make the travel experience through our part of the country especially meaningful. Volunteers working without pay, that'll get on the train and ride along and as we go through some of this historic areas, the very areas where Lewis and Clark walked 200 years ago, our volunteers will be explaining the significance to the passengers going through our area, maybe for their first and only time about what they're seeing.  So let's hear it for the Rails (& Trails) volunteers.  Thank you for what you do to expand the experience of the travelling public."  He further stated that ridership figures are "up 35 % so far this calendar year" and ..."on track to hit 100,000 this year" up from 70,000.  "This is a living, breathing, important part of our transportation alternatives and the economies of the towns it serves.  And we're commited to having you."  He closed with a 75 year old quote from James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway and other railroads...but not before using the name "Northern Pacific" for the second time and saying that "all my work on the appropriations and I'm just shot in terms of good will.  Congressman Pomeroy, we forgive you.  "When we are all dead, and gone, the sun will shine, the rain shall fall and the railroad will run as usual."  "Well, Mr. Gunn, we're committed right here in North Dakota to making sure that very thing can be said at the next 75th anniversary down the road."  Mayor Zimbleman next announced his honor the "big gun" of Amtrak, the CEO, Mr. David Gunn.  Applause.  Mr. Gunn said "Thank you Governor and Congressman, and I won't say Northern Pacific...I just want to say a couple of things.  First of all, I first rode the Empire Builder in the late '40's.  I rode the Empire Builder before there were domes.  It was streamlined, there were domes (small ones?) but most of the freight trains were hauled by steam engines.  I was a teenager at the time.  I've riden this train probably in my life 10 or 15 times, and I have to tell you, I have to be careful what I say here because it will get into the press, but, I have favorite trains.  And this is one of my two favorite trains and I won't tell you what the other one is.  And we're commited to a national system and as along I am president and we have a modicum of funding, this train's going to run.  It's a good train, you use it. Ridership is growing and it's a great train.  Also, I have to tell you one other thing.  I come from Nova Scotia and I find it a little warm here.  We have weather almost identical to what you have here ... except your lilacs are a little ahead of ours.  At any rate, this is the second time I have been in Minot at a podium.  You make me feel very welcome and I'm glad to be here. You're a great bunch.  So keep riding the train."  Mayor Zimbelman concluded saying "Thank you Mr. Gunn.  He's done a tremendous job revitalizing Amtrak and I appreciate what he's doing. That concludes our program for today.  I want to thank you all for being here.  Minot began as a railroad town and we continue to a railroad town.  So with that, I thank you."  Mr. Gunn then said he had a gift for the each of the three gentleman, the Governor, the Congressman and the Mayor whch was an anniversary poster signed by the artist J. Craig Thorpe and also by Mr. Gunn.



At the end of the press conference, the engineer Wally Klein got ahold of the poster from the lecturn and I asked him to pose with it.  Minot is where I first became aware of the National Park Service Rails & Trails program as stated above by Congressman Pomeroy.


At Minot North Dakota, Michael and Particia Duffy boarded the train and found their way to the Ocean View car.  Michael Duffy, an International Business Professor at Minot State University, immediately started narrating the scenery for me.  First I found out about the Gassman Coulee trestle which we cruised over 3 miles west of Minot.  Somehow, I was able to grab a shot in which the trestle is barely visible.


The church group of teenagers boarded the Empire Builder at Minot.  Soon they were led into Ocean View and Mr. Gunn spoke to them for several minutes somewhere west of Stanley, North Dakota.  He said that he has been "with Amtrak for two years, but I've been in the railroad business for 40 years.  In fact there are those people who say I couldn't get a job if I weren't working on the railroad.  Probably true and I'm not sure I'd want one if I didn't work on the railroad.  Amtrak is a lot of fun. We operate over 22,000 route miles.  We operate hundreds of trains a day.  We run long distance and corridor trains.  This is, as the Lutheran group heard me say on the platform, one of my two favorite trains.  I won't say what my other favorite train is, because then all my other Amtrak employees would be after me as to why I don't like this train or that train.  This is certainly a train that I think highly of.  This train is a train I rode when there were steam engines, believe it or not.  I rode it even before this dome car was built.  I'm actually quite old as you can tell.  I'll be 67."  Marc Magliari, Chicago Amtrak spokesman, visible just to the left of Mr. Gunn chimed in a comment to which Mr. Gunn said " Yeah, young at heart.  Anyway, you're going to be the future for Amtrak  You're young and you're going to be riding trains, hopefully.  I hope you enjoy your trip  You are all going where...Seattle?  Right?  Yeah, ok, and you're coming back by train?  Ah, that's good....I'm really glad you're here.  And, just take a look at this car, which is a very historic car.  This car is fifty something years old."  Again, Marc chimed in "1955."  "1955, this car was built.  So, it's basically a fifty year old car.  And the Beech Grove behind us, which you're going in to look at, is a thirty year old car.  That was in a wreck and rebuilt in our own shops into what we call an office car for use on events like this.  So, go down and look at the Beech Grove, in small groups, since it would get sort of crowded if you all went in at once.  We're glad you're here!  Thanks"


The area around mostly to the south of Minot is the Coteau Prairie which was cut by glaciers and we noticed a lot of standing water.   North Dakota is known for the fewest diversity of flora of all 50 states.  However, the Coteau Prairie is along the North American flyway and is paradise for ornithologists and regular bird watchers.  The area also has white tail deer, pronghorn antelope, some moose, coyotes, some red wolf, fox, penned in buffalo, and the occassional mountain lion.  This area was invaded in the 1700 and 1800's by the French and Mr. Duffy said that if Lewis and Clark had tried to visit this area, the French would have kicked them out!  We roared past a ghost town, then a Minuteman III missle silo.  We searched for a control center which oversees 12 silos, but did not spot the building.  Michael said to be on the lookout for an alkalai lake, but the recent rains obscured it from our view.

Next stop Willoughby, er, make that Williston, North Dakota.  Phil Jackson was busy at this time and was not present, though he may have come back by now.

Page 5 of  Amtrak 75th Anniversary Empire Builder