Great Domes for the Great Northern

On May 29 1955–barely a month after the inauguration of the Canadian–the Great Northern added domes to the Empire Builder. Like the Union Pacific, the GN was a reluctant dome-car buyer, but was forced to do so to meet competition from the Milwaukee and Northern Pacific.

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The Olympian Hiawatha had a single full-length dome while the North Coast Limited had four short domes. The Great Northern had to do better than either, so it asked Budd to build enough domes to have three short dome-coaches and one full-length dome similar to the Santa Fe Big Dome for each Empire Builder train set. With 147 dome seats, the Big G advertised, “More Dome Seats — More Scenic Miles.” Northern Pacific and Milwaukee aficionados contest the more-scenic-miles claim, but no one could argue with the fact that an Empire Builder had far more dome seats than any other scheduled train. The next highest were Burlington’s five-dome Twin Zephyr and the California Zephyr, each of which had 120 dome seats.

Prairie View, one of the full-length domes made for the Empire Builder. The others were named Ocean, Mountain, River, Glacier, and Lake View. Railpictures photo by Ted Ellis; used with permission.

The full-length domes weren’t perfect. The air conditioning was not always able to stand up to the hot Montana sun, and Northern Pacific employees snickered that Empire Builder sleeping car passengers–who were the only ones allowed in the full-length dome–sometimes walked up to a short dome for a better view. But the 1955 Empire Builder as many or more different places to go–the four domes; the Ranch Car; the lounge under the full-length dome; the diner; and a small lounge in the observation car–as any other train of its time, and by far the highest ratio of non-revenue to revenue seats of any transcontinental train ever.

Two of the Empire Builder‘s short domes in Chicago. The sixteen short domes–three for each of five train sets plus one spare–had numbers but no names. Railpictures photo by Ted Ellis; used with permission.

The full-length dome eliminated the need for the large-windowed Mountain-series observation cars, which were bumped to the Western Star. In their stead, GN remodeled the observation cars from the 1947 Empire Builder–which had been used by the Western Star–into cars with six roomettes, four double-bedrooms, and one compartment (for a total of 16 beds) and a small lounge in the rounded end with 8 seats. These cars were named after coulees, the now-dry canyons found in eastern Washington that had been carved during period ice-age floods.

Rocky Coulee, one of the Empire Builder‘s remodeled observation cars. The other cars in the series were named Choteau, Twelve Mile, Corral, Trail, and Grand Coulee. The pulled shades cover the small lounge; the rest of the car is roomettes in the middle and double-bedrooms at the end while the tiny window at the far end is for the porter’s room and the larger window on this side of the tiny window is for the brakeman’s seat. This is an unusual configuration as double-bedrooms are usually placed in the middle where the most comfortable ride is found, and it reflects the cars’ heritage as ones with a larger lounge and two double-bedrooms (the only rooms left intact) and a drawing room on the far end. Railpictures photo by Ted Ellis; used with permission.

The Coulee lounges, which had no food or beverage service, were not very popular since much better views could be had in the domes. Great Northern executives who rode the Empire Builder would meet in the lounges for semi-private meetings, knowing that few passengers drifted back and even fewer stayed.

The transition to this configuration was not instantaneous. The May 29, 1955 introduction was for the dome-coaches only. The full-length domes were not delivered from Budd until the end of the summer, during which time the Mountain cars continued to serve as the first-class lounge while the GN shops spent the summer converting the Coulee cars. During the winters, the Great Northern operated one less dome-coach (as well as one less sleeper) on the Empire Builder and put the dome car on the Western Star, making that a domeliner as well, albeit only during the off-season.

The dome-coaches cost the railway $225,000 each ($1.9 million in today’s dollars) while the full-length domes cost $325,000 ($2.7 million) for a total of about $5.55 million (well over $45 million). I hope the railway got its money’s worth over the next 16 years; the passengers sure did.


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