Dewi's Trains,
Trams & Trolleys

Around America by train:
Portlan to Chicago

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The Empire Builder

We were given an early call to get aboard the Empire Builder. Panic! We did not appear on sleeping-car attendant's manifest. Somebody else was marked down for the room we thought we had. That was in spite of the fact that we had a ticket issued by VIA rail, and a print-out from Amtrak itself made by the willing clerk in Greensboro. The conductor took over: he took our tickets inside the station, returned and announced that we were now booked, and would be in bedroom 2. Whew!

The sleeping car attendant got us settled in, then told us that there would be no diner until Spokane (the diner would be on the part of the train that starts in Seattle, and joins on in Spokane), so there would be no hot meals. He asked us whether we wanted beef or chicken: we both opted for chicken, and he promptly gave us two meal packs. Off to Vancouver, across the river in Washington State. Leaving there, we seem to be in suburbs for a very long time: large houses, beautiful gardens. After leaving Washington we dined on the chicken dinners: very tasty. However, we kept the (airline-style) package of cheese and crackers for later.

For hours, we ran alongside the Columbia river, which is in a gorge for part of the way but which gets broader (due to dams?). We passed several dams, big ships at the lower end, a tug-boat pushing a couple of barges, a stern-wheel paddle-steamer. We ran (well, walked, swaying from side to side) to the lounge to view this. The terrain changed quite rapidly from lush Pacific to drier areas: trees disappeared. There were towns: some on our side, some on the Oregon side.When it got dark we returned to our room, and found that the attendant had already made up the beds, so we sat rather uncomfortably and read, then set the clocks forward one hour and went to bed.

We both awoke about 5:30 and ate the cheese and crackers from the previous night's dinner. Then we genuinely arose before 7, washed and went to breakfast. While we were stopped in Whitefish (Montana), at the end of breakfast, we returned to our room & phoned our daughter San in Calgary: some years ago, we had spent a vacation together in Whitefish, which is only a couple of hours drive from Calgary. We caught a glimpse of the ski resort we'd stayed at. After Whitefish, we passed the west and east entrances to Glacier Park, the southern continuation of Waterton Lakes Park in Canada. The track pretty well forms the southern boundary of the park, and we had wonderful views of the mountains. During the morning we saw antelope, and deer in a clearing.

The train stopped a long time at Havre at the end of lunch, so Dewi stepped out. The train was boarded by two burly border patrol guys, who answered no questions but asked plenty. That afternoon we worked our way across Montana and North Dakota. Many communities seem to be fading away, with ruined and boarded-up houses. There were dead cows and a dead horse. Minot, ND was a major stop, with time for smokers. Canadian Pacific trains bound for the border rumbled through while we were there. We had a late sitting for dinner and tried to get our car attendant to make up the bed late in the evening, but to no avail.

The next morning, we were in a big city, or cities: St. Paul/Minneapolis. Now on some of the trains, like the Empire Builder, first-class passengers are given a route map and guide to the places the train goes through (see attachments) and we follow along. But on leaving St. Paul we couldn't find that landmarks mentioned. Some hours later we arrived at La Crosse - and went straight through the station, "wyed" the train on a triangle, and re-entered the station facing the right way. Apparently the main route had been blocked, so our train had been re-routed on the opposite bank of the Mississippi and had approached La Crosse from the eastern end.

From here on, the land seemed less dry, and although it wasn't heavily populated, there were frequent farms and small towns, giving way to suburbs around Milwaukee and Chicago. Arriving in Chicago, the sleeping-car attendant gave us each a bottle of wine (half-bottles of cabernet sauvignon) which we suspect should have been placed in our bedroom at the start of the journey!


Down we climbed onto the platform, at about 5:30 pm, and up the ramp into the station area. Went to the Metropolitan (first-class, sleeping-car lounge), showed our ticket, and Eufron stayed there with luggage while Dewi checked around. Found the Great Hall of Union Station, now only used for a 9/11 exhibit. We were looking for a public-transport way to our hotel on South Michigan Avenue. I followed the signs to "buses", up an escalator onto Canal Street. The first bus-stop I saw had a list of bus routes, the first route listed was route 1, the first item on its destination list was South. Michigan, and there was a bus waiting. The driver gave helpful information and confirmed that the bus went where we wanted.

Went back to Eufron: brought suitcases up to the street, and boarded the next bus which had now come along. The temperature in Chicago was very warm: we later found out it was a heat-wave record. The driver sold us two senior-citizens tickets at 75cents each (though later we found we should have had Chicago ID cards to get those). The bus was crowded and rush-hour traffic made it a slow ride but the bus dropped us on the corner by our hotel. Checked in with no problem, noted that we would only stay two days not three. Very clean fresh room on 6th floor, with view of Grant Park and Lake Michigan: got the air-conditioner going and sat, picked up info about Chicago, and planned the next day and where to eat that evening. In the end we walked along S. Michigan, looked at the Essex hotel's bar and grill, but opted for the Irish pub (Kitty O'Shea's) in the Hilton. Walked back: the neighbourhood looks as though it had been running down, but now was being re-furbished with new hotels and loft rental space.
Slept quite well but the air-conditioner was noisy! It came on with a click and cut off with a klunk.

The next morning,  I walked out to the El station on Roosevelt, and asked about the South Shore line that allegedly had a station there. "Roosevelt and South Michigan" I was told, but I could not find it. Since it was then about 9am, and the tourist offices didn't open until 10 am, I walked up State street (partly) and S. Michigan (partly) to the Art institute, found the tourist office, found the gift shop, and bought myself a one-day tourist pass for the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority). Looked for the other South Shore line station that was supposed to be there. Didn't find it. Walked around under the El structure: makes it dark (or shady) but VERY noisy when a train goes by. Then I headed for the nearest El station, went around the Loop, and took the Orange line to Midway airport. Looked around, got another train back.

There are two kinds of car, and in one kind, you can look out of the window of the last (or first) car, so I got on the last set of doors. There is a station at the Library, a red-brick, massive building with a very ornate green "thing" as the roof. Went around to State and Link, and checked out the Blue line subway. The trains look just like El trains! Back then up to the El platforms, and got a Green line train back to Roosevelt. Walked to the hotel and out again to a "corner store" though it was not on the corner, and bought bread (buns) and sharp Vermont-made Cheddar cheese, and potato chips and digestive biscuits. Took these back to room and had lunch.

Later that day we walked out of the back door and headed towards Roosevelt. Chicago has a free tourist trolley, consisting of four bus routes. At that time of year it only runs in the school break, and we happened to hit that week. One (free) trolley passed, but one heading the other way drew up as we arrived at the stop beneath the El station. That trolley took us to Union Station (or at least to Adams St. near the station), passing the Sears Tower, where we changed to the Yellow (star) shuttle to Navy Pier. This (second) driver was a character, telling jokes (Grey Poupon) and also telling us about some of the buildings and other features that we passed. At Navy Pier we saw the Chicago Shakespeare Company's theatre, then back to State St. and Marshall Fields store, where we changed to the Red (square) trolley up the Magnificent Mile to the water tower district. Back to Union Station, caught the last Green circle shuttle back to Roosevelt. We've have done better to get off at Balbo (NOT Balboa) St. but driver changed his route for this (last) run of the day.

Walked to hotel, considered our options, and went back to Kitty O'Shea's for a tuna sandwich and wedge fries, shared, plus Amstel beer.

And so to bed.

Click on thumbnail for larger picture.

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Stern-wheel paddle steamer Queen of the West on the Columbia river
Photo 1072_09 on 05/05/2002
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The park lodge (hotel) at the East Portal to Glacier Park, seen from the Empire Builder train
Photo 1072_10 on 04/05/2002
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On board Superliner sleeper car: Eufron about to ascend staircase to upper level. Bedrooms behind her, shower & toilets behind camera.
Photo 1072_11 on 04/05/2002
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On board Superliner sleeper car: Eufron at coffee pot at head of stiars down to lower level. Corridor to bedrroms at left.
Photo 1072_12 on 04/05/2002
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Under the Elevated RR in Chicago, near Roosevelt St.
Photo 1072_13 on 04/05/2002
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Train on the El, near SE of Loop, Chicago
Photo 1072_14 on 04/05/2002
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Junction on the El, where some routes enter the Loop, Chicago
Photo 1072_15 on 04/05/2002
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Junction on the El, where some routes enter the Loop, Chicago
Photo 1072_16 on 04/05/2002

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This page last updated on 23/04/2006 8:25:19.