The Mainstreeter is sometimes forgotten as one of the Pacific Northwest's important transcontinental streamliners for a few reasons: first, the Northern Pacific Railway simply did not offer that many trains between Seattle and Chicago due to the fact that allying road Great Northern offered the bulk of these services; and second, the train was a late unveiling by the NP as it did not begin operations until the early 1950s. Despite the Mainstreeter's lack of publicity, however, it proved to be a very important run for the railroad. While the North Coast Limited always made headlines its second-tier sibling worked quietly earning the NP steady profits through the movement of mail and seasonal passenger traffic. Essentially, the train was flexible in providing whatever services needed at a particular time. Overall, the train operated for nearly 20 years, through the Burlington Northern merger, and up until the startup of Amtrak in the spring of 1971 when it was finally discontinued.
Before the Northern Pacific launched the Mainstreeter there was another train serving its territory, known as the Alaskan. This train had a history that closely paralleled the NP's crack North Coast Limited, which was launched in late April of 1900. As a secondary run the Alaskan's primary responsibility was to provide local and intermediate service between Chicago and Seattle whereas the flagship was a fast express, limited stop train. Reaching the two cities required help from allying roads; the Burlington between Minneapolis and Chicago as well as the Seattle, Portland & Spokane between Portland and Seattle. For a half-century little changed with either train except improved transit times, faster and more powerful steam locomotives, and heavyweight cars. However, all of this changed with the streamliner age that dawned in 1934 when the Union Pacific and Burlington both successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of the new service.
In 1946 the North Coast Limited was entirely reequipped with new, lightweight equipment from Pullman-Standard, which had been ordered two years earlier in 1944. The train was bedecked in a stunning two-tone green livery with white trim. Despite the NCL's new look it still did not offer comparable running times with either the Great Northern's Empire Builder or the Milwaukee Road's Olympian Hiawatha. However, this changed in November of 1952 when the Northern Pacific cut the NCL's schedule to just over 37 hours but doing so meant that it must be an express run with few station stops. To provide local service the NP inaugurated the Mainstreeter at the same time, named after the railroad's slogan "Main Street of the Northwest." Using a mix of older heavyweight and some newer lightweight equipment the train ran a schedule nearly 10 hours longer than its big sister of nearly 46.5 hours.
From the outset the train was always listed as #1 (westbound) and #2 (eastbound) on NP's official timetable, replacing the NCL's numbers which gained the slots of #25 (westbound) and #24 (eastbound). Despite the fact that the Mainstreeter ran a slow schedule, even in comparison to the GN's Western Star (the secondary run to the Builder), and was only semi-streamlined it was nevertheless adorned in NP's classic two-tone green passenger livery. The train's consist, as mentioned above, could truly comprised of a wide range of equipment depending on needs and demand. However, typically, one could find the train's makeup including a half-dozen heavyweight baggage cars (especially in the later years), a standard Railway Post Office (RPO), a handful of reclining seat coaches, one sleeper, and a diner (between St. Paul and Pasco, Washington).
Interestingly, despite the Mainstreeter's numerous station stops and slow schedule it was still able to maintain an average speed during its run of between 35 and 40 mph. Power for the train during the diesel era could be one of a number of early Electro-Motive Division F models from F3s and F7s to FP7s and F9s. Interestingly, the NP, aside from the two FP7s it owned, never fleeted any passenger diesels such as EMD's E models or American Locomotive Company PAs.
In later years the sleeper was dropped for a slumbercoach and dining service was discontinued for an economy buffet car. Despite declining traffic through the 1950s and 1960s the Mainstreeter remained a somewhat profitable operation, at least until the United States Postal Service cancelled mail contracts in the late 1960s. Even then the train remained on the timetable through the 1970 Burlington Northern merger. By this point its scheduling had declined to the point that it required 48 hours to complete the journey between Chicago and Seattle. Additionally, just prior to Amtrak's takeover of intercity passenger services on May 1, 1971 the train was truncated no further east than St. Paul.
For more reading about the Mainstreeter please click here. For more on the NP you might want to consider the book Northern Pacific Railway Photo Archive by John Kelly. The author gives a superb pictorial history of the railroad from the 1930s through the 1960s and features both freight and passenger operations If you have any kind of an interest in the Northern Pacific you are sure to enjoy Sullivan's book. Also, consider the book Dining Car to the Pacific: The "Famously Good" Food of the Northern Pacific Railway by author William McKenzie. The book is over 160 pages in length and details the exquisite food served aboard the Northern Pacific's plush passenger trains. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing either (or both) of these books please visit the links below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.