The Olympian Hiawatha, Milwaukee Road's Flagship To The Pacific Northwest

In the late 1940s the Milwaukee Road introduced the Olympian Hiawatha, the transcontinental version of the railroad’s very popular fleet of Hiawatha passenger trains. The original version of the train was the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which began operating between Chicago and the Twin Cities on May 29, 1935, one of the first streamlined trains ever to be introduced in the U.S. For the Milwaukee itself, the Hiawathas were virtually the only streamlined passenger trains run by the railroad (they certainly were the most popular and well-remembered) with the rest operated in conjunction with Union Pacific. Originally powered by 4-4-2 Atlantic-type steam locomotives (later 4-6-4 Hudson-types) the train was entirely streamlined, including the locomotive, and home-built in the Milwaukee’s own shops. These trains became instantly successful and regularly cruised over 100 mph with nary a bump or shudder during the ride (both trains could make the jaunt between the two cities in roughly six hours).

This late-era view of the train shows it powered by an A-B-B set of E9s as it travels westbound along the Missouri River near Three Forks, Montana on June 18, 1960. In less than a year it will be terminated.

These regional trains offered by the Milwaukee Road became so successful that the railroad found itself short on demand and to meet such eventually operated two versions of the train, the Morning Hiawatha and the Afternoon Hiawatha. There were eventually four versions of Milwaukee Roads’ regional Hiawathas. These included the Twin Cities Hiawatha, North Woods Hiawatha (served New Lisbon, Wisconsin to Minocqua, Wisconsin), Chippewa Hiawatha (served Chicago; Ontonagon, Michigan; and Milwaukee and Green Bay), and the Midwest Hiawatha (from Chicago this train served both Omaha, Nebraska and Sioux Falls, South Dakota). However, these Midwest versions were not the only Hiawathas the Milwaukee ever operated.

With the success of its regional Hiawathas, in 1947, about twelve years after the railroad first launched its Hiawatha the railroad introduced the streamlined Olympian Hiawatha, a train meant to fully compete with the Great Northern and Northern Pacific for rail travel to and from the Pacific Northwest (the Milwaukee had operated the Olympian and Columbian since 1911 over its Pacific Extension but these trains used heavyweight equipment and were pulled by conventional steam locomotives).

The Milwaukee Road’s Hiawathas owe their creation to industrial designer Otto Kuhler, the same man who designed the Baltimore & Ohio’s regal Capitol Limited and its classic royal blue, gold, and gray livery. Kuhler designed similar stunning features on the Hiawathas. However, it was Brook Stevens, who designed the celebrated Sky Top sleeper-lounge observations (perhaps the most distinctive and dramatic observation cars ever built) that created the Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha.  The train featured passenger equipment (save for the cars purchased from Pullman) entirely home-built by the railroad’s own shop forces, which along with the beautiful Sky Top observations included cars such as the Super Domes, which allowed for full car-length, panoramic viewing.

The end of an era; train #16, the eastbound Olympian Hi, departs Missoula, Montana for the final time led by a set of E9As on May 23, 1961.

When the train initially began on June 29, 1947 it included a mix of heavy and lightweight cars but by 1949 when the Pullman equipment arrived it was an entirely streamlined, lightweight train. For power the train featured Erie-Built, diesel locomotives manufactured by Fairbanks-Morse. These trains pulled the train west from Chicago to Harlowton, Montana when it was handed over to the GE Boxcab and “Little Joe” electrics which carried the train as far west as Avery, Idaho and then again between Othello, Washington and finally, Seattle. While aesthetically quite stunning with added touches by Brooks Stevens of a chromed-nose design with “Olympian Hiawatha” adorning the locomotive along its flanks, the Erie-Builts were not very reliable and were soon pulled from service.  Sadly, the train lasted a mere 14 years and the Milwaukee Road bowed out of the Pacific Northwest market, canceling the train in May of 1961.

(The below Olympian Hiawatha timetable is dated effective, July of 1956.)

Time/Leave (Train #15) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #16)
3:00 PM (Dp)0.0
Chicago, IL (Union Station)
1:45 PM (Ar)
4:15 PM85
Milwaukee, WI
12:20 PM (DP) 12:15 (Ar)
5:35 PM178
Portage, WI (Madison via bus)
10:42 AM
195
Wisconsin Dells, WI
10:27 AM
240
Tomah, WI
9:51 AM
6:55 PM (Ar) 7:00 PM (Dp)281
La Crosse, WI
9:15 AM (Dp) 9:10 AM (Ar)
7:28 PM308
Winona, MN
8:40 AM
9:15 PM410
St. Paul, MN
7:10 AM (Dp) 7:05 AM (Ar)
9:45 PM421
Minneapolis, MN
6:20 AM (Dp) 6:10 AM (Ar)
12:20 AM554
Montevideo, MN
3:55 AM
2:55 AM (Ar) 3:00 AM (Dp)707
Aberdeen, SD
1:15 AM (Dp) 1:10 AM (Ar)
4:30 AM (Ar)805
Mobridge, SD (CT)
11:40 PM (Dp)
3:30 AM (Dp)805
Mobridge, SD (MT)
10:40 PM (Ar)
5:05 AM904
Lemmon, SD
8:58 PM
5:30 AM927
Hettinger, ND
8:32 PM
6:10 AM967
Bowman, ND
7:49 PM
6:40 AM995
Marmarth, ND
7:22 PM
7:00 AM1015
Baker, MT
7:00 PM
8:40 AM (Ar) 8:50 AM (Dp)1119
Miles City, MT
5:20 PM (Dp) 5:10 PM (Ar)
11:07 AM1265
Roundup, MT (Great Falls via bus)
2:51 PM
12:15 PM (Ar) 12:20 PM (Dp) (Begin electrification)1335
Harlowton, MT
1:45 PM (Dp) 1:40 PM (Ar) (End electrification)
1:35 PM1393
Ringling, MT
12:22 PM
3:00 PM1450
Three Forks, MT (Yellowstone National Park via bus)
10:55 AM
4:53 PM1522
Butte, MT
9:03 AM
5:45 PM (Ar) 5:55 PM (Dp)1562
Deer Lodge, MT
8:05 AM (Dp) 7:55 AM (Ar)
7:20 PM1641
Missoula, MT
6:25 AM
8:29 PM1703
Superior, MT
5:13 AM
10:40 PM (Ar) (End electrification)1773
Avery, ID (MT)
3:10 AM (Dp)
9:45 PM (Dp)1773
Avery, ID (PT)
2:05 AM (Ar) (Begin electrification)
11:06 PM1818
St. Maries, ID
12:41 AM
12:55 AM (Ar) 1:05 AM (Dp)1879
Spokane, WA
10:55 PM (Dp) 10:45 PM (Ar)
3:45 AM (Ar) 3:55 AM (Dp) (Begin electrification)2000
Othello, WA
8:10 PM (Dp) 8:05 PM (Ar) (End electrification)
5:56 AM2074
Ellensburg, WA
6:12 PM
6:35 AM2099
Cle Elum, WA
5:38 PM
8:53 AM2177
Renton, WA
3:38 PM
9:30 AM (Ar) 9:45 AM (Dp)2189
Seattle, WA (Union Station)
3:15 PM (Dp) 3:00 PM (Ar)
10:15 AM2210
Auburn, WA
2:25 PM
10:45 AM2227
Tacoma, WA (Union Station)
2:00 PM

Interestingly, while the railroad claimed lack of ridership on the Olympian Hi thanks to historian Michael Sol's exhaustive research it actually appears the Milwaukee saw the writing on the wall early and simply wanted to rid itself of the unprofitable train (the railroad saved about $2.1 million annually for doing so). 

The eastbound Olympian Hi is seen here departing Missoula's beautiful depot led by one of the Milwaukee Road's unique Class EP-2 Bi-Polars on June 19, 1958.

Also of interest is how well each of the three lines actually fared from an operating standpoint. According to railroad historian and civil engineer Michael Sol, the ICC's official statistics from 1959 contain the following; the Milwaukee Road carried a 148.7% operating ratio (which is a company's operating expenses divided by its operating revenues) while the Great Northern carried a 177.4% and the Northern Pacific a 194.3%. That same year the Milwaukee earned $3.3 million in passenger train revenues for the Olympian Hi, alone, while the Northern Pacific earned just $6 million in revenues for its entire passenger train fleet and the Great Northern $10 million.

From these numbers it is clear to see that despite what you may have previously read or understood about Milwaukee's Northwest flagship, the railroad was far more efficient at operating its transcontinental train. However, that's not to say that it was a "better" train, simply that it was operated more efficiently (in truth, all three railroads fielded magnificent trains to Seattle). Of greater note is that in actuality the three railroads did not really "compete" in the truest sense of the word as, except for the Northern Pacific, all served different intermediate points between Seattle and Minneapolis/Chicago. Additionally, by the time the Olympian Hi was launched there fewer and fewer passengers riding the trains from end-point to end-point (Seattle to Minneapolis/Chicago) as most boarded or de-boarded somewhere in between.

(A deep thanks to the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University for allowing Ron Nixon's historic collection of the Milwaukee Road in the west to be featured here.)


Saying goodbye; the final eastbound Olympian Hi pulls into Missoula as one of its iconic Skytop sleeper-lounge-observations (there were six of these cars built, all named in the "Creek" series for waterways which ran along the railroad's system) brings up the rear on May 23, 1961.

From a railfan's and historian's (and even a traveler of the time period) perspective it's a shame that the Olympian Hi was canceled so early considering it operated through some of the most stunningly beautiful areas of the country had to call it quits barely into the 1960s.   In any event, today, while Amtrak carriers on the legendary Hiawatha service, to some degree, offering Hiawatha regional trains between Milwaukee and Chicago, the Olympian Hiawatha and the route it traveled are sadly relegated to history and the memories of those who were lucky enough to ride it. In the 1970s the Milwaukee Road began making dumbfounding managerial decisions that ultimately led to the railroad’s undoing in the late 1970s and subsequent abandonment of all lines west of Terry, Montana.

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