The North Coast Limited

Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited was one of three famous Pacific Northwest passenger trains, the other two being the Great Northern’s regal Empire Builder and the Milwaukee Road’s exotic Olympian Hiawatha.

While the Empire Builder may have been the al le crème of Pacific Northwest passenger services the NCL was certainly a close second.

It should be noted that while the Milwaukee Road spent much time, effort, and money promoting its luxurious Olympian Hi the railroad eventually threw in the towel to the Great Northern and Northern Pacific, bowing out of passenger operations to Seattle in 1961, ten years before Amtrak came along. 

The NCL was one of the oldest named passenger trains in the country before it was discontinued on April 30, 1971.  The following day Amtrak acquired most intercity passenger services across the country and elected not to continue running the North Coast Limited (for a time the carrier did operate a similar service, the North Coast Hiawatha).

An A-B-B set of Northern Pacific F3's with the "North Coast Limited" along Cocolalla Lake, Idaho in 1952.

The Northern Pacific Railway was the first of the three major Northwestern railroads to begin construction. Unlike many other railroads the Northern Pacific did not change names numerous times throughout its existence and would likewise never acquire numerous other smaller roads to form its system.

The Northern Pacific has its roots dating to the summer of 1864 when President Lincoln signed the railroad’s creation by an Act of Congress and the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was born.

Construction on the new company began seven years later in 1870 and would roughly follow the expedition of Lewis and Clark who originally chartered the western territory in the early 19th century.

Related Reading....

A History Of The Northern Pacific

Mainstreeter: (Chicago - Seattle) 

A History Of The Streamliner

A Northern Pacific publicity photo of train #25, the westbound "North Coast Limited," climbing out of Missoula, Montana during the 1960's.

While the NCL was always the Northern Pacific’s flagship train between Chicago (via allying road Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) and Seattle, the train truly came of age and is best remembered after the streamliner era came into full swing in the 1940s.

Before that time the NP actually lulled behind the Great Northern and Milwaukee Road in terms of services offered. However, beginning in 1944 the railroad placed a large order from Pullman-Standard of lightweight, streamlined equipment worth a staggering $65 million.

The new cars allowed the NP to run six trains, three in each direction, completely streamlined with head-end power provided by EMD F-series diesel locomotives.

Northern Pacific F7A #6510-C leads the "North Coast Limited" over the Continental Divide east of Butte, Montana in 1964.

What’s more the train was given a stunning livery provided by Raymond Loewy (of Pennsylvania Railroad fame, which stylized that railroad’s famous GG1 electrics) of two-tone green with white trim.

Inside, the train played on regional themes, the breathtaking scenery of the Cascades and Northern Plains (which was all the more enhanced by the panoramic views afforded by the Vista-Dome cars on the train, which arrived in the fall of 1954).

These features, coupled with the railroad slicing transit times down by 12-hours allowed it to become very competitive with the GN’s Builder and Olympian Hiawatha

One way in which the railroad accomplished this was by debuting a new train, the Mainstreeter, which handled more local stops while the NCL was free to provide a limited stop run between Chicago and Seattle. 

Northern Pacific's train #25, the flagship "North Coast Limited," hustles westbound through Montana's Jefferson River Canyon led by F3A #6502-A. Note that an ABS signal guarding Milwaukee Road's Pacific Extension can be seen in the background. The two railroads followed each other closely along this stretch of the river.

The Northern Pacific continued to add additional equipment to the NCL through the late 1950s by purchasing Slumbercoaches from the Budd Company. These new accommodations offered economical options for those who either could not or did want to afford first-class service. 

Listed as Trains #25 (westbound) and #26 (eastbound) on the Northern Pacific, the NCL could typically make the run from Chicago to Seattle in just under two days, or around 46 hours.

The train also offered connecting to Portland, Oregon at Pasco, Washington via the Spokane, Portland, & Seattle Railway.   Perhaps the best remembered aspect of the North Coast Limited wasn't the train's fast schedule or luxurious accommodations but the food itself!

North Coast Limited Timetable

(The below North Coast Limited timetable is dated effective 1969.  For more information about the 1959 version of the train please click here.)

Read Down Time/Leave (Train #25/Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) Milepost Location Read Up
Time/Arrive (Train #26/Chicago, Burlington & Quincy)
1:00 PM (Dp)0.0
Chicago, IL (Union Station) (CT)
2:55 PM (Ar)
1:39 PM38
Aurora, IL
2:12 PM
2:16 PM83
Rochelle, IL
1:31 PM
2:29 PM98
Oregon, IL
1:16 PM
3:16 PM145
Savanna, IL
12:35 PM
3:55 PM186
East Dubuque, IL
11:49 AM
4:43 PM239
Prairie du Chien, WI
11:03 AM
5:29 PM297
La Crosse, WI
10:16 AM
6:03 PM328
Winona Junction, MN
9:40 AM
8:00 PM (Ar)427
St. Paul, MN
8:10 AM (Dp)
Time/Leave (Train #25/Northern Pacific) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #26/Northern Pacific)
8:25 PM (Dp)0.0
St. Paul, MN
7:30 AM (Ar)
8:50 PM (Ar)11
Minneapolis, MN
7:05 AM (Dp)
9:00 PM (Dp)11
Minneapolis, MN
7:00 AM (Ar)
11:00 PM (Ar)141
Staples, MN
4:37 AM (Dp)
11:05 PM (Dp)141
Staples, MN
4:33 AM (Ar)
12:53 AM (Ar)252
Fargo, ND
2:32 AM (Dp)
1:03 AM (Dp)252
Fargo, ND
2:27 AM (Ar)
1:53 AM310
Valley City, ND
1:29 AM
2:32 AM (Ar)344
Jamestown, ND
12:56 AM (Dp)
2:42 AM (Dp)344
Jamestown, ND
12:52 AM (Ar)
4:15 AM (Ar)446
Bismarck, ND
11:07 PM (Dp)
4:15 AM (Dp)446
Bismarck, ND
11:07 PM (Ar)
4:32 AM (Ar)451
Mandan, ND (CT)
10:56 PM (Dp)
4:42 AM (Dp)451
Mandan, ND (CT)
10:51 PM (Ar)
3:42 AM (Dp)451
Mandan, ND (MT)
9:51 PM (Ar)
5:23 AM (Ar)552
Dickinson, ND
8:07 PM (Dp)
5:29 AM (Dp)552
Dickinson, ND
8:04 PM (Ar)
7:17 AM (Ar)657
Glendive, MT
6:09 PM (Dp)
7:27 AM (Dp)657
Glendive, MT
6:04 PM (Ar)
8:43 AM736
Miles City, MT
4:38 PM
9:41 AM (Ar)781
Forsyth, MT
3:50 PM (Dp)
9:44 AM (Dp)781
Forsyth, MT
3:47 PM (Ar)
11:24 AM (Ar)883
Billings, MT (Bus Connection To Yellowstone National Park Via Mammoth.)
2:05 PM (Dp)
11:34 AM (Dp)883
Billings, MT (Bus Connection To Yellowstone National Park Via Mammoth.)
1:58 PM (Ar)
1:32 PM (Ar)999
Livingston, MT (Bus Connection To Yellowstone National Park Via Mammoth.)
12:01 PM (Dp)
1:42 PM (Dp)999
Livingston, MT (Bus Connection To Yellowstone National Park Via Mammoth.)
11:51 AM (Ar)
2:27 PM (Ar)1023
Bozeman, MT
11:06 AM (Dp)
Time/Leave (Train #25/Via Butte) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #26/Via Butte)
2:27 PM (Dp)1047
Bozeman, MT
11:06 AM (Ar)
4:54 PM (Ar)1118
Butte, MT
8:40 AM (Dp)
5:01 PM (Dp)1118
Butte, MT
8:35 AM (Ar)
F 5:45 PM1159
Deer Lodge, MT
F 7:39 AM
6:00 PM (Ar)1170
Garrison, MT
7:24 AM (Dp)
Time/Leave (Train #25) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #26)
6:01 PM (Dp)1170
Garrison, MT
7:24 AM (Ar)
7:07 PM (Ar)1238
Missoula, MT
6:13 AM (Dp)
7:17 PM (Dp)1238
Missoula, MT
6:03 AM (Ar)
8:53 PM (Ar)1309
Paradise, MT (MT)
4:17 AM (Dp)
7:56 PM (Dp)1309
Paradise, MT (PT)
3:14 AM (Ar)
9:59 PM1428
Sandpoint, ID
12:55 AM
11:17 PM (Ar)1496
Spokane, WA
11:44 PM (Dp)
11:30 PM (Dp)1496
Spokane, WA
11:29 PM (Ar)
2:15 AM (Ar)1642
Pasco, WA
8:49 PM (Dp)
Time/Leave (Portland Section/Spokane, Portland & Seattle) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Portland Section/Spokane, Portland & Seattle)
2:45 AM (Dp)1642
Pasco, WA
7:00 PM (Ar)
6:30 AM1864
Vancouver, WA
3:22 PM
7:00 AM (Ar)1874
Portland, OR (Union Station)
3:00 PM (Dp)
Time/Leave (Train #25) Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #26)
2:40 AM (Dp)1642
Pasco, WA
8:24 PM (Ar)
4:35 AM (Ar)1731
Yakima, WA
6:49 PM (Dp)
4:39 AM (Dp)1731
Yakima, WA
6:44 PM (Ar)
5:34 AM1768
Ellensburg, WA
5:40 PM
8:02 AM (Ar)1869
East Auburn, WA
3:05 PM (Dp)
8:09 AM (Dp)1869
East Auburn, WA
2:59 PM (Ar)
8:45 AM (Ar)1892
Seattle, WA (King Street Station)
2:30 PM (Dp)

Of course, many fondly remembered passenger trains are legendary for their on-board meals and the Northern Pacific was no different. Its "Great Big Baked Potato" was legendary and one of the NCL's best selling food items. 

The NP's attempt to revitalize the train in the late 1940s and 1950s proved to be quite successful, so much so that the NCL continued to show very healthy ridership numbers through the mid-1960s! Of course, it also didn’t hurt that the train ran through Yellowstone National Park with a station stop at Livingston, Montana.

Alas, however, with passenger operation costs continuing to increase (throughout the industry) through the 1960s the NCL’s days were becoming numbered.

Earlier, in 1961, the Milwaukee Road had already bowed out of the Northwest passenger market when it canceled its posh Olympian Hiawatha. For more information about the train please click here.

During the Burlington Northern era, F9A #9822 is leading train #26, the eastbound "North Coast Limited," stopped at Butte, Montana on December 20, 1970. Roger Puta photo.

Later that decade, in the 1960s, the NCL and Empire Builder, were merged east of St. Paul, Minnesota. When Amtrak took over all intercity passenger operations in 1971 the then Burlington Northern was more than happy to rid itself of such and the final run of the fabled North Coast Limited occurred on April 30, 1971.

Because both trains operated in the same market, Amtrak elected to continue operating the much more popular Empire Builder, thus shelving the NCL upon its start-up on May 1.

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Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

Wes Barris's is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!