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).
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.
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.
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 themes of what the Milwaukee Road and Great Northern did with their flagship, transcontinental trains), 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.
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!
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.
(Despite the common belief that the Milwaukee operated an inferior train to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern it actually did quite well from a profit-loss standpoint and exited the market after it saw the writing on the wall of declining interest in passenger trains by the traveling public.) 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.