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The North Coast Hiawatha

Last revised: December 19, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The North Coast Hiawatha was an early Amtrak service inaugurated in 1971 to complement the very popular Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle.

While the train operated via the ex-Northern Pacific main line, which formerly hosted its flagship - the North Coast Limited - its name also recognized the Milwaukee Road's former transcontinental service, the Olympian Hiawatha.

The North Coast Hiawatha was a casualty of early budget cuts and discontinued in 1979.  In recent years there have been efforts put forth to see the train restored although, to date, no action has been taken.

Photos

A former Burlington Northern F3A (built as Northern Pacific #6502-A), along with a trio of other covered wagons, have Amtrak's early "North Coast Hiawatha" at Yakima, Washington in August of 1971. Drew Jacksich photo.

Olympian Hiawatha

The Olympian Hiawatha was Milwaukee Road's premier transcontinental train and the only one to operate over its own rails all of the way from Chicago to Seattle.  It was launched on June 29, 1947 and the railroad spared no expense to ensure it equaled the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited

It remains fondly remembered today for its scenic route through several states, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, extreme southwestern North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

The train was also famous for its luxurious amenities, such as the "Super Dome" lounge cars and "Skytop" sleeper observations. The Milwaukee bowed out of the market early, canceling the train in May, 1961.

North Coast Limited

Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited operated a more southerly routing than its counterpart, the Empire Builder

The train dated back to April 29, 1900 although truly came of age in 1948 when it was reequipped as a streamliner, sporting lightweight cars and regal two-tone green livery.

The NCL survived until the start of Amtrak when the new national carrier, operating on a strict budget, initially canceled the train in favor of the Empire Builder.  In June, 1971, Amtrak launched an additional section of the Builder over the former Northern Pacific main line, essentially reviving the NCL.

The move was in response to Montana senator Mike Mansfield who wanted Amtrak to serve the state's southerly - and largest - cities, all of which were bypassed via the Builder's northerly routing.

Route

The North Coast Hiawatha is an indelible part of Amtrak's early history. Inaugurated on June 5, 1971, the name was a combination of the NCL and Milwaukee Road's Olympian Hiawatha with Amtrak opting to run the train via the former NP main line.

The reasoning was straightforward; Milwaukee's physical plant on its western extension was rapidly eroding with 10 mph slow orders piling up.  As a result, train speeds could not be maintained.

The North Coast Hiawatha was a transcontinental service operating from Chicago Union Station to Seattle's King Street Station.  Passing through an appealing array of landscapes, the train's route was a visual treat.

It coursed across jagged mountain ranges, expansive plains, and gushing rivers, making the journey a memorable experience for all passengers. The route also included prominent stops in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Fargo, Billings, and Missoula amongst other cities.

Timetable (June 22, 1977)

Time/Leave (Train #9): Read Down Milepost Location Time/Arrive (Train #10): Read Up
9:30 AM (Dp)0.0
Chicago, IL (Union Station) (CT)
10:05 PM (Ar)
9:53 AM17
Glenview, IL
9:38 PM
11:05 AM85
Milwaukee, WI
8:35 PM
12:44 PM150
Columbus, WI
6:35 PM
1:25 PM178
Portage, WI
5:55 PM
1:52 PM195
Wisconsin Dells, WI
5:30 PM
2:59 PM240
Tomah, WI
4:19 PM
3:59 PM (Ar)281
La Crosse, WI
3:18 PM (Dp)
4:06 PM (Dp)281
La Crosse, WI
3:11 PM (Ar)
5:00 PM307
Winona, MN (Rochester)
2:26 PM
6:36 PM370
Red Wing, MN
12:49 PM
8:05 PM (Ar)421
Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
11:35 AM (Dp)
8:40 PM (Dp)421
Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
11:00 AM (Ar)
9:50 PM486
St. Cloud, MN (Former NP Station)
9:29 AM
10:56 PM551
Staples, MN
8:11 AM
11:56 PM613
Detroit Lakes, MN
7:02 AM
12:43 AM (Ar)663
Fargo, ND (Former GN Station)
6:03 AM (Dp)
12:51 AM (Dp)663
Fargo, ND (Former GN Station)
5:55 AM (Ar)
1:52 AM720
Valley City, ND
4:40 AM
2:33 AM754
Jamestown, ND
4:02 AM
4:19 AM856
Bismarck, ND
2:17 AM
4:30 AM (Ar)862
Mandan, ND (CT)
2:02 AM (Dp)
4:38 AM (Dp)862
Mandan, ND (CT)
1:54 AM (Ar)
5:43 AM962
Dickinson, ND (MT)
10:35 PM
7:55 AM (Ar)1067
Glendive, MT
8:20 PM (Dp)
8:05 AM (Dp)1067
Glendive, MT
8:10 PM (Ar)
9:23 AM1146
Miles City, MT
6:45 PM
10:25 AM1191
Forsyth, MT
5:45 PM
12:35 PM (Ar)1292
Billings, MT
3:50 PM (Dp)
12:50 PM (Dp)1292
Billings, MT
3:35 PM (Ar)
3:05 PM (Ar)1408
Livingston, MT (Yellowstone)
1:20 PM (Dp)
3:25 PM (Dp)1408
Livingston, MT (Yellowstone)
1:00 PM (Ar)
4:16 PM1433
Bozeman, MT
12:14 PM
6:35 PM (Ar)1528
Butte, MT (Helena)
9:55 AM (Dp)
6:40 PM (Dp)1528
Butte, MT (Helena)
9:50 AM (Ar)
7:30 PM1568
Deer Lodge, MT
8:56 AM
9:20 PM (Ar)1647
Missoula, MT
7:20 AM (Dp)
9:30 PM (Dp)1647
Missoula, MT
7:10 AM (Ar)
11:15 PM1718
Paradise, MT (MT)
5:21 AM
1:06 AM1838
Sandpoint, ID (PT)
1:40 AM
2:30 AM (Ar)1902
Spokane, WA (Former NP Station)
12:15 AM (Dp)
2:55 AM (Dp)1902
Spokane, WA (Former NP Station)
11:50 PM (Ar)
5:40 AM2022
Ephrata, WA
9:05 PM
6:58 AM (Ar)2074
Wenatchee, WA
7:55 PM (Dp)
7:05 AM (Dp)2074
Wenatchee, WA
7:50 PM (Ar)
10:35 AM2195
Everett, WA
4:40 PM
11:05 AM2211
Edmonds, WA
4:15 PM
11:59 AM2228
Seattle, WA (King Street Station)
3:40 PM

Milwaukee Road

On a few occasions, Amtrak was forced to detour the train over the Milwaukee Road, providing a rare treat for both passengers and railfans alike to experience the scenic panoramic views afforded along the railroad's legendary route.

Accommodations

Reflecting the spirit of American hospitality, the North Coast Hiawatha offered commendable on-board services. Comfort was prioritized with spacious seating and sleeping quarters. The train was equipped with restaurant-quality dining cars that served a variety of foods.

Amtrak's May, 1974 timetable notes accommodations at that time included a full diner, lounge, sleepers (roomettes and bedrooms), coaches, Vista Domes (coaches), and a parlor-lounge observation (Chicago-Minneapolis)

Schedule and Route

During the Hiawatha's first two years it had an interesting schedule: three times a week it operated between Chicago and Spokane and combined with the Builder westward into Seattle; the other four days the train did not reach Chicago and terminated at Minneapolis.

This short-lived and odd scheduling ended on April 29, 1973 when Amtrak began operating the train between Chicago and Seattle weekly utilizing the ex-GN west of Spokane. 

The total distance covered between Chicago-Seattle spanned approximately 2,228 miles. The trip took about 46 hours, 40 minutes to complete (if on time), with the train carrying an average train speed of 48 mph.

Consist

Typical of Amtrak operations in the 1970s, the North Coast Hiawatha was hampered by poor equipment; hand-me-down cars that were usually worn out and in need of major repairs, largely beyond the carrier's financial means.

Power was most often provided by tired, but reliable, E8s or E9s. In 1973-1974, new SDP40Fs arrived to replace these aging locomotives. However, these SD40s, retrofitted for passenger service with a cowl carbody and steam generator, proved problematic and prone to derailments at higher speeds. As a result they were plagued with slow orders and eventually replaced later that decade with the much more reliable F40pH.

A regular consist during the train's early years was a mixture of Burlington Northern 'Cascade Green' and late Great Northern "Big Sky Blue' cars, including up to four domes per train. During the last years of service the Hiawatha also occasionally ran with new Amfleet cars intermixed with the BN equipment.

Also, Congressional budget cuts ultimately forced Amtrak to eliminate its growing debt and the North Coast Hiawatha was one such casualty, making its final run on October 6, 1979.


A postcard scene depicting a perfect A-B-B-A set of Amtrak covered wagons, led by F7A #101 (ex-Northern Pacific #6508-C), with the "North Coast Hiawatha" on Montana's Bozeman Pass during the 1970s.

Restoration

Interestingly, in recent years there has been talk of reviving the train, notably by the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. The group has been making substantial efforts to bring back this historic route, acknowledging its potential to boost local economies.  Amtrak, however, has suggested it would cost nearly $50 million to fund the train's restoration. 

The towns through south-central Montana that once used to enjoy regular passenger service during the Northern Pacific and Milwaukee Road era hope to revive a version of Amtrak's North Coast Hiawatha. To read more about this renewed plan please click here to visit the New York Times article.

Legacy

The legacy of the North Coast Hiawatha stands long beyond its operational life. It remains an emblem of America's rich railroad heritage, and its picturesque route continues to captivate the minds of railway enthusiasts and historians.

In a return of sorts, the train filled in the void left by the North Coast Limited, and conversed the same routes, continuing to attribute the Midwest and Pacific Northwest regions with a skilled and uninterrupted railway service.

Passenger comfort remained a priority, much akin to its predecessors. Both the North Coast Limited and Olympian Hiawatha embraced the charm of long-haul travel, fostering a sense of community and camaraderie among passengers.

Despite its cessation, the North Coast Hiawatha remains rooted in the hearts of many. It signifies not simply a train journey but a passage through the diverse American landscapes, echoing stories of the passengers it served and the regions it traversed.

The revival efforts led by the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority intend not only to restore this historical train route but also to rejuvenate rural economies, boost tourism prospects, and offer added means of public transportation.

The potential resurrection of the North Coast Hiawatha casts a ray of optimism for the future of railroad transport. It stands as a testament to the enduring allure of trains, mixed with nostalgia that fuels the desire for its restoration.

The North Coast Hiawatha was more than a train; it was an experience and a valuble transportation artery - especially for Montana residents. 

In essence, the journey symbolized the evolution of transportation and the changing societal needs. It offered insights into how shifting demands shape the transport system and how heritage can be revived to meet modern requirements.

To conclude, the North Coast Hiawatha was a restful reminder of the romantic era of train travel. Even as we look back at its storied past, we are also propelled towards a promising future, where its revival might once again make train travel a cherished experience.


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