When James Hill set about to build the last of the transcontinental railroads, public sentiment had already turned against the robber barons. So the “Empire Builder,” as Hill was known, built his railroad entirely with private money.
Hill was determined to make his railroad efficient, so he sent out explorers to find the lost Marias Pass, mentioned in the Journals of Lewis & Clark. It’s the lowest pass crossing the Rocky Mountains. The lowest possible grade, with the fewest curves, gave Hill a competitive advantage.
The tracks of the Great Northern skirt what eventually became Glacier National Park. James Hill and his son Lewis lobbied Congress to create the national park. In 1910 President Taft made it official, and for the next seven years the Great Northern spent one and a half million dollars building lodges, chalets and tent camps in the Park.
To many people, the Great Northern Railway became intertwined with Glacier National Park.
Passenger trains have remained a fixture in the Glacier landscape, even with automobile traffic and consolidation of the Great Northern into the Burlington Northern & Sante Fe. Twice daily, sleek new Amtrak trains wind their way through the countryside.
The train, known as the “Empire Builder,” follows the historic route of the Great Northern, along the edge of the park. For many miles the tracks actually form the park’s southern boundary.
From West Glacier, the “Empire Builder” climbs toward the continental divide, along the Flathead River, past historic waysides like Essex and Java, toward the 5,200 foot Marias Pass. From the mile high pass, the train then begins its long descent to the East Glacier station, a prime jumping off spot for the national park.
Glacier is the only national park on the main line of a transcontinental railroad. The wonderful vantage points, the stunning mountain backdrops, the sheer number and variety of trains all combine to make this an irresistible place for train buffs.