The Empire Builder Endurance Test
The Montana Hi-Line is the real deal. Which might explain why Comma-Q founder and Principal Architect Ben Lloyd spent most of his life without visiting. Ben grew up in Montana and it’s common to make the mistake of not seeing the beauty and authenticity that exists everywhere in our great state. Decades later, the MTQBatical (and a little wisdom) came along and fixed that.
Browning, Cut Bank, Havre, Malta, Wolf Point and other northern Montana towns were part of a 4-day MTQBatical weekend in July. The 1,000+ mile round trip was compressed into two days aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
The Empire Builder runs along tracks originally built for the Great Northern Railroad by 19th-century railroad entrepreneur James J. Hill. It parallels the Canadian border through northern Montana and is arguably the reason many of these remote towns exist. In the late 19th Century railroad construction crews entered Montana at the eastern border and laid 5 to 8 miles of track per day.
Libby, Montana was the starting point for the trip. The train was pointed east and over the course of one long day it ran the east/west length of Montana. After an overnight break in Williston, North Dakota the trek turned around and re-traced the previous day’s route back to Libby.
The western portion of the trip included legendary timber towns, plodding mountain passes and the bustling activity around Glacier National Park. The Hi-Line proper runs from Browning to Wolf Point and covers the eastern two-thirds of the state. It carries the history of thousands of farmers and ranchers, a history made clear through the relationship between railroad buildings and the commercial and residential buildings it served; shuttling the homestead currency of people and goods.
The Empire Builder carries about 350 people as it streaks across the vast landscape and as it has been known to double a town’s population as it passes through. It’s conspicuous and stark in its contrast to the often solitary Montana traveler.
The trip didn’t meet the high standards of European train travel, like being on time. In the American West freight trains rule the tracks and Amtrak timetables are nothing more than unreliable suggestions. That first morning in Libby the eastbound train departed at 9:50 am, which is great, except it was scheduled to leave at 5:23 am. A 4 am wake up call, wasted. In an era of innovation, a jam-packed Montana mass-transit anomaly, running 10 hours behind schedule and filled with a sometimes-sketchy cross section of society is an easy target for snarky comments. Until you look out the window of your modern air-conditioned train and imagine the incredibly hard working railroad construction crews of 1890 in very different conditions. Many workers were immigrants, and they sometimes laid 8 miles of track in a single day. Comfort and routine as we know it were out of the question.