Former Milwaukee Road cars set to form mini-'Hiawatha' in Washington State

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Former Milwaukee Road cars form the rear of the Empire Builder on Jan. 23 on their way to Washington State for a special excursion.
Justin Franz
SEATTLE — It’s been 56 years since the Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha rolled its last miles through the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, but on Jan. 27 a “mini-Hiawatha” will roll through the same mountain range — but on a different route.

The Minneapolis-based Friends of the 261 are providing four cars for a special charter Amtrak train that will operate from Seattle to Whitefish, Mont., via BNSF Railway’s ex-Great Northern line through the Cascades, also used by Amtrak’s Empire Builder. A musician chartered the special train for a birthday celebration. The train will depart Seattle in the morning and is expected to arrive in Whitefish well after dark.

The train will include an Amtrak unit and four cars, all painted in Milwaukee Road orange-and-maroon passenger colors, a scheme that was phased out by the Milwaukee beginning in 1955 when it adopted Union Pacific yellow as its passenger colors. The change came when the Milwaukee Road began handling Union Pacific streamliners between Chicago and Omaha. The Friends cars departed St. Paul on Amtrak’s Empire Builder on Jan. 22. This is one of longest charter trips ever operated by the Friends, and is unusual since it is a charter in winter when the cars are normally stored in the Twin Cities.

The four cars to be used on the special are:

• Baggage car No. 2450, built by American Car & Foundry in 1957 for the Union Pacific as a postal storage car. It saw frequent use on Union Pacific’s Cities streamliners and was later converted to maintenance of way car. The Friends of the 261 converted it into a concession/bar car and upgraded it to include a full bar, an on board sound system, LCD televisions, and GPS.
• Café lounge Wisconsin Valley built in 1953 by St. Louis Car Co. for the U.S. Army as a hospital car. Amtrak acquired and reconfigured it to a cafeteria lounge. The Friends of the 261 purchased the car in 2001; it now has lounge and table seating for 20, plus a full kitchen/cafe area.
• Super Dome 53, one of 10 Super Domes the Milwaukee Road purchased in 1952 from Pullman Standard. They were designed for use on the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis Twin Cities Hiawathas and the Chicago-Twin Cities-Seattle-Tacoma Olympian Hiawatha, so car 53 has rolled through the Cascades many times.
• Skytop parlor lounge observation car Cedar Rapids designed by famed Milwaukee industrial designer Brooks Stevens. Among his famous designs were the Miller Brewing logo, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee Wagoneer. The Skytops designed by Stevens were built by the Milwaukee Road in 1948 at its shops in Milwaukee. Cedar Rapids was one of four Skytops used on the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis Twin Cities Hiawatha streamliners. The Olympian Hiawatha carried sleeper Skytops built by Pullman Standard, but only one of those cars survives intact today.

The Chicago-Twin Cities-Seattle/Tacoma Olympian Hiawatha was inaugurated on June 29, 1947, as the successor to the heavyweight Olympian. The train was discontinued on May 22, 1961, an early casualty of airline and highway completion, and from the better-known streamliners of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. The majority of the former Olympian Hiawatha route across Washington is abandoned.
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