Olympian Hiawatha

Olympian Hiawatha

The Olympian and its successor, Olympian Hiawatha, was a named passenger train operated by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (The Milwaukee Road) as train Nos. 15 and 16 from 1911 to 1961. Its route traversed the Milwaukee Road main line from Chicago, Illinois west to Seattle/Tacoma, Washington.

The streamlined Olympian Hiawatha replaced the Milwaukee's heavyweight Olympian train in 1947. The train was designed by industrial designer Brooks Stevens and included the distinctive glassed-in "Skytop" observation-sleeping cars. In 1952 the Milwaukee Road added full-length "Super Dome" cars to the train.


State-of-the-art Heavyweight Olympian

With the completion of the Milwaukee Road's "Puget Sound extension," a new 2,300-mile (3,700 km) mainline from South Dakota to Seattle and Tacoma in 1909 that made that railroad the last entry into the transcontinental trade, the Milwaukee ordered the equipment needed for two state-of-the-art steel luxury trains for Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Seattle-Tacoma service on the line. Following a public contest the Milwaukee Road chose the name Olympian for the flagship train and Columbian for its slower running mate which traversed the same route. Both trains were inaugurated on May 28, 1911.

In 1915 the Milwaukee completed its initial electrified section of rail line, from Harlowton to Deer Lodge, Montana, a feat that was advertised to passengers since electrification eliminated the soot normally associated with steam-powered rail travel prior to the era of air-conditioning. Extensions to the electrified network in the 1910s and 1920s resulted in a total of 649 miles (1,044 km) of electrified main line, in Montana/Idaho and over the Cascades in Washington. The 440 miles (710 km) of electrified line between Harlowton, Montana and Avery, Idaho was the longest continuous electrified rail line in the world. Besides being cleaner, electrification allowed the road to pull both freight and passenger loads faster, more reliably and more efficiently regardless of season.

Photo postcard of the train, circa 1927, showing the roller-bearing information.

In 1926 Milwaukee contracted with Pullman-Standard to replace the original Olympian with new train-sets and the train was again completely re-equipped, the new trains making their first run on August 1, 1927. The plushly appointed steel equipment was painted orange and maroon and was among the first trains to be radio-equipped. The Olympian was the first western transcontinental passenger train to be equipped throughout with roller-bearings. Capitalizing on its soot-free electrification, open observation gondola cars were operated during the summer months. In an effort to increase ridership on the Olympian the Milwaukee Road also opened its first railroad-owned hotel near Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatin Gateway Inn. Gallatin Gateway was reached from a spur line that connected to the main line at Three Forks, Montana.

Both the Olympian and Columbian operated into 1930. However, as ridership fell during the onset of the great depression, the Columbian was dropped from the schedule and all transcontinental services consolidated into the Olympian.

The Olympian leaving Seattle in 1925 pulled by an EP-2 electric locomotive.

A typical heavyweight consist:[citation needed]

  1. Railway Post Office/Baggage Express 1821
  2. Baggage Express 1038
  3. Baggage Express 1100
  4. Bunkroom Coach 4441
  5. Coach 4401
  6. 14-section Sleeper
  7. 12-section Tourist Sleeper 5719
  8. Diner 5105
  9. 12-section, 1-drawing room sleeper Cascade
  10. 12-section, 1-drawing room sleeper Puget Sound
  11. 10-section, 1-compartment, 1-drawing room sleeper Arrowhead
  12. 10-section, 1-compartment, 1-drawing room sleeper Spring Rock
  13. 8-section, 1-drawing room, 2-compartment sleeper Yellowstone
  14. 6-section, 6-double bedroom sleeper Wooena
  15. Sleeper buffet lounge-observation City-series
  16. Open Air Observation Gondola

On June 19, 1938 a bridge near Saugus, Montana collapsed beneath the Olympian due to a cloudburst undermining its supports. 47 people were killed and 75 injured.

Post-war Olympian Hiawatha

On June 29, 1947 the Milwaukee Road inaugurated its post-war streamlined flagship, the Olympian Hiawatha on a 43-hour, 30-minute schedule. The Milwaukee advertised the new faster train as a "speedliner".

To meet new streamlined competition from the Northern Pacific and Great Northern, the train was initially launched with both streamlined and heavyweight equipment in its consist. The Milwaukee's insistence on its own radical designs also contributed to delays in delivery. The initial streamlined coaches, Touralux open berth sleepers, dining and lounge cars were home-built by the Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley shops. By 1949 the remaining cars were delivered by Pullman-Standard. The former Olympian heavyweight consists for a time continued to run on the older Olympian schedule as a secondary train, once again named the Columbian.

Designed by industrial designer Brooks Stevens, the Olympian Hiawatha included the Milwaukee Road's signature Skytop solarium observation car. Similar to those designed and built for the Twin Cities Hiawatha's, the Olympian Hiawatha's Skytops had more glass area from the rear forward and sleeping compartments in the forward two-thirds of the car. The Milwaukee Road billed the Skytops as "the perfect ending for a perfect train".

As industrial design, the Skytop observation cars have often been described as the most distinctive railway cars ever built. The Milwaukee Road also ordered several pairs of Fairbanks-Morse diesels to pull the train. These were given a distinctive orange, maroon and stainless steel design treatment by Stevens. The grill/lounge and dining cars were designed with angled seating to allow more interior space and maximize the view for passengers. The stunning Brooks Stevens-designed trains included the Milwaukee's orange and maroon livery and rich green and gold seating and carpets and wood veneer with stainless steel trim interiors. In all, six complete train-sets were ordered to protect the schedule. In 1952 the first full-length dome cars, called "super domes" were also added to the consist. In 1957[citation needed] the train was repainted into the Union Pacific Railroad’s Armour Yellow colors.

While the Milwaukee Road heavily promoted the Olympian Hiawatha and its highly scenic route through Idaho and Montana's Bitterroot Mountains and the Cascade range in Washington, the railroad was faced with a highly competitive market that included the Great Northern Railway's Empire Builder and the Northern Pacific Railway's North Coast Limited, and the rapidly growing competition from airlines. The Olympian Hiawatha was never a financial success. On May 22, 1961, the train was discontinued, one of the first of the great named trains to end service in the 1960s.

A sample 1953 consist:[citation needed]

  1. Mail and Express 1208
  2. Baggage Express 1336
  3. Baggage Dormitory 1309
  4. Coach 480
  5. Coach 481
  6. Coach 482
  7. Tap Lounge “Tip Top Grill” 164
  8. Touralux Tourist 14-section sleeper Mt. St. Helens
  9. Touralux Tourist 14-section sleeper Mt. Tacoma
  10. Diner 122
  11. Super Dome Lounge 53
  12. 8-duplex roomette, 6-roomette, 4-double bedroom sleeper Yellowstone River
  13. 10-roomette, 6-double bedroom sleeper Lake Coeur d’Alene
  14. 10-roomette, 6-double bedroom sleeper Lake Pend Oreille
  15. Skytop 8-double bedroom sleeper lounge-observation Gold Creek

Later History

In 1955, the Milwaukee Road assumed operation of the Overland Route "Cities" trains between Chicago and Omaha. The Milwaukee Road continued to serve the Pacific northwest through its shared passenger services with the Union Pacific Railroad, particularly the City of Portland. Between 1955 and 1957 the Milwaukee briefly marketed a City of Portland - Olympian Hiawatha “circuit route” at a reduced price with moderate success, but the package was eventually discontinued.

Following the discontinuance of the Olympian Hiawatha, much of the train's equipment was reassigned to the Milwaukee Road-Union Pacific Cities trains. The six sleeper-Skytop observation cars and six of the Milwaukee Road's "Super Domes" briefly saw service on these trains. In 1962 they were sold to the Canadian National Railway where they were placed in service on the Montreal to Halifax trains and the Toronto-Vancouver Super Continental. They were finally retired in 1971.

With the discontinuance of the Olympian Hiawatha in 1961, trains No. 15 and 16 continued to operate as an unnamed passenger service between Minneapolis and Deer Lodge, Montana carrying coaches, a Touralux open-berth sleeper and cafe car. In 1964 this service was cut back to a coach-only service to Aberdeen, South Dakota. It was finally discontinued in 1969.

Between 1971 and 1979 Amtrak operated the North Coast Hiawatha, a three day a week train that primarily utilized the Milwaukee's Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis mainline and the Northern Pacific's route west of Minneapolis. The trains name was an amalgam of North Coast Limited and Olympian Hiawatha.

Deferred maintenance forced the Milwaukee Road to abandon its electrification in 1974. Faced with bankruptcy, the Milwaukee Road ultimately abandoned its "Puget Sound extension" in 1980, eliminating much of the route of the Olympian Hiawatha. Several sections of the route have become part of the National Forest and state rails-to-trails programs including the most scenic section through the Bitterroot Mountains.

Major parts of Olympian's route were acquired by the Soo Line Railroad (now Canadian Pacific Railway), and by the Burlington Northern Railroad (now BNSF Railway). The former Milwaukee Road (now Canadian Pacific) mainline from Chicago to St. Paul, Minnesota continues to see high passenger ridership on Amtrak's Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service and Chicago-Minneapolis-Pacific Northwest Empire Builder.

Several scenic sections of the route of the Olympian Hiawatha have become public trails and park land. These include the "Route of the Hiawatha" in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Iron Horse State Park in Washington's Snoqualmie Pass.

See also


  • Scribbins, Jim (2007). The Hiawatha Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-81665-003-9. 
  • Johnson, Stanley (2001). Milwaukee Road Olympian: A Ride to Remember. Coeur d'Alene, ID: Museum of North Idaho Publications. ISBN 0-96436-477-8. 
  • Johnson, Stanley (1997). The Milwaukee Road Revisited. Caldwell, ID: University of Idaho Press. ISBN 0-89301-198-3. 

External links

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