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Rail Car: Whitefish Lake Ranch Car

© Ginny Chichester
Year Built:
Type of Equipment:
Rail Car
Ranch Car
Rail Trucks
American Car & Foundry Company
Manufacturer Location:
Berwick, PA
Motive Power:
In Service:
Great Northern Railroad, Empire Builder
Roots of Motive Power

While checking out the derelict passenger cars parked on the scrap lines of the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad yard, Roots of Motive Power members were thrilled to discover, nestled among the vandalized and neglected cars, Ranch Car #1245. The vintage 1950s railcar was miraculously protected by tightly parked railcars on both ends. The Whitefish Lake Ranch Car was found before vandals had an opportunity to cause serious damage to this unique western-themed lounge and coffee shop.

One of only six, the Ranch Car was built for the Great Northern Railroad as a featured attraction on the historic passenger line, the Empire Builder. Bridges of lace, a suddenness of trees, a lap of mountain mist – and while traveling aboard the Whitefish Lake Ranch Car, GN bestowed a taste of Montana and the Old West on passengers as they rode across this great continent.

Railcars in the Empire Builder consist were named for places along the route. In 1949, as demand increased and times were prosperous, the Great Northern announced it was going to completely re-equip the “Empire Builder”. Eighty-four cars (five trains of 15 cars each, plus an extra of each type of car) were ordered. For speed of delivery, the order was split between Pullman-Standard (P-S) and American Car & Foundry (ACF). This equipment soon became known as the “Mid-Century Empire Builder”. From front to rear, the train included:

  • A three-unit 4500 HP Electro-motive “F” diesel locomotive
  • A railway post office/storage mail car. (Cars 37-41 by ACF)
  • A baggage/dormitory (crew’s quarters) car. (Cars 1200-1205 by ACF)
  • A sixty-seat coach with conductor’s compartment. (Cars 1209-1214 by ACF)
  • Three 48-seat day/night coaches. (Cars 1215-1230 by P-S)
  • A Ranch Car (Western-themed bar, lounge and diner). (Cars 1240-1245 by ACF)
  • A 36 seat dining car. (Cars 1250-1255 by ACF)
  • Three four-section/seven-duplex roomette/three double-bedroom/one-compartment sleeping cars. (Cars 1260-1274, plus one Spokane Portland & Seattle RR Car#702 by P-S)
  • Three six-roomette/five double bedroom/two-compartment sleeping cars. (Cars 13 70-13 84 plus one Spokane Portland & Seattle RR Car #701 by P-S)

As part of this rolling first class hotel on wheels, the Ranch Car made its Chicago to the Pacific Northwest and back journey about once a week and quickly became the most popular car on the train. From its beginning in 1951 through 1962 business was very good for the Great Northern. In 1970 when the Great Northern merged with the Northern Pacific, the Spokane Portland & Seattle, and the Burlington to become the Burlington Northern, passenger service was becoming a major financial liability and an end was in sight.

On May 1st, 1971, the Federal Government created Amtrak and assumed responsibility for the nation’s passenger trains. The Ranch Car suffered various indignities in that service. Sometime after 1971 the Whitefish Lake Ranch Car was sold to Great Western Tours which operated on the Sierra Railroad, based in Oakdale, California. In the mid-eighties the Great Western Tours partners negotiated a deal with a new railroad starting up in scenic Northern California. What they didn’t anticipate was the very unstable Eel River Canyon on the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad. The new railroad, the Eureka Southern, couldn’t keep up with the major storm repairs, and both Great Western Tours and Eureka Southern went bankrupt. Ownership of the passenger cars, diners and engines was taken over by the North Coast Railroad Authority, but little funding was provided for their care and protection.

When it was new the interior of the Ranch Car featured the G Bar N brand as its trademark. Meant to emulate a western chuck wagon, its decor included lodge poles, cowhide upholstery and branding irons. There is a special surprise on the wall behind the serving counter – two large murals painted by Nick Eggenhofer (1897- 1985), a famous western artist of the time. Eggenhofer was considered one of the most prolific artists of the western scene. He was noted for his historical accuracy through his careful research and was in authority on early western transportation. The Ranch Car coffee shop offered coffee served from a huge authentic-looking camp coffee pot, and the serving counter, with 13 swivel stools, looks like leather.

Behind the counter is an efficient stainless steel serving area and a hidden kitchen with range, ovens, toaster, sink and refrigerator. Tables for casual seating complete the comfortable atmosphere of the Ranch Car’s interior.

August 2004: John Bradley, who was instrumental in acquiring the Ranch Car for Roots of Motive Power, orchestrated the difficult job of moving the Ranch Car to the Roots display area. The equipment list included a low-bed from Frank Dutra, Root’s Big Bertha, a 950 loader from Willits Redwood Company, Pete Mihelcic’s front-end loader and the logging dolly donated to Roots by Ken Smith. With crane and loader, one end of the Ranch Car was lifted onto the low-bed with its wheels still attached. The other end was picked up, the wheels were removed from underneath, and it was placed on the log dolly. The reason for this combination of dolly and truck was due to the most difficult aspect of the move: two sharp turns that had to be negotiated before the Ranch Car reached its destination. The move went smoothly with a lot of credit going to truck drivers Chuck Kochever and Frank Dutra. The truck-crane was used to unload the car onto a temporary siding leading to the Roots Work and Restoration Building where a permanent siding for the car was constructed and is now the Ranch Car’s new home.

Visitors to the Roots of Motive Power Festival in September 2004 were treated to tours of the Ranch Car and volunteers have begun the restoration process. Rescuing and restoring the Whitefish Lake Ranch Car by Roots of Motive Power coincides with the celebration of the Empire Builder’s 75th Anniversary year.

by Bobbie Yokum