More info:

GN 1291 Timeline

Mid-Century Empire Builder Press Release



















   The Great Northern Railway introduced its Mountain series observation cars as part of six complete new train-sets for the 1951 Mid-Century Empire Builder. These tall-window round-end observation cars were arguably the nicest ever on the Great Northern and possibly the nicest of any long distance train across the nation. Configured with three roomettes, a buffet, lounge and observation room these cars provided a great way to thoroughly enjoy the beautiful scenery along the Empire Builder route, made possible by a splendid view through the car's twenty tall windows. Comfortable seating was provided for 36 who could admire the view while enjoying a nice conversation and a refreshing drink served by the car's attendant.


    Great Northern received the six cars from American Car & Foundry in late 1950 and early 1951. They were numbered 1290-1295 and named after mountains found along the Empire Builder route; GN 1290 Appekunny Mountain, GN 1291 St. Nicholas Mountain, GN 1292 Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, GN 1293 Cathedral Mountain, GN 1294 Trempealeau Mountain and GN 1295 Little Chief Mountain.


    On June 3rd, 1951 the official inauguration of the Mid-Century Empire Builder was a fact. Great Northern patrons could, from now on, enjoy the magnificent vistas along the Empire Builder route with improved visibility provided by the cars' tall windows. The cars were an immediate success and were only second in popularity to the famous Ranch Car. In 1953, the railroads operating the Empire Builder (GN, CB&Q and SP&S) decided that a mileage equalization was needed and as part of the reached agreement St. Nicholas Mountain, together with 14 other cars - good for (almost) one full consist - found itself sold to the Burlington (CB&Q). All cars remained in service on the Empire Builder until 1955 when the Great Domes were introduced and the full-length dome-lounge took over the lounge function of the observation cars. The Mountain series cars were replaced by Coulee series observation cars. The Coulee series cars were on a second lease of life as they were rebuilt from the original 1947 Empire Builder River series cars running until then on the Western Star. In this conversion a significant reduction of the original lounge space was made to make room for additional sleeping accommodations. The Mountain series cars were transferred to the Western Star, which ran as a companion train to the Empire Builder, where they continued to delight the traveling public with their many amenities.


    On May 23, 1960 Great Northern combines the Fast Mail with the Western Star. The Western Star's observation car is cut back to St. Paul - Seattle operation needing now only five cars to cover the schedule. St. Nicholas Mountain is deemed surplus and gets added to CB&Q's general service pool where she turned many more miles on specials and pinch-hitting assignments. As such she even saw occasional service on the Denver Zephyr and the Twin Cities Zephyr. Towards the end of the Great Northern era, in 1968, the other Mountain series observation cars were taken off the Western Star and reassigned to the International, Great Northern's streamliner between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.  


    On May 1, 1971 Amtrak took over the then troubled nationwide passenger-train service from the railroads in a government-initiated effort to revitalize passenger train service. Amtrak bought a lot of the equipment it needed from the railroads but decided that it had no use for these observation cars and elected not to acquire them. All were then retired and sold-off.


    Of the six cars, only one was scrapped; Little Chief Mountain after a bad derailment. Appekunny Mountain, Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and Cathedral Mountain went to private owners. Trempealeau Mountain and our St. Nicholas Mountain were eventually sold in 1974 to Andy's Tukwila Station Restaurant in Tukwila, Washington. Both cars were gutted and had large holes cut in their sides to accommodate the function of a restaurant. The cars were made into dining rooms and received a restaurant style interior and decoration in the process. Most of the original equipment was taken out and disposed off. When the restaurant closed in 1995 the cars were auctioned off and ended up in private hands. Trempealeau Mountain went to a private owner while St. Nicholas Mountain was acquired by the Northern Central Railway in Pennsylvania.


    For the move to Pennsylvania St. Nicholas Mountain was put back on live track, its holes were patched over with steel and with the necessary inspections completed sent by rail to its new home in Pennsylvania. The Northern Central Railway had plans to use the car as a dance car on its Liberty Limited dinner train but before any serious work could be done the railroad ceased all operations in 2001. While most equipment was sold off St. Nicholas Mountain was retained by Northern Central's owner Ken Bitten in the hopes to convert the car into a private business car. Eventually it was decided to put the car on the market.


    At the end of 2002, while searching the internet for information on surviving GN passenger cars, Ben Ringnalda came across the For Sale listing of GN 1291 St. Nicholas Mountain. An avid Great Northern fan and owner of the Great Northern Empire - Then and Now website Ben couldn't help thinking how nice it would be to own one of these magnificent observation cars. Through coincidence at the same time he was discussing surviving GN passenger cars with Eric Hopp a Private Railcar owner himself and owner of Great Northern 1146, an unique diner/coach built for the International. In the ensuing discussions it became clear that owning St. Nicholas Mountain was definitely something he would like to do and soon after talks started with the owner through Ozark Mountain Railcar, who was the intermediate for the sale. After thorough information gathering and planning it was decided to take a look at the car and inspect it to get a rough idea of its condition and the viability to restore and convert the car to qualify for Amtrak certification.


    Ben found Eric Hopp willing to accompany him to visit and inspect the car, which took place on May 15, 2004. Some concerns and reservations were present mainly due to the (patched) 20' hole the car acquired at Andy's Tukwila Station Restaurant. What all was cut away? What else would be wrong?

Luckily, St. Nicholas Mountain turned out to be in better condition than expected. The hole will need to be addressed with some solid engineering, some other smaller holes were discovered that will also need to be addressed, but structurally she turned out to be in decent shape, better than expected. Another important thing was that the interior, although stripped, still had the elegant curved ceiling decoration and lighting, a very important factor considering the plans to restore the car to near original as-delivered condition. All the interior window decoration was also found to still be in place. As expected the furniture, buffet, bathroom and 

roomettes were all gone. We concluded that the car will require a lot of work to get her back to original condition, but that at least some important and hard to replace items were still in place.


    One month later St. Nicholas Mountain changed ownership, an event that marked the car's first step on the road back to its original proud self!


    Follow along with the restoration by checking the regular updates on the News and Gallery pages. Also make sure to check out the rest of this website and see how You can Help with this grand restoration.

More info:

GN 1291 Timeline

Mid-Century Empire Builder Press Release

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