A wonderful promotional film: Take a 1950’s luxury train trip from Chicago to Seattle on the “Super Dome Olympian Hiawatha”, with footage in the diner, coaches, Super Dome, sky top car, and sleepers, running along the Dells, the Mississippi, and the electrified territory in the mountains. Visits are made to many tourist spots along the way.
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.
Saying goodbye; the final eastbound Olympian Hi pulls into Missoula as one of its iconic Skytop lounge-observations brings up the rear on May 23, 1961.
While the Milwaukee Road heavily promoted the Olympian Hiawatha and its highly scenic route through Idaho and Montana’s Bitteroot 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.
The Skytop lounge-observation cars were one of a kind.
The films full title is “Pacific Northwest Holiday on the Super Dome Olympian Hiawatha”, it was produced by the Milwakee Road in 1952 to promote the new “Super Dome” cars.
In the late 1940s the Milwaukee Road introduced the Olympian Hiawatha, the transcontinental version of the railroad’s very popular fleet of Hiawatha passenger trains. The original version of the train was the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which began operating between Chicago and the Twin Cities on May 29, 1935, one of the first streamlined trains ever to be introduced in the U.S. For the Milwaukee itself, the Hiawathas were virtually the only streamlined passenger trains run by the railroad (they certainly were the most popular and well-remembered) with the rest operated in conjunction with Union Pacific. Originally powered by 4-4-2 Atlantic-type steam locomotives (later 4-6-4 Hudson-types) the train was entirely streamlined, including the locomotive, and home-built in the Milwaukee’s own shops. These trains became instantly successful and regularly cruised over 100 mph with nary a bump or shudder during the ride (both trains could make the jaunt between the two cities in roughly six hours).
These regional trains offered by the Milwaukee Road became so successful that the railroad found itself short on demand and to meet such eventually operated two versions of the train, the Morning Hiawatha and the Afternoon Hiawatha. There were eventually four versions of Milwaukee Roads’ regional Hiawathas. These included the Twin Cities Hiawatha, North Woods Hiawatha (served New Lisbon, Wisconsin to Minocqua, Wisconsin), Chippewa Hiawatha (served Chicago; Ontonagon, Michigan; and Milwaukee and Green Bay), and the Midwest Hiawatha (from Chicago this train served both Omaha, Nebraska and Sioux Falls, South Dakota). However, these Midwest versions were not the only Hiawathas the Milwaukee ever operated.
With the success of its regional Hiawathas, in 1947, about twelve years after the railroad first launched its Hiawatha the railroad introduced the streamlined Olympian Hiawatha, a train meant to fully compete with the Great Northern and Northern Pacific for rail travel to and from the Pacific Northwest (the Milwaukee had operated the Olympian and Columbian since 1911 over its Pacific Extension but these trains used heavyweight equipment and were pulled by conventional steam locomotives).
The Milwaukee Road’s Hiawathas owe their creation to industrial designer Otto Kuhler, the same man who designed the Baltimore & Ohio’s regal Capitol Limited and its classic royal blue, gold, and gray livery. Kuhler designed similar stunning features on the Hiawathas. However, it was Brook Stevens, who designed the celebrated Sky Top sleeper-lounge observations (perhaps the most distinctive and dramatic observation cars ever built) that created the Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha. The train featured passenger equipment (save for the cars purchased from Pullman) entirely homebuilt by the railroad’s own shop forces, which along with the beautiful Sky Top observations included cars such as the Super Domes, which allowed for full car-length, panoramic viewing.
When the train initially began on June 29, 1947 it included a mix of heavy and lightweight cars but by 1949 when the Pullman equipment arrived it was an entirely streamlined, lightweight train. For power the Olympian Hiawatha featured Erie-Built, diesel locomotives manufactured by Fairbanks-Morse. These trains pulled the train west from Chicago to Harlowton, Montana when it was handed over to the GE Boxcab and “Little Joe” electrics which carried the train as far west as Avery, Idaho and then again between Othello, Washington and finally, Seattle. While aesthetically quite stunning with added touches by Brooks Stevens of a chromed-nose design with “Olympian Hiawatha” adorning the locomotive along its flanks, the Erie-Builts were not very reliable and were soon pulled from service.
Sadly, the train lasted a mere 14 years and the Milwaukee Road bowed out of the Pacific Northwest market, canceling the train in May of 1961. Interestingly, while the railroad claimed lack of ridership on the Olympian Hi thanks to historian Michael Sol’s exhaustive research it actually appears the Milwaukee saw the writing on the wall early and simply wanted to rid itself of the unprofitable train (the railroad saved about $2.1 million annually for doing so).
Also of interest is how well each of the three lines actually fared from an operating standpoint. According to the ICC’s official statistics from 1959; the Milwaukee Road carried a 148.7% operating ratio (which is a company’s operating expenses divided by its operating revenues) while the Great Northern carried a 177.4% and the Northern Pacific a 194.3%. That same year the Milwaukee earned $3.3 million in passenger train revenues for the Olympian Hiawatha, alone, while the Northern Pacific earned just $6 million in revenues for its entire passenger train fleet and the Great Northern $10 million.
Another way to look at this is breaking down each railroad’s total transcontinental car fleet and the total earnings generated (keep in mind that the Milwaukee Road operated only the Olympian Hiawatha in the Pacific Northwest while the GN and NP operated several trains and a much larger fleet):
Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha: 72 Cars generated $3.3 million in revenue or about $45,833 per car.
Great Northern: 719 cars generated $10,000,000 in revenue or about $13,908 per car.
Northern Pacific: 570 cars generated $6,000,000 in revenue or about $10,526 per car.
From these numbers it is clear to see that despite what you may have previously read or understood about Milwaukee’s Northwest flagship, the railroad was far more efficient at operating its transcontinental train. However, that’s not to say that it was a “better” train, simply that it was operated more efficiently (in truth, all three railroads fielded magnificent trains to Seattle). Of greater note is that in actuality the three railroads did not really “compete” in the truest sense of the word as, except for the Northern Pacific, all served different intermediate points between Seattle and Minneapolis/Chicago. Additionally, by the time the Olympian Hiawatha was launched there fewer and fewer passengers riding the trains from end-point to end-point (Seattle to Minneapolis/Chicago) as most boarded or de-boarded somewhere in between.
From a railfan’s and historian’s (and even a traveler of the time period) perspective it’s a shame that the Olympian Hiawatha was canceled so early considering it operated through some of the most stunningly beautiful areas of the country had to call it quits barely into the 1960s.