50 Years Ago a Memorable Rail Experience

A Norfolk & Western geep prepares to hook onto two passengers at the Decatur, Illinois, depot and add them to the Chicago-bound Blue Bird, which would be arriving shortly. The date is July 10, 1969, and I made this and the image below with a Kodak Instamatic camera.

Scouts from the Lincoln Trails Council pose with a banner on the platform of the former Wabash Railroad station in Decatur, Illinois, before boarding a Norfolk & Western passenger train to Chicago en route to the 1969 National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America. Note the Pennsylvania Railroad boxcar in the background and the N&W geep.

While the nation has been focused this week on the 50th anniversary today of the landing of two Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the anniversary of another event that occurred 50 years ago this month.

As Neil Armstrong was making his giant leap for mankind on the lunar surface, I was among 34,251 Boy Scouts who attended the seventh national jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America, held July 16-22 at Farragut State Park on the shore of Lake Pend D’Oreille in Idaho.

Attending the jamboree was a once in a lifetime experience that included my  first experience in a sleeping car and my first meal in a dining car.

The journey began the morning of July 10 at the former Wabash Railroad station in Decatur, Illinois.

The Lincoln Trails Council sent two troops to the jamboree and we boarded the St. Louis to Chicago Blue Bird, which in 1969 was operated by Norfolk & Western.

That segment of the trip almost didn’t happen. N&W was seeking to discontinue the Blue Bird and had it succeeded our trip might have started on the Illinois Central in my hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, or in Champaign, or maybe aboard a bus.

Decatur was the home of the council office so it was our launch point.

The N&W put an extra coach on Train No. 124, which was pulled by a lone geep.

As seen in the grainy photograph above, two cars were added to the Blue Bird in Decatur, including a dining car and the coach in which we rode.

It was my first trip on the former Wabash and as we neared Chicago Dearborn Station I got my first glimpse of passenger equipment of the Erie Lackawanna.

In checking 1969 passenger schedules, I later determined the EL’s inbound Lake Cities would have arrived at Dearborn Station around the time that we did., but I don’t remember seeing it.

We spent the afternoon sightseeing and having dinner before heading to Union Station to board a chartered train that we shared with Scouts from the Chicago and Fort Wayne, Indiana, councils.

That charter train had 20 or more cars, all of them Pullmans featuring the liveries of a myriad of railroads.

We had been told we would be traveling in Pullman berths but most, if not all, of the sleepers were 10-roomette, 6 bedroom cars.

I was the quartermaster for my troop and therefore drew an assignment of a roomette in a Chesapeake & Ohio car named Virginia Hot Springs.

I believe that my council had three cars, the Mad Anthony Wayne Council of Fort Wayne had three cars and the Chicago council had the balance.

There was a lounge car mid train reserved for use by the adult troop leaders.

I knew this only because early in the trip I walked the length of the train.

Later we would be told that we were not allowed to go back into the cars used by the Chicago council, but we could visit the cars used by the Fort Wayne council.

Our train departed on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy at about 9 p.m. and followed the traditional route of the Great Northern Empire Builder.

Most of the trip would be on GN track and our train was pulled by two GN locomotives painted in the Omaha orange that predated GN sky blue.

Behind the locomotives was a steam car painted in the GN sky blue livery.

We arrived at St. Paul Union Depot around 4 a.m. and didn’t detrain until about 6.

Once we disembarked, we walked to the GN headquarters where we had breakfast in the employee cafeteria. We would have dinner there on the return trip.

Generally, we had most meals off the train. On the way out a box lunch was put aboard at Fargo, North Dakota, that we ate in our rooms. I also recall during the return trip a box breakfast being put aboard in Savannah, Illinois.

We departed Chicago on a Thursday and dinner on Friday night was in Minot, North Dakota. I believe we had a meal in Minot on the return trip.

We spent most of Saturday at Glacier National Park having all three meals there.

It was during that layover that I experienced my first disillusionment with Scouting, discovering that not all Scouts were adherents of Scout ethics. Some guys shoplifted from the gift shop at a lodge and others sought to take home as souvenirs anything they could lift.

A similar incident occurred in Idaho when some Scouts from my council tried to pry the state seal of Idaho off a park sign.

We arrived in Spokane, Washington, early on Sunday morning where we had breakfast and boarded buses for the jamboree site.

Farragut State Park was closest to the station in Sandpoint, Idaho, but we passed through there in the middle of the night.

I remember one of our council scoutmasters on Sunday morning walking the aisle of my sleeper and banging on every door as he said, “let me in.”

His purpose, of course, was to get us up and ready to disembark in Spokane.

The Scouts arrived at the jamboree on a rolling schedule so as not to jam the roads leading into the park.

We were among the earliest group of Scouts to arrive and among the first to leave. In fact we arrived a few days before the jamboree officially began.

The moon landing occurred on a Sunday and I never saw any of it on television.

Some Scouts had battery operated TVs that managed to receive grainy images of the event.

Sunday was a free day and I was more interested in roaming the jamboree grounds and meeting Scouts from far and wide, hoping to trade patches with them.

I remember, though, seeing some guys watching the lunar landing and a roar going up from a group of them when the Eagle landed

Neil Armstrong had been an Eagle Scout growing up in Ohio and he sent a greeting to the Scouts at the jamboree as Apollo 11 flew toward the moon.

It was a tradition for the president of the United States to address the Scouts at their national jamboree.

But President Richard Nixon skipped the 1969 jamboree because he wanted to be on the U.S. Navy ship to welcome back the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Instead we were addressed during the closing ceremonies by former astronaut Frank Borman, who had orbited the moon on Apollo 8. The closing ceremony also included a concert by the musical group Up With People.

One of the songs they performed was a tribute to Ed White, the first astronaut to walk in space and a victim of the flash fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1 on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy.

At the time I was disappointed that Nixon was a no show because I’d never seen a president before.

Immediately after the closing ceremonies we boarded buses for the Sandpoint station.

Another charter train arrived in the station before our train did although I don’t know where that train was headed.

The return trip had the same equipment we had used on the outbound trip to Spokane.

We left Idaho on July 22 and stopped the next day at a ski resort in Whitefish, Montana, where we spent time riding the ski lifts among other activities.

Somewhere on the return trip, we were standing on a platform waiting for our train to arrive back into the station.

As we waited, GN’s Western Star arrived and did its station work, which included loading and unloading cans of milk. That must have been a dying business in 1969.

A dominant memory I have from the trip is sitting in my room and watching the Montana and North Dakota countryside roll past.

It was my first time in either state and I thought North Dakota was boring.

We had dinner in St. Paul at the GN cafeteria and had time to kill at St. Paul Union Depot before reboarding our train.

The St. Paul to Chicago segment was the only one in which our special operated combined with a scheduled train, Burlington’s Black Hawk.

After arriving at Chicago Union Station the next morning we did some more sightseeing before boarding the Blue Bird for Decatur at Dearborn Station.

I had sought to find as many railroad timetables as I could during this trip, but hadn’t found too many.

I approached a woman at an information window at Dearborn and asked if I could have some timetables.

She turned to a rack to her right and began pulling copies of each timetable available. I still have every one of those timetables.

In looking at them I was surprised at how few trains still operated. The train bulletin board at SPUD had listed only a handful of trains, including one train for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific to Kansas City known as the Plainsman.

I noticed at Dearborn Station that signs were placed by the boarding gate doors that had the name of the train and a logo of the railroad operating it. I’d never seen that before and thought it was a nice touch.

There were no plans to provide us dinner that evening so a few Scouts and our leaders ventured to the dining car. I decided to go there as well.

As I arrived, one of our troop leaders, who also was the scoutmaster for my home troop in Mattoon, warned me to be careful as the meals were a little pricey.

I ordered the least expensive thing I found, a club sandwich.

I had never eaten in a dining car and didn’t know that you wrote your order on a check with a pencil.

One of the waiters was a grouchy sort, but took my order promptly without comment.

I don’t recall how much that sandwich cost, but thought it was quite good.

My journey ended on the night of July 25 at the Wabash station in Decatur. It was the first time I had seen my parents since early July.

They had taken my sister to Rochester, Minnesota, where she had open heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in late June.

I had flown with an uncle from St. Louis to Rochester on July 3 to see them in what was my first ever airplane trip. So July 1969 was a month of transportation firsts for me.


In the 50 years since that 1969 trip I’ve yet to meet anyone who was on those trains with me with whom I could share memories.

I conducted a Google search while writing this article and found very little online about that special train that I rode.

However, I did learn that the train that had arrived in Sandpoint station ahead of ours on the night of July 22 may have been a chartered train that had originated on the N&W in Virginia.

I ran across the script of a TV story aired by a Roanoke television station on July 11, 1969, as well as a first person account by a Scout who had ridden that train.

The Scout said they had stayed overnight at Yellowstone National Park, leading me to believe they rode Northern Pacific rails for part of their journey.

I also ran across the account of another Scout from Chief Okemos Council in Michigan who described riding a train from Lansing to Chicago, and then boarding a special train in Chicago that was just for Scouts.

That could have been the train I was on. Presumably, the Michigan Scouts would have ridden the Grand Trunk Western, which used Dearborn Station in Chicago.

Yet I don’t recall seeing any other Boy Scouts in Dearborn Station either on the way out or back.

In looking at the handful of photographs that I made on the day we left Decatur seeing the guys wearing those white neckerchiefs brought back a forgotten memory.

Illinois was one of four states in Region 7 of the Scouts and those neckerchiefs had a Region 7 insignia.

They were prized possessions to have because ordinarily you had to spend time at the Region 7 canoe base in Wisconsin to get one.

Somehow I lost or had stolen my Region 7 neckerchief during the return trip to Illinois. At the time I was very upset about it but in time had forgotten about it.

While researching some 35 years later the history of passenger trains in the late 1960s I would learn that on the day we were in St. Paul on our return trip the Rock Island’s Plainsman was on the verge of making its last trips the week we were there.

That Boy Scout special was my only pre-Amtrak era experience with overnight train travel. The trip on the Blue Bird back to Decatur was my last trip on a non-tourist passenger train before Amtrak began in 1971.

Riding in a Pullman on a special created to transport teenagers was not quite the same as doing it on a scheduled train. There were no Pullman porters onboard and we didn’t eat meals in a dining car.

I would later learn the equipment assigned to our train came from a pool maintained by the Pullman Company and that Boy Scout special likely was among the last times that pool was used for a special movement.

By the time the next jamboree was held Amtrak had taken over most of the nation’s passenger trains and it had far less interest in offering special movements for Boy Scouts.

Some Scouts still travel by rail to the national jamboree, but must ride regularly scheduled Amtrak trains. The days of mass movement of Scouts by rail are a thing of the past.

It would be July 1977 before I traveled in a sleeping car again, a roomette on Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Jacksonville, Florida, to Washington.

I would board a train one more time at the former Wabash station in Decatur. That was on July 18, 1981, when I rode the state-funded Illini to Chicago.

That short-lived service to Decatur used the ex-Wabash between Decatur and Tolono, Illinois, with most of the trip on the ex-IC. Today the Illini operates between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

In late June 1999 during a trip aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago en route home from the National Railway Historical Society Convention in California, I covered much of the route that my Boy Scout special had traveled .

Fifty years ago I didn’t pay attention to the routings of the trains I was able to ride, so I’ll never know if the Scout special took the route via Grand Forks, North Dakota, that Amtrak uses or the Surrey Cutoff that GN’s Empire Builder used.

I suspect it was the latter because there was no need for us to take a round-about route between Minot and Fargo.

In May 2014 I covered the Surrey Cutoff because the Empire Builder was detouring that way.

I had a roomette on No. 7 and spent a lot of time watching the desolate North Dakota countryside slide past. This time I didn’t find it boring at all.

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One Response to “50 Years Ago a Memorable Rail Experience”

  1. Dave Berg Says:

    Hi, thanks for the great summary of the trip from Decatur to Idaho. I was on that train (David Berg) and so was my brother (Doug Berg). My dad (Don Berg) was the Lincoln Trails Scout Executive and he was on the train as well. That was a great trip especially sightseeing in Chgo (going to the top of the Prudential Bldg) and visiting Glacier Natl Park. I was a den leader for one of the 2 troops. Dave Berg

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