48 Degrees North

Fifty Years at the Depot

Amtrak was created on May 1, 1971, after most of the nation’s railroads decided to stop running passenger trains

By Justin Franz
Photo by Justin Franz

For much of the day and night, the Whitefish Depot at the end of Central Avenue sits quietly, only disturbed by the rumble of a passing freight train or the occasional visitor to the museum inside. But twice a day — at 7:21 a.m. and 8:56 p.m. — the regal old train station becomes a beehive of activity. Keeping everything in check are people like Sandra Larsen and Rick Warburton, two of the 40 or so people employed by Amtrak in the state of Montana. 

Amtrak is celebrating its 50-year anniversary. It was created on May 1, 1971, after most of the nation’s railroads decided to stop running passenger trains. During the mid-20th century, as planes and private automobiles began to take a larger share of the travel market, train ridership started declining, and the railroads, which for more than a century had carried both freight and passengers, wanted to get out of the people-moving business. Not wanting the passenger train to disappear altogether, Congress created a quasi-public railroad called Amtrak to take over the trains, including the Empire Builder. Fifty years later, the Empire Builder still stops in Whitefish twice a day. 

Larsen and Warburton sell tickets, answer questions and make sure passengers’ luggage gets loaded on the baggage car at the front of the train. Whitefish is the busiest stop between Seattle and the Twin Cities, and Larsen — who has worked for Amtrak for 11 years — likes to tell newcomers that “this station isn’t for the faint of heart.” 

The hustle and bustle begins shortly before the train arrives, with the station agents telling passengers where they need to go and loading up suitcases on an old cart that will transport it to the train. When the train pulls into town, they spring into action, loading and unloading luggage. 

Larsen said her job comes with some perks, including being able to take her grandchildren on overnight trips to Seattle where they can ride the ferry, see the city skyline and, if they’re lucky, take in a Seahawks game (the Amtrak team members in Whitefish are big Seahawks fans). Warburton works in Whitefish during the winter, and in the summer he staffs the depot at East Glacier Park. 

One day this spring, a bear was running around the rail yard. Thinking quickly, Larsen got on the intercom and asked all the passengers waiting on the platform to come inside for a “special announcement” (she didn’t want to cause a panic). Once everyone was inside, she told them there was a bear on the run and that it was best they stayed put for a few minutes. It was just another day down at the depot. 

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