The Golden Age of Railroading isn’t just remembered,
it’s back again!
The introduction of luxury Dome Cars on passenger trains in the late 1950’s was a major innovation. This full length Dome Car, now in Duluth on the North Shore Scenic Railroad is just as transformational as it was for the great passenger trains of the past. The very name of this historic car says it all…SkyView! Imagine sitting high above the rails, under a dome of curved glass, as the panorama of Lake Superior, Duluth’s pictured hillside and the majestic Northwoods passes all around you. Guest/passengers see Duluth and the North Shore as never before.
Of the 236 Dome Cars built, only thirty had glass windows that extended the entire length of the coach. One of the few remaining, Sky View, was manufactured by the BUDD Car Company for the Santa Fe Railroad in 1954. It ran on several of the company’s named trains before migrating to Autotrain (not Amtrak at the time) and then entered into First Class Private Car Service.
This magnificent coach has table seating for sixty guest/passengers under curved glass windows that give an unparalleled, 360-degree view of the passing countryside. Below, on Sky View’s lower level, is a dining lounge with a fully functional galley and two executive washrooms.
The North Shore Scenic Railroad operates Sky View in First Class Service on the popular Duluth Zephyr and Elegant Dinner Trains this summer. The railroad also owns two other Domecars, which operate on the Two Harbors excursions. These two dome’s bear the names Silver Club and the Puget Sound. Both of the Railroad’s signature excursions now feature First Class Dome Car Service. Passengers enjoy their own personal car attendant, complimentary beverages and an individual charcuterie.
Support the SkyView Domecar with a contribution to its designated fund. A secure checkout is setup sending funds directly into an account just for the ongoing preservation and presentation of the SkyView.
History of “Big DomeCars”
The Budd Railcar company built 20 Budd full-length dome cars during the period 1953 to 1955; 14 for the Santa Fe, and six for the Great Northern. Of the 20 full-domes built, only the Great Northern named theirs. The Santa Fe simply referred to them as “Big Domes” and number, in this case “Big Dome #551.”
The 14 Santa Fe Big Domes were built and delivered by Budd in two different lower level configurations. 506-513 had a 28-seat lounge plus bar. 550-555 featured a six-seat lounge plus bar and a crew dormitory. Most currently feature a 22 seat dining room downstairs with full kitchen and full wait station.
Great Northern followed Santa Fe and ordered six of the same type, # 1390-1395. With the exception of ASF Rotobrakes on the Santa Fe domes, and Budd (Wabco) brakes on the GN Great Domes, the two versions of the cars are basically identical. The Santa Fe fluting exists on the GN lower car body under snap-in covers. Even the GN domes have ATSF casting marks on them, and the trucks share sequential serialization across both companies.
Of the 20 built, 17 still exist as follows:
- Royal Gorge Route: 507, 513, 553
- Iowa Pacific et al: 508, 509, 510, 511, 512, 551
- Coastal 1394
- Grand Canyon: 1395, 1392
- BNSF: 506 (currently numbered BNSF 60), 1390 (currently number BNSF 30)
- NS: 552
- Amtrak: 1391 – Sold to PAXX Rail, recently acquired by Western Maryland Scenic Railroad
- Scrapped: 550, 555, 1393
Additionally, Pullman Standard built 10 “Superdomes” for the Milwaukee Road. Similar in concept, although they do not feature vestibules.
What’s nice about full domes is that they are equivalent to multiple cars in a single excursion train. They have the capacity of a coach, a dining area sufficient to serve the guests on board, a private bar upstairs, restrooms, and generally enough electrical supply to power surrounding cars.
After years of traveling on the trains of the Santa Fe, namely the SuperChief, Amtrak took over operations of passenger rail, and operated some of the domes, but Big Dome #551 operated on AutoTrain.
Big Dome #551 has a long history and has traveled many places. Here’s some highlights of its history as recorded by alaskarails.org
- 1953 Ordered by the AT&SF from the Budd Company.
- 1954 Delivered in May to the AT&SF.
Original car had 57 forward facing seats and 18 lounge seats in the dome and a 8 seat lounge, bar and rail crew dormitory on the lower level. Car was built for and used on the “San Francisco Chief”.
- 1968 Car was reassigned to the “Texas Chief”.
- 1971 AT&SF to cease passenger service with the start of Amtrak. AT&SF and Amtrak have difficulty reaching agreement on value of the Santa Fe fleet of cars. Privately operated Auto-Train acquires car to operate Lorton, VA. to Sanford, FL. Converted to a 51 seat coach on the dome level retaining its 8 seat lounge, bar and Crew dormitory on the lower level.
- 1981 Acquired by C. C. Potter of Cincinnati, Ohio at the Auto-Train bankruptcy auction. Used for a period of time by a fledgling tour company called Golden Arrow out of Chicago. Car then disappears.
- 1985-87 Westours and its third party purchasing agent make several attempts to locate car. No one seemed to know what happened to it.
- 1989 Car located stored in the roundhouse on the Wisconsin & Calumet Railroad in Janesville, Wisconsin. Owners named Passenger Car Associates, Inc. Posters of the Golden Arrow operation still mounted on wall. Acquired by Westours through a third party. Car moved to Tillamook, Oregon for storage pending rebuild.
- 1993 Rebuilding of car started in Tillamook, Oregon.
- 1994 Rebuilding completed. Rebuild cost is $781,000 not including the cost of the car shell. Car shipped to Anchorage on May 19.
June 3, first Anchorage-Denali-Fairbanks revenue trip.
- 2009? – Iowa Pacific Acquires several domes from Holland America (Alaska).
- -2020 – The Lake Superior Railroad Museum makes an offer to purchase #551 and moves it to Duluth in the spring of 2021.
#551 and its name “SkyView”
The longest Big Dome #551 carried a name was when it was owned by Holland America Line / Westours, Inc in Alaska. It operated in service as “Kobuk #551” on the McKinley Explorer, named after an Alaskan river. HAL/Westours owned and operated the fleet of heritage domecars longer than any other owner – including GN and ATSF – placing the first ones in service beginning in 1987, adding more into the 90’s, and ultimately running the fleet for 22 years. The last of their heritage domecars were retired after the 2009 season, when they were replaced with newer equipment.
HAL/Westours restored the cars to their original numbers, un-doing the numbering convention applied by Amtrak.
The name Sky View was applied to #551 by Iowa Pacific Holdings (IPH) during the period when the rail charter company was busy expanding and placing big domes in service on most of the tourism-based railroads it operated. The convention for domes, clubs, and coaches was to give them x-View, x-Club, and x-Valley names. So a train with Calumet Club, Scenic View, and Gila Valley was a club, a dome, and a coach.
Big Dome #551 “SkyView” was purchased by the North Shore Scenic Railroad in the spring of 2021 for use on the excursion trains in Duluth, Minnesota. The railroad, owned by the Lake Superior Railroad Museum will focus on preserving the car for current, and future use. It will retain the name “SkyView” for the foreseeable future.