Great Northern dining cars in 1957/58
by Bill Schroeder
In 1957 I was a college freshman. Another student at my central
Minnesota college told me the year before he had a summer job as a cook
in the dining cars of the Great Northern. I knew I wanted that job the
coming summer. We made a trip to the St. Paul commissary where I was
introduced to Mr. Kirby, head of the dining car division. As I recall
he had a very pleasant manner. He said there might be summer work and
I should call in. I was never again inside the office of Mr. Kirby.
On the first day of my hopeful employment I appeared before Mr. Dixon,
the man responsible for the dining car crew rosters. I remember a large
man behind a large wooden desk. As I stood before him he looked up at
me briefly and said, "Nothing for you today Schroeder, give me a call in
the morning." It took three buses each way and several hours to get
from my Minneapolis home to the St. Paul commissary. In exchange for
this I received one sentence said in about five seconds.
I never did call him. Day in and day out, first thing in the morning
I made my way to the commissary and Mr. Dixon. Over and over again,
"Nothing for you today Schroeder, give me a call in the morning."
I thought, "I am going to keep coming here and standing before him
until he eventually gives me a run."
Finally my day came. My first run was Third Cook on the Red River.
Johnny was the chef. Johnny was black which was unusual for the
Eventually I was running as Fourth Cook on the Empire Builder. Most of
the dining car crew stocked the car one day and the following morning
the prepared dining car would be pulled from the commissary to St Paul
Union station. When the eastbound Empire Builder arrived the incoming
dining car would be switched out and our freshly stocked diner with its
new crew switched in. The silver CB&Q engines pulled the Builder to
Chicago. The fourth cook and one of the waiters joined the crew at
Union Station. We left the train at Savannah, Illinois and had a
layover of some hours before joining the westbound Builder from Chicago.
Because of these changes I was always working with a different crew.
While in Savannah I had plenty of time to walk around and the impression
which stays with me is the town seemed to have an extraordinary number
of beautiful women.
We would be back in St. Paul that night, and then on to Seattle. Five
days for a round trip and then five days off.
The Second Cook made the apple pies. They were stored in a cabinet
over the serving area. One afternoon, feeling a bit hungry, I helped
myself to a slice. Beautiful. And then I had another. The next
afternoon when I thought I would have a slice of nice apple pie I
discovered the cabinet was locked. The second cook had discovered my
Back in St. Paul at the end of the run, before doing anything else I
went to the commissary and Mr. Dixon to get my next run. Sometimes I
stayed on the dining car as the switch engine pulled it from Union
Station to the commissary. Later I realized I could have been fired
for this. But I was never caught and I didn't think I was doing
After reporting to Mr. Dixon and getting my next run I would take the
buses back to Minneapolis, throw my bag in the house, walk to the nearby
lake for a swim. I can still recall the wonderful sensation of cool
lake water washing away five days accumulated grime.
After a few runs I got to know the routine. When I got to the waiting
dining car I would enter, put on my white coat and cap and start
washing dishes - for the "Fourth Cook" was really a dish washer. At
the beginning of one trip the chef came over to me, "Who are you?" I
said I was Bill Schroeder, the Fourth Cook.
"Yes, well introduce yourself when you get on this car, we don't know
who you are, you could be anybody." I remember feeling both chastised
and embarrassed. But I could see his point and decided to do better in
On my next run as soon as I entered the car I made my way to the chef -
a chef I had not met before. "Hi, I'm Bill Schroeder"
"Ugh" That is all I got, just a grunt. He didn't look up from his
"Ah..." (say it brightly and with enthusiasm), "I'm your Fourth Cook!"
Later someone told me this chef worked late, hated mornings and never
spoke to anyone before noon.
On learning I worked in the dining cars people sometimes ask if I
learned to cook there. I didn't learn to cook anything. But I learned
to be not afraid of food. Later in life that would become very
My first summer was the one and only time I had a regular run. The
next summer the Great Northern decided to not use fourth cooks so it
was extremely difficult to get a run. I didn't try after that.
Looking back - even as a teenager, very wet behind the ears, even as a
summer job - I worked on the Great Northern Empire Builder. A view this
as one of life's privileges.