Wednesday, June 22, 2016

310622 - The Seal of the Great Spirit


Recording Status:  Recorded, not circulating

It was in January of 1929 that the Great Northern Railway began using a weekly coast-to-coast radio broadcast as a new advertising program. Two and a half years later – on June 22, 1931 –  Empire Builders went on the air for the last time.

As a mechanism to draw positive attention to the railroad and to influence an increase in both freight and passenger traffic, the radio advertising program was by all accounts a terrific success. The original strategy was to simply try this new advertising medium for an indefinite but limited time – probably no more than six months. Early indications of the value of these efforts convinced the railroad’s management team to continue well beyond that time limit. Although the radio program went off the air for most of each summer, it was otherwise a weekly Monday evening staple for what developed into a vast audience of loyal followers.

The Empire Builders radio broadcasts routinely faired very well in listener polls. Unsolicited feedback flooded in to corporate offices every week. Most of the decision-makers at the Great Northern Railway were inclined to continue with the program, based on its popularity and proven advertising value. However, the nation’s economy slumped into the Great Depression, and the significant expense associated with putting on a high-class weekly radio program could not be justified. Other railroads throughout the western states were facing similar belt-tightening cutbacks in spending. In the fall of 1930, at a conference of representatives of all the western railroads, an agreement was made that none of the railroad companies would engage in expensive advertising as radio programming sponsors. They were all in financial hard times, and they recognized that chasing each other’s advertising outlays would be unproductive and prohibitively expensive. Still, an allowance was made for existing contracts, such as the one NBC had with the Great Northern Railway through June of 1931. But that was it. The railroad basically decided to let the ad campaign terminate with the broadcast of June 22nd. And yet, oddly, many indicators suggested the railroad was still focused on listener feedback and the popularity of the radio show. Conversations at corporate headquarters in St. Paul still involved the possibility that the series might continue the following September. But sometime along the early spring, it became clear that the show would have to be brought to an end.

The closing image from the final scene of M*A*S*H
In recent years, most Americans have become accustomed to the impact of pop culture on their lives, and it is a virtual given that the finale of a popular and long-running television show will garner huge audiences. Just look at the final broadcasts of shows such as M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Seinfeld. But when you turn back the clock to the early 1930s, consider that the final broadcast of a nearly 3-year series was a novel experience. How would the show close for the last time? Would there be any overt acknowledgement of the show’s relative longevity, its popularity, and its demise?

As I began to research the topic of the Empire Builders radio series, I knew of only nine surviving broadcasts in circulation. The final show was not among them. I long ago located copies of the press release and the continuity (well, most of it, anyway). The continuity was missing the opening and closing credits, leaving me high and dry with regard to any treatment or acknowledgement of the finality of that show. And then, just a few years ago, an additional 13 broadcast recordings suddenly surfaced. They had been transferred onto reel-to-reel tapes sometime back in the 1980s, and came out of someone’s garage or attic or some such to be donated to the Great Northern Railway Historical Society. It was still an agonizing wait until I could access a digital copy of the recording of that last broadcast, but it finally happened.

So the mystery is solved. The curtain had been pulled back enough to expose the Wizard of Oz. After tracking the radio series for 103 weekly presentations, I now know how the finale was handled. And I will share that with you.

Let’s begin with the press release. It clearly drew attention to the fact that many people in the radio audience had come to know the “Old Timer,” and accepted that they might just miss him when he was gone. Here is how Harold Sims of the Great Northern previewed that final broadcast for the newspapers:

            The Old Timer of Empire Builders tells his last radio story Monday night, June 22, and bids a final adieu to the unseen friends whom he has entertained with his stories of the west on the NBC network during the last three years.

            The concluding story of the Great Northern’s radio series will be the “Seal of the Great Spirit,” depicting the early days of Fort Benton, Mont., when it was the head of navigation on the Missouri.

            The story was written by Edward Hale Bierstadt, author of the historical series which Empire Builders used three years ago. “The Seal of the Great Spirit” is said to be one of the finest of Mr. Bierstadt’s contributions to radio drama.

            A young bride goes to Fort Benton to join her husband, an army captain stationed there. Tragedy and mystery stalk her life, until the Old Timer pieces things together by recalling a strange tale told him by an Indian chief several years before.

            The play affords Lucille Husting, leading lady of the Empire Builders cast, roles with exceptional dramatic possibilities. Miss Husting plays the young bride, who in the modern scenes is the aged grandmother, and also takes the part of the mystery woman in the dramatization of the Indian chieftain’s story. In the supporting cast are Don Ameche, John Daly, and William Rath, all well-known to Empire Builders audiences.

            Concluding the three-year series of dramatic broadcasts, the Empire Builder will depart on its last radio journey, with the Old Timer aboard, leaving behind only memories of the Old Timer’s radio tales and the sensational train imitations which have been one of the outstanding features of this series of programs.

Newspaper clipping showing script writer Edward Hale Bierstadt at work.

I know it’s a case of splitting hairs, but I’ve waffled a little when it comes to stating the total number of broadcasts in the Empire Builders series. The Great Northern Railway went on the air over the newly-created NBC coast-to-coast network on the night of Saturday, January 12, 1929. The occasion was the opening and dedication of the GN’s new Cascade Tunnel in the state of Washington. Two nights later, on Monday, January 14, 1929, the railroad’s weekly series of 30-minute radio presentations commenced. So is the total number of broadcasts 103, or 104? I suppose if we accept the Cascade Tunnel broadcast as akin to the television concept of a pilot episode, then it might make sense to settle on 104. The opening announcement of the final broadcast of Empire Builders seems to support this notion. Here is how Ted Pearson opened the show the last time Empire Builders was ever heard over the radio:

ANNOUNCER:    Tonight, the Great Northern Railway concludes its three-year series of radio playlets. During these three years, and beginning with the dedication of the Great Northern Railway’s great 8-mile tunnel under the Cascade Mountains, Empire Builders has taken you from the sun-bathed shores of golden California to the arctic regions; from the Orient to the storied plains and mountains of the old west. And now tonight, its magic plane of the air takes you on its farewell journey. In bidding its radio audience goodbye, the Great Northern Railway wishes to express its gratitude for the many helpful and friendly comments it has received on its efforts to present a radio program varied in character and distinctly different from anything else on the air. It hopes that many of its radio friends who have taken these weekly journeys on the Empire Builder of the air will have the opportunity to take a trip someday on the real Empire Builder – the Great Northern’s fast and luxurious passenger train between Chicago and the cities of the Pacific Northwest.
Painting by Robert E. Sticker of the Far West paddlewheel steamer tied up at Fort Benton.

The final dramatic presentation of Empire Builders was set in Fort Benton in old Montana. The opening scene of the radio play dramatized daily life at the fort in 1871. A steamboat had just made its way to the fort up the Missouri River. The dialogue began between a man named Tim Hardy and his friend, Pete. Hardy was revealed to be something of a hustler, and eventually, worse. The first thing he did upon the arrival of the steamboat was to set up a shell game on a small table.

PETE:             Goin’ to set up your board?

HARDY:         Reckon I might as well. Here goes!  (CALLS OUT)  Now, folks, here’s your chance to make some easy money! Three walnut shells – that’s all there are – just three – and one little dried pea!  Now, ladies and gentlemen – which shell is the little pea under! Your money against mine!

VOICES:         I’ll bet I could guess! – Put away your money, Jake! - It’s a skin game – No, it ain’t. Let’s try it once!

HARDY:         Come on, folks! Here’s my money in plain sight! Here are the shells, and here’s the little pea! No deception! Examine ‘em if you want to. One – two – three – presto! Now! Which shell is the little pea under?

Pete aided his pal by boldly betting five dollars on the game. Naturally, Pete was a winner. Hardy made a big deal about it to the gathering crowd, shouting out “your skill – my money!” The implication was no doubt meant to suggest Hardy’s money was ready for the taking, but the “my money” reference was really more of a prediction of subsequent results. The first victim to step up was a Native American man named Yellow Bear. He eagerly declared that he knew which shell the pea was under, and he put down a two dollar bet – all the money he had. Hardy rolled over the shell and, sure enough, there was no pea. As the crowd laughed and jeered, Captain Jack Stanley of the 7th Infantry walked up. He put a quick end to Hardy’s operation.

STANLEY:     (APPROACHING)  There’s enough of that, Hardy! You close up that board of yours and get out of here! Don’t you take the money from that Indian!

HARDY:         Captain Stanley, I won that money fair and square. The hand is quicker than the eye!

STANLEY:     Yes, and if you don’t vamoose in a hurry you’ll find that my hand with a gun is quicker than yours with those walnut shells! Come, sir! Colonel Gibbon has warned you before. Close that board and get out!

HARDY:         All right, Cap’n. What you say goes. I’ll get out, but you – look out! … Come on, Pete.

Stanley was not easily intimidated, but he knew Hardy was someone to keep an eye on. The Captain and his wife, Lucy, talked briefly about how they had come out to Fort Benton, and Stanley commented off-handedly that Benton was not considered a military fort. Just then, Yellow Bear approached and said he wanted to speak with Captain Stanley.

INDIAN:         (APPROACHING)  (CALLS)  Cap’n Stanley! Cap’n Stanley!

STANLEY:     Hello, Yellow Bear – you back?

INDIAN:         I speak um!

STANLEY:     Don’t you go to getting into any more shell games! I may not be here to help you the next time.

INDIAN:         Me friend – to white man. Me friend – to you.

STANLEY:     I know you are, Yellow Bear, and I’m glad of it.

INDIAN:         White man – try take Yellow Bear money . . .

STANLEY:     Yes, Tim Hardy, the gambler. He’s bad medicine, Yellow Bear.

INDIAN:         He thief. You hear, Cap’n! He, Hardy, sell guns to Indian.


Stanley rejoined his wife, and Lucy wanted to know what that conversation had been about. The captain explained that Yellow Bear told him Tim Hardy had been stealing rifles from the soldiers and was selling them to the Indians. Since Fort Benton was not a military post, Stanley explained, it was not possible to just run Hardy off. And besides, he pointed out, the harm was already done. Yellow Bear reported to Stanley that there was an uprising on the horizon. Lucy told her husband he ought to go talk it over with Colonel Gibbon after supper.

With the sounds of a military band providing a segue into an orchestra’s playing of a modern theme, radio listeners next heard a present-day conversation between an elderly Lucy Stanley, her granddaughter Alice, and the Old Timer.

MRS. S:          That was nearly sixty years ago, Old Timer, and now – I’m an old, old woman. I was twenty then – the summer Jack and I came out here – just my granddaughter’s age. Or are you only nineteen, dear?

ALICE:           No, grandmother. Twenty my last birthday. Don’t you think I look grown up, Old Timer?

PIONEER:      Miss Alice, you look too sweet to have any age! And so you’ve lived here in Fort Benton ever since, Mrs. Stanley?

MRS. S:          Ever since. But – that’s another story. I’ve seen the Fort grow from what it was in those days to the pretty place it is today – quiet and restful. You’ve looked over the old fort itself, haven’t you?

PIONEER:      Oh, yes, I didn’t miss that! I don’t know whether you folks realize it or not, but this year is the one hundredth anniversary of the foundin’ of Fort Benton here.

ALICE:           Oh! Are you sure?

PIONEER:      Indeed, I am sure. Yes, Fort Benton was founded by the American Fur Company in 1831 – or was it the Hudson’s Bay Company? Drat my hide if I remember!

Never at a loss to invoke the name of the sponsor, or he who held the title of Empire Builder, author Edward Hale Bierstadt had elderly Lucy Stanley comment on how she had been at Fort Benton for more than half of its existence, and therefore had witnessed much. The Old Timer remarked that she must have seen the arrival of the Great Northern Railway when it pushed its rails through. She confirmed that fact, and added that she had actually met Jim Hill. She said there wasn’t much to it, only that Hill had heard about her husband and wanted to meet her. The Old Timer asked her to explain. The radio story then rolled back again to 1871, as Lucy told her tragic tale.

After the episode with Tim Hardy, the shell game trickster and gun smuggler, the Stanley’s were in their home and chatting after supper. Lucy asked her husband when he thought trouble might arise. He warned her that trouble was probably imminent – it could come at any hour, at any moment. And so it was.


STANLEY:     Lucy! That’s Assembly they’re sounding!

LUCY:            Oh!

STANLEY:     The word must have come that the Indians are on the warpath, and we’re going out after them! Where are my side-arms? I’ve got to go!

In the excited confusion that followed, Captain Stanley quickly prepped himself for battle, bade his wife farewell, and then repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to explain to her where he had hidden a box containing vital papers, including his will and the title-deed to their house. This grave discussion had poor Lucy more anxious than ever. In his haste to report to duty, Captain Stanley ultimately missed the opportunity to tell his wife where to find this vitally important box.

The next scene in the radio play consisted almost entirely of sound effects. The audience was transported to a battle scene, with a lot of chaotic yelling and firing of guns, war whoops and cries of massacre. The cacophony faded to distant tom toms and Indian victory cries. Soft music then segued to Lucy, in her home, singing and playing her guitar. She stopped abruptly. Mandy, her house maid, came into the room. Mandy’s husband was apparently off with the soldiers too. The two women both fretted over their men, Lucy commenting that it had been three days since they set out, and yet there was still no word of them.

Contemporary view of rail siding at Gibbon, Washington - one of a handful of geographic places named after Colonel Gibbon.
Note the metaphorical end of track just beyond the sign.

There was a knock at the door. It was Colonel Gibbon. The news was not good. The entire command was wiped out. Not one man from the fort was found alive. Worse, Captain Stanley’s body was not located. Lucy Stanley chose to cling to this chilling news with a determined hope.


PIONEER:      I – I’m sorry, Mrs. Stanley. I shouldn’t have let you tell me that.

MRS. S:          It was all a long time ago – and I’m an old woman now.

PIONEER:      You never – found him?

MRS. S:          We never found him. No one knows. No one will ever know. All these years I’ve lived here at Fort Benton – for sixty years – and now they’re going to take away my home – this house that Jack and I bought together.

The Old Timer was confused. He asked for an explanation as to why the house was in jeopardy. Alice piped in. She explained that the night her grandfather left for battle, he tried to share with his wife his hiding place for the deed to the house, but “she wouldn’t listen.” The papers were never found, even after six decades of searching the little house. “And now,” explained Alice, “there’s a man – who disputes our title.” The man was a grandson of the same Tim Hardy who sold rifles to the Indians. The Old Timer asked what became of Hardy.

MRS. S:          They hanged him! And now – because that grandson of his wanted to marry little Alice here, and she refused him – he’ll try to take our home. Well, I – I didn’t mean to make such a fuss. You must forgive me. I think I’ll go upstairs and rest awhile before supper. Ah well, it was a long time ago …….. Alice, child, is the kitchen fire lighted?

Mrs. Stanley left to take a nap, and the Old Timer continued his conversation with Alice. The young woman told the Old Timer that her grandmother hadn’t shared the whole story with him. When the Old Timer suggested it was too painful for her, Alice explained it wasn’t that – she just didn’t know the rest of the story herself. This, too, the Old Timer found perplexing, until Alice began to clear things up.

ALICE:           I heard about it from my father and he was told by the people who took care of him until he was two years old.

PIONEER:      How do you mean – took care of him?

ALICE:           You see, it was this way. My father was born about six weeks after the troops that were sent from the Fort here were wiped out. And then – after he was born – granny put him out to nurse and – then she disappeared.

POINEER:      She – disappeared! That's amazing! For how long? Where did she go?

ALICE:           No one ever knew where she went. After two years she came back and took up her life again. That was all. She never seemed to know that she’d been away. Daddy always thought that – she was looking for grandfather.

PIONEER:      Looking for your grandfather – Captain Stanley – whose body was never found …. I wonder – now I wonder. . .

ALICE:           What do you mean, Old Timer?

Yes, indeed, Old Timer! Pray tell, what on earth do you mean?? Well… it’s like this, said the Old Timer. He described to Alice how he was camping many years earlier with his friend Fighting Elk, a Blackfeet chief, out at Glacier National Park. Just before the orchestra came in again with transitional music (“WITH INDIAN THEME”), the Old Timer said to Alice, “I’m going to tell it to you the same way that Fighting Elk told it to me one night as we sat by the camp fire.” [Curiously, the continuity and the recording of the actual broadcast both have “Fighting Elk” as the Indian’s name, but then both sources switch to “Running Elk” for the remainder of the dramatization.]

Running Elk (or “Fighting Elk” – whatever) told the Old Timer that the Indians believed that “those upon whose foreheads has been set the seal of heaven – you call them mad, my brother – are often closer to the gods than those whom men call wise.” The Old Timer offered up that he had heard the Indians believed those whose minds had left them were sacred. Running Elk agreed, and added that, sometimes, “it has come to pass that those who have been touched by the Great Spirit find in their questing more than would the sane.” Running Elk underscored the veracity of his assertions by sharing with the Old Timer a story his father had told him.

ELK:               My father has told me of one who came seeking, and who found that which she sought. It was two moons ago after the battle between my people and yours near the place called Fort Benton, that there came among the tribes a woman – a white woman, oh my brother.

PIONEER:      What is this?!

ELK:               Truly, it was so. Not only was she white, but she was robed in white also. The Great Spirit had set his seal upon her, and her mind was with him. For many moons this woman wandered among the tribes, seeking, always seeking, and at last there came a day when near the great shining mountains she came upon a lodge at the door of which a drum was beating.

A fresh supply of transitional music was summoned up, which faded into the slow beat of a drum. An Indian asked the woman what she sought, and Lucy Stanley replied, in a trance-like state, “I seek him who was lost.”

The Indian asked her where she had looked, and she told him she had looked “among the graves, on the field of battle – on the plains and between the mountains; among all those who were unfriendly I have sought.” She claimed to have been on her quest for the better part of two years. And now the search was over.

INDIAN:         Your quest has ended. I am an ensign of the magic clan, my sister. I drew your footsteps hither. He whom you sought is here.

LUCY:            Within this lodge?

INDIAN:         Not so ……… You stand beside his grave. He who was wounded – died – was buried – here; a prisoner of my people. The Holder of the Heavens keeps his spirit.

LUCY:            So that he be in peace – my quest is ended.

INDIAN:         Return to your own people, my white sister. Behold – I lay my hand upon your forehead. Within one moon your spirit shall return. Now go – in peace.

The audio recording of the broadcast appears to skip one last interchange between Running Elk (or Fighting Elk – I swear, it changed again here). So, from the continuity of the program, here is that brief exchange:


ELK:               So it was with that woman of your people, oh my brother, on whom the very heavens had set their seal. The Hold of the Heavens took her mind, and in its place – he gave her magic to guide her in her quest.

PIONEER:      (PAUSE)  That’s a might strange story, Fighting Elk. ….. I’d like to know the beginning of that – and the end.

At this, both the continuity and the audio recording advanced again to the present day (1931), and the discussion between the Old Timer and Alice. The Old Timer told Alice he was convinced the woman in white who wandered among the Indians was none other than her grandmother, Lucy Stanley.

Just then, Lucy came in from her nap, and urgently called out to Alice. She smelled smoke! “Have you been watching the kitchen fire?” she asked Alice. The trio hurried into the kitchen, where they did indeed find there was a chimney fire burning. The fire brigade was urgently summoned.

The gallant and dependable firefighters of Fort Benton charged to the scene of the Stanley home, and quickly put out the chimney fire. One of the firemen assured Mrs. Stanley that the house was spared, but the chimney had to be sacrificed to smother the fire. But there was more …

2nd FIREMAN:   When we pulled the base of the chimney out, this brass box fell out.

MRS. S:               Oh!

1st FIREMAN:    Somebody must have hid it behind the bricks in the chimney.

MRS. S:               I guess – somebody did.

ALICE:                Why, granny, what is it? What the matter? You’re crying!

PIONEER:           Don’t you go to take on, Mrs. Stanley!

MRS. S:               Don’t you understand?! It’s the box – the box we’ve looked for all these years. So that was where Jack hid it – behind the bricks in the chimney. Oh, he tried – so hard – to tell me.

Alice happily declared “we won’t lose the house – after all!”

To which the Old Timer chuckled and replied: “Only the chimney, I reckon, Miss Lucy! Well, folks, we’ve tied up a lot of loose ends tonight, out here in Fort Benton where it used to be – The End of the Track.”

Until I finally had the unexpected opportunity to listen to the audio from this June 22, 1931, radio broadcast, I really didn’t know whether the Great Northern Railway and the folks at NBC simply allowed the show to end on some horribly anti-climactic, sterile note. I should not have had such a fear. If the bulk of the 103 or so dramatic presentations could be so sentimental in their telling, that should have been enough to assure me that the closing of the final broadcast would similarly have its own dose of sentimentality. Rather than simply offer my transcription of that audio, I think you should listen to it for yourself.

The only audio I have of this broadcast originated with an off-the-air sound check recording on the night of the show, captured on  aluminum discs. These discs languished for decades in some back storeroom of the Great Northern Railway corporate offices. They surfaced sometime in the 1980s, and were dubbed onto reel-to-reel tapes (used tapes, as I understand, which were erased after one or more prior uses). Those tapes, in turn, languished as well for a few more decades, and some of the audio migrated through the tape as it sat, somewhat unstably, on those wound tapes. Ergo, the sound quality of this clip is only fair at its best, and really poor at worst. Still, it's all we have, and all we may ever have. And that audio is still a real treasure.

The first several seconds are silent…

And so we’ve come to the “End of the Track.” Or have we? Remember, the Old Timer’s all-expense, 10-day escorted tour of Glacier National Park begins on July 1st! And yes, I have a bit more to report.

So until next time, thanks for keeping those dials tuned to Empire Builders!

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