Friday, July 1, 2016

The Old Timer's Tour of Glacier National Park

It all began as an experiment.

Could a major railroad advertise itself advantageously via the fledgling medium of commercial radio?

The radio series had been on the air for two full years. Response seemed quite good: listener polls regularly showed Empire Builders in the top tier of broadcasts aired on Monday evenings, and even appeared among the leaders across all radio programming; unsolicited fan mail gave anecdotal evidence of a sizable following of devoted listeners; and response was strong whenever a special booklet or giveaway was offered during one of the Empire Builders programs.

Despite indications of the success of this radio advertising campaign, Great Northern Railway management continued to speculate as to the actual positive impact on revenues. Were freight receipts higher, and was there any increase in passenger revenue? And if so, to what degree could such successes be attributed to the singular impact of their radio campaign? After all, while goodwill is an important asset for any company, ultimately they wanted more businesses shipping goods and more people riding Great Northern trains. Increased traffic to Glacier National Park was particularly desired, what with the GN’s hotel subsidiary operating virtually all the lodging facilities in or near the park.

And so, as this grand experiment in radio advertising wound down to its conclusion, one last experiment was attempted. A new question emerged: Would radio listeners respond to an offer to tour Glacier National Park in the company of one of the stars of the Empire Builders radio show?

Passenger Traffic Manager of the Great Northern Railway, A. J. Dickinson.


On January 15, 1931, the GN’s Passenger Traffic Manager, A.J. Dickinson, issued Passenger Traffic Department Circular #16-31. This communique to all General, District, and Traveling Passenger Agents announced that on the Empire Builders broadcast of Monday, January 19th, plans would be unveiled for an “Old Timer’s” Tour of Glacier National Park. The plan was to offer a deluxe 10-day all-expense paid tour of the park, to be hosted by none other than actor Harvey Hays – the “Old Timer.” At the outset, this plan was touted as an experiment to find out what level of interest could be generated for such a tour among the listeners of the weekly radio show. The tour was not advertised via any other vehicle than the opening and/or closing announcements of this weekly 30-minute broadcast. Once the responses to this announcement started coming in, Dickinson and his staff would be able to decide how to proceed with the tour, whether that meant one tour, many tours, or none at all.

The broadcast of January 19th was a drama titled “Nan o’ the Northwest.” The story was set in Glacier National Park. As the program opened, announcer Ted Pearson had an exchange with the Old Timer about the idea of hosting a tour of the park in the summertime. Although Dickinson’s passenger department circular was vague on the timing of any tours, the dialog in the radio show immediately targeted the 4th of July.

For your listening and viewing pleasure, I have created a couple of A/V clips using the original broadcast audio. The first clip has the opening, and the second clip the closing, of the January 19, 1931, broadcast. I’ve paired this audio with an appropriate collection of vintage film footage and associated still images. Please note the audio is in poor shape in places. Also, a few of the still images are not strictly of the same vintage as the broadcast, but should at least provide a nice visual representation of the audio content.

The Old Timer’s invitation to join him on a ten-day trip through Glacier Park proved to be an enticement that many found hard to resist. For a variety of reasons, they picked up paper and pen and wrote to the Old Timer, care of the Great Northern Railway, Chicago, Illinois. Such letters arrived by the bushel. On January 22nd Harold Sims wired Ralph Budd, the president of the Great Northern Railway, to report the early returns.  Sims told Budd that the railroad had already received 341 inquiries to date. During the broadcast of January 26th, the Old Timer lamented he was receiving too many replies – he couldn’t take them all.

Those who wrote to the GN asking about the Old Timer’s Tour were sent a 6-page itinerary of the trip, along with a copy of a
comical map of Glacier Park, illustrated by Joseph Scheuerle. The itinerary laid out the details of what was in store for the tour’s participants from the day they arrived at Glacier Park Station until they departed, ten days later. Here is a synopsis of some of the activities planned:

The Empire Builder at Glacier Park Station. Photo by George Grant.
Courtesy National Park Service, West Glacier, Montana.

Day 1 (July 1):    Arrive Glacier Park Station at 12:15pm; eat lunch; drive in tour coaches up to Two Medicine Chalets; ride across Upper Two Medicine Lake on the launch “Rising Wolf” and take a short hike to see Twin Falls. On the return drive, the coaches stop for another short hike to see Trick Falls. Dinner at Glacier Park Hotel; evening entertainment by Two Guns White Calf and fellow Blackfeet Indians (with a few ceremonial inductions into the Blackfeet tribe); remainder of the evening at “Mike’s Place” in the town of Glacier Park Station.

Day 2 (July 2):    Breakfast at the hotel; depart at 8:15am for a 55-mile tour coach trip to Many Glacier Hotel. Lunch at hotel; short saddle horse trip to see Grinnell Lake; dinner back at Many Glacier Hotel; launch ride across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine; bonfire on the lakeshore with wiener roast; return to hotel. Dancing at the hotel for those who aren’t yet too sleepy or too tired.

Day 3 (July 3):    Breakfast at the hotel; head out on 17-mile saddle horse trip to Crossley Lake (aka Cosley Lake) Dude Ranch; horseback ride through Ptarmigan Tunnel (dedicated by the Old Timer); spend the night at the dude ranch.

Harvey Hays at the head of the pack train - on the trail in Glacier Park.
T.J. Hileman photo. Courtesy National Park Service, West Glacier, Montana.
  Day 4 (July 4):    Breakfast at the dude ranch; ride saddle horses over Indian Pass to Goat Haunt Camp (south end of Waterton Lake); ride the launch “International” to the Prince of Wales Hotel at the far end of the lake, in Canada. Dancing at the pavilion in the town of Waterton; more entertainment and refreshments* at Prince of Wales Hotel before turning in.

Day 5 (July 5):    Breakfast at Prince of Wales Hotel; motor car ride to Cameron Lake; return to hotel for lunch; motor car ride to Cardston; motor south across the international boundary to St. Mary’s Lake, a trip of 75 miles. Catch the launch “St. Mary’s” for a 10-mile trip to the Going-to-the-Sun Chalets for dinner; after-dinner boat ride up the lake to view mountains Red Eagle, Little Chief, Almost-a-Dog, Reynolds, Going-to-the-Sun, etc. Return to Going-to-the-Sun Chalets for a little entertainment and then turn in.

Day 6 (July 6):    Breakfast at the chalets; pack lunches for saddle horse ride up over Gunsight Pass to Sperry Chalets; lunch on the trail; dinner at Sperry Chalets.

Day 7 (July 7):    Hike out to Sperry Glacier; return to the chalets for lunch; go on 7-mile saddle horse ride to Lake McDonald Hotel. After dinner, take a moonlight cruise on the launch “De Smet” around upper end of Lake McDonald; return to Lake McDonald Hotel for an evening party in the hotel lobby.

Day 8 (July 8):    Breakfast at the hotel; auto coach ride up to Logan Pass over “the new Inter-Mountain Highway.” Lunch at Logan Pass; saddle horse ride across the Garden Wall to the Granite Park Chalet.

Day 9 (July 9):    Morning hike to the top of the Garden Wall and directly above Grinnell Glacier. Back to the chalets for lunch; saddle horse ride to Many Glacier Hotel via Swift Current Pass. Dinner at Many Glacier, and “a farewell party that will linger in your memories for a long, long time.”

Day 10 (July 10):  Breakfast at Many Glacier Hotel; automobile ride to Glacier Park Station; lunch at Glacier Park Hotel; depart on the Empire Builder train, with Chief Two Guns White Calf and fellow Blackfeet, plus cowboy guides, bidding the travelers farewell.

* The Fourth of July was to be spent at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada – those “refreshments” undoubtedly included alcohol, which was still prohibited in the U.S.

The entourage was to be accompanied by a chaperon-hostess, a National Park Service Ranger and a nature guide, and at least one representative of the Great Northern Railway. The trip proposal included this wishful statement: “I’m hoping to have some of the folks you have heard on “Empire Builders” with me, so you can meet them in person.” To my knowledge, the only performers from the radio series who participated in any way were actor Harvey Hays (the Old Timer) and Marc Williams (the “Cowboy Crooner”). Williams appeared on a handful of Empire Builders broadcasts in the final season, primarily to sing a few of his western songs.

Marc Williams, the "Cowboy Crooner," strums his guitar to the delight of the assembled members of the Old Timer's Tour. The group is gathered near the fireplace of the old Irvin Cobb cabin, not far from Lake McDonald Hotel.

Here is a sample of the singing of Marc Williams:

The team at the Great Northern Railway responsible for organizing this massive undertaking was concerned about the size of the group. They had to limit the participants to forty, at most. Any more than that would be unwieldy, and delays along the trails would be inevitable. It was also paramount that participants be reasonably fit, and capable of keeping up a steady pace.

The cost of this ten-day tour of Glacier Park (all in, with meals, lodging, transportation in the park, entertainment, etc.) came to $200. Participants still had to get themselves to and from the park, and were of course assisted with making reservations to ride round trip on the Empire Builder.

About two weeks after the tour was first publicized, Ralph Budd was ready for an update. Sims wrote to Budd on February 7th and reported the magnitude and tenor of the responses.

               Answering your inquiry, I estimate that about half of the inquiries that were received about the Old Timer’s vacation were from children, persons who were actuated by no motive other than curiosity, and persons who weren’t financially able to make a western trip.

               The other half appear to be real prospects for some sort of a trip over the Great Northern. Probably more than half of such inquiries represent two or more persons.

               There have been seven deposits made already – and there are six or eight other tentative reservations.

A few respondents were employees of other railroads, and had passes to ride for free. They were excluded from the early process of securing participants, as it was preferred to include patrons who would be paying to travel to and from Glacier Park on Great Northern trains.

Sims added that the GN Traffic Department staff were “feeling our way along very carefully in this, and are not going to take it up on the radio again until the week after next.”

At the beginning of the Empire Builders program of February 16th, the Old Timer once again commented on having “too many” people writing about the trip. Announcer Ted Pearson declared this must be good news – the party of 40 was accounted for. The Old Timer said “Forty? Forty, and then some I guess, Ted.” Pearson challenged the Old Timer on this point, reminding him he said they could only take 40 participants on the tour. The Old Timer then asked, “I can take more than one vacation, can’t I? I don’t aim to disappoint any of my friends, if I can help it. But I tell you Ted, I guess we’ll just have to fix up more than one trip.”

During the closing of the February 16th broadcast, the size and number of Glacier Park trips was addressed once again.

ANNOUNCER:    Say, Old Timer – have you got our vacation all figured out yet?

PIONEER:            (chuckles) Well, every one of the days is all figured out in black and white, Ted, right here.

ANNOUNCER:    And you’re going to take another party of forty – that’s fine!  And that means that some of your radio friends that couldn’t have gone with you otherwise can go, doesn’t it?

PIONEER:            Yes, that’s the idea, Ted. So all of my friends, who want to go, have to do to find out about this vacation trip is to write me, care of the Great Northern Railway, a hundred and thirteen, south Park Street, Chicago. Then I’ll write back and tell ‘em all about it

No promise was actually given to conduct more than one trip. This was, in a way, a ploy to encourage people to continue writing to the railroad. Even if participation of prospective tourists on this particular trip fell through, the railroad felt it could reach out to them concerning other visits to Glacier Park.

A new circular to the company’s travel representatives, Circular 80-31, was issued on February 26th. In it, Passenger Traffic Manager A.J. Dickinson reported nearly 2000 inquiries about the Old Timer’s Tour had been received to date. He shared the tentative plan to arrange two or three additional parties to accommodate this unexpectedly large amount of interest. Tour dates were suggested as July 15, August 1, and August 15. Dickinson acknowledged in this circular the awkwardness of how they must proceed. He warned that this information was not to be divulged yet in any detail to the traveling public. He outlined his concerns:

There are several reasons for this:

1)                We do not wish to commit ourselves for the expense involved for less than a complete party

2)                We think that the appeal of accompanying the Old Timer on a vacation, to many people at least, is its novelty an exclusiveness, and that it would be detrimental to say or do anything that would tend to commercialize it, and

3)                The advertising that has already been done has been in conformity with this idea of exclusiveness, and it will be necessary to make future radio announcements consistent with what has been said before.

One angle Dickinson proposed to the ticket agents was to target the parents of recent college graduates. As Dickinson stated, “a trip to the park with the Old Timer would appeal to many parents who wish to give their children some kind of a graduation gift.” Dickinson added that if at least two or three tour parties could be filled up, “we will probably keep the Old Timer at the park all summer… and almost everybody who visits the park this summer… would be likely to run into the Old Timer at one of the hotels.” Harvey Hays suffered from hay fever. He most likely would have enjoyed an opportunity to spend the entire summer in Glacier Park under some sort of employment contract. However, it sounds like Dickinson was making plans for Hays that the actor was not privy to at that point.

Harold Sims updated GN President Ralph Budd on February 28th, outlining his thoughts about the Old Timer’s Tour, and general prospects for increasing travel to Glacier Park. The Great Depression created hard economic times, yet these businessmen were determined to scrap for every travel dollar they could find and attract to their railroad. Remarkably, Sims was still optimistic that the Old Timer’s Tour had ample interest to fill out multiple tour groups. He wrote, “after getting sufficient reservations to feel assured of three or four parties for the Old Timer, I want to push an eight-day tour of the park, following the Old Timer’s itinerary except for omitting the last two days.” Sims had the idea multiple tours could set out from Glacier Park Hotel “shotgun” style, one group starting out a day after the group before. Naturally, the Old Timer himself could not host all of them, but Sims argued such tours had several advantages over other travel options. He asserted such tours would be superior to the typical dude ranch experience; other tours of national parks did not feature trail trips; exposing tourists to the wilds of Glacier Parks mountain reaches would create perpetual boosters of them; and that such well-organized tours were desirable to many tourists who would not otherwise be compelled to get out to see and do so much.

Sims then pitched a “quota plan” to Budd. He said by using available statistics from the 1925 summer tourist season, ratios could be determined for the ridership numbers generated by each ticket office or other sales point. He proposed that these railroad ticket agents be challenged to meet or exceed the same numbers their offices produced six years earlier (before the infamous 1929 stock market crash, and the subsequent onset of the Great Depression). As if all the ground work and heavy lifting had already been done for them, these ticket agents would be reminded of “the expensive promotional work that has been done, including radio, and the necessity of showing commensurate returns.” Sounds like he was proposing that the floggings would continue until morale improved. It seems Ralph Budd recognized the folly in setting such unrealistic goals. Still, it was among Sims’ duties to apply the advertising of the company in a meaningful way, to produce tangible results. You can’t fault the guy for trying.

As the weeks went by, the Empire Builders radio broadcast continued to provide updates about the Old Timer’s Tour. Although it was reasoned that with enough response there could be two or more tours over the summer, ultimately there was just enough participation to conduct a single trip. Mr. Budd was notified on May 27th that, to date, a total of 15 definite reservations had been made, with deposits, and several others looked like strong prospects. The expectation at that point was to have a party of about 20.

Over the last few weeks that Empire Builders remained on the air, brief reminders of the Old Timer’s Tour were offered, usually within the closing announcements. In the week following the final broadcast of Empire Builders, a trio set out to Glacier Park to begin making last-minute preparations. This group consisted of Harvey Hays, Marc Williams, and O.J. McGillis. McGillis was the Great Northern Railway’s Manager of Advertising and Publicity. Among other tasks, the three needed to get in a little trail riding, so they might not be too saddle sore when the tourists arrived to join them.

In a Naturalist’s Monthly Report made in July, 1931, several of the park rangers and naturalists who supported the Old Timer’s Tour were identified by name. Among them were: Dr. J.V. Harvey, Stephen Thomas, Ranger Naturalist Wilson, and Ranger Naturalist Bailey.

Press photo from 1931. Typed info on back on photo states
 "View taken from the tunnel shows member of the Old Timer Empire Builder party looking at Heaven's Peak."
One notable event that occurred during the Old Timer’s Tour was the first passage through the new Ptarmigan Tunnel. The honor of being the first rider through the tunnel went to the Old Timer himself, Harvey Hays. For a number of years, the national park staff studied the area where the tunnel was dug to find a way to shorten the route over the pass and provide a more pleasing vista to hikers and trail riders. Thus, the 183-foot long Ptarmigan Tunnel was dug, beginning in July of 1930. Winter weather set in and blocked progress until the early Spring of 1931. When finished, the tunnel stretched nine feet high and six feet in width. There was a three-foot treadway for the horses with an 18-inch shoulder on each side to help prevent either a rider or a pack from rubbing against the limestone walls of the tunnel. In a report about the tunnel published in the Niagara Falls (NY) Gazette in December of 1931, Glacier National Park assistant engineer George W. Reed stated that work on the tunnel “made a brilliant and dazzling finish on July 3, 1931, just in time to allow the “Old Timer,” of Empire Builders radio fame, and his party of twenty-six nature-loving companions to pass through the tunnel during that afternoon, and thence slowly down the trail on the north face of the vanquished wall, which, nevertheless, held itself lofty in defeat.”

Harvey Hays leads the Old Timer's Tour on a trail in Glacier Park.
T.J. Hileman photo. Courtesy National Park Service, West Glacier, Montana.

It is unclear how many of the Old Timer’s reported “twenty-six nature-loving companions” were paying participants, and how many of that number were railroad or park service employees. One other source, an article from the Lethbridge Herald of July, 1931, attempts to list the names of all the participants as they approached Waterton and the Prince of Wales Hotel on July 4th. Unfortunately, the only copy of this information currently at my disposal is one that appears to be an OCR rendering of the original news article. Some of the text is garbled. However, the list includes O.J. McGillis of the Great Northern Railway, Harvey Hays, Marc Williams, and an additional person, park ranger Ross Jordan. There appear to be another 24 individuals accounted for.


Unless I find cause to write some more about the radio series (and I certainly might, you never know…), this will probably be the last of my blog entries about Empire Builders. Please use the email address shown in the banner at the top of this page to contact me about ANYTHING concerning the Empire Builders radio program. Seriously. Write to me.








  1. Scott:

    You've created an incredible body of work with this blog and should be roundly congratulated.
    I don't know if others can imagine the amount of time, effort and research it's taken to assemble the information you've put together here. Nor the financial outlay. The research trips alone have added up, without counting the expense of accumulating rare photos and other items used to illustrate this series.

    Frankly, I'm astounded at what you've done. Fantastic job!

    You've been engaging the entire time, and I feel bad that it's taken until now for me to acknowledge the pleasure I've garnered from following along on your Empire Builders radio show/blog adventure.
    You've shown great insight into this and related subjects, and a well-rounded appreciation for the people who created the show, the era and circumstances during which the Empire Builders was broadcast.

    While you've told an incredible story, I think there's a book manuscript in all what you've compiled, if you're willing to take this story a step further.

    It's been a pleasure to take this radio/blog journey with you and I thank you for the trip.

    Calgary Ray

  2. Hi, Ray. Thank you for the resounding review. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your kind response to my efforts with this blog. I knew as it went along that I had to accept I was writing primarily for my own satisfaction, but that along the way good friends like you might pop in once in awhile. I'll probably be picking your brain some more about the process of getting it into print. Hope to see you again soon.

  3. I came across your blog looking for information on the Empire Builder (I took the train from Chicago to Seattle in 1988). This weekend I saw (and have just blogged about it) a new play based on a short story from the New Yorker (published in the 50s) about a trip from Yale University to Portland Oregon. Now I am more curious about this radio show. I agree with Calgary Ray, you have the makings of a book in this blog.

    1. Sage - thank you very much for stopping by and checking out this blog. I'm glad you have found it interesting. I appreciate your input.


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