A Brief History of the Alaska Railroad Business Car Denali

During the 1920s Pullman Car Works at 111th Street on the south side of Chicago built thousands of railroad passenger cars.  Most of these cars were “standard” sleepers being built for its subsidiary, the Pullman Company, which operated sleeping and parlor cars for almost all North American railroads.  Included in one of the last groups (or “lots” in Pullman parlance) of these cars was the Archibald Guthrie.  It was one of seven identical sleeping cars containing 14 open sections (facing seats by day, upper and lower berths by night) named for American poets.  The car was eventually assigned to service on the Great Northern Railway where it ran in regular service into the 1950s.

After WWII the justice department broke up the Pullman empire in the name of anti-trust.  Pullman sold the sleeping car operating portion of the company to a consortium of railroads and many of the cars to the carriers using them.  Thus the GN found itself in possession of many obsolescent, war weary, open section sleepers. Since most first class passengers preferred the newer private room accommodations to open sections, the GN placed the Archibald Guthrie and many of its sisters into "tourist" (economy) service where they remained for a few years.

As the 1950s dawned, the GN realized it's officials were riding around in old "heavyweight" business cars, while most passengers were accommodated in the new, streamlined "lightweight" cars.  At the same time, the rapid growth of commercial air transportation combined with the purchase of these new cars had created a surplus of older sleepers.  In 1957 the GN rebuilt several of these old sleepers into modern office cars.   Company shops replaced the riveted side sheet construction with smooth welded sheets.  The characteristic “deck” roof was lowered and rounded to the streamlined standard. A 9' section (probably cut out of a scrapped sister) was spliced into the middle of the car.  The interior was gutted and a classic office car floor plan installed.  The most dramatic modification was the addition of an open observation platform to what thus became the rear end of the car.  The Archibald Guthrie was renamed  "Glacier Pass" and sent out to work in the road's office car pool.

Glacier Pass
Glacier Pass, July 10, 1978
Photograph by John C. Benson

In 1972 the Alaska RR decided that its old business car Caribou Creek was unsuitable for further service.  Because the GN was a connecting road and because several officials (in particular, Walker Johnston) had served both companies, arrangements were made for the Alaska RR to purchase the car.  When it arrived in Alaska the car's name was changed to Denali in honor of the major scenic attraction of the railroad.

On the Alaska Railroad, the Denali served more as a place to entertain shippers, government officials and other VIPs and less as an office away from headquarters.  In 1985 the railroad modified the floor plan of the car so it could better serve that use.  The secretary's room was removed to permit enlargement of the observation room and the upper berth in the crew quarters was removed and replaced with storage space.

In 2000 the Denali was displaced by the ARR 2000, a low slung glass roofed full-length lounge observation more suited to the entertainment role.  The Denali was removed from active service that year, officially retired in the next and offered for sale in the spring of 2002.  Thus Alaska was without a classic business car for the first time since the Alaska Northern Railway’s Seward arrived here in 1915.

Fortunately, the Alaska Railroad eventually decided to refurbish the Denali. It was sent to Colorado Railcar Manufacturing in March 2006. The refurbishing work was finished in October and sent back to Alaska on November 8.

Here are two photos of the Glacier Pass:

Original Denali excerpt from John's Alaska Railroad web site, passenger car page:
Observation Cars: Also known as tail cars.  Heavyweight observation cars retained the last vestige of 19th century design with the open platform at the rear end, complete with the awning and ornate wrought iron railings. Observation cars were usually parlor cars, but sometimes were coaches or had bedrooms as well. In the lighweight era there were two common designs: the boattail and the squareback. Squareback cars were flat on the end with rounded corners.  Boattail cars tapered to a blunt point, as the name implies.  A variation on the tail car theme is the "private car" or "business car". These were usually heavyweight cars that were the personal domain of railroad and corporate VIP's.

Historical note: The Denali was originally built by Pullman Standard in June 1930 as the Archibald Guthry, a 14 section plain-jane heavyweight sleeper. It was rebuilt in April 1939 and sold to Great Northern in December 1948. It then became GN 1011-Archibald Guthrie. It was rebuilt by GN in October 1957 as business car A30 and then renumber A3 in 1969. In 1970 it was assigned BN number A3. On December 10, 1971 it was sold to ARRC as Glacier Pass. Today it carries the name Denali.  Its specifications are weight 197,100 lbs., length over frame 81'-3 1/2", over buffers 87'-3 3/8", width over frame 9'-10". over crown molding 10"-0", truck centers 62"-6", truck wheelbase 10'-6".


Car Name Number Status Plan # Owner Date
Archibald Guthrie - - 3958A Pullman 1930
Archibald Guthrie - RBLT 4084B Pullman 1939
Archibald Guthrie 1011 LTP 4084B GN 1948
- A-30 WFL PV GN 1957
- A3 MERG PV BN 1970
Glacier Pass - s/t PV ARR 1971
Denali - R/N PV ARR 1985

Definition of Plan Numbers
PV - Private Car
PS - Sleeping Car (in non-Pullman revenue service)
3410 - 12-sections - 1 Drawing Room
4084B - 6 Sections - 6 Double Bedrooms
3523A - 6 Compartments - 3 Drawing Rooms
3958A - 14 Sections

You'll find a .PDF of a 1957 engineering drawing of the Denali here.

Also see:


Page last updated 10/20/17