Big Sky Blue and the cool school of design

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Great Northern's new Big Sky Blue color scheme of 1967 gave the 'Empire Builder' a bright new look. Here the eastbound 'Builder' approaches Glacier Park in September 1970, with just a single green-and-white F7 as evidence of the Burlington Northern merger earlier in the year. Joseph H. Hunter photo
With the release last week of a new 50th-anniversary boxed set of The Beatles’ monumental Sgt. Pepper album, it seems everyone is talking about the summer of 1967.

Me too. I had just turned 16 that June, so the “Summer of Love,” as it came to be known, was memorable, mostly for girls and music. I remember we played the grooves off Sgt. Pepper, not to mention the debut albums of Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. When I wasn’t stocking grocery shelves at Tony’s Market, I tooled around in my pal Mike’s 1965 Ford Mustang.

But I was also a railfan, a solitary pursuit where I lived, and I was enjoying my second full year of reading Trains magazine. After the August 1967 issue arrived at the house, something unusual caught my eye.

It was a news photo of a directors’ special train on the Great Northern, pulling out of St. Paul Union Depot on May 11, its two lead SDP45 diesels and several cars sporting a new paint scheme the railroad was calling “Big Sky Blue,” including a re-working of GN’s famed Rocky the mountain goat. “Farewell, Omaha orange,” said the magazine’s caption writer.

Color printing in Trains was scarce to nonexistent in those days, so you had to take the editors’ word that the new GN livery was a bold combination of bright blue and white and gray. But even in the magazine’s somewhat muddy reproduction, it was impressive.

A bigger splash came in the February 1968 issue, showing the fully repainted Empire Builder (alas, still depicted in black-and-white) crossing the big bridge over the Two Medicine River, led by SDP45s again, in a photo by Chicago p.r. studio Hedrich-Blessing. Even in monotone, you could imagine what a dramatic slash that train made, imposing its bright blue car sides against the verdant background of Glacier National Park.

GN was fully aware that it was messing with a rich tradition. Rocky the goat dated back to 1921, and Omaha orange had been carrying the GN flag since its introduction on FT freight diesels in the 1940s. The orange-and-green paint scheme achieved its widest fame in 1947 with the introduction of the fully re-equipped Empire Builder, with other GN streamliners to follow.  

The new blue design was the work of Lippicott & Margulies, a top-flight New York design firm known for such visual commercial icons as the Betty Crocker spoon, the General Mills big “G,” and the god Mercury in the FTD florists’ logo. L&M had transportation cred in the Sixties, too, with Eastern Airlines and the CP Rail “multimark” among its creations.

As Trains reported, Great Northern suspected its image was becoming passé, so something had to be done. GN President John M. Budd was quoted as telling the L&M designers, “there were absolutely no sacred cows — or goats — to consider.” Subsequent research showed that the public identified Rocky with the railroad to a much greater degree than anyone anticipated. So Rocky stayed.

Editor David P. Morgan later dismissed the updated Rocky as a “mod goat,” which says something about DPM’s relative cultural hipness. For its part, L&M described the new Rocky as “more vigorous, dynamic.” It certainly looked more contemporary, especially on the broad flanks of the 14 blue F45 cowl units GN ultimately added to its roster.

The Great Northern was not a pioneer of this new style of railroad corporate image. That honor belongs to the Boston & Maine and the New Haven, whose misadventures in the mid-1950s with CEO (and crook) Patrick McGinnis nevertheless produced two exciting new paint schemes distinguished by large block-letter logos. The image makeover is sometimes credited to McGinnis’ wife, but the logos themselves were the work of Swiss-born designer Herbert Matter.

GN announced its new look to 'Trains' magazine readers with a full-page ad in the July 1967 issue.
This was the era of cool, with origins in the pre-war Bauhaus school of design. It was an ethos characterized by Mies van der Rohe and the Chicago school of architecture, the suddenly ubiquitous use of the new Helvetica typeface, and, perhaps playing in the background, the music of Dave Brubeck.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, most railroads resisted brave forays into new design territory. If they chose to update anything at all, they went for tepid updates on old traditions. Think Pennsy’s single wide stripe or New York Central’s cigar band.

Two more potent approaches came around 1960, first with Canadian National’s adoption of the “wet noodle” CN and its attendant orange, black, and white, accented on diesels by thick black-and-white diagonals. The noodle was hugely influential. Canadian designer Allan Fleming came up with it after playing around with scores of variations on an airline napkin during a 1959 flight to New York.

The movement picked up momentum in 1962 when the Soo Line officially introduced its stark and vivid new red and light gray livery. The image makeover was the brainchild of Soo public relations director (and former Trains staffer) Wallace W. Abbey. Although not a designer by trade, Wally was a multitalented phenomenon, and his genius was fully apparent once a giant black SOO began appearing on diesels in 4-foot-high Venus Bold Extended.

There were other memorable railroad image updates, some of them tied to Lippincott & Margulies. One was notorious, the “mating worms” logo of the new Penn Central of 1968. Another was Amtrak’s “pointless arrow” and patriotic red, white, and blue of 1971.

I thought Great Northern’s new color scheme was beautiful, but it would prove to be ephemeral. As early as the July 1968 issue, Trains predicted in “Arrivals & Departures” that the image would not survive the upcoming BN merger, already on the horizon.

Big Sky Blue enjoyed a revival in 2010 when the shell of a former Santa Fe F45 donned the colors for its new role as a unique "cabin" at the Izaak Walton Inn beside the former GN main line in Glacier Park. Tom Lambrecht photo
So it was that Big Sky Blue was rendered obsolete on March 2, 1970, when GN, Northern Pacific, Burlington, and Spokane, Portland & Seattle merged to form Burlington Northern. Once again, Lippincott & Margulies was a key player, creating not only the durable new BN italic logo and Cascade green and black paint scheme, but also the name of the company itself.

Meanwhile, the new BN went about repainting equipment as quickly as possible, applying the new green to all those diesels and freight cars that only briefly wore blue. A number of passenger cars got the BN green and white “hockey stick” scheme, but many still carried blue, or even orange-and-green, when Amtrak arrived 13 months after the merger.

Today, the only example in Big Sky livery is an F45 cowl unit that isn’t even an actual GN diesel. It began life as Santa Fe No. 1910, built in 1968, then after various iterations ended up parked at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Mont., its interior gutted and refitted as one-of-a-kind luxury lodging with the identity of “GN 441.”

Authentic pedigree or not, the 441 shines in its new Big Sky blue paint and its muscular Rocky, fitting symbols of those fleeting years of Great Northern pride. In the context of the summer of ’67 and all that was going on then, that blue could only be described as extremely cool.  

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