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Inn a perfect respite for rail travelers

The historic Izaak WaltInn sits southern edge Glacier National Park Montana. Guests can walk hotel from Amtrak's Empire Builder. The

The historic Izaak Walton Inn sits on the southern edge of Glacier National Park in Montana. Guests can walk to the hotel from Amtrak's Empire Builder. The hotel is next to a working Burlington Northern rail yard. | Dave Newbart~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:19AM

They are affectionately known as “foamers,” and the staff at the historic Izaak Walton Inn in Montana — now owned by a former Chicagoan — can spot them from a mile away.

They are ecstatic that you can literally walk to the hotel, which sits in a working Burlington Northern rail yard, from Amtrak’s Empire Builder. They jump at the chance to stay in one of the hotel’s handful of cabooses that have been converted into mini-cabins, and drool over the locomotive from the Great Northern Railway now decked out with a king-sized bed, big screen TV and fireplace.

“They” are the train buffs who travel from all over the world to the tiny town of Essex to stay at the hotel that was originally built in 1939 as lodging for rail workers.

Although my family and I aren’t train buffs, the proximity to Glacier National Park and ease of getting there from the train led me to book a stay there on our trip home on the Empire Builder from Seattle in August.

“It’s truly unique,” said owner Brian Kelly, a former blacksmith with the Chicago Fire Department. Kelly, who always had a “love for the railroad” while growing up not far from various rail tracks in Rogers Park, bought the hotel and 90-acre property for $4.7 million in 2005.

But the father of four is now trying to turn the Izaak Walton — which is on the National Registry of Historic Places — into a destination for more than train buffs. He’s invested nearly $1 million in remodeling and updating the property, including adding six family-friendly log cabins with lofts that are nestled among the towering pine trees across the tracks from the main lodge. Although the cabins and train cars have kitchens, he hired a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who has turned The Dining Car restaurant into itself a destination.

From the hotel, you can hike, take a horseback ride, borrow a mountain bike or catch a vintage Red “Jammer” Bus, which will take you on a day-long tour of Glacier park. In the winter, the area gets an average of more than 11 feet of snow; the inn grooms 23 miles of trails for cross-country skiing.

“We’ve tried to make it more family-friendly,” Kelly said.

While my wife and 10-year-old daughter took an 1½-hour horseback ride along the nearby winding mountain trails — which my daughter deemed the highlight of her entire trip — my 5-year-old daughter and I played games in the comfortable basement den. We then ducked outside to see a black bear munching on berries — which was thankfully a safe distance away.

Our family rented an SUV for a reasonable $65 a day and took it on the breathtaking, 32-mile drive to Logan’s Pass (elevation 6,600 feet) on Going-to-the-Sun Road. A short hike featured up-close sightings of mountain goats and marmots, as well as snow-capped peaks and a glacier in the distance.

We stayed in a cabin, but Allen Cohen, a retired pharmacist who brought his grandson to the inn from Staten Island, N.Y., booked the locomotive. He said the hotel “truly is” a train lover’s dream.

We non-foamers loved it, too.

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