Thursday 17 July 2014

The 20th Century Limited: Roll Out the Red Carpet

A crimson carpet stretched the length of a football field at New York's Grand Central Station.  Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Marshall Field and Walter Chrysler, lined up to board the train.  The Cunard Line had the Queen Mary and the New York Central Railroad had the 20th Century Limited.  It was the only way to travel from New York City to Chicago.  It was "the tycoon train".

In 1902, the New York Central Railroad was looking for a way to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad. It came up with the idea of a high speed luxury train from New York to Chicago.  It took no time for the route to attract regular passengers like Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, J. P. Morgan and William Wrigley.  By the 1920's, a fare cost $51 ($604 today).  In the most profitable year, 1928, the 20th Century Limited made a $10 million profit.

By 1938, the railroad company introduced a new improved version of the 20th Century Limited.  The new train was streamlined with suites with toilets, dining cars, an observation car.  Amenities included leather upholstered seats and air conditioning -- and the red carpet, hence the term "red carpet treatment".

Passengers like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Bette Davis and Doris Day, boarded the train at New York City.  Upon boarding, Mr. Crosby and Mr. Hope were given carnations while Ms. Davis and Ms. Day were given perfume.  They drank martinis, Manhattans and highballs in the bar as the train headed out of the metropolis.  Then they ate dinner in the dining room, featuring caviar, filet mignon and lobster, as the train steamed along the banks of the Hudson River.  By the time they bit into their apple pie a la mode, the train, travelling 60 miles per hour, would have reached Lake Erie.

Pullman porters and maids would attend to their every need.  Manicurists and barbers were available for guests who needed grooming.  Operators and secretaries were available for businessmen.  Porters would even shine shoes while their owners slept.

The following morning, at 9 am, the streamlined train would pull into LaSalle Street Station in Chicago.  It had covered 960 miles in 16 hours, a blistering speed for the 1930's.  The stars would disembark along with the businessmen and the travellers.  Some would stay in Chicago.  Others would board a second train, often the Santa Fe Express, headed for Los Angeles.

For 65 years, the 20th Century Limited was the "greatest train in the world".  It became part of American culture.  Alfred Hitchocock's "North by Northwest", starring Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, was filmed on the famous train.  On December 2, 1967, it made its last run, pulling into the station almost 10 hours late due to a freight train derailment.  It was a not so glamourous ending to one of the most glamourous trains in history.

Note:  For more information on the 20th Century Limited Train, read --

1.  The Art of the Streamliner (Bob Johnston & Joe Welsh)
2.  20th Century:  The Greatest Train in the World (Lucius Beebe)

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