Railroads and Leisure

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Railroad tourism, especially seen from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, is often coupled with the notion of romance, luxury, and opulence, a view fueled by the indeed wonderful accoutrements found in coaches and stations of the past. Prior even to entering one's railcar, the stately terminal of the metropolis prepared the traveler for his or her long-awaited trip. These portals were almost always architectural gems that not only welcomed the traveler into an exciting realm but also proclaimed to the world a sort of national optimism and company pride. Between 1896 and 1916, the heyday of train travel, these terminals and many others, large and small, would see a tripling of passenger ridership. Nineteen hundred twenty-eight saw 20,000 different scheduled passenger trains in the United States, including short commuter hops and long-haul interstate and intercompany trains; by 1968, a mere 600 were left (Goddard, pp. 19, 215; see Table 1).

To speak of luxury train travel is to speak of the Pullman Company, which grew to be a monopoly the railroad companies tolerated, mostly because of the firm's ability to supply large numbers of cars with standardized service. In most cases, the Pullman Company supplied cars and staff, while the railroad company provided heat and light. In addition to the well-known sleeping cars, the Pullman Company operated parlor, lounge, and club cars, some with open-air observation vestibules at one end. John Stilgoe writes of stewards serving drinks to first-class passengers in the rarefied atmosphere of the club car; tea, books, magazines, the latest newspapers, postcards, and company stationery supplied by car attendants; and the comfortable, revolving chairs allowing passengers to gaze straight through plate-glass windows at the passing scene. Sleeping car porters—almost exclusively African American and thus helping make luxury train travel a sort of microcosm of American society—still enjoy one of the best reputations for polite and reliable service of any group of employees in American history.

Pullman interiors reminded travelers that they were indeed in another "place," a luxurious and protected linear realm that separated passenger from the ruggedness, foreignness, or emptiness of the landscapes outside. Paneling, tables, and furniture were constructed of the finest hardwoods; upholstery and carpeting were plush and attractive; and the various fittings were often of polished brass. Technological improvements saw candles give way to various gas lamps and then to electric lighting; electric fans were soon augmented by air cooled by ice carried beneath the car's floor; showers became standard in larger compartments. In most cases, these were gendered environments—sleeping berths were often advertised as being the epitome of domestic space and thus the best way for a woman to travel, whereas the various versions of the club or lounge car were for years a male realm, a place where traveling salesmen and other businessmen drank and smoked in plush armchairs, telling tall tales to whoever would listen. Important to most stories concerning the "romance" of rail travel is the food served onboard. In almost all cases, companies lost money on their splendid dining services, but it was an integral part of their attempt to win customers. The dining car was a fine restaurant on wheels with a well-trained staff and was often situated next to a club or lounge car, allowing patrons to engage in pre- and postmeal drinking and conversation.

Traveling Coach

It tends to be forgotten that the "golden age of rail travel" was only so gilded for a lucky few. Even for those who were able occasionally to afford a regular Pullman berth (not a larger private room, "drawing room," or "roomette"), much has been written about how the cramped quarters and fairly flimsy separation between travelers—oftentimes nothing more than a heavy curtain—led to a mingling of sounds and smells of sleep that one had not necessarily expected. For those who could not afford sleeping accommodations, there was "coach." Such a journey, across distances short and long, saw paying passengers in their own seats, whether benches or separate chairs. Traveling coach often entailed riding in an older car with a less-than-smooth ride and a nonexistent aircooling or ventilation system. In many cases, soot from the locomotive soiled clothes of passengers, hence the popularity in the early part of the nineteenth century of the famous advertising jingle of the Lackawanna's poster girl, Phoebe Snow, who claimed that "my dress stays white though I ride all night, when I take the road of anthracite" (quoted in Goddard, p. 19).

The worn wood of the aisle may not have even led toward a dining car for many coach passengers, either because there was no such car on their train or because prices made such a meal impossible. Dining cars were not a standard element of many passenger trains until 1945; it had been common for trains to stop at regular intervals to allow passengers to detrain and purchase snacks or meals from vendors. Perhaps the most famous examples of such establishments were the Harvey Houses; the Santa Fe granted Fred Harvey a contract in the 1880s to operate a chain of restaurants along its lines in the Southwest to service its passengers. Harvey's organization became famous for its unmarried, young women employees, known as "Harvey Girls"—who also received free room and board near the restaurant—and for its standardization, profitability, and popular food.

Fellow Passengers and the Passing Scene

Given that for many years train travel was the only way to cover long distances, it necessarily brought all kinds of people together. In the coaches, passengers from all walks of life, oftentimes dressed in their finest clothes, mingled and shared stories; in the case of long-distance train trips, travelers were often together for a handful of days. In order to fill the seats in a dining car most efficiently, stewards seated people across from complete strangers; conversation, argument, or flirting naturally followed. However, the idea of the rolling melting pot is only partially accurate. There were indeed different classes of coach, and the aforementioned lounge cars might have been available only to select passengers. As the narrator learns in the opening passages of Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1954), which takes place beginning about 1880, there was sometimes an "immigrant car." Although African Americans were well represented in the corridors and compartments of the Pullman cars as porters, as passengers they often traveled in one or two crowded coaches while whites spread themselves comfortably among several.

Although some passengers paid little attention to the almost cinematic scene that passed before them, many did indeed spend hours gazing sideways at the farms, factories, and forests that flashed past. The rail corridor allowed travelers an interesting and perhaps even rare glimpse of the iron, steel, brick, and concrete of the country's infrastructure. Often mentioned by travelers was the "ugliness" of the city as seen from the rails, with its ubiquitous billboards and trash-strewn rights-of-way. The backsides of buildings were on display, a more blue-collar world than many passengers were accustomed to seeing. Indeed, rail travel also opened an interesting window on the fascinating technology of the railroad itself. Views were obstructed on either side, sometimes for miles, as passengers strained to look through the gaps between the cars of other trains. Telegraph poles carrying numerous crossbars and dozens of wires invited the eye to follow an undulating and mesmerizing course. The tourist's view from the tracks made visible the "jungles"—vegetated areas near rail yards, where hoboes tended to camp, convene, and wait to hop the right freight. Rail travel was a trip through space—not over or past it—and was therefore quite different from what its successor transport modes would become.

Railroads played a major role in the success of many resorts and parks. In the east, locales such as Newport, Rhode Island, and, especially, Saratoga Springs, New York, were removed from their seasonal clientele but served well by railroads. The converse was also true: heavy demand for service between Philadelphia and Atlantic City or Cape May led to ruinous competition between the Pennsylvania and the Reading, which in turn led to a merger of their operations in this corridor. The Camden–Jersey Shore service was profitable enough to be kept alive until 1982, well past the 1971 creation of Amtrak. As in the railcars in which the tourists traveled, most resorts were subdivided by class. The National Parks in the West, whose creation often coincided with the expansion of particular railroad companies, were marketed to the public as scenic and "wild" destinations, but also as exclusive retreats where the wealthy, safely ensconced in their chateaus and lodges, could feel protected not only from animals and the vagaries of weather but also from the masses of the large cities they sought to escape. In its advertisements, the Northern Pacific assured its upper-class, eastern, potential customers that the people visiting Yellowstone National Park would be the same people riding the trains, thus ensuring a feeling of security for those contemplating such a trip. Using many of the same strategies, and appealing to an ever-more-mobile and wealthy population at the end of the nineteenth century, railroad companies helped to open and increase the popularity of places like the Grand Canyon (Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe), Yosemite (Southern Pacific), and Glacier National Park (Great Northern, whose symbol was for years the mountain goat, one of Glacier's most popular mammals).

Contributing both to the glamour of rail travel and to new streams of revenue, many railroads built and managed their own terminal hotels, among them architectural gems such as Le Château Frontenac in Québec City, the Royal York in Toronto, the Banff Springs Hotel (all three built by the Canadian Pacific), and the El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (built by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe). Many railroad companies made

The rise and decline of passenger rail travel in the U.S., 1890–1970
PeriodAvg. Passengers
per Year (1,000)
Avg. Total
per Year
These data reveal the defined boom and bust in passenger rail traffic from 1890 to 1970, on the eve of the creation of the National Rail Passenger Corporation (Amtrak). Note that the First World War represents the apex of passenger rail travel in the United States. World War II brought a short period of relative prosperity to many of the country's railroad companies, but the decline resumed shortly thereafter. Note that passenger-miles (a unit that represents one passenger being transported one mile) show much more pronounced swings. Especially in the case of WWII, these data show that the jump in the number of passengers was compounded by the distance they traveled—soldiers from all over the country were being transported to both coasts for deployment in multiple theaters. Note that the steady drop in total passengers since WWII is complemented by a drastic drop in passenger miles. Because the number of commuters tended to stay relatively constant through this period, this represents the fact that many trains were being cancelled and that many travelers were turning to cars and airplanes for long-distance travel.
source: U.S. Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. Bicentennial Edition, Part 2. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1975, pp. 729–730.
1890 492,431  11,848 
1891–1895 546,762 11.0% 13,383 13.0%
1896–1900 520,459 -4.8% 13,863 3.6%

profitable real estate deals with other hoteliers, as in the cases of the Waldorf–Astoria and Biltmore near Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, elements of the New York Central's "Terminal City" concept.

The End of the Line and the Coming of Amtrak

Even in the heyday of rail travel, many companies lost money on passenger rail service. Beginning in 1929, except for two positive years during World War II, the country's railroads ran deficits in passenger service every year. Although the automobile is often referred to as the culprit—due especially to the support of the federal government for road building—airlines also took away a large chunk of the customer base, in part due to their ability to offer speedy and luxurious service. In the 1930s, the lightweight, sleek, cinder-less, and futuristic designs of the aluminum-alloy "Streamliners" did indeed fascinate the public, but they only briefly slowed the decline already occurring (Table 1). Washington, in response to the alleged abuses of railroad managers and presidents over the years, was notoriously unwilling to listen to the industry's complaints regarding (over)regulation. As a result, companies were forced to continue offering passenger service on many lines where it made absolutely no sense to do so. Some railroad companies actually let the quality of their service slide precipitously in an effort to get people to stop taking the train, thereby making abandonment of the service inevitable. In 1971, the federal government decided to save what remained of the country's passenger routes by forming Amtrak, a subsidized, quasi-private company to take over most existing passenger services. Amtrak exists into the 2000s, although it continually operates in the red and politicians opposed to its survival often threaten its annual financial support.

Even though Amtrak's service is a far cry from that of the New York Central's Twentieth-Century Limited, it still offers the enthusiast—and the passenger who does not want to drive or fly for various reasons—the chance to see the country from an interesting vantage point. As opposed to driving on interstates and, especially, flying, Amtrak still integrates the passenger into the surroundings, whether through the stops at stations small and large, the accents and local knowledge of the crews, or the stoppage of alcohol sales while the train rolls through a dry county. Although food tends to be prepackaged where there is no dining car, and service is rarely on time due to the priority given to freight trains, Amtrak still has loyal customers who value the uniqueness and comfort of rail travel. Dinner trains and other tourist trains still do offer the enthusiast and the well-to-do traveler a chance to ride the rails in style, and to see a corridor not often seen by many. Amtrak is often a travel option chosen by less-wealthy individuals and families, thus revealing the importance of preserving this now "old-fashioned" mode of transport.

See also: Automobiles and Leisure; Tourism


Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Introduction by Walter Havighurst. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954. The original edition was published in 1918.

Cofone, Albin J. "The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West." The History Teacher 28, no. 1 (1994): 115-116.

Drury, George H. The Historical Guide to North American Railroads. Waukesha, Wis.: Kalmbach Publishing Company, 1985.

Goddard, Stephen B. Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Jakle, John A. The Tourist: Travel in Twentieth-Century North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Martin, Albro. Enterprise Denied: Origins of the Decline of American Railroads, 1897–1917. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Schlichting, Kurt C. Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Stilgoe, John. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983.

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Vance, James E., Jr. The North American Railroad: Its Origin, Evolution, and Geography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Henry J. Rademacher

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