The Quick 10: 10 Famous Trains
It was this month in 1900 that Mr. John Luther Jones (that's Casey to you and me) lost his life while manning the Cannonball Express. As you'll see in a second, although he was killed in a train collision, his heroic act saved the lives of all of the passengers and crew aboard, so I think it's fitting that we honor him by talking about famous trains today. Also, I think my dad will like this one because he works for the railroad and has developed an affinity for trains over the years. Hi, dad! Without further ado"¦
1. The Cannonball Express, AKA the New Orleans Special, was Illinois Central Railroad's fastest line back in 1900. Casey Jones (so called because of his hometown "“ Cayce, Kentucky) volunteered to make the Memphis, Tenn., to Canton, Miss., route when the usual engineer turned up sick. The train was already 95 minutes behind schedule, but Casey loved a challenge and was excited to see if he could get the train on time. It's what he was known for, after all "“ his extreme punctuality. Legend has it that people would set their watches based on when Casey's famous whistle sounded as it passed through their town (he had a distinct train whistle). Anyway, it was looking like he had a pretty decent chance of making it to Canton "on the advertised," when tragedy struck: a train in Vaughan, Mississippi, was stuck on the tracks when it should have been pulled off to the nearby house track. An air hose had apparently broken and locked the brakes in place. Casey couldn't see the train on the tracks in advance because he was coming around a curve, but he did what he could to slow the train as much as possible and sounded the whistle continuously to warn the other train. He told Sim Webb, his fireman, to jump for it. He stayed in place until impact, still trying to slow the train as much as possible. Although he had slowed it from 75 mph to 35 mph, his position on the train and the force of the impact killed him, probably instantly. But thanks to his efforts, he was the only fatality.
2. I knew the Orient Express had been around for a while, but it's older than I thought: the first run was on June 5, 1883 from Paris to Vienna. At that time it was known as the Express d'Orient. Later that year, the route was expanded to include stops in Romania and Germany and by 1889 was going as far east as Istanbul. Services were halted during WWI, but in 1919 they expanded again to include Milan, Venice and Trieste. WWII interrupted service again, but they were resumed in 1945. You can still take the Orient Express from Strasbourg to Vienna, and you can recreate the path by taking a few other trains. But, sadly, the Direct Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul ended in 1977. Or you can recreate the experience by reading some of the famous books it has been mentioned in "“ Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, of course, but also Bram Stoker's Dracula, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming, and Stamboul Train by Graham Greene, among others.
3. The Hiawatha trains, which ran from Chicago to Minneapolis, first appeared on the tracks in 1935. They were named after Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha." There was the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which ran straight from the Windy City to the Twin Cities; the North Woods Hiawatha, running from the main line through parts of Wisconsin; the Chippewa-Hiawatha, which ran through a different part of Wisconsin; the Midwest Hiawatha from Chicago to Omaha; and the Olympian Hiawatha, which took passengers all the way from Chicago to Seattle. Those have all terminated at this point, but you can still get from Chicago to Milwaukee using the Hiawatha Service, which should get you between the two cities in about 90 minutes.
4. The California Limited is another oldie. She started her route in 1892, going from Chicago to L.A. What's fun about this one is that she was the first to feature "the best Fred Harvey meals on rails." The Fred Harvey Company was a chain of railroad restaurants "“ the first was in Topeka in 1876, but by the 1890, Fred set up a lucrative deal with Santa Fe Railroad to open up a bunch of his eateries along their routes and as a result they could be found about every 100 miles. I guess they were like the Waffle Houses of their day. Except Waffle House seems to be slightly more ubiquitous. Eventually the service spread to Santa Fe's dining cars, which had food and service staffed by the Fred Harvey Company. Fred and Santa Fe went their separate ways in the early "˜30s when Fred realized he could make more money by going beyond one line; in fact, he started to go off of the railways entirely, setting up restaurants over Illinois Tollway Oases.
5. The California Zephyr is one you can still ride in its entirety from Chicago to Emeryville, California. The Zephyr was one of the first to be billed as a mini-vacation in and of itself; in the late "˜40s you would even find Zephyrettes on board. About 12 women were assigned to each train and they were tasked with doing just about anything (within reason, people, within reason) to make sure that their passengers had a relaxing trip "“ including babysitting and serving as tour guides. The Zephyr that rides the rails today isn't the original, but if you want to see a replica of the real thing, head to Disney's California Adventure, where a fake Zephyr houses a bakery and ice cream counter near the front of the park.
6. The Rock Island Rockets were notable because they were some of the first diesel-powered trains. And they had a line called the Des Moines Rocket, which ran from Chicago to DSM. I like to give the 515 a shout-out whenever I can, so consider my duty fulfilled for the week. Other Rockets ran from Chicago to Peoria, Fort Worth to Houston, Minneapolis to Kansas City, and Kansas City to Denver.
7. The North Coast Limited started operations on April 29, 1900 "“ the day before Casey Jones made his fateful run on the Cannonball, but wasn't anywhere near the disaster "“ the North Coast Limited ran from St. Paul to Puget Sound. In her heyday, the NCL was known for consistently having the best dining car service in the business "“ fresh flowers adorned the tables set with linen table cloths.
8. The Orange Blossom Special is pretty well known thanks to the Ervin T. Rouse song that was later the name of a 1965 Johnny Cash album (which Johnny covered on the album). It ran from New York to Miami. Ervin T. Rouse and Chubby Wise saw the Orange Blossom when it was in Jacksonville, Florida, and were inspired to write a fiddle tune about it (Chubby was a legendary bluegrass fiddler)"¦ at least, that's the story. Records show that the train they saw was a streamlined train, which wouldn't have been the Orange Blossom, which used heavyweight Pullman sleepers, diners and coaches. If they did indeed see a streamlined train, it was likely the Silver Meteor, a streamlined train with stainless steel coaches.
Here's a double whammy for you: Mr. Cash performing both Casey Jones and Orange Blossom Special (he uses the harmonica instead of the fiddle).
9. The Royal Blue was the B&O Railroad's passenger train between NYC and DC starting in 1890. And it was royal indeed "“ one railroad historian called it "An inspired blend of majesty and mystique." The interiors of each car were made of mahogany, the cars were heated and lighted and the windows were made of leaded glass. The chefs were trained in France and prepared duck and terrapin. In the "˜30s and "˜40s they served meals on Dresden China and decked out the cars with glass chandeliers and colonial-style furnishings (they called it the "Martha Washington" series). FDR liked to ride the Royal Blue when he was in office, often taking a special presidential train from D.C. to the family estate in Hyde Park, New York. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip tried the train in 1957, but even their glamour wasn't enough to keep the line afloat "“ its last run departed from Washington Union Station at 3:45 p.m. on April 26, 1958, and was covered by Edward R. Murrow for CBS.
10. The Marrakesh Express is a real train, in case that Crosby, Stills & Nash song ever had you wondering. Graham Nash took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh in 1966 and booked himself a posh first-class seat, but found himself bored and went back to sit with the "ducks and pigs and chickens."
Do you have any memorable train rides to tell of? Tell us all about it in the comments. I'm afraid I have nothing to contribute this time, although I'm suddenly inspired to take a cross-country train trip!