The Santa Fe Super Chief

The Santa Fe Super Chief

Across America by Rail — October 1962

In the deep fall of 1962, my mother hauled my two older sisters and me across America to visit her family for the holidays, Southern California to New York City. The journey was the most spectacular event yet in my young life. The first leg of our trip was on the night train from Los Angeles to Chicago, the Santa Fe Super Chief, “The Train of the Stars.”

My mom was from Manhattan originally, and the luxury, style and mystique of the Super Chief, not to mention the cost, trumped the speed of the new post-war airlines flying east. The train was a masterpiece of streamlined power, huge and beautiful, red and yellow Warbonnet racing into the night. 
In May 1937, the Super Chief became the first daily-service, all-Pullman sleeping car train in America. An initial high speed run completed the trip between Los Angeles and Chicago in less than thirty-seven hours, hitting tops speeds of one hundred miles per hour.

The Super Chief was the latest and final version of high-speed, luxury rail service offered by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) between Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California. The line was the brain child of Allen Manvel, president of the ATSF railroad from 1889 to 1893. Manvel believed the country was ready and willing to pay for first-class service to the Pacific. Named the California Limited, the first train began service in November, 1892. The company marketed the route as the “Finest Train West of Chicago.” As technology developed during its record lifespan, the California Limited offered deluxe meals by the Fred Harvey Company–of Harvey house and Harvey Girl fame, barbers and hair dressers, laundry service, showers, and air conditioning. The California Limited ran until June, 1954.

Sometimes pulled by the iconically streamlined locomotive, the Blue Goose, the Chief began limited service between Chicago and Los Angeles in November, 1926. The Chief was intended to supplement the California Limited, but with a deliberate slant toward luxury, with of course, an additional fare of ten dollars, end-to-end. Five hours shorter than the Limited, the trip still took sixty-three hours to complete, but the consist was all-Pullman sleeping cars. Called by some a “rolling boudoir” for the rich and famous, especially Hollywood royalty, it was also described as, “Extra Fast, Extra Fine, Extra Fare.” The Chief made its last run in May 1968.

When Allen Manvel became president of the ATSF in 1889, he succeeded William Barstow Strong. Strong was the powerful corporate executive who created the tiny railroad town of Barstow, California, where my journey east began. Other towns named after the bigger than life railway man are Strong City, Kansas and Stronghurst, Illinois.

My mom and dad were from New York City, but our family lived on an army base in the desolate desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, forty miles farther into the wasteland than Barstow. Now known as the National Desert Warfare Training Center, Fort Irwin was little more than a damp spot on the map then.

The Mojave Desert was my home and I didn’t want to leave it, or my father either; but he couldn’t get away from his work studying armored warfare. It was the first time in my abbreviated life the family had gone anywhere without him. I knew tanks, steered my first from my father’s lap with I was six, but nothing prepared me for the size, speed and power of the Super Chief. I fell instantly in love.

Actually, our coach passage was ticketed for the El Capitan, but everyone aboard, including the conductor, referred to the train as the Super Chief. The El Capitan began service in February, 1938 as the only all-chair-car train operated by the ATSF between Chicago and Los Angeles. In the late 1930s, the luxury of the all Pullman Super Chief and the economy of the chair-car El Capitan revolutionized cross-country travel. But eventually, in January 1958, the two trains were combined into one speedy consist. Mythical creatures of nostalgia now, they were famously practical then.

In mid-October 1962 we climbed aboard for our journey east. The First-Class Pullman cars, the actual Super Chief, were up front, behind the engines; Chair Cars, non-Pullman sleepers, the El Capitan, were in back. Our seats were in the lower level of a Chair Car that transitioned to the Hi-Level design via stairs. We created a small campsite around our RideMaster seats for the two-day trip to Chicago. The big reclining chairs were designed for sleeping, with adjustable leg and head rests. Helpful porters distributed pillows and blankets. The other passengers around us built little comfortable campsites, too.

Being a precocious kid, I quickly made pals with the conductor and was soon supervising his work with the mail. The mail–handling was right up there with getting beamed-up in Star Trek only four years later. We would organize the mail in a heavy canvas and leather Catcher Pouch and hang the bag outside the train on a long steel hook. When the train raced through the next station without stopping, images of unknown structures flashing by with incredible speed, a stationary hook snagged the bag and it would instantly disappear. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’m sure I was a nuisance, but the rotund African American conductor was a happy and patient man. He gave me a pack of playing cards with a picture of the Super Chief printed on the backs, the powerful engine pulling the cars swiftly through some beautiful mountain scenery. Maybe he hoped I would go sit down and play with them for a while.

We spent many hours in the Big-Dome lounge car. I loved this futuristic glass bubble on the top of the club car. The restaurant downstairs was almost as exciting as the dome. We ate most of our meals from the basket of provisions mom brought along, but one evening the four of us sat down to an elegant meal in the dining car. White table cloth, shiny silverware and fine china plates; my older sisters sat across from my mom and I, backs straight, hands in their laps. Even I felt the special sophistication of the moment and throttled down my usually uncontrollable eight-year-old enthusiasm.

The nation sped passed as we flew eastward, many soldiers and sailors riding in the dome with us. My eldest sister, at sixteen, gloried in the attention of young sailors in white uniforms. I found it impossible to believe that anyone could live without pockets. There was a general mobilization underway and the military, passes canceled, were traveling back to their bases. I knew nothing of the crisis in Cuba of course, and no one on the car fully understood the danger. We were dreadfully close to nuclear war at the time, and the Super Chief was speeding us all toward ground zero.

Upon our arrival at Chicago’s Dearborn Station, we needed not only to change trains, but to change stations. It was a memorable adventure, even though we couldn’t have been in town more than an hour or two. We were making a connection–a train connection–that required we cross downtown Chicago in a “limousine.” I was hugely disappointed when the limousine turned out to be a small bus. But the trip was bursting with new sensations; sights, sounds and smells. I recall the industrial scents most clearly; it was the first time I inhaled the dirty, diesel-fume-tainted air of a big city. At one point our transfer was delayed when we came upon streets closed for the filming of an episode of the hit television show Route 66.

The next leg of our trip, the segment between Chicago’s Union Station and New York’s Pennsylvania Station, was on a famous train too, the Broadway Limited of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Broadway evolved from the Pennsylvania Special in November, 1912. At the time, the Special was one of nine Pennsylvania express trains making the trip between the two great cities. The train wasn’t named after the famous street in Manhattan, but rather for the wide, four-track right of way the Pennsylvania Railroad maintained through most of the route. The initial run time of the Broadway was over twenty hours but was reduced to just sixteen and a half hours by 1935.
The Broadway Limited rivaled another swank train connecting New York with Chicago, New York Central’s 20th Century Limited, “The Most Famous Train in the World.” The two legendary trains competed for the upscale passengers making the trip for over sixty-five years. The heated competition drove the advancement of technology, and advertising, throughout the decades, with each train claiming the crown of “best” for brief, limelighted segments of time.

New York Central invented the “Red Carpet” treatment by seeing passengers off from New York’s Grand Central Terminal with a long red carpet on the platform. The 20th Century Limited, immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 movie, North by Northwest, was touted for the “good-night’s rest” provided by the “water level” route along the Hudson River and Lake Erie shorelines. In contrast, the Broadway climbed through and over steep mountains, but it was no less famous or luxurious. During the heavyweight era of cars, about 1900 through the late 1930’s, the Broadway Limited featured an all-sleeping-car consist ending with an open-platform observation car.

In the end, the Broadway won the battle. In 1957, the decline in passenger rail travel forced the New York Central to add coaches to the 20th Century Limited. In 1967, the Broadway Limited became the last all-Pullman train in the United States. The train outlived the Pennsylvania Railroad by over twenty years. It continued to make the run after the Penn Central Transportation merger and was operated by Amtrak between 1971 and 1995.

But, by the time my family made our migration back to New York in 1962, the Broadway was in serious decline. Stubbornly battling against time, it had none the less surrendered to age and neglect. Our depressing overnight trip was characterized by old, dirty, cold, drafty cars with thread-worn seats. The tired train struggled through a heavy rain that leaked into the car and puddled in the aisles. The run into New York City was best spent bundled up and asleep.

Before my boyish energy wound down for the night, I begged my mom to buy me a second dinner at the dark and noisy dining counter. The ancient, white-haired, black porter who ran the dining car had seen generations of people ride the Broadway, rich and famous during the golden age, now poor and obscure during the decline. He instantly sized-up my mom and our finances, and knew the exorbitant prices were outside her budget. He tried to dissuade her, and disapproved of her giving in to the whining of a spoiled child, but mom bought me the snack anyway, an open-faced hot-turkey sandwich. I didn’t finish it and the old porter told my mom he had known I wouldn’t. My mom just shrugged; she’d been cooped up on trains with two well-behaved girls, and me, for three days. What’s a mom to do?

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