Railroads During the Depression

The Twentieth Century Limited

Even as a paperweight, Henry Dreyfuss's rendering of the 4-6-4 "Hudson" suggests speed and power.
Even as a paperweight, Henry Dreyfuss's rendering of the 4-6-4 "Hudson" suggests speed and power.
John B. Corns

New York Central billed The Twentieth Century Limited, operating between New York and Chicago, as "the most famous train in the world," and indeed it was. The New York Evening World effused that the train was "so magnificent that it should never be printed save in capital letters." Re-equipped as an all-bedroom streamliner in mid-1938, the train was a picture of stately refinement in shades of silver and grey as it sped on its 16-hour run. Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss integrated every detail of the train, from the locomotive (whose bullet-pointed nose was split by a scimitar-shaped flange) to the china in the dining car.

Chicago, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway's Super Chief combined stainless steel and elegance in America's first all-Pullman diesel-powered streamliner. Making the trip to Los Angeles in 39 1/2 hours twice a week, the Super Chief was the flagship of the Santa Fe and a favorite of the Hollywood crowd and their publicists. Like other first-class, extra-fare trains, the Super Chief reflected the growing importance of design and style to the traveling public. Just getting there wasn't good enough any more; one had to get there in style.

Few could afford a ticket on one of the new first-class streamliners, and coach train service continued to erode under pressure from buses and cars. Thousands of dispossessed rode the trains nevertheless, hopping freights as economic hobos. Though illegal and dangerous, the practice was often ignored by sympathetic railroaders, and at other times brutally suppressed by railroad police and local sheriffs.

Those among the impoverished whose pride, respect for the law, or practicality prevented them from catching a freight train swarmed onto the highways in old cars and trucks, searching for a better life. It may be argued that the railroads' emphasis on speed, comfort, and luxury for the fortunate few alienated a substantial segment of the market and drove less affluent travelers permanently into the culture of the automobile.