Railroads of the 1920s

The Pullman Company

As many as 11 men might work in a spotlessly clean dining car galley like this to turn out prepared-to-order full meals for 220 passengers.
As many as 11 men might work in a spotlessly clean dining car galley like this to turn out prepared-to-order full meals for 220 passengers.
B & O Railroad Museum

No single part of that network was greater in reach or more intricate than The Pullman Company. By this time it was the largest hotelier in the world, providing lodgings for as many as 40,000 people every night. Each of the 50 or so railroads offering Pullman service contracted with the company for the use of its sleeping cars, and in some cases, dining and lounge cars as well. Pullman staffed the sleepers with black porters trained in the exacting service that was the company's hallmark.

Pullman travel cost more than coach fare, but in the days before interstate highways, it was the safest and most comfortable way to go. One could board a Pullman car in Key West, Florida, and with a few changes of cars arrive in northwestern Canada without ever leaving the watchful eye of the Pullman Company. Americans toured the mountains of Mexico by Pullman, and they chartered private cars for everything from "wilderness" camping trips to political campaigning.

Of course, there was train travel, and there was glamorous train travel. While the traveling salesman ("drummer" to his contemporaries) boarding the standard 12-section, one-drawing-room sleeper in Butte, Montana, would have encountered substantially the same service as even the most famous passengers, some trains were simply better than others. The Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads competed for the cream of the New York-Chicago passenger business. Movie stars, tycoons, politicians, and the royalty of American culture rode the Broadway Limited and the Twentieth Century Limited on the finest equipment and fastest schedules available anywhere. Everyone transferred in Chicago, and passengers for "the Coast" had a choice of luxury trains such as Santa Fe's California Limited and Great Northern's Empire Builder.

Railroad publicity men staged all kinds of events to attract passengers and to capitalize on whatever famous passengers might happen to be aboard. Reporters covered the arrival of trains at L.A.'s Union Passenger Terminal the way newspapers in New York treated the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth sailing from England. The trip was still long-at least three days to cross the continent-but it was far from uncomfortable. The finer trains had maids, valets, barbershops, and, of course, dining cars serving high-quality meals. Observation cars with open platforms permitted an exhilarating view of the scenery, while ample lounge and smoking spaces reduced the sense of being confined. Some trains had radios and libraries; others featured directed social activities and even rolling gymnasiums.

Some aspects of travel were still beyond the railroad's control. Showers were a great luxury, and going for several days in the cinder rich environment of the railroad could be a trial. Air conditioning on trains did not become a practical reality until the 1930s, so summer travel could be hot, humid, and dusty all at once. In the late 1920s, the Pennsylvania and Santa Fe railroads set up a rail-air-rail relay that whisked passengers from New York to Los Angeles in 48 hours. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before all-air transcontinental service siphoned much of the most glamorous traffic from the rails. Nevertheless, the "standard" Pullman car-along with its counterpart, the steel day coach-defined travel for millions of North Americans throughout the decade.

Their gateway to the world was the train station.