Okay, I promised that my unbridled curiosity would range from trains to Trotsky. Trotsky will have to wait.
I have loved trains since I was a little kid. How can you not? Powerful, fast, enormous, energy-efficient, critical to our nation’s growth and success, and pervasive in most every corner of America. Trains are a work of art, a work of science, and just plain hard-working.
Among the most beautiful eras of the train was the period of the great streamliners. In the 1930s, founders of the industrial design profession including Otto Kuhler, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss worked with the railroads to “streamline” the massive steam locomotives. Instead of looking like lumbering giants, they began to look like the superfast machines that they actually were. Soon thereafter, General Motors’ perfection of the commercial diesel locomotive changed transportation forever, and the designers at the factories and railroads went to work on the diesels. Black was replaced by colors. And each railroad had its own colors, its own personality, its own slogans. Every crack train had its name.
In the 1940s and 1950s, anywhere you travelled in America you would see them: the silver Burlington Zephyrs working west of Chicago, Santa Fe’s bright red Super Chief across the desert southwest, the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited competing with arch-rival Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited on the all-important New York-Chicago run, Illinois Central’s orange and brown Panama Limited and City of New Orleans snaking south, the Southern’s green Crescent from Washington to New Orleans, and the Atlantic Coast Line’s beautiful purple Champion south to Florida.
On each one, imagine sleeping in the Pullman cars, imagine the great food in the dining car, watch life go by in the observation car or better yet in a dome car, and see every nook and cranny of our nation, every farm and great factory from the comfort of your chair.
There are a number of great books about the streamline era in railroading, about these beautiful trains and their designers. One of my favorites, The Art of the Streamliner, by Bob Johnson and Joe Welsh, is hard to find as a new book but you can find it online at www.abebooks.com as a used book, and it might show up on the bargain book table at your bookstore.
Here I recommend to you a book that is still in print and relatively available, Streamliners: History of a Railroad Icon, by Mike Schafer and Joe Welsh (MBI Publishing, 2002). This book is brought to us by the great Motorbooks publishing enterprise, which makes hundreds of outstanding automotive and other transportation books. I urge you to get this book, turn on the right kind of old travelin’ music, and just flip through the pages enjoying the color photos and illustrations. You will be hearing “All aboard!” in your dreams.