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America is experiencing a resurgence in passenger rail travel. Between 1995 and 2012, ridership rose 55%. On the Acela Express, you can get from Washington, D.C. to Boston in 6 hours, 45 minutes. During the trip you can order vegetarian lasagna or a turbot fillet and sip a glass of wine or champagne, all while you get some work done via the train’s wireless internet connection.

But none of the modern amenities in American passenger rail come close to the opulence and luxury of the Twentieth Century Limited.

When it debuted on June 15, 1902, the Twentieth Century Limited was the flagship train of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (NYC&HR). At the time, passenger rail accounted for virtually all interstate travel: cars weren’t widely available, highways were nonexistent, and the Wright Brothers had yet to take their famous flight. The only way to get from New York to Chicago was by train.

The Twentieth Century Limited was the

creation of George H. Daniels, the General Passenger Agent and first advertising manager of the

NYC&HR. Daniels was a marketing wizard: he branded the NYC&HR as “America’s Greatest Railroad” in 1890, introduced red-hatted porters, or “redcaps,” to assist passengers with baggage for free in 1896, published books and magazines advertising resorts and sights along railroad routes, and reimagined dining car and depot restaurant food and service. By 1902, improvements in railroad track technology and a more powerful locomotive engine set the stage for the biggest success of Daniels’ career: the Twentieth Century Limited.

Operating in conjunction with the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, the Twentieth Century traveled from Grand Central Station in New York City, along the Hudson River, across the shores of Lake Erie, to the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, and back each day. Advertisements touted the train’s


“Water Level Route,” offering better sleeping conditions than competing trains, which cut through the Appalachian Mountains. Trains departed Grand Central at 2:45pm and arrived in Chicago 20 hours later, at 9:45am, maintaining an average speed of 49 miles per hour.

Forty-two passengers lined up for the Twentieth Century Limited’s inaugural trip. The train consisted of a ten-wheel steam engine, three Pullman sleeper cars, a dining car, and a buffet/library car, all of which were fairly standard. But it was the little extras Daniels added that made the Twentieth Century Limited so special: a barber shop, so passengers could arrive well-groomed; valets and maids; a trained secretary/stenographer to assist businessmen; and electric lights powered by the movement of the train’s axle. When the train pulled in to LaSalle Street Station, oil and steel tycoon John W. Gates stepped off and told waiting reporters that the train “made Chicago a suburb of New York.”

The Twentieth Century was an immediate success. Travel time was soon cut to 18 hours. In 1912, an advertising trade publication ran an assessment of the train’s first ten years titled Making a Train World Famous: How the 20th

Century Limited Has Become a Business Necessity and Its Name an English Idiom by Advertising. The author pointed out that the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Pennsylvania Special offered nearly identical service in terms of time, cost, and comfort, but the Twentieth Century’s widespread newspaper advertising made it a household name. Albany residents “set their watches by the Twentieth Century Limited.” Ty Cobb was “as fast as the Twentieth Century Limited.”

In 1914, the New York Central & Hudson River and the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern were merged into the New York Central System, one of the largest companies in the country. Passenger rail travel peaked in 1920, when 1.2 million people rode the rails. On average, 47 million “passenger miles” (one passenger traveling one mile) were traveled each day that year.

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