A Cautionary Tale

PrintPrintEmailEmailBack at the turn of the century there was a railroad with an idea that seems strange to our ears today: it wanted to advertise lor passengers. It had two things to sell—the shortest main-line route from New York to Buffalo, and the fact that it owned anthracite mines and thus burned hard coal, which makes much less smoke and dust than soft. Casting about for a catchy idea, the officials of the company, the famous Delaware, Lackawanna & Western, hit upon the notion of a lady passenger dressed all in white whose clothes stayed clean upon “the Road of Anthracite.” Presently they invented a name, Phoebe Snow; hired a pretty and most ladylike young woman, Mrs. Marion E. Murray, to impersonate her; and made the name and face famous lor more than a generation with car cards and doggerel as memorable in their day as Rinso White and Mr. Clean are now. Phoebe appeared by name in 1903, and this was the first of many jingles: Says Phoebe Snow / About to go / Upon a trip to Buffalo, / “My gown stays while / From morn till night / Upon the Road of Anthracite.

The old advertising card at right shows how these little messages used to reach an admiring public.

Phoebe and the Lackawanna prospered alike for many years. Mrs. Murray herself appeared in the early motion picture classic The Great Train Robbery , which was photographed on the Lackawanna’s line to Boonton, New Jersey. Around 1907 she left the railroad for the stage, but other ladies posed for the drawings until the First World War created a coal shortage and forced the Lackawanna to burn bituminous. Another Phoebe appeared briefly in 1930 to celebrate the line’s new electric commuting services, and again in the Second World War to plug for the war effort: “Our first job now,” says Phoebe Snow, / “Is getting troops to Tokyo! / Civilian travel won’t be fun / Until these westward trips are done.”

 

A new rhyme scheme, a bad one, and the beginning of excuses for the service—but there was one more fine moment when in 1949 President William White of the Lackawanna named his crack luxury flyer The Phoebe Snow. For the christening the original Phoebe, now Mrs. R. V. Gorsch, came out of retirement. The train was a great success, making the daytime run to Buffalo in eight hours from the terminal at Hobokcn, a short ferry ride from Manhattan. Then, in 1960, the once-proud railroad merged with its old competitor, the Erie, and the new entity, called the Erie-Lackawanna, chipping away at the passenger service, discontinued the train in 1962. While, as chairman of ihe board, started up the famous flyer again the next year, but instead of going to Buffalo, it branched off the combined lines to end at Chicago (which rhymes very badly with “Phoebe Snow”). This service ended for good on November 27, 1966. Mrs. Gorsch outlived the train by only eight months and died at eighty-five, just before the opening of a fine Phoebe Snow exhibition arranged in her honor by the New Jersey Historical Society, which included the advertising cards shown here from the collection of Thomas T. Taber.

Studying the ancient jingles, AMERICAN HERITAGE, ever mindful of Progress, decided to look into how Miss Snow might travel to Buffalo today. Patient waiting on the telephone finally disgorged the reluctant information that there is still one lone train to Buffalo, on such of the combined Erie and Lackawanna lines as survive; it runs only because the Interstate Commerce Commission has not given permission for its abandonment, but that sleepy watchdog has clearly never seen the operation with which the railroad is discouraging even the hardiest of travellers.

Believing in first-hand information, our own re-creation of Phoebe Snow, Mrs. John Phillips, a member of our staff, dressed herself all in white and about midnight headed via the Holland Tunnel (the ferry has been abandoned) for Hoboken, driven by an unwilling cabdriver who could scarcely find the terminal. Mrs. Phillips, her photographer, and entourage were, to judge by the ticket clerk’s surprise, the first paying passengers in some days. She was told that the train would leave at 12:15 A.M., consisted of a single day coach, and would require eleven hours to make the trip that used to take eight. As one trainman explained it, various waits make the longer schedule possible, lest faster service encourage too many riders. But the company was not entirely heartless. Jt provided no diner, but it did stop the car at Binghamton, New York, at sunrise so that passengers might savor the station snack bar. Dawn did not sharpen the new Phoebe’s appetite, but it brought magnificent scenery and a high trestle over the great falls of the Genesee River. Crawling thereafter through flatlands to Buffalo, the lonely successor to so many great trains eventually put down a bone-tired traveller—her dress now a tattletale gray —a few miles short of the city because, it appears, the railroad has sold the old station and drops its passengers, if any, in a distant industrial wasteland. This final discouragement (Are you listening, I.C.C.?) has one advantage, however; it is near the airport. Our pictures of the modern trip appear on the next four pages with revised jingles that—unlike the service—are no worse than the originals.

Oliver Jensen