Mansions On Rails

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The rising tide of wealth and the gratification of the social ambitions of the well to do that characterized the post Civil War years in the United States asserted themselves in a number of forms: seagoing steam yachts, villas at Newport, titled sons-in-law, collections of old masters and libraries of first editions, membership in the United States Senate, mistresses of notorious beauty, diamond tiaras, boxes at the Metropolitan Opera, and mansions on Fifth Avenue or Nob Hill.

These might do well enough for the run-of-the-mine millionaire, but the supremely desirable authentication of social acceptance and economic well-being was the private railroad car “outshopped” to the owner’s personal specifications by the Pullman Palace Car Company, by Webster Wagner, or by one of several less celebrated carbuilders of the era. The private car was for two entire generations of Americans the capstone of financial and social achievement; no other ostentation was quite in its class.

Its cost rose with the years from a mere $50,000 in the mid-eighties to $300,00 in 1929. Its incidentals of décor and maintenance might run to English butlers, Venetian crystal chandeliers, marble handbowls, French chefs, table services from Tiffany, powdered footmen, wine cellars filled with rare vintages, and king-size brass beds in the master staterooms. The late Mrs. E. T. Stotesbury, queen of Palm Beach society and wife of a Morgan partner, pointed to her gold plumbing fixtures as a genuine measure of economy. “They require no polishing, you know.”

Until now the legend of the private railroad car in America has been largely unrecorded. No bibliography of any sort existed in the field of what railroaders refer to as “private varnish.” Somewhere in the archives of Pullman-Standard, successor to the Pullman Palace Car Company, there was known to exist a photographic file of private cars and the business cars of railroad executives outshopped before the turn of the century, but Pullman executives were vague and for a time its very existence was a matter of conjecture. Two years ago the long missing file came to light in a loft at Pullman’s shops outside Chicago. Leading claimant for its cataloguing and eventual use in publishable form was Lucius Beebe, doyen of American railroad historians and himself a private car aficionado of the first water. This fall the cream of the Pullman collection, together with much other material in the field, will be published in a book by Mr. Beebe: Mansions On Rails, The Folklore, of the Private Railway Car . Some of the book’s choicest photographs are reproduced on these and the following six pages by permission of the publisher, Howell-North Books, of Berkeley, California.