The Overland Limited

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One discovers only incidentally that Madame Nellie Melba requested the Overland’s dining car steward, as an act of mercy, not to serve her Peach Melba at dinner; that Prince André Poniatowski, son of the master of horse of Napoleon III and a direct descendant of King Stanislaus of Poland, commanded a quart of White Seal champagne to be served in his room each morning before entering the diner in a democratic manner for breakfast; that Gertrude Alherton never emerged from her stateroom at all between Oakland and Chicago. The ghosts of the pioneers along the Overland Trail may well have stared as the Overland Limited blazed its way through the Nevada night in a torrent of red plush and walnut-panelled palace cars loaded with famous passengers.

Much as its cars have been freighted with drama over the decades, they were never more so than on the afternoon of April 19, 1906, the day after the San Francisco earthquake. The Metropolitan Opera Company, including Caruso, Emma Eames, Louise Homer, Plançon, and other top-flight luminaries, had sung Carmen two nights before in what was unwittingly the swan song of a city that would never be the same again. During the terrible hours of April 18 as flames engulfed ever-widening areas, both the St. Francis and the Palace hotels, where the members of the company were stopping, were destroyed, and the singers, orchestra, and executives scattered in refugee groups throughout the town’s parks and other places of safety. Next day, however, word was circulated that the artists were to gather by a given hour at the ferry building, where a steam launch had been procured in the absence of all ferry service. It was to take them to the Overland at the Oakland Mole. Everybody made it—Mme. Homer in her husband’s evening trousers, Pol Plançon immaculate in silk top hat and cutaway tail coat. It was a narrow thing for Caruso, who arrived only after he had displayed an autographed photograph of President Roosevelt to a militia patrol. The private car Adolphus of Adolphus Busch, the St. Louis beer magnate, was on the Overland, but no private car was available on such short notice to the Met singers. They were grateful for any space at all, even upper berths. The train was delayed a few minutes while Campanari, the baritone, was interviewed by the Oakland Tribune . “It is such a change,” Campanari was quoted as saying, a remark described by Walter Lord in The Good Years as the classic understatement produced by one of the greatest of all American calamities. The singers had a fine view of the burning city as the Overland skirted the East Bay on its way out of town.

Although it never partook of the almost unearthly splendor that characterized the red-carpet departures from New York and Chicago of the Twentieth Century Limited in its glory years, entraining on the Overland could still be very much of an event. Many old-time San Franciscans insisted on seeing friends off from the Oakland Mole and crossed the Bay on the ferry to wave farewells as the observation platform faded into the distance. The author recalls making the crossing as late as 1943 with Dudley Field Malone, the venerable divorce lawyer, who bore in his arms a vast bouquet of American Beauty roses for the departing William K. Vanderbilts. Another man would have sent novels or champagne, but to a magnifico of the old school, only roses would do. It was the gesture of a graying gallant. Sometimes, in the days when the Overland went east in the early evening, well-wishers boarded the cars to take dinner with friends in a stateroom or in the diner, disembarking at Martinez to return on a handy local and cross the Bay by moonlight. During Prohibition, enthusiasts were sometimes taken in wine and transported as far as Sacramento or even Reno, much as participants in sailing parties of the era on the Berengaria and Paris sometimes failed to make the gangplank and were carried off to Europe in their dinner clothes.

For a decade or so just previous to the 1941 war, when it was carded on a schedule that called for half an hour in Reno while its cars were serviced and mail and head-end business handled, the Overland arrived in “The Biggest Little City in the World” late in the evening, when Nevada night life was in fullest blast. Knowing travellers got down from the Pullmans as soon as the train pulled into the Reno depot and hastened across Commercial Row to the Bank Club, handiest of the town’s gleaming palaces of chance, for a brief whirl at roulette, dice, or the slot machines. There was also ample time to patronize the Bank Club’s splendid bar.

When it came time to highball, the engineer in the Southern Pacific cab-in-front locomotive which in those days powered No. 27 in its westbound ascent of the Sierra would wind a blast on his whistle, and dealers, keno tippers, pit bosses, and barmen would join in a ringing chorus to shout “Train time, train time,” much as Broadway theatre doormen shout “Curtain going up” at the end of the intermission. The Overland’s passengers would pour from the Bank Club and adjacent saloons on North Center Street, leaking silver dollars as they sprinted for the platform, often carrying their drinks with them, all in agreement that one of the extra dividends of riding the Overland was a brief interlude of high life in the gambling center of the known universe.