Varnish For The Nabobs


When, in the Colorado mid-Seventies, the Rocky Mountain News of Denver reported that aboard “Nomad,” the narrow-gauge private car of General William Jackson Palmer, builder of the Rio Grande Railroad, there was both hot and cold running water, the old gentleman was outraged. Not only did the discussion of such intimate matters constitute a violation of privacy: it also made him—an old campaigner—out to be a sybarite and downright softy.

Things have changed in the eight decade’s since General Palmer. Hot and cold running water no longer seem a luxury of Babylonish proportions in an age which takes functioning marble fireplaces, deep-freezes, built-in wine cellars, murals by celebrated artists, and air-conditioning for granted.

Indeed the change for what he would have regarded as the worse came in General Palmer’s own time, for in the Eighties the Count Boni de Castellane wrote in his diary that aboard the entire private train of George Gould full evening dress was expected at dinner, which was served by liveried house footmen off gold plates from Tiffany.

The golden age of the private railroad car was, obviously, the bright noontide of the nabobs who took pleasure in such ornate and often beautiful conveniences and could afford to possess and maintain them. The privately owned Pullman was, from the mid-Seventies until the stock market, an accepted and conventional symbol of wealth. Only a handful survive today.

In the East they were cherished and maintained in gleaming splendor by entire generations and dynasties of Goulds, Harrimans, Vanderbilts, Fricks, and Wideners and rolled elegantly from Palm Beach to the Adirondacks, to Bar Harbor and Louisville, as the season and occasion dictated. They clustered familiarly as late as the mid-Twenties in swarms of twenty or thirty at a time on the private car track of the now vanished Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach, and at Derby time the Louisville & Nashville’s yards at Louisville saw their arrival at the end of every inbound varnish train for days at a time.

In the Old West they were the affluential hallmark of the presence of silver kings from the Comstock, copper monarchs from Butte, the old bearded Silver Senators of Nevada and Montana, cattle magnates and all the departed generation of Emperors of Get and Satraps of Power. Success on the prairies and in the tall timber rode the private palace cars in frock coats and passed out dollar cigars to the reporters on arriving in San Francisco, Virginia City, or Fort Worth. It drank vintage champagne in jeroboams and delighted in gold-plated plumbing fixtures and brass-bound observation platforms rolling through the high passes of the Sierra or through the sagebrush night.

The private railroad car was a way of life. To a certain extent it still is.

A modern generation of railroaders makes a sharp distinction between the privately owned Pullman operated for the pleasure, convenience, and social occasions of its proprietor and the business cars occupied by railroad officials in the discharge of their executive duties and generally known as office cars. The latter, be they ever so ornate and handsome of decor, are still the property of the stockholders and not the president, general manager, or superintendent of motive power who rides them. When he dies, resigns, or goes to higher office, the car goes to his successor.

Such wasn’t always the case. In an earlier generation of American railroading before the Interstate Commerce Commission had bared its fangs and when railroad presidents were apt to be railroad owners as well, the difference between private cars and office cars was negligible or, at best, academic. Jay Gould or Edward Harriman or William H. Vanderbilt owned the road, and the cars went with it.

Traditionally the personal office car of the president of a railroad is numbered 100 and those of ranking brass in the upper brackets—division superintendents, legal heads, chief engineers and such—occupy adjacent designations 101, 102 and 103. Traditionally, too, the lower echelons of business car occupants maintain their cars in a state of repair and visual elegance in keeping with their rank in the railroad hierarchy. The president’s car is immaculate of paint, brass work, running gear, and trim. A chief engineer’s hack is apt to be less ostentatiously dapper. Legend has it that during a particularly austere regime on the New York Central in the Nineties a lowly member of the maintenance-of-way department wired the general superintendent at Albany for permission to attach his worka-day office car to the crack Day Express at Albany.