- Historic Sites
Varnish For The Nabobs
For decades the private railroad car was the great symbol of wealth. Here is what it looked like in its heyday.
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
The return wire read: “We have some regard for the appearance of The Day Express.” With some, the private car became a habit and preoccupation. When the social or financial occasions of their owners overflowed single palace cars, they had two or more around. If William H. Vanderbilt’s guests taxed the capacity of his rococo “Vanderbilt,” there was always the “Duchess” available to be coupled in the train line next to it. When Charles Schwab felt that his superb “Loretto I” was outdated he commanded Pullman to build him “Loretto II,” which satisfactorily outdid its predecessor in luxury and convenience. J. P. Morgan, never a private car owner in his own right since his tastes ran to yachts, thought nothing of hiring an entire train of private cars from the New York Central to take a group of bishops as his personal guests to an episcopal conference in San Francisco. A contemporary private car fancier, Bruce Dodson of Kansas City, has had two cars named for a single wife, “Helma I” and “Helma II,” and Charles Clegg and the author, when their “The Gold Coast” began to worry the carriers by reason of its vintage trucks and running gear, satisfied their hanker for de luxe railroading by commissioning “Virginia City.”
A good private car is a fairly durable thing and some remain in the family for two generations or more. At the death of Payne Whitney, his son John Hay Whitney inherited “Wanderer.” John Ringling North came by his “Jomar,” one of the handful of operating private cars today, by inheritance. Unwilling to wait for the demise of his father, “Bet-a-million” Gates, Charles Gates, Jr., bought “Bright Eyes” while his parent was still selling barbed wire from his own car. Charles W. Clark inherited “Errant,” together with a priceless English butler, from his father, Montana’s acquisitive Senator William A. Clark.
A Pullman in private car circles can have a distinguished pedigree, and the ancestry of most private cars was well known in upper case society. The above-mentioned Mr. Bedson’s first “Helma” had been built to the order of Boston financier A. C. Burrage, while “Helma II,” in earlier life, had been John J. Raskob’s “Skipaway.” Henry Flagler’s venerable “Moultrie” passed into its present ownership by Charles Pidcock, a short line railroad baron in deepest Georgia. Mr. Schwab’s “Loretto I” is now the property of Colonel Elliot White Springs of South Carolina, while Henry Ford’s “Fair Lane” is business car No. 1 of the St. Louis-Southwestern Railroad, occupied by the road’s resoundingly named solicitor general, Judge Berryman Henwood. Doris Duke’s handsome “Doris” is the property of the Western Pacific, and occupied on his business occasions by its dapper president, Fred B. Whitman.
Like most of the other characteristic properties of the golden age of American railroading, the private car came into being early and nourished during the years of steam. In 1841 when President-elect William Henry Harrison went to Washington for his inaugural, the superintendent of the Baltimore & Ohio inquired of his superiors if he should be conveyed aboard “a distinct car.” The first private car ever built for an American head of state was outshopped by the Army for President Lincoln. He never rode it while living but after his assassination it was included in his funeral train and made a great hit with Mrs. Lincoln.
By the Seventies the advantages of private railroad conveyances were becoming widely apparent, for both their social and economic implications, and cars in an enchanting variety of styles, decors, and internal economies were rolling grandly over the rights of way that by now extended from farthest Down East all the way to the Golden Gate.
Mostly the architectural pattern of private cars and railroad business cars has conformed to the clearances and other requirements of railroad car building according to a fairly conventional pattern, varying in detail but filling the over-all concept of a self-contained hotel suite mounted on railroad trucks. One and all, until the present degenerate age of streamlining when a few enclosed solariums have appeared, they possessed an open rear observation platform, enclosed by inviolable tradition in a brass-bound rail and giving access immediately into an observation drawing salon of varying depths but necessarily straitened to the approximately eight-foot width of standard car design. Next there were a number of sleeping compartments, again varying in number according to the requirements of the owner, usually with their own showers, and invariably their own toilet facilities. A dining apartment seating from four to eight separated the last sleeping room from galley and crew’s quarters, again almost invariably built to accommodate a staff of two: a chef and steward.