- 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
It was in appointments and décor that the whims of owners found fullest gratification. There are legends of sunken marble tubs, none of them available to verification by the author of this brief monograph. The car of Fritzi Scheff did carry a bathtub of less regal design, and the well remembered and much loved library cars of the Santa Fe in years gone by had tubs equipped wilh baffles against sloshing, so there is no reason to suppose that sunken marble plunges did not in fact exist. Private car owners not only kept up with the Joneses on the next track but strove wildly to outdo them in elegance, ostentation, and even comfort. J. P. Morgan, when he rented a private car, carried with him as his personal chef a fellow named Louis Sherry and had racks built in to accommodate his favorite wine, which turned out to be a Rhine wine which his agent had picked up at auction in Berlin for $35 a bottle. The San Francisco Examiner was happy to inform its readers that every glass of this vintage consumed en route set the financier back just over four dollars.
Dinner on George Gould’s private train, in the Boni de Castellane era, was prepared by a French chef ravished by the railroad magnate from Delmonico’s and served by flunkies in royal liveries, with knee breeches and frogged coats. His father, Jay Gould, enjoyed no such good appetite and was a fairly dainty eater. Aboard his car, “Atalanta,” was an equally French chef who specialized in the making of water-cress sandwiches and ladyfingers, a confection permitted by the elder Gould’s dietary regimen. Senator William Andrew Clark’s tastes were appropriate to the toga, and when he visited his daughter’s estate at Butternut over the rails of the Unadilla Valley Railroad in upper York State his powerful bourbon whiskey became legendary in the surrounding countryside. In the mid-Twentieth Century the culinary resources of the Milwaukee Railroad’s car No. 100, occupied by its president, John Kiley, include a deep-freeze, and the narrow gauge private cars of such carbonate kings in the golden noontide of Colorado’s bonanzas at Leadville, Central City, and Silverton as Haw Tabor and John Morrisey were celebrated for devoting almost as much space to the storage of champagne as to passengers.
Old-timers on the New Haven Railroad still recall with horror the occasion when, back in 1911, the Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy of Austria engaged a private car for the brief run from New York to Boston to visit her cousin, President Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard. The car was staffed with the Princess’ major-domo, butler, and three footmen whom she had brought from Vienna, distrusting American servants; and she dined off her own solid gold plate while rolling grandly by Long Island Sound.
The trip back to New York next day was something else again. In some inexplicable manner the Princess’ car, instead of being attached at the rear of the train as the I.C.C. intended, was sandwiched into the middle of the consist, and a continual stream of passengers in search of smoker or diner filed through the titled traveler’s personal apartments. A number of them mistook the car for a particularly comfortable club car which the road had obligingly provided and stopped to smoke and read their papers, even politely asking the female occupant if their cigars were permitted. Unable to stem the tide, the Princess’ major-domo at length took his stand at the door and imposed some measure of decorum by announcing the name of each passenger as he entered.
There was almost no limit to the ingenuity of owners and decorators of private cars during their flowering. Rare inlaid woods were frequently imported for bulkheads, and solid mahogany trim and panels were commonplace. For her “Japauldin,” Mrs. J. P. Donahue, perhaps the richest woman in the world, commanded quartered oak beams running the length of the drawing room ceiling, brocaded draperies at better than $100 a yard, solid gold lighting fixtures and plumbing appliances, and a wood-burning fireplace activated by an electric blower.
A rival in the sweepstakes elegance, Mrs. Edward F. Hutton, once placed in commission her two private cars for the trip from Grand Central to Pleasantville, New York, a distance of thirty miles, to attend the wedding of the Swedish Count Folke-Bernadotte and the daughter of a well-to-do American, H. Edward Manville.
President Arthur Stillwell of the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railroad, a devout man who operated his road on the basis of visions revealed to him from celestial sources, had his business car equipped with a small organ and held divine services wherever he might be along the right of way on Sunday, at which attendance by the train crew was required.