- 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 late Cissie Patterson, publisher of the Washington Times Herald and intimate of many of the great of her generation, maintained her “Ranger” fully staffed and provisioned, ready to roll, in the Washington coach yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Lest the décor become monotonous, she had a complete change of slip covers for all its furniture for every day in the week and, fond of flowers, had her steward telegraph ahead each night for fresh blooms to be placed aboard at strategic points along her itinerary. A close friend and companion on extended trips, Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean, insisted on wearing the Hope Diamond and the huge ruby, Star of the East, into her bath with her as she showered. An individualist of magnificent proportions, Mrs. McLean was also an electrician of parts and carried with her a complete tool kit with which she sometimes effected repairs on “Ranger” or assisted in connecting its power and telephone wires when spotted in stations. On such occasions she produced a union card to obviate the possibility of misunderstandings with rail employees.
The car “Edgewood” of the late Major Max Fleischmann, the yeast tycoon, was the first Pullman to be equipped with air conditioning throughout, and as such pioneered in the now universally accepted comfort which gave an entire new lease on life to railroad passenger business.
The private car “Adolphus” of August Busch, Jr., of Milwaukee is understandably piped for beer in its various apartments, and almost every car ever outshopped for a wealthy owner, according to Pullman officials, contains at least one safe, strongbox, or hidey hole for the protection of jewels, currency, and valuable documents. When the present generation of Hill boys, grandsons of the Empire Builder, James Jerome Hill of the Great Northern, were undergraduates at Yale, their father Louis Hill invariably sent his own business car east at Thanksgiving time so that, at least vicariously, they might have dinner under a family roof of sorts, parked on a private car siding at New Haven.
For many years the private cars of railroad officials were routed free over all lines in the United States as a sort of princely courtesy between the moguls of the age, but abuses eventually came of the practice. The cars of general managers and presidents of obscure short lines in Arkansas and North Dakota were being hauled gratis and extended special privileges over the main lines of the New York Central and Santa Fe. Directors of large corporations which were also shippers of vast quantities of freight or otherwise doing business with the carriers rode without charge in their private cars to the inconvenience of the management and often the cash fare public.
The I.C.C. stepped in and today it costs a private individual eighteen full first-class fares, plus taxes, switching charges, service and parking fees of about $40 a day at terminals, to move his private varnish if he owns one. Business cars of accredited members of the Association of American Railroads ride over connecting lines at a somewhat abated rate, but the free ride of the openhanded Nineties is gone never to return. Aside from tycoons and the socially very elect, there was one class of enviably affluent who made use of private conveyances in the golden years of rail travel: actors and opera singers. Both Edwin Booth and Lawrence Barrett honored their own profession in the names of the private Pullmans in which they rode: Booth’s “David Garrick” and Barren’s “Junius Brutus Booth,” surely one of the longest names ever to ornament the side boards of a railroad car.
Mme. Adelina Patti was somewhat less modest. Her car, built by the Mann Boudoir Car Company, was named “Adelina Patti.” The Mann Company enjoyed something less than universal respect as the holder of its various patents was the notorious Colonel William D’Alton Mann who, as publisher of Town Topics, was easily the foremost blackmailer in American upper class society, and he ran true to form in Patti’s car. When the old lady died and the car came to be dismantled it was discovered that its richly adorned woodwork, marble fireplace, and other luxurious ornaments were, alas, only papier-mâché.
The late Fritzi Scheff, at the time when her “Kiss Me Again” from Mademoiselle Modiste made her a favorite of two continents, had a car to one wall of which was securely bolted an upright concert piano. It also boasted a bathtub, which was assiduously publicized as the last word in luxury by Miss Scheff’s manager, but which she once told the author of this chronicle was an unmitigated nuisance. “It splashed over and flooded the whole car if it was used while we were moving,” she recalled, “so I had to make arrangements to take my bath when the train made a stop of twenty minutes or more. Often enough this was in the middle of the night. Most inconvenient.”
Paderewski was another musician who owned a private car and his “General Stanley” was known to railroad men all over the continent. Often in the yards of Cleveland or Fort Worth, switch tenders and brakemen would gather around it as the maestro practiced at night. “Just as good as a five-dollar seat at the concert,” they said.