- 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 first private car in the Far West was the “Stanford,” presented to the California governor, Leland Stanford, by his wife and used by her for many years after the empire builder’s death. The “Stanford” gradually became a celebrated property as the old lady held what amounted to court amid its glories of ormolu and Turkish carpets on her protracted trips across the continent. Out of respect to her husband she was routed free over every railroad in the land, a practice which would not today be encouraged by the Interstate Commerce Commission.
At long last the “Stanford” became the business car of the Southern Pacific’s celebrated general manager, Joseph Dyer. On the eve of the Fourth of July, 1906, it was destroyed by a fire of mysterious origin in the yards at Yuma, Arizona. Nearly half a century later Joseph Dyer, Jr., over a glass of something stronger than lemonade in the bar of the Palace in San Francisco, told the writer that as a small boy he had smuggled into his compartment a generous assortment of patriotic rockets, Roman candles, and giant cannon crackers and that while he was assaying their combustive qualities, catastrophe ensued. The elder Dyer never learned the source of the holocaust.
The “Stanford” came to life again, vicariously, forty years after the passing of the original, in “The Gold Coast,” the property of Charles Clegg and his partner in Nevada publishing, the author of this piece. “The Gold Coast’s” observation salon re-created faithfully the décor of the “Stanford” and today is in serviceable order in the collection, at Oakland, of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society.
The drawing room of “The Gold Coast” boasted a handsome green marble fireplace ravished by the decorator from the Nob Hill mansion of some nabob of the San Francisco Nineties. It was strictly a property, illuminated from behind imitation logs by electricity. The owners of the car heard about Mrs. Donahue’s actually functional fireplace and set their sights a notch higher. When their present all-steel, air-conditioned, 93-foot Pullman “Virginia City” was delivered, its economy included a white marble fireplace from the palace of a Venetian doge, which burns propane from the same supply that activates the galley.
“Virginia City,” named for the owners’ Nevada home above the storied Comstock Lode, was furnished by a decorator from Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard and is finished throughout with a Venetian Renaissance décor of red and gold, with antiqued gold panels on the walls, gold-backed mirrors in the dining salon, specially woven carpets shot with metallic gold threads, and Venetian crystal chandeliers secured to the car’s transoms with thin steel wires. Each of its three master staterooms is decorated with a mural depicting a scene on Nevada’s vanished but still legendary Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Music is piped from a central source and its volume controlled in each room in the car including the crew’s quarters and galley, the details of which are the last word in culinary modernity in a kitchen with pastel canary walls. Doors throughout the car are on two-way hinges to accommodate the independent goings and comings of the owners’ 185-pound St. Bernard, Mr. T-Bone Towser.
The cost of private Pullmans and business cars for railroad executives has soared astronomically with the years, and the $50,000 spent in the long-ago Seventies for Leland Stanford’s rosewood and satin elegances would today be the mere first installment on an allsteel private hack. A pair of high-speed, roller-bearing trucks alone is listed at $20,000 and one can go on from there.
In the late Twenties a quarter of a million dollars was approximately the going price of a built-to-order private de luxe Pullman and today railroad circles talk guardedly of $500,000 streamlined business cars built for chairmen of boards and presidents, although no such figure has ever been formally confirmed. The presidents of the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, and Santa Fe have all come by new cars No. 100 in recent years, miracles of comfort, convenience, and streamlining but notoriously devoid of wine cellars, Turkish baths, Picassos, and cloth-of-gold upholstery. The private car built for W. Averell Harriman when he was chairman of the board of Union Pacific, and now used by his brother, is a magnificent artifact, from every consideration worthy of the sons of the great Edward Harriman, but there is no gold dinner service nor English butler.