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Varnish For The Nabobs

April 2024
15min read

For decades the private railroad car was the great symbol of wealth. Here is what it looked like in its heyday.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The number of private cars that have been built for owners other than railroads themselves over the decades since the Sixties is not available to precise tally. The Pullman Company estimates that it alone has outshopped approximately 450 such cars. American Car & Foundry may have constructed between 100 and 150, and car shops of individual railroads contributed an unguessed number to the total. It has long been the practice of both main line railroads and short lines to keep their car-building staffs employed in slack seasons on the construction of office cars, and one of the first such ever seen in the Old West was built at the Virginia & Truckee shops at Carson City for the general superintendent, whiskered old Henry Yerington. Alas, the beautiful car caught the eye of John Mackay, the arch-millionaire of the Comstock, who borrowed it for such a prolonged trip even before its rightful occupant could try it out that Yerington, a year later, wrote a friend: “My personal car is in the East where it has been for some months at the convenience of Bonanza Mackay, the richest man in the world.” Nevertheless the pride of ownership and of participation in a splendid tradition still burns fiercely in the hearts of a few unreconstructed men who would rather travel by rail in their own cars than enter the finest private plane of the richest Texas oil millionaire.


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