The Glory Days of Travel
by Thomas C. Fleming, Aug 5, 1998
In the glory days of travel, steam locomotives hauled luxurious passenger trains such as the Broadway Limited, operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the rival Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central railroad. Both were overnights between Chicago and New York City.
The 1920s was an age of opulence, in which many rail lines operated super luxury trains that guaranteed their well-heeled passengers the same amenities as any fine hotel -- a beauty parlor, barber shop, library and on-board secretary.
Black men and women played servant roles for the more affluent members of white society. In my five years as a cook on the railroad, I never saw a white waiter or white porter, and only one white chef, but I heard they had some white waiters and cooks on the northern route, those lines between Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle.
The rail lines were at one time the biggest employers of blacks in the nation. This work force was further enlarged by the number of black males who worked as redcap porters at terminals in all cities of medium and large size. Seattle was the only city where I saw redcaps who were white.
All of the fast luxury trains used sleeping cars, club cars and observation cars that were manufactured by the Pullman Company. That company operated its own cars, and hired the Pullman porters and other attendants.
The club cars had a gentleman's lounge where men could smoke their fat cigars and order drinks. They had a little section where maids took care of the needs of women, and I think there was a shower for the passengers. The observation cars had a platform on the rear, with chairs for anyone who wished to have an outside-the-car look at the country as the train sped toward its destination.
Some ultra-rich folks bought exquisite private cars, and hired their own crews to take care of the owners, their families and friends. The private cars had a cook and a waiter, a small kitchen and dining room, an observation platform, and compartments for the travelers to sleep at night.
The Twentieth Century Limited, which ran 961 miles overnight
between New York City and Chicago, offered some of the most
luxurious accommodations of any rail line in the country.
There was a steady contest between the rival carriers as to the speed with which the luxury passengers could travel between Chicago and New York, and other cities. In the late 1930s, when the new streamliners were introduced, the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe all shouted that their fast trains took 39 hours to travel from California to Chicago. For every hour past the slated time, passengers would be reimbursed one dollar.
Around 1930, I made about four trips as a cook on one of those luxury trains, the Overland Limited, which ran between Oakland and Chicago. It was one of the premier passenger trains in the nation. One-third of the club car was a dormitory car with bunks, where the dining car crew had sleeping quarters. On trains with no dormitory car, you took the tables down in the dining car and laid them across four chairs, and put mattresses across them, sometimes air mattresses. They provided us with sheets, blankets and pillows. The dining car crew couldn't take a bath or shower, but the most you'd be out would be for three days.
They would keep the train windows closed, particularly if people were eating, because you didn't want to get all that dust in there. The dining car had real silver and white linen tablecloths, which the waiter would change for every passenger.
The trains didn't have air conditioning, but there was an opening underneath the roof where they would pour ice. I don't know how it worked, but the train was quite cool most of the time, except the kitchen, which was hot as hell.
The food was always fresh -- nothing canned. If the main dish was roast pork, I had to peel the apples and make stewed applesauce as a condiment. Lamb casserole was a popular dish for lunch. We made it with carrots and baby white onions, and each order was served in a separate glazed clay casserole dish with a lid, which was placed in the oven to heat. Then some peas were spooned on top, and a bit of chopped parsley.
We generally had about three different vegetables for lunch and dinner, plus mashed potatoes, rice, and sometimes candied yams. We had to fix everything ourselves. We made all the desserts on the train except the pound cake, which was prepared in the commissary bakery. They made real cooks out of us, and afterwards, you could go out and get a job anywhere.
By the 1950s, the airline industry had taken over most of the passenger business, because people want to get wherever they're going in a hurry. But the airlines don't hire nearly the number of people that the railroads did.
The dining cars aren't the same today. The last time I rode the trains, in the 1970s, you could get a hamburger and a Coke. I call them hamburger stands on wheels.
I still do all my own cooking, and almost everything I cook, I learned on the railroad. But I won't make french fries. You never took that deep fryer off the stove, and I used to work my tail off to get those potatoes peeled and shaped and cooked. I hate the sight of them.
Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.
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