With the Boomer, talk turns to Pullmans

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, March 27, 2017

I’m enjoying my perennial (and wandering) conversation with Ed “The Boomer” King, retired railroader and man of letters, now enjoying the good life in Largo, Fla. Most of the time when I bring Ed into this space, we gravitate to our favorite subject: steam locomotives. But that’s a favorite only by degree. There are so many other worthy topics!

Take sleeping cars, for instance, or more specifically, specific cars on specific trains in the heyday of the Pullman Company. It’s a topic that was bouncing around in my head on a recent overnight ride on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans (which I wrote about here last week). 

Late that night, watching little Mississippi towns flash by the window, I could forget it was 2017, and the sensation of curling up on a speeding train became timeless. Somewhere near Yazoo City, I began thinking about Pullmans I wished I’d taken. Back on dry land the next day, I got in touch with the Boomer and it wasn’t difficult to get him to come up with some dandies.

Right at the top for Ed was a Pullman buffet car that ran on the Virginia & South Western between Bristol and Appalachia, Va., connecting there with the L&N for Louisville. Out of Bristol, the train went up a 4 percent grade before it rolled later through the Natural Tunnel. “I loved the idea of this for both its scenery and obscurity,” says Ed. “When the Southern bought the V&SW in 1916 or thereabouts, it discontinued this Pullman in favor of hauling folks to Knoxville, across to Harriman/Oakdale, then up the CNO&TP to a connection with its Louisville line. Lots more mileage that way, but not any prettier.”

Passengers on the rear Pullman of Southern Railway train 27 get an earful of 2-10-2 talk as the train climbs famous Saluda Grade in April 1947. William P. Price photo
I wasn’t at all surprised to hear another example on Ed’s wish list: the Pullman on the rear of Southern trains 9 or 27 between Spartanburg and Asheville, including a “must” ride on the back platform up tortuous Saluda Hill. “I would love this just for the opportunity to ride ahead of a 2-10-2 working its guts out,” says the Boomer. “From your vantage point 10 feet ahead of its stack, your ears would ring from Saluda all the way to Asheville.”

Ed spent a good part of his career in the Midwest, which figures in his attraction to a sleeper that ran on the Nickel Plate’s old “Clover Leaf” predecessor, the Toledo, St. Louis & Western. It was a nightly Pullman over the 454 miles between St. Louis and Toledo on a train called the Commercial Traveler, inaugurated in 1901. “It must have been a neat little train with its Brooks Atlantics up front, its RPO, smoker, and sleeper, all on a dark railroad through a dark part of the world.”

Here’s one of Ed’s that really threw me: a Pullman that ran between the steel capital of Gary, Indiana, and tiny Gary, W.Va., on the N&W’s 21-mile Tug Fork Branch, where U.S. Steel housed hundreds of mine workers to extract metallurgical coal. I couldn’t verify this train with the materials I have at hand, but Ed recalls the sleeper probably went to Columbus, Ohio, where it connected with the PRR. “This car was operated for the convenience of U.S. Steel officials and went through Wilcoe Yard where I worked, and down the Tug Fork Branch to the N&W main line at Welch.” The mileage at the south end was about as obscure as you could get.

N&W train 1 accelerates away from Lyndhurst, Va., on the Shenandoah Valley line in 1956. Second from the end is a New York–Roanoke Pullman that came on the PRR via Harrisburg, Pa. It's May, when longer days put part of the train's run in daylight. William E. Warden photo
The Boomer also was a fan of the N&W’s sleeper service out of Roanoke up the railroad’s Shenandoah Division to Hagerstown, Md., thence to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York via the PRR. “That would be a nice ride up the Shenandoah Valley to Hagerstown, with great scenery, but it was at night.”

In doing some fact-checking for this piece, I checked in with colleague Dave Ingles, senior editor at Classic Trains, who had numerous favorites, including one that was no fantasy: his ride aboard the sleeper on Union Pacific’s Butte Special, from Salt Lake City to Butte, Mont., one night in May 1967 (profiled in the Fall 2001 issue of CT).

“I was in Denver and mulled two exotic itineraries home to Illinois, and wound up choosing a roundabout northerly one that began on Rio Grande’s Prospector to Salt Lake City, which offered a roomette in its sleeper for coach fare plus a modest fee. My second leg was a gem, UP’s Butte Special up to Montana, in a roomette on American View, one of two UP Pullmans it converted to a ‘café-sleeper’ by gutting two sections to install a tiny galley, whose tables were in the two sections across the aisle, and the Pullman attendant tripled as chef and waiter. I hadn’t known about this before choosing the route, and would learn that my future boss, Trains Editor David P. Morgan, had not ridden that line or that train! From Butte I took a roomette in NP’s North Coast Limited to St. Paul, a parlor seat on Milwaukee’s Morning Hiawatha’s Skytop car Dell Rapids to Chicago, and a coach seat on GM&O’s Abraham Lincoln home to Springfield, Ill.”

Mail is loaded aboard the RPO of Milwaukee Road's Chicago-bound Copper Country Limited in the frigid darkness of New Year's Day, 1965. John Gruber photo
For my part, the choice would be easy: Milwaukee Road trains 9 and 2, the Copper Country Limited, which ran for decades between Chicago and Calumet, Mich., in the Keweenaw Peninsula of the Upper Peninsula. Deep into the 1950s, the train still carried a 6-section 6-double-bedroom Pullman. The Copper Country left Chicago Union Station every evening at 7:45 and arrived near the shore of Lake Superior the following morning. The trip south left earlier, pulling out of Calumet at 5:15 p.m. and arriving in Chicago at 8 a.m. Its daytime counterpart over the same route was the better-known Chippewa Hiawatha.

The Copper Country’s appeal was partly its ties to the rich history of mining in Upper Michigan, from which it got its name. After losing its RPO in 1967, the train was discontinued in March 1968. I never saw the train, of course, but I’m taken with the notion that, once up a time, a sleeper-equipped train made its way northward every night through 424 miles of remote farm fields and woods, interrupted every few miles of so by bucolic stops in the likes of Stiles Junction, Crivitz, Champion, and L’Anse.

At the peak of its services in the late 1920s, Pullman was carrying more than 100,000 passengers every night, traveling across 130,000 miles of railroad and served by approximately 9,000 highly trained, uniformed porters. At some point, nearly every big city and small town experienced the graciousness of Pullman travel. Seen from today, it’s almost incomprehensible to imagine. But imagine we still do. So, what were some Pullman routes you wish you had ridden?

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