Fifty years later, the Century refuses to die

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Stainless-steel obs car 'Wingate Brook' substituted for a regular 'Creek-series car on the Century's last run west, pictured in the rain at Buffalo, N.Y., Dec. 3, 1967. Edward J. Joscelyn
I don’t know what I was doing on the afternoon of December 3, 1967, but I know where I should have been: on the platform of Union Station in South Bend, Ind., awaiting the passage of the last westbound edition of New York Central’s legendary 20th Century Limited.

The final eastbound Century, also pictured at Buffalo, carried 'Hickory Creek' on the rear. Edward J. Joscelyn
That’s right, it’s been 50 years since NYC pulled the plug on what was generally considered the “world’s most famous train.” The final runs of trains 25 and 26 were unceremonious, as depicted in various photos that ran in the March 1968 issue of Trains. But “unceremonious” doesn’t begin to do justice to the westbound edition: it arrived in Chicago’s La Salle Street Station hours late due to a freight derailment the night before in eastern Ohio.

The scene was equally dreary the morning of Dec. 3 as an electric brought the final eastbound Century down the Hudson River toward Grand Central Terminal. John Pickett
Just looking at these sad images from December 2-3, 1967, you can image how relieved NYC and its president, Al Perlman, must have been to be done with the train once and for all.

The economics that drove NYC’s decision were brutal. As author Fred Frailey reported in his terrific book Twilight of the Great Trains, the Century’s traditional patrons deserted the train. “On May 20, 1967,” wrote Frailey, “the westbound Century carried but 18 people in coach, 34 in the sleepercoach (budget sleeper) and 40 in sleeping cars; its eastbound counterpart had 31 in coach, 42 in sleepercoach and 20 in the sleepers. In other words, you could have seated almost everyone in one seating in the twin-unit dining car.”

Editor David P. Morgan understood the passenger-train economics that drove Perlman to kill the Century, but in that March ’68 issue of Trains he couldn’t suppress his disgust at NYC’s cavalier behavior for the last runs: “Such a train deserved better than the noiseless euthanasia it received. Kansas doodlebugs have been lopped off with as much ceremony.”

The most poignant images of that day are images of both trains 25 and 26 pausing alongside a wet platform at Buffalo’s Central Terminal, their two observation cars that night, Wingate Brook and Hickory Creek, headed in opposite directions to die forever.

Except, in a sense, it didn’t quite work out that way. Certainly the train is gone, replaced today, inadequately, by Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. But the Century has continued to live on in our hearts and minds, thanks to a cottage industry of Century books, magazine stories, and video documentaries.

Streamlined Hudsons of 1938 helped sear the Century into the public's consciousness. W. C. Merle II
Two books are indispensable to understanding the Century. The most authoritative is Karl Zimmermann’s 20th Century Limited, published in 2002 by Motor Books International. The prose is vintage Zimmermann — a masterful combination of elegant prose and careful research — all lavishly supported with photographs, advertisements, menus, and route maps.

But I think Karl would agree that another volume is equally essential: Twentieth Century, Lucius Beebe’s portrait of the train published by Howell-North in 1962. No one loved the train like Beebe, the Park Avenue columnist and dandy who probably sold as many tickets for the train through his column in the New York Herald Tribune as did the NYC’s own advertising.

In one of his less grandiose passages in the book, he wrote, “The Century was patronized by people who took the best of everything for granted.” The book beautifully supports Beebe’s thesis that the great trains were, in effect, extensions of the great hotels.

But there are more ways to plumb the Century mystique. Richard J. Cook covers the streamlined era of the train in his The Twentieth Century Limited: 1938-1967, from TLC Publishing. Author Geoff Doughty has produced several volumes for TLC covering the Great Steel Fleet’s equipment and operating practices. Frailey provided a complete (and convincing) autopsy of the train in the Penn Central chapter of his Twilight book.

'Hickory Creek,' owned, restored, and maintained by the United Railroad Historical Society, keeps the Century image alive on occasional charters behind Amtrak trains. It's set to mark the 50th anniversary of the train's demise with a special New York-Albany round trip this Saturday, Dec. 2. Karl Zimmermann
And perhaps to prove that the Century is as interesting as ever, Editor Jim Wrinn dedicated a substantial part of Trains to a package of stories in August 2016, including Doughty’s fascinating dissection of the Century train scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller North by Northwest. That issue of the magazine coincided with the release of Trains’ one-hour video documentary, 20th Century Limited, produced by Rich Luckin, hosted by actor Michael Gross, and still available in the Kalmbach Hobby Store. It continues to show up on PBS schedules across the country.

Also be sure to check YouTube, where there are numerous bits of video about the train. My favorite is Flight of the Century, a 1935 black-and-white promotional film produced by NYC, a grainy but engrossing promo that culminates with the train arriving in New York to the strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

A more tangible way of getting at least a small taste of the Century is to see one of its two most famous observation cars in operation. The car from the last run of train 26, Hickory Creek, has been substantially refurbished by owner United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey and operates in charter service, including a planned commemorative round trip scheduled for this Saturday, December 2, from New York’s Penn Station to Albany/Renssalaer (http://startrakinc.com/lrv/trips.html).

The Hickory Creek’s sister sleeper-observation, Sandy Creek, is a private car owned by Wick Moorman, the former chairman of Norfolk Southern currently serving until the end of the year as co-CEO of Amtrak. Moorman had the car repainted in N&W Tuscan red, and lettered for NS, but deep down it’s still an NYC car.

I never rode the Century, as you’ve probably gathered by now. I was 16 on the days of its last run, and New York–Chicago wasn’t a trip my parents would have been inclined to make anyway. So, like most of us, I must admire it from afar. But if you have a story about riding NYC trains 25 or 26, I’d love to hear about them below in our Comments section.

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