The 'Southern Belle' fought the good fight

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, October 18, 2019

The Southern Belle, flagship of the Kansas City Southern, rumbles over the Arkansas River at Redlands, Okla., in September 1960. KCS kept faith with the train until the postal cuts of 1967, and it made its last run nearly 50 years ago. Louis A. Marre
One of my favorite railroad books is Fred W. Frailey’s Twilight of the Great Trains (Indiana University Press, 2010), an account so downright readable you can dive into any chapter and feel right at home. Fred’s account of the decline of the passenger train in the 1960s is fun even when it’s overwhelmingly sad. 

It’s telling that Fred’s opening chapter is all about a train that seemed to encapsulate all that was going on with passenger service in those days: Kansas City Southern Nos. 1 and 2, the Southern Belle. Kept alive by a management that was determined to do things with integrity, the Belle was a modest little train that gave customers exactly what it promised, and with a modicum of style.

Until November 3, 1969, that is. Perhaps now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Belle’s discontinuance, it’s worth looking back at this gem of a streamliner. 

Fred’s chapter on the Belle “What Passenger Problem?” nicely summarizes the story of the train in its later years. He recounts how KCS tinkered with fares, experimented with food service, and continued to upgrade the train’s equipment, including the purchase of 10 new coaches from Pullman-Standard at the surprisingly late date of 1965. It was the last purchase of intercity equipment before Amtrak arrived in 1971.

Those coaches were decidedly not fancy. “Utilitarian” is more like it, with their bright fluorescent lighting and linoleum floors. But they were new, so give KCS credit. “Kansas City Southern,” Fred writes, “possessed no bag of magic tricks, beyond its legendary ability to squeeze a penny until the copper ran liquid.”

Not long after the Southern Belle was launched in 1940, one of its observation cars gets a scrub-down in New Orleans. Leon Trice
Fred made sure to mention Louis A. Marre’s 10-page feature on the Belle from the November 1967 issue of Trains, in which Marre famously quoted KCS President William Deramus III as saying, “We have no intention of getting out of the passenger business.” It was a pledge Deramus ultimately couldn’t keep, not after nearly a million dollars in annual post-office revenue evaporated. 

Although I never rode the Southern Belle, I have a couple of friends who did, and they give the experience a big thumbs up. One of them is Kevin McKinney, founder and former publisher of Passenger Train Journal and now a columnist for that magazine. After graduating from Chicago’s South Shore High School in 1966, Kevin rewarded himself with a trek that included such exotica as the C&EI/L&N Humming Bird, N&W’s former Wabash City of St. Louis, and GM&O’s Midnight Special — as well as the Southern Belle.

“I wanted to ride the KCS because it was an exotic foreign line, at least to me,” Kevin recalls, “and because they were still pro-passenger when most railroads were not, and they also had ordered those coaches from Pullman-Standard in 1965.” As he discovered, the Belle was meat and potatoes, in a good way. 

“The Southern Belle was not an important train linking urban centers of commerce and power, or a train offering a cruise-type experience. It was a train serving its territory. A nice little streamliner making numerous stops, with passengers on and off at every station, performing its function with style,” says Kevin. 

Someone who sampled that function and style with some regularity is Elfrieda Abbe, a longtime Kalmbach colleague of mine who served as Trains’ publisher from 2010 to 2012. Back in the Belle’s heyday, Elfrieda was living in Kansas City and attending boarding school at Gulf Park College in Gulfport, Miss. Her frequent trips back and forth made her a regular customer of both KCS and Louisville & Nashville, the latter her connection at New Orleans to Gulfport. For a teenager, train travel was a heady experience.

Elfrieda Abbe, a regular rider on the Belle in the late 1950s and early '60s, recalls the cozy luxury of its Pullmans, illustrated here in a 1940s publicity photo of a model posing in one of the train's 14&4 sleepers. KCS
“I recall the morning hours of September 1958 when my mother, brother, and I were having breakfast at Union Station and watching hurried passengers come and go as they passed through the shafts of light coming into the Great Hall with its wooden benches,” she recalls. “While my brother drilled me in Marine fashion on the proprieties of train travel, my mother, masking the emotions of sending her 16-year-old daughter away to school, checked again to see if we had packed everything in my trunk — from cotton shifts and bed sheets to long white gloves and formal dress.” 

The Southern Belle may have been a modest train in the general scheme of things, but to ride it meant you still had to mind your manners. Elfrieda remembers the travel attire of the day — “a sleek dress with pencil skirt, hat, and gloves, matching shoes and purse” — and the way the KCS treated the young women making their way to school.

“We had a Pullman car reserved for Gulf Park girls, and we were greeted by the meticulously dressed Dr. Rupert Cooke, who put me in mind of Clifton Webb,” Elfrieda says. “Along the way, he assiduously checked in every girl who boarded the train at the likes of Pittsburg, Kans., Joplin, Mo., Sallisaw, Okla., and Shreveport. He welcomed all of us warmly and offered this reminder: no smoking in the open train or drinking alcoholic beverages in the observation car. Otherwise have fun.”

An inveterate traveler by train, highway, and airplane, Elfrieda puts her journeys aboard the Southern Belle in a special category.

“Nothing matched the romantic aura of the Southern Belle with its gleaming dining car decked out in crisp white linens and sparkling tableware; the observation car fit for a movie set, and the sophistication, at least in my young mind, of sleeping in the Pullman car. It was all wonderful and new, evoking a sense of freedom.”

KCS's 10 coaches of 1965 were the last new intercity cars for any U.S. railroad before Amtrak began placing orders in the early 1970s. J. David Ingles
Alas, Frailey, the Belle’s late-era biographer, never rode the train, which he describes as a sentimental regret. But he is not sentimental about the forces that conspired to doom trains 1 and 2 — notably that loss of postal traffic — and although some condemned Deramus for axing the train, Fred will have none of it.                                                                        

“Bill Deramus (the younger) took a lot of guff in his life for what he did to keep the Katy from preceding the Rock Island Lines in death,” Fred says. “We should give the man some credit for running damn fine trains over the Kansas City Southern. He could afford to do it at KCS, and he did. Those two trains were not lavish but simple, clean, and complete in every way that mattered.”

The Southern Belle’s final run was dutifully recorded by Trains in its January 1970 issue with a couple of news photos taken at Grandview, Mo., by the late Harold K. Vollrath. The last edition was led by a freshly painted white E8. Right behind the train’s ex-New York Central parlor-observation car was the KCS business car Kay See. At least this fine little train went out in style. 

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