Ride it While You Can

Posted by John Hankey
on Saturday, February 24, 2018

This summer represents the 95th Anniversary of the Dover Harbor, one of the oldest and most historic passenger cars in service on the Amtrak national network. It is the centerpiece of a decades-long program of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. The D.C. Chapter is one of the most accomplished railway heritage organizations I have ever encountered.

The fact that an elderly passenger car remains in service is not news. Classic cars operate throughout the US and Canada, usually on heritage railroads. There may be an even older office car qualified to run on Amtrak—I don’t follow those cars closely.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has an ambitious program to restore an authentic 1880s-1890s passenger consist to occasional service behind steam on its 64 miles of original narrow gauge main line railroad. That truly will be a time machine.

But the Dover Harbor remains a remarkable survivor. It can operate over substantially all parts of the Amtrak and VIA networks and almost any freight railroad in North America. Inside, the car is largely as it was in 1934. It is an all-volunteer, completely not-for-profit initiative representing the very best of traditional railroad preservation.

Perhaps most important, the car is a classic, un-diddled with, authentic and ordinary Pullman, the likes of which provided first-class railroad travel for hundreds of millions of people over half a century. A trip on the Dover Harbor stands in nicely for a trip over thousands of routes across the continent from about 1915 until 1965. It, too, is a time machine.

In July of 1923, a crew of car builders working in a modestly-updated 1880s erecting shop in South Chicago laid the keel—riveted together the center sill—of the Maple Shade, one of dozens of cars Pullman built for service on the Pennsylvania Railroad that year. Pullman built thousands of standard (often called “heavyweight”) steel cars each year during that decade.

The Maple Shade was the railroad equivalent of a battleship. It was overbuilt, strong, and durable. By that point, Pullman had perfected a car design representing the full transition from wood to steel.

In 1934, Pullman recalled the Maple Shade to South Chicago and reconfigured its interior to include six double bedrooms, a buffet kitchen, a twelve-person dining area, and a lounge section (along with air conditioning). It was a versatile arrangement that offered pretty much every Pullman service aboard one car.

Until its retirement in 1965, the renamed Dover Harbor operated in New York Central trains, ending its regular service on the Montrealer between Washington and the Canadian city, with a little time in pool service. In two configurations, the car was on the road for 41 years. Tens of thousands of passengers enjoyed its amenities and hospitalities.

That is the backstory. In 1979, the D.C. Chapter purchased the Dover Harbor with the idea of operating it in excursion and charter service. The car and six of its sisters had been sold into private ownership and were scattered across the country. It was in remarkably complete and original condition.

Throughout the 1970s, several railroad heritage organizations in the Middle Atlantic region  actively operated excursion trains. Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were hubs for trips over many railroads. The Southern Railway (and later, Norfolk Southern) Steam program was in full swing, and Amtrak was receptive to operating privately-owned cars in regular trains.

Chessie had recently concluded its two-year, eighty-odd excursion Chessie Steam Special program celebrating the B&O Railroad’s Sesquicentennial. In 1979, Chessie sold /traded former C&O 4-8-4 No. 614 to Ross Rowland, and a couple of years later the Chessie Safety Express completed its multi-year runs behind the beast.

The Old Dominion Chapter of the NRHS maintained a fine fleet of former RF&P standard coaches, and Baltimore’s Railroad Passenger Cars, Inc. likewise made available a fleet of former B&O standard coaches and special cars. Old ICC rules regarding car hire and common carrier obligations were still in place. Insurance and liability were only beginning to be serious issues.

There was a lot going on. In hindsight, those years were the last Good Times for special trains. It was a rational move to acquire the Dover Harbor and return it to service. Then, everything changed.

The Staggers Act of 1980, and related deregulation legislation, completely altered the railroad landscape. Within a decade, there were few opportunities for special trains anywhere on the national network, Standard cars were essentially outlawed, and the 150 year tradition of classic railfan excursions faded.

The B&O Railroad Museum  operated a few trips into the early 1990s, and the C.P. Huntington Chapter of the NRHS’s New River Train still runs over the ex-C&O main line under Amtrak auspices. New Jersey Transit ran some remarkable trips with the 614. Otherwise, most opportunities in the East evaporated.

Leadership of the D.C. Chapter was agile and astute. It maintained a cordial working relationship with Amtrak, and continually upgraded the Dover Harbor to meet Amtrak’s increasingly stringent safety and operating standards.

They made the car the focus of an Amtrak-based charter program. Occasionally the Dover Harbor operated in other special trains. It was a gradual process of reorientation--but it worked.

The D.C. Chapter remains a healthy, robust, financially stable organization with a membership exceeding 400 and a regular schedule of programs and railroad operations. As the NRHS in general retrenches, the D.C. Chapter is bucking all sorts of trends.

It added two 1949 Budd-built coaches to the Amtrak-qualified fleet, and operates out of a modest base on a former B&O industrial siding a few miles north of Washington. In conjunction with the City of Bowie, MD, it maintains a Railroad Library in the preserved PRR interlocking tower  next to the former PRR main line that is now Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Hundreds of volunteers invested tens of thousands of hours over the past four decades to make it possible for us to enjoy train travel as it was eight decades ago, at mainline speeds, in a regularly scheduled passenger train. Support came from in-kind gifts and the generosity of members and patrons. No public funding went into the project.

Not everyone might think a classic 1920s Pullman upper berth in motion (and having to climb down to use the in-room toilet) is their idea of luxury travel (especially spouses). Regardless, the Dover Harbor’s on-board service is impeccable and the food is first rate.

I remain mildly astonished that it is even possible to do that in 2018. The price of tickets might seem a bit high, but keeping a nearly century-old Pullman car up to Amtrak standards, and getting it into position for revenue runs, are expensive propositions.

My point is simple: The Dover Harbor is a special, and rare, treat. It wouldn’t take much in today’s political/policy climate to relegate the car to a museum display or limited operation on a  low-speed heritage railroad route.

Literally and figuratively the Dover Harbor is a time machine, offering experiences available almost nowhere else in Train World.

Those experiences won’t be available too many years into the future. Ride it while you can.

 

The Chapter has a Google photo album at:

https://get.google.com/albumarchive/104761869319137907135/album/AF1QipPB_aYI15rX112xa4qniAFj8ezYL6Q4iU3z3fmG?source=pwa

 

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