Who is that lady in white traveling the ‘Road of Anthracite?’

on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I think Phoebe Snow is trying to reach me from her grave. Last weekend, I spoke with a yardmaster who retired off the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern. "Ever heard the story about Phoebe Snow?" he asked. Well, of course, I had. But, I certainly didn't know everything there is to know about Delaware, Lackawanna & Western's famous early 20th century advertising campaign and fictitious poster girl. The Lackawanna launched a campaign using rhymes and a woman dressed in white named "Phoebe Snow" to promote the clean ride its anthracite-burning locomotives provided to its passengers. (Most passengers did not wear their "Sunday Best" when riding other steam locomotives, as the soot would stain their clothing.) Then last Monday I received a delightful package from the Erie Lackawanna Dining Car Preservation Society. I opened the box (too large to contain a book) only to find a Phoebe Snow board game, a replica of an 1899 version created by the McLoughlin Brothers called "The Game of a Trip With Phoebe Snow." Coincidence? I think not. I think Ms. Snow wants to talk.

So, I decided to see what kind of spotlight TRAINS has put on this woman over the years. In the September 1958 issue, a photo of a model looking like Phoebe leans in the rear doorway of the Lackawanna Limited's parlor-observation car, while two men sit on the rear-platform railing chatting with her. Then-editor David P. Morgan writes, "The straw-hatted chaps are making a brave show of indifference, but our money is on that artful stance in the doorway to win. Say, if there's any slack in No. 3, that boy in the jacket is going to be sitting on the track when the engineer's finished taking water." I giggled, but I needed to know more.

In the June 1950 issue, John T. Cunningham wrote an excellent article about a revived, diesel-powered train named Phoebe Snow, which began running using the name in November 1949. The railroad called its line from Hoboken, N.J., to Buffalo, N.Y., "The Route of Scenic Beauty." But by now, her dress stays white on the "Road of Anthracite" because this train was powered by Electro-Motive diesels. Although a great read about this name train, it only offered me a little bit of information about Phoebe herself. Cunningham asks the train's engineer, "Was there a real Phoebe Snow?" The engineer says that the original Phoebe was Mrs. R. U. Gorsch from New York. Penrhyn Stanlaus painted her portrait, which was used on car cards (small posters displayed in trolleys, elevateds, and streetcars) and in advertisements. "She had auburn hair, wore a white gown, carried a parasol, and wore a corsage of violets," he said. 

Next, I discovered a series of articles that Greg McDonnell wrote for the July and August 1985 issues called "Is There Life After Lackawanna?" The stories examine and depict what had happened to the 930.7-mile railroad, its piers, cranes, Alcos, and yards - a "True Hollywood Story," if you will. Of Scranton, Pa., McDonnell writes, "In its darkest hour, the terminal that had formed the hub of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad resembled a ghost town. Crumbling shop buildings and tumble-down engine facilities bordered an empty yard, submerged in a sea of grass; smashed dwarf signals peered through the weeds at rusted mainline rails. As if discarded by a careless child, the truckless shell of a wooden Lackawanna caboose straddled the tracks in front of the carman's shanty, while a pair of ex-Lackawanna baggage cars (coupled to an Erie box car) stood forgotten on a siding near the shop. As a railroad town, Scranton had hit bottom." McDonnell writes lovely prose in this captivating series about the demise of the Lackawanna, but what of the railroad's lady?

So, I paid a visit to my friend Rob McGonigal, editor of our sister magazine, CLASSIC TRAINS. I showed him the cool Phoebe Snow board game, we agreed that we needed to play a few rounds, and then I asked where I could learn more about Phoebe. He offered that Michael Zega, an author who has frequently written about railroad advertising, might be able to help. Zega, along with rail photographer and historian John Gruber, wrote "Travel By Train: The American Railroad Poster, 1870-1950." The Lackawanna began boasting of its clean-burning anthracite in 1899 in its advertising campaign, featuring passengers dressed in white and staying bright. Shortly thereafter, Wendell P. Colton, the Lackawanna's young and inexperienced advertising manager, coined the phrase "The Road of Anthracite" and wrote ad copy in nursery rhyme fashion, featuring a young woman dressed in white. Copywriter Earnest Elmo Calkins named the girl "Phoebe Snow" and wrote many rhymes. Zega and Gruber say the rhymes mimicked "the cadence of wheels against rail joints as a train accelerates." The first car card from 1903 proclaims:

Says Phoebe Snow,

About to go
Upon a trip
To Buffalo:
"My gown stays white
From morn till night
Upon the Road
Of Anthracite."  

During a recent phone interview, I asked Zega why he thought the Lackawanna's Phoebe Snow campaign was so successful. "Rhymes in advertising were fashionable at that time," he says. "The Lackawanna went to Buffalo, the fourth largest city in the U.S. [in the early 1900s]. It was an important city with a decent market. The ads made good newspaper illustrations, with the black locomotive and a lady in a white dress." 

Phoebe Snow received national attention. Interestingly, Zega says he has never been able to determine if the campaign actually increased ridership. Nevertheless, more than 100 years later, people still talk about Phoebe.

I find the artwork to be reminiscent of Alphonse Mucha, an Art Nouveau painter of women, using a similar palette and poses like that of Phoebe Snow. She's one classy lady, and I'm glad I got to know her. She just might be my new BFF.

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