DINNER ON THE DINER – WHEN THE RAILROAD WAS KING

PART ONE

“Rail was king in the 1930s and ‘40s when America traveled the length and breadth of this great land in posh rail cars and dined at tables set with crisp linens and fresh flowers” (FROM “ALL ABOARD” by June W. Hayes, LIFESTYLE magazine, Spring, 1999 issue.

When I was two years old, my mother took me on a train trip to Chicago. I learned to count to five with pennies, on that trip. To tell the truth, I have no memory of the train trip to Chicago. I know about it because my mother kept a one-year diary for me the year I was two (I have since, to my great regret, lost the diary). I have a photograph of my mother and I, on a beach—for years I couldn’t figure out where it was taken. Then – voila! – a light bulb went off in my head. It must have been somewhere on Lake Michigan. I don’t know who else made the trip to Chicago and there’s no one left to ask. But I have had a life long love affair with trains and quite possibly, it began with my trip to Chicago when I was two.

My brother, Jim, had a Lionel Electric train—the engine was so heavy, if you clobbered a sibling with it you could do some serious damage. I loved my brother’s electric train – girls didn’t have electric trains, in those days (our gender roles were so clearly defined back then!). Today, I have four battery operated trains, with large cars, and one Lionel Electric train (the engine isn’t nearly as heavy as the ones from the 40s). We also have a huge HO layout, that drops opens up like a giant suitcase from a wall in Bob’s workshop. It has several tiny-size trains; my nephews and grandsons dearly love to play with them and getting to operate the trains is a special treat.

In more recent years, I have made several trips to San Diego on Amtrak (a delight, I assure you). What I yearn for, however, is a long train trip, — to be able to sleep in a compartment and eat in the diner, although informed sources tell us that dinner on the diners “ain’t what it used to be’. Still…I’d like to be the judge of that. I’m not sure what is so magical about eating on a train! Spencer Crump, writing the Introduction to “DINNER IN THE DINER” observes that “Dinner in the Diner, once upon a time, was the high point of the trip, and…the great trains usually served great food. It helped make their reputations…”

William A. McKenzie, author of “DINING CAR LINE TO THE PACIFIC”, published in 1990 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press writes that “Eating has been a major concern of travelers almost since time began, especially when trips were of some distance and duration. The kinds of food chosen and the amount of time required to eat them have been tied closely to progress in modes of transportation and in methods of food preservation and preparation. For millennia before the first rustic inn was founded, travelers either carried provisions or ate off the land…”

However, McKenzie notes, “on some unrecorded red-letter day during the middle ages, some enterprising innkeeper offered to a weary wayfarer a home-cooked meal from his own table—the table d’hote—and invented the restaurant!”

McKenzie provides a detailed lineage to inn-keeping, leading up to modern times. Indeed, as railroads developed in the United States during the 1800s, the concept of inns to provide meals along the train route continued for decades.

In the early days of train travel, however, its developers borrowed from the previously common mode of traveling by stage-coach, allowing only 20 minutes for train-travelers to quickly disembark, rush to grab whatever food was available—and get back on the train before it started on its way again. (As a matter of fact, the very first train cars looked pretty much like stage coaches mounted on flanged wheels—with good reason; they were built by the same people who had been building stage coaches). In 1835, someone at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was responsible for proving the first passenger car designed with seats on both sides of a center aisle and mounted on eight wheels instead of four, a design still in use today. The old coach–inn idea of meal stops (twenty minutes) continued to dominate for decades.

James D. Porterfield, author of “DINING BY RAIL” published in 1993 by St. Martin’s Griffin, provides a detailed history of train passengers and their quest to stave off hunger in his chapter, “A HALF HOUR TO INDIGESTION” (the title says it all!)

“These early eating stops were nearly always described as terrible,” writes Porterfield. “The bitter black coffee may have been brewed only once a week. The ham could be dry, salty and tough. Hard-cooked eggs were stored for an indeterminate period of time in limed water to keep them from discoloring. Fried eggs may have been cooked in rancid grease and certainly were served on stale bread. Here also one found leaden biscuits—their nickname ‘sinkers’ giving a clue to their quality.” Also available was something called “Railroad pie” which was thought to be two pieces of cardboard filled with thickened glue. Ew, ew!

Early railroad travelers might purchase items (it’s questionable whether you could really call it food) on board the trains, sold by “news butchers”. “News Butchers” were enterprising fellows, who began making their appearance in New England railroads in the late 1840s. They would board a train at one station and peddle their wares until the train reached the next station. One writer described News Butchers as “a string of filthy lads streaming in offering for sale sweetmeats, apples, books and other important wares…” (It was interesting to discover that Thomas Edison was, at one time in his life, a news butcher!)

Experienced news butchers, writes Porterfield, started their rounds with salted peanuts to build later sales of soft drinks and ice cream. News butchers could be unscrupulous, too, short-changing customers who weren’t paying close attention.

Little consideration was given, in these early years of railroading, to the comfort of passengers…but Yankee ingenuity and enterprise were already at work!

It didn’t take long before a railroad employee got the idea of having his wife make up fresh pies and cakes to sell at a train station, setting up a little lunch counter. When this idea proved successful, the bigwigs running the railroads came up with the idea of building big and fancy restaurants and hotels near the train stations. One of the very first station restaurants was a place called The Logan House, in the city of Altoona, located in rural mountainous central Pennsylvania. The Logan House was a huge success and led to the establishment of many other station restaurants along railroad lines. Perhaps the most famous of these were the Harvey Houses, which you may have heard or read about. At the turn of the century, Fred Harvey’s hotels and restaurants were considered the epitome of American elegance.

Fred Harvey came to America from England in 1850, at the age of fifteen, and from working as a dishwasher for $2.00 a week in New York, began working his way up in the world, employed by various railroads. Harvey began figuring out what was wrong with the way railroad passengers were treated—and came up with an idea to remedy it.

Harvey took his idea to the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, which was at the time building and operating trains across the southwest. Charles Morse, Santa Fe superintendent was a gourmand and liked the idea; he gave Harvey permission to open a restaurant on the line in Topeka, Kansas.

In the 1870s, Harvey and a partner opened the first Harvey House. It was an immediate success. Within a year, Harvey bought out his less ambitious partner and soon began building other Harvey Houses. These were all built along the route of the Santa Fe, about 100 miles apart. In addition to restaurants, at some points west of Kansas City, Harvey began opening moderately priced hotels.

James Porterfield, in “DINING BY RAIL” explains that “Fred Harvey’s formula for a successful eating house was to offer an above-average setting, good food prepared by an established chef…all at a reasonable price…”

“Service at a Harvey eating house,” writes Porterfield, “was a model of efficiency. As a train sped towards a meal stop, a brakeman would pass through the cars announcing ‘Dinner in one hour at Florence. Fred Harvey service. Dining room, six bits, lunch counter, pay from the card’. The brakeman would count up his orders and pass them to the conductor. When the train stopped at the station before Florence, the conductor would wire ahead to notify the manager what to have prepared in both the dining room and at the lunch counter.

The Harvey Houses led, in turn, to the establishment of the famous Harvey Girls. You may remember seeing Judy Garland in an MGM musical called “The Harvey Girls”. This was a movie filmed in 1945, starring Garland, Ray Bolger, Cyd Charisse, Chill Wills and Marjorie Main, in which it introduced the wonderful classic song “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” sung by Judy Garland. (Next to “Chattanooga Choo Choo, this is one of my favorite ‘train’ songs).

The Harvey Girls were actually glorified waitresses. They were paid $17.50 a month and had to sign one-year “no-marry” contracts – although an estimated 20,000 of the approximately 100,000 Harvey Girls did end up marrying their customers. Other conditions of employment included a 10: P.M. curfew and close supervision by a mature head waitress who was known as the “wagon boss”.

Porterfield explains how, as passengers dashed in and were seated, waitresses took orders for drinks and arranged cups and glasses in a coded position to notify the drink girl what to pour at each location. In a non-stop ritual, as one course was completed, another would be delivered hot from the kitchen. The high point of the meal was the Harvey manager bringing in a huge platter of sizzling steaks for all to see.

The Harvey House restaurants notwithstanding, railway passengers were still dashing off and on the train, eating hurriedly and no doubt suffering bouts of indigestion long before TUMS and Alka Seltzer came onto the American scene. Surely, there had to be a better way!

There was. The dining car was about to make its debut!

One very comprehensive book on this subject is “DINING BY RAIL”, by James D. Porterfield. This is the history and recipes of America’s Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine, published in 1993. Another recent find is “DINNER IN THE DINER” by Will C. Hollister, published by Trans-Anglo Books in 1982.

Porterfield explains how, “in 1819, a dozen years before train travel in America became a reality, Benjamin Dearborn of Boston sought money from the United States Congress to ‘support a mode of propelling wheel-carriages [for] conveying mail and passengers with such celerity as has never before been accomplished [by means of] carriages propelled by steam on level railroads, furnished with accommodations for passengers to take their meals and rest during the passage…and that they be sufficiently high for persons to walk without stooping.’ Congress didn’t share Dearborn’s vision and buried his request, the first formal proposal to build dining cars, in the Committee of Commerce and Manufacturers, where it went unanswered”. However, the idea of eating on a train had been introduced almost immediately after the first trains began running.

Porterfield says that the first account of a meal being served on a train appeared in the BALTIMORE AMERICAN November 5, 1842. Food was prepared by well-known hotels and served on Baltimore & Ohio’s “refectory cars”. However, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that food was systematically prepared and served on trains. At first food was prepared on primitive stoves in individual boxcars, to feed wounded troops from the battlefield to treatment facilities in the North and East.

“But by 1863,” writes Porterfield, “fully realized hospital trains were in operation and included a kitchen car containing a range, cupboards and sink, a storage compartment and a dining area with a long table and benches. Food could be eaten there or delivered to the soldiers lying in converted boxcars and coaches on either end…”

Porterfield says that the first dining cars to be called such and to be part of the established make-up of a scheduled train also appeared during the Civil War, in 1862, on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. The articles served onboard were prepared at the terminal stations and placed in a steam box just before the train departed.

Following the Civil War, the railroad industry enjoyed rapid growth, to serve industry in the East and to link the growing agricultural community in the Midwest and population centers on the West Coast with the rest of the nation. Early dining cars were primitive, however.

“In 1867,” writes Porterfield, “a revolutionary turn in the way people ate while riding the train occurred. George Pullman introduced his ‘hotel car’. Named PRESIDENT, it was the first railroad car designed and built for the purposed of preparing and serving meals on board and en route, and awakened travelers and railroad men alike to the full potential of eating on a train.…”

In 1865, Pullman introduced the public to the concept of sleeping comfortably on a train with his sleeping car PIONEER. When Pullman discovered how enormously successful his sleeping car was, the next logical step was to introduce a dining car to the public. Obviously, the concept wasn’t new – feeding travelers on trains had been a challenge for decades…so why was Pullman’s dining car the epitome of success? It was how travelers were fed – in style!

End of Part One

— Sandra Lee Smith

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8 responses to “DINNER ON THE DINER – WHEN THE RAILROAD WAS KING

  1. I enjoyed the articles on dining on trains. Having traveled all over the US and Europe on trains eating in dining cars is something to remember.My favorite memory was taking the train from Vienna to Budapest right after the Berlin Wall came down. Eating REAL Hungarian Goulash while looking out the window at the Hungarian countryside made it more special. You also meet great people in the dining cars. Of course you have something in common,liking to travel on trains.Today in the US meals in the dining cars can be expensive (but excellent) but traveling in a sleeper the meals are free. The best way to travel !

    • Thanks for writing, Betsy! Somewhere in my blog there is a piece that I wrote about Hungarian Goulash – I am intrigued that meals are free (or included) if you have a sleeper compartment; oh, that has been my dream for years – to take the train up the California coast and into Canada and then EAST to the east coast – and then back across the USA….I dream big; I know a few people who have traveled extensively on trains.

  2. Just checked in on the blog and was amazed at the work that has been done since I last looked. What a treasure you are creating. I could spend a week online just reading the memories and considering the recipes. I wonder if a museum is tapping in on this resource for future archival information? In another twenty years most of these first hand memories will be gone.

    • I agree, Doreen; when I came across the collection by our retiree group about growing up without electricity or growing up WITH outhouses, I wanted to update it for my blog for that very reason; we have a whole generation (or 2 or 3) growing up only knowing ipods and kindles and everything supersized–soon they won’t know what real film for cameras is and I heard before long CDs will be outdated (I am still hanging onto my cassette tapes and VHS videos…just saw an ad where you can transfer cassette tapes to Ipods & thought that might be worth checking into. Thanks for the generous words of praise!

  3. Dear Sandy:

    Just a note to thank you for the kind words about rail dining and my books on the subject. I’m proud of the fact that DINING BY RAIL has been out for now 18 years and still does well.

    If you like rail travel, visit my blog, JOURNEYS FOR A RAILROAD TOURIST (http://www.gozaic.com/Connect/Circles/Journeys-for-a-Railroad-Tourist/), overseen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. My most recent posting describes a 25 day trip I took across Canada, around British Columbia, and back home to Pennsylvania in 2002. In nearly 8,000 miles I spent all or part of 24 days on trains, including 12 nights in sleeping cars. A trip of a lifetime.

    I’ll be visiting Amtrak’s test kitchen next week, and will post a blog about that shortly after.

    Get in touch as you wish.

    Yours, in gastronomy,
    Jim Porterfield

    • Wow, Mr. Porterfield–I immediately recognized your name & my first thought was, I hope I didn’ t step oln any toes…I always try to be careful & accurate with my quotes. I would have liked quoting a great deal more–yours is one of the best books on the subject and I certainly WILL visit your blog. I am pea-green with envy over your train trip in 2002; it’s what I would love to do–even more now that I have two Canadian penpals, one in Saskatchewan and one in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I visited my Ontario penpal a couple of years ago & it was such a fantastic visit. She reallyshowed me around–and a girlfriend of hers is a retiree from a Niagara Falls organization (name slips my mind! MY BAD!) – she got us long strips of passes to visit many different historic sites in and around Niagara Falls. I really want to return next year for the bicentennial. I digress, sorry.
      my dream trip around Canada would be by train. And I am looking forward to reading whatyou think about Amtrak’s test kitchen–I wonder how it will compare to the kitchens of way back when? Can’t thank you enough for writing–you just made my day! Regards, Sandra

  4. Dear Sandra:

    I just updated my Gozaic site with a new blog, and included a link to your blog in the Articles section at the bottom of my site’s home page.

    Sorry, I didn’t see your reply to my comment until just now, when I checked to be sure the link worked. We’re to get sleet and freezing rain for the next two days, so I’m not sure I’ll get to Amtrak’s facility this week – it’s about 200 miles away. But if not now, later this month.

    In gastronomy,
    Jim Porterfield

  5. Thank you so much – James? Mr. Porterfield? Jim? I am delighted to get whatever attention I can for my blog. When I started this blog (March09) my editor @ Inky trail News (a newsletter mainly for seniors/women, penpals) wanted me to focus on a different audience – I just wanted to do my own thing with it, good/bad/ugly – for the most part, I have a lot of nieces and nephews and they often write asking me questions about how to make this or that- so a lot of times, my posts are (in my mind) like letters I would be writing to them–but gradually I began to appreciate how I can write about anything that interests me at all – that covers a lot of territory. Did you ever think, when you finished writing your book Dining By Rail, and it was published – that you would eventually have a website and be doing so much traveling? I am looking forward to reading about your upcoming visit to Amtrak – can imagine it may be delayed due to the weather; we’re hearing about it on the news here in California. thank you for subscribing to my blog! Regards,
    Sandy@sandychatter

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