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The Super Chief was one of the named passenger trains and the flagship of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. It claimed to be "The Train of the Stars" because of the many celebrities it carried between Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California.
The Super Chief (Nos. 17 & 18) was the first Diesel-powered, all-Pullman sleeping car train in America, and it eclipsed the Chief as Santa Fe's standard bearer. The extra-fare ($10) Super Chief left Dearborn Station in Chicago for its first trip on May 12, 1936. Before starting scheduled service in May 1937, the lightweight version of the Super Chief ran 2,227 miles (3,584 km) from Los Angeles over recently upgraded tracks in 36 hours and 49 minutes, averaging 60 mph (97 km/h) overall, and often reaching 100 mph (160 km/h).
The Super Chief set a new standard for rail travel in America. With one set of equipment, the train initially operated once a week from both Chicago and Los Angeles. After more cars had been delivered the Super Chief ran twice weekly, and daily after 1948. Adding to the train's mystique were its gourmet meals and Hollywood clientele.
Competitors to the Super Chief were the City of Los Angeles, a streamlined passenger train on the Chicago and North Western Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad, and (to a lesser extent) the Golden State, a streamlined passenger train on the Rock Island and Southern Pacific railroads. The Santa Fe Super Chief was one of the last passenger trains in the United States to carry an all-Pullman consist; only the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broadway Limited and the Illinois Central's Panama Limited survived longer. The train maintained its legendary high level of service until the end of Santa Fe passenger operations on May 1, 1971.
When Amtrak took over operation of the nation's passenger service on May 1, 1971, the 35-year run of the Super Chief on the Santa Fe ended, though Amtrak would continue to use the name on the same route for three years. In 1974 the Santa Fe withdrew permission to use the name due to a perceived decline in service, so Amtrak renamed it Southwest Limited. Following the delivery of new Superliner equipment, the Santa Fe allowed Amtrak to call it the Southwest Chief in 1984.
Santa Fe's marketing advantage for the Super Chief lay in the geography of the route as well as its ownership. The Santa Fe began as a rail line along the old Santa Fe and Spanish Trails, from the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers (at Atchison and Topeka, Kansas) to the Pecos River and Rio Grande in New Mexico. This initial route was eventually extended to Los Angeles.
The convenience of traveling "Santa Fe All The Way" was superior to anything that the competing jointly operated railroads could provide on their routes to the west coast. A single traffic and operating department ruled all the divisions and districts of the Santa Fe route from Chicago to Los Angeles. Dining cars, the commissary supply chains, the on-board service crews and their management; all worked together (as they were working for a single company) from Chicago to Los Angeles.
The Super Chief ran through Kansas City, Missouri; Newton, Kansas; Dodge City, Kansas; La Junta, Colorado; Raton, New Mexico; Las Vegas, New Mexico; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Gallup, New Mexico; Winslow, Arizona; Seligman, Arizona; Needles, California; Barstow, California; San Bernardino, California; and Pasadena, California. During the pre-war years the Super Chief did not allow passengers to board or disembark at any point between Kansas City and Barstow; all intermediate stops were operating stops only, to change crews or to service the train. During the war the rules were relaxed to carry passengers to and from Albuquerque and La Junta, but only when unsold space was available at train time. It was not until the postwar era that passengers could travel to intermediate stations on the Super Chief.
|This section is in a list format that may be better presented using prose. (August 2012)|
The first motive power set on Super Chief-1 consisted of a pair of blunt-nosed, diesel-electric units (EMC 1800 hp B-B) designated as Nos. 1 and 1A. Santa Fe employees quickly hung the nicknames "One-Spot Twins" and "Amos & Andy" (from the popular radio show of the day) on the units, which were always paired and ran back-to-back. In a little over a year the EMC E1, a new and improved 3,600 hp (2.7 MW) streamlined diesel-electric locomotive set (one 1800 hp hood unit and the other a cabless booster unit also making 1800 hp) would be pulling Super Chief consists.
A variety of state-of-the-art locomotives (including ALCO PAs, EMD E6s, FTs, F3s, F7s, and FP45s, along with Santa Fe's only ALCO DL-107/108s and FM Erie-built units) would make their appearances on the line in the succeeding years. All wore the now-familiar Warbonnet paint scheme devised by Leland Knickerbocker of the GM "Art and Color Section" that debuted on the Super Chief-2.
The Super Chief-1's mostly-heavyweight original consist included:
NOTE: Lightweight sleeper Forward was built in the summer of 1936 as the first Pullman sleeping car utilizing the "alloy-steel truss frame" method. This car was an addition to the first (heavyweight) Super Chief consist in November 1936 (after early diesel units 1-A, 1-B and leased 1-C [the "One Spot Twins"] had proved their ability to maintain the rigorous schedule). It was built unpainted with fluted sides but was painted dark grey with black and gold striping for use on the Santa Fe. Forward was built in the same period as the articulated set Advance and Progress (constructed in August 1936), which were later used on the early C&NW/UP/SP Chicago-San Francisco "Forty-Niner" which used semi-streamlined heavyweight dining, lounge and sleeping cars with the articulated set on the rear renamed Bear Flag and California Republic. See Joe Welsh, Travel by Pullman, MBI Publishing, 2004.
In May 1937, the heavyweight equipment used on the Super Chief was replaced with all lightweight stainless steel cars built by the Budd Company (the heavyweight cars were placed back in service with the Chief). For the new lightweight train (the Super Chief-2), the equipment used was as follows:
The sleeping cars in this consist were operated by Pullman but were owned by the Santa Fe. The car names were chosen to commemorate the Native American tribes, pueblos, and cities found along the railroad's route.
On February 26, 1938 the consist was modified somewhat:
The railroad also added another trainset (the Super Chief-2½) utilizing sleeping cars borrowed from the Chief in order to handle the high demand for passage aboard the train. Its original consist was as follows:
On July 2 of that year the permanent Super Chief-3 consist was established:
Beginning in 1947, a typical Super Chief consist:
A typical Super Chief consist from 1948 to 1951:
In the 1940s and into the 1950s, the Super Chief occasionally interchanged sleepers with other railroads in order to provide "coast-to-coast" sleeping car service. In those instances, sleepers from eastern connections would take the place of Regal– or Pine–series cars:
A typical Super Chief consist from 1951 to 1956:
A typical Super Chief consist from the early 1960s (all-Pullman section):
A typical Super Chief consist from the late 1960s (combined with El Capitan):
The world-famous Super Chief was an almost-instant success among travelers who appreciated its modern, air conditioned cars, private bedrooms, high amenity levels, and smooth ride, all of which lent the train a certain "snob appeal." The train was staffed with top-of-the-line crews who were ingrained with the best traditions of the railroad, and not only drew passengers from competing railroads but from other Santa Fe trains such as the Chief as well. Patrons took pleasure in the ability to "...Travel Santa Fe — all the way" to their destinations without the need to change trains, or at least railroads, en route.
The Super Chief quickly became "the" train to ride between Chicago and Los Angeles, much as New York Central's 20th Century Limited was the favored travel option of the time for the East Coast-bound. To acquaint passengers with the various points-of-interest located along the route, Santa Fe constructed a series of seven signs marking such notable features as the Continental Divide and Raton Pass.
In the mid-1940s, company president Fred G. Gurley went to great lengths to solicit business from California's motion picture industry. To that end, a passenger agent was located in Hollywood specifically for the purpose of maintaining close contact with the movie studios. Furthermore, the train stopped at the Pasadena station solely for the purpose of allowing celebrities the opportunity to board or disembark away from the "hustle and bustle" of Los Angeles' Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT). When the Santa Fe was notified that a particular celebrity was going to be traveling on board the Super Chief, a press release was issued to allow the media the opportunity to interview and photograph the star.
In time, the passenger list would resemble a veritable "who's who" of Hollywood stars: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, James Cagney, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby (to name but a few) all rode the Super Chief. The train's appeal was not limited to those in the entertainment industry, though, as it also played host to Ronald Reagan, former presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and their wives.
In June 1952, Warner Bros. Pictures released Three for Bedroom "C", a romantic comedy starring Gloria Swanson, James Warren, Fred Clark, Hans Conried, and Steve Brodie. In the film, an aging movie star (Swanson) hides out in a compartment during a cross-country journey from New York to Los Angeles aboard the Super Chief.
Swanson's first color film also bears the distinction of being one of very few to be shot entirely aboard actual railroad equipment. Santa Fe transported actual passenger cars from the Super Chief to the production company's studio lot for filming. The film met with lukewarm reviews and was not, as had been hoped, a financial success. It did, however, nicely showcase the many features of the Super Chief, which many train buffs feel is the real star of the motion picture.
The cartoon The Funny Company featured an Indian by the name of Super Chief who could only make the sound of a diesel train horn that would be translated.
Is a short story by Woodrow W. Walker, in which former movie stuntman turned private detective Buck Ames marries his stuntwoman girlfriend Helen Davis. They board the Super Chief for their honeymoon and find a murder.
Jim Lehrer's novel Super (2010), a mystery deliberately reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, tells the story of a Santa Fe Railroad Police detective who must try to solve two unrelated murders on the Super Chief, one on the way from Chicago to Los Angeles, the second on the return trip, while simultaneously dealing with the foibles of a number of celebrities riding the train on those trips, including Former President Harry S Truman and movie star Clark Gable.
In Douglas Folsom's novel, "The Return Of The Santa Fe Super Chief" (2013), a mysterious stranger challenges successful ad executive Roger Storm to restore the original famous luxury train for one final run from Chicago to Los Angeles. Roger has to decide if he wants to risk everything to find a happiness that he never knew was lost. Containing elements of mystery and spirituality, the plot centers on the list of passengers the mysterious stranger directs Roger to invite for the trip with a few twists at the end. The novel also shows the forgotten romance of luxury train travel. With themes of forgiveness, love, and second chances, the story is reminiscent of "Field Of Dreams" and "An Affair to Remember".
Most railroads began offering some form of meal service on their trains as an alternate to the poor fare typically found at trackside establishments even before the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. By the mid-1880s, dedicated dining cars were a normal part of all long-distance train consists departing from Chicago for points west, save for those of the Santa Fe, who relied on America's first interstate network of restaurants to feed its passengers en route. The legendary "Harvey Houses," located strategically along the line, served top-quality meals to railroad patrons during water stops and other planned layovers and were favored over in-transit facilities for all trains operating west of Kansas City.
The Super Chief included dining cars, staffed by Fred Harvey Company personnel, as part of its standard consist from the outset. In general, the Super Chief operated 36-seat dining cars, although most of them were convertible to 48-seat dining cars with a flip-top (or change of) table and addition of chairs. Dining cars almost always operated with a lounge car coupled to them for bar-lounge service and a waiting area when the dining car was full. Unlike the Union Pacific "City" trains, the Super Chief and other Santa Fe trains did not use the "twin-unit" dining cars. Santa Fe, in general, ran somewhat shorter trains that could be serviced with a single dining car (although the heavyweight trains frequently operated in several sections, the streamlined trains generally did not). The height of Super Chief lounge and dining facilities came in 1951 with the new 600-series Dining Cars bracketed by the 500 series Pleasure Domes in front and a bar-lounge-dormitory unit in back (moved from the front of the trains). The train still operated with the Vista-series 4 Drawing Room, 1 double bedroom observation cars on the rear, albeit without any bar or buffet service.
The bar-lounge cars next to the diner always included dormitory space for the train crew (a staff of 3-4 cooks and 6-7 stewards) required for the two-night and one day trip. The eight Pullmans on the train had a capacity of between 150 and 200 passengers when full but often ran with single occupancy rooms, making the passenger load less.
When Santa Fe rolled out its new "Pleasure Dome"-Lounge cars in 1951, the railroad introduced the traveling public to the Turquoise Room, promoted as "The only private dining room in the world on rails." The room accommodated 12 guests, and could be reserved anytime for private dinner or cocktail parties, or other special functions. The room was often used by celebrities and dignitaries traveling on the Super Chief. As was the case on other railroads, dining car service proved to be a losing proposition financially. Santa Fe, more than any of its competitors, took the concept of using onboard meal service as a "loss leader" to the highest level to attract and retain customers. Consequently, the name Super Chief became synonymous with the finest fare available on wheels.
The Continental cuisine offered aboard the Super Chief went beyond the typical American fare found on other trains, and often rivaled that served in many five-star restaurants, befitting the train's upscale clientele. A "Wake-Up Cup" of coffee was brought to one's private bedroom each morning, on request, a service exclusive to the Super Chief. Breakfast and lunch were served à la carte, while dinner could be ordered either à la carte or table d'hôte.
The elaborate dinner offerings generally included caviar and other delicacies, cold salads, grilled and sauteéd fish, sirloin steaks and filet mignon, lamb chops, and the like. For discerning palates, elegant champagne dinners were an option. One of the Super Chief's most popular signature dishes was the AT&SF version of pain perdu, simply and appropriately named "Santa Fe French Toast".
The decor, linens, and other dining car accoutrements reflected the same Southwestern flair that was prevalent throughout the rest of the train. Mary Colter (architect, Indian art expert, and 35-year veteran of the Fred Harvey Company) designed the china and silverware used on the Super Chief. Colter, who also designed the interiors of Fred Harvey’s opulent La Fonda, La Posada, and El Tovar hotels, based her dinnerware motif on the Native American pictographs of animals and geometric patterns left behind on clay pots by the ancient inhabitants of the Rio Mimbres Valley in southwestern New Mexico, around 1100 AD.
The "Mimbreño" pattern was produced between 1936 and 1970 by the Onondaga Pottery Co. of Syracuse, New York under its better-known trade name, Syracuse China. The bottoms carried the inscription "Made expressly for Santa Fe Dining Car Service." These distinctive pieces made their debut on the dining car Cochiti in 1937. Used on the Super Chief and other named trains until the end of Santa Fe passenger service in 1971, original Mimbreño dinnerware can still be found today in service on BNSF Railway business cars.
Mimbreño has been dubbed "the oldest of all railroad china" as its design concept dates back nearly ten centuries. Demand for surviving original pieces has created a substantial collector's market, and led to the issuance of authorized reproductions in recent years.
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