Riding the Rails aboard a Vintage Private Train

My journey started at the end of September this year with a flight to Chicago to meet up with Doug, the owner of the “Pacific Sands”, a vintage Pullman Sleeper that was built in 1952 for the famous Union Pacific train “Overland Limited” which travelled between Chicago and Los Angeles. Luckily the taxi driver knew how to get to the Amtrak rail yard near Union Station. At sunrise the next morning the special train consisting of 31 private railcars departed Chicago bound for Cincinnati by way of Ft Wayne, Indiana. The route was planned to travel over tracks that had not seen a passenger train since the 1950’s. (this is what’s known to railroad buffs as “rare mileage”) Our first leg of the journey to Ft Wayne was on the former “Nickel Plate Road”, otherwise known as the New York, Chicago & St Louis Railroad and now part of the Norfolk Southern system. Leaving Chicago we passed through the old blue collar neighborhoods and crumbling industrial areas of the southside and northwestern Indiana before rolling into the beautiful expanse of farmland of northern Indiana.

Farmlands in northern Indiana
Farmlands in northern Indiana

Passing through the small towns we were always the center of attraction and the focus of everyone’s camera! (the young kids were especially excited to see our train)

South of Ft Wayne we followed the former Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to Muncie where we crossed over to the Indiana & Ohio Railroad that took us into downtown Cincinnati and an old railroad spur on the shore of the mighty Ohio River.

Parked for the night in Cincinnati
Parked for the night in Cincinnati
The next morning in Cincinnati
The next morning in Cincinnati

Here our train was parked for the next two days. (our train was pulled by two Amtrak locomotives, but since we were travelling off the regular Amtrak routes we had a “pilot” engineer from Norfolk Southern to provide guidance to the Amtrak engineers) Besides sleeping aboard the train we also had all of our meals on board, prepared by Allan, a private gourmet chef in the executive business car attached to our sleeper. (Meals ranged from fresh Trout Almondine and braised Brussel sprouts with Applewood smoked bacon to Korean short ribs and garlic mashed potatoes. In addition there was an open bar the entire trip!)

With travelling companions in the Kansas Business Car
With travelling companions in the Kansas Business Car

While in Cincinnati we had a guided tour of the Union Terminal, probably the most beautifully preserved example of Art Deco design in the country. Cincinnati Union Terminal

Cincinnati Union Station
Cincinnati Union Terminal
Inside Union Terminal
Inside Union Terminal
Ceramic Murals inside Union Terminal
Ceramic Murals inside Union Terminal
Cincinnati "Dinner Train"
Cincinnati “Dinner Train”

After the tour I walked through downtown and along the riverfront back to the train. Along the way I passed the historic John A. Roebling suspension bridge across the Ohio River built in 1866 and still in operation today. Roebling Suspension Bridge  At the time it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,057 feet. (Roebling is most famous as the engineer who invented wire rope and as the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is also still in use today.) John A. Roebling bio

Roebling Suspension Bridge over the Ohio River
Roebling Suspension Bridge over the Ohio River

The following morning was once again a departure at sunrise bound for Louisville by way of Lexington, Kentucky. Although the weather had changed overnight from clear skies to heavy overcast and light rain, the route on the former Southern Railway crossed over the Kentucky River on the historic “High Bridge”, a cantilevered design built in 1877 for the Cincinnati Southern Railroad to connect Lexington and Danville, then the capitol of Kentucky. At 305 feet high and 1,125 feet in length it was the tallest railroad bridge in the world until the early 20th century. High Bridge

High Bridge over the Kentucky River
High Bridge over the Kentucky River

Despite the low clouds and fog in the deep gorge below, it was a spectacular view as our train crossed over the bridge. That evening we pulled into the Norfolk Southern rail yard in Louisville where our train was scheduled to park for the next two days. It was not the most scenic spot in Louisville and lucky for us Norfolk Southern management made a last minute decision to relocate us to an old railroad spur on the river next to the McAlpine locks and dam where we had great views of the river and lights of downtown Louisville.

Parked in Louisville beside the Ohio River
Parked in Louisville beside the Ohio River

Before darkness fell I walked over to the locks to take photos of the towboats and barges negotiating the locks that allow river traffic to navigate around the “Falls of the Ohio”. McAlpine Locks & Dam

Barge moving into McAlpine Locks
Barge moving into McAlpine Locks

Some of the largest towboats had 15 barges that required all of their 12,000hp engine’s power to go upriver. Back on the train we were once again treated to a fabulous gourmet dinner by Allan as we watched the barges moving up and down the river less than 100 yards from our window.

The next morning we enjoyed a fantastic tour of the Hillerich & Bradsby Baseball Bat Factory that has been making the legendary “Louisville Slugger” since 1884 and remains the official bat of Major League Baseball today. Louisville Slugger Bats

Hillerich & Bradsby Bat factory
Hillerich & Bradsby Bat factory

Where it used to take over 2 hours to make a bat by hand from the oak or maple wood core, new computer guided lathes make a bat in less than 30 seconds! However, many of the major league players still have their bats custom made by hand. Following the tour of the bat factory we had lunch at Churchill Downs that was a sumptuous buffet of all the favorite southern foods of Kentucky, accompanied by Mint Juleps! The tour of the race track and Kentucky Derby museum was fascinating, but what was really amazing was the fact that last year over 175,000 people attended the Derby, which was 3 times more than attended the Super Bowl! Another amazing bit of trivia was about the scale of betting at the race track where over $100 million is wagered every year, and all in cash only! Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs Racetrack
Churchill Downs Racetrack

After the tour of Churchill Downs I walked through historic old town Louisville and took a peek inside the famous “Brown Hotel” with its extravagant original Victorian décor.

Lobby of the Brown Hotel
Lobby of the Brown Hotel

Then I came to the new “4th Street Live” development downtown where there were lots of restaurants, bars, and shops. Just beyond was the historic riverfront where the original sternwheel steamboat “Belle of Louisville” is moored. She was built in 1914 for the West Memphis Packet Company and served as a freight and passenger boat on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers before being purchased later by the City of Louisville as a boat for river cruises. It still operates almost year round in that capacity. Belle of Louisville

Belle of Louisville
Belle of Louisville

As evening fell I walked back to the train along the “Ohio River Walk” and watched the huge barges slowing moving up the river. The next morning we had an early 6:00am departure for the next leg of our journey through the scenic forests and farmlands of southern Indiana and southern Illinois to St Louis where the annual convention of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO) was held. Our route to St Louis followed the tracks of the former Southern Railway, as well as portions of the old Wabash Railroad. Everywhere we passed the harvesting of corn and soybeans by monster combines, and in some places it was such a bumper crop that the grain was being stored outside in huge mountains beside the tall silos that were already full! As we approached St Louis and crossed the mighty Mississippi River, the skyline of the city came into view with the famous “Gateway Arch” shining in the late afternoon sun.

Crossing the Mississippi River north of St Louis
Crossing the Mississippi River north of St Louis
Downtown St Louis and Gateway Arch
Downtown St Louis and Gateway Arch

Slowly our train made its way into the historic Union Station, once the largest and busiest railroad station in the world during the 1930’s and 40’s. During WWII hundreds of thousands of soldiers passed through the station on their way to the East Coast for deployment to Europe. St Louis Union Station  The station opened in 1895 with 42 tracks and at its height served 22 railroads and 100,000 passengers a day. Today it has only 4 tracks and 2 platforms remaining which are used for charter rail companies and special trains like ours.

St Louis Union Station
St Louis Union Station
1935 Photo of Union Station
1935 photo of Union Station

Rather than spend the next couple of nights on the train I checked into the new DoubleTree Hotel located inside the old station. It’s a beautiful restoration of the original Union Station Terminal Hotel that has preserved the elegant décor and atmosphere when it was the height of luxury for passengers traveling by train. Luckily the old station was not demolished after the dramatic decline of passenger rail travel in the late 1950’s.

The old "train shed" now redeveloped
The old “train shed” now redeveloped
The Grand Hall in Union Station
The Grand Hall in Union Station
Classic design from late 1800's
Classic design from late 1800’s

Now the old “trainshed” where 42 tracks were once located has been redeveloped as a center of upscale shops, restaurants and bars. Inside the main terminal building the gorgeous Art Deco features have been very well preserved, and a vibrant, modern enhancement has been added in the form of a beautiful and spectacular laser light show that performs every hour. Over the next 3 days we attended some interesting conference sessions, especially the one titled “Ask Amtrak” where the car owners got the opportunity to “bitch” about their complaints with Amtrak and the “host” freight railroads. But perhaps the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of the conference were the tours to the National Museum of Transportation with its large collection of vintage steam and diesel locomotives and the Barriger Railroad Library at the University of Missouri where we saw the largest collection of rare railroad books, as well as a beautiful special display of original paintings and drawings by John James Audubon.

World's largest steam locomotive ("Big Boy")
World’s largest steam locomotive (“Big Boy”)
World's largest diesel locomotive
World’s largest diesel locomotive
Audubon special display - University of Missouri Library
Audubon special display – University of Missouri Library

That evening was also a very special event, the “Car Party” where we were able to visit all of the private cars, each of which had either food or a bar available. Many of the cars are very historic and luxurious, some of them dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (A couple of the cars have a history of being used by president’s McKinley, Roosevelt, and Truman) It was a nice time to socialize with the other riders and the owners of the cars.

Vintage Baltimore & Ohio Railroad lounge car
Vintage Baltimore & Ohio Railroad lounge car
Former Wabash Railroad executive dining car
Former Wabash Railroad executive dining car
Former Northern Pacific Railroad dome car
Former Northern Pacific Railroad dome car

During our time in St Louis I took the opportunity to walk down to the historic old County Courthouse to see a fascinating exhibit about the history of St Louis in the 19th century. Of special significance was the history of the trial conducted in the 1830’s in which a slave sued his master for freedom. Two blocks from the old Courthouse is the spectacular “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial”, better known as the “Gateway Arch”. Gateway Arch

Old County Courthouse and Gateway Arch
Old County Courthouse and Gateway Arch
View of Gateway Arch from Citywalk Park
View of Gateway Arch from Citywalk Park

This year is the 50th anniversary of its construction and it remains the world’s tallest arch. The National Park Service was in the process of preparing a celebration to honor its unique construction and the symbol of the great westward expansion of the United States that it represents. It has also become the symbol of St Louis that is easily recognized around the world. From the Arch I walked north along the riverfront to “LaClede’s Landing” where St Louis was born. As I walked through the old cobble stone streets and among the lovely old red brick buildings dating from the 1800’s, it was like walking back in time.

Laclede's Landing and Morgan Street Brewery
Laclede’s Landing and Morgan Street Brewery

I stopped at the Morgan Street Brewery for a pint of the local beer and a bowl of soup before taking the Metro train to Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Exposition that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase1904 World’s Fair  Here I discovered the Museum of Missouri History and two incredible special exhibits.

Museum of Missouri History
Museum of Missouri History

The first was all about coffee and its history in St Louis, and to my great surprise, I learned that in the early 20th century the city was the leading consumer of coffee, with dozens of coffee houses all over town. The exhibit included many displays of classic old advertising and antique coffee paraphernalia. The second special exhibit detailed life in St Louis in 1875 and included hundreds of fascinating and surprising facts that made the experience of walking through the exhibit feel like walking into the past!

Special Exhibit of life in St Louis in 1875
Special Exhibit of life in St Louis in 1875
Display from the 1904 St Louis World's fair
Display from the 1904 St Louis World’s fair

Leaving the museum I walked through the park taking photos of the beautiful landscaped gardens and impressive old mansions lining the street across from the park.

Stroll through Forest Park
Stroll through Forest Park

Later that evening was the Gala Dinner Party held in the Grand Hall in Union Station. The food was superb, especially the Apple Cinnamon Cheesecake for dessert. After dinner we were treated to a special laser light show with many images depicting the history of the station and St Louis.

Gala Dinner in the Grand Hall - Union Station
Gala Dinner in the Grand Hall – Union Station

Early the next morning I checked out of the hotel and boarded the train where I joined my fellow travelling companions in the Kansas Business Car for a delicious breakfast of homemade waffles, smoked ham, and fresh fruit. Leaving St Louis our route took us north following the west side of the Mississippi River on the tracks of the former Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, the old “Burlington Route”, which is now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe system (BNSF). The views of the verdant fields and the river were beautiful. Soon we passed through historic Hannibal, Missouri and the monument to its native son, Mark Twain. Mark Twain Boyhood Home We crossed the river at Quincy, Illinois and rolled on through vast expanses of corn and soybean fields at 80 mph on to the historic railroad town of Galesburg. As our train slowly made its way through the town we were greeted by dozens of people waving and taking photos. At the same time I spotted a very traditional Amish family standing on the platform patiently waiting for the regularly scheduled Amtrak train to Chicago.

Passing through Galesburg, Illinois
Passing through Galesburg, Illinois

As we got closer to Chicago several Metra commuter trains passed by us with their passengers headed to homes in the western suburbs at the end of the work day.

Chicago Metra commuter train
Chicago Metra commuter train

Upon arriving at Union Station chef Allan served us with a delicious shrimp cocktail before dinner. It was a great ending to a very unique and amazing trip through the heart of the Midwest. Next year the convention will be held in Spokane, Washington and the special train will be assembled in Denver for a very scenic trip over tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad, as well as the former Northern Pacific and Great Northern Railroads. It should be another fantastic journey and one that I plan to do.

Meanwhile I took a taxi to O’Hare airport to board my return flight to LA, carrying with me a journal packed with travel notes, many photos in my camera, and a lot of stories to share with friends and family.

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