On the Twentieth Century: Golden Age of Train Travel

Posted on: May 6th, 2015 by Roundabout

America is experiencing a resurgence in passenger rail travel. Between 1995 and 2012, ridership rose 55%. On the Acela Express, you can get from Washington, D.C. to Boston in 6 hours, 45 minutes. During the trip you can order vegetarian lasagna or a turbot fillet and sip a glass of wine or champagne, all while you get some work done via the train’s wireless internet connection.

But none of the modern amenities in American passenger rail come close to the opulence and luxury of the Twentieth Century Limited.

New York Central train in the early 1900s.

New York Central train in the early 1900s.


When it debuted on June 15, 1902, the Twentieth Century Limited was the flagship train of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (NYC&HR). At the time, passenger rail accounted for virtually all interstate travel: cars weren’t widely available, highways were nonexistent, and the Wright Brothers had yet to take their famous flight. The only way to get from New York to Chicago was by train.

The Twentieth Century Limited was the creation of George H. Daniels, the General Passenger Agent and first advertising manager of the NYC&HR. Daniels was a marketing wizard: he branded the NYC&HR as “America’s Greatest Railroad” in 1890, introduced red-hatted porters, or “redcaps,” to assist passengers with baggage for free in 1896, published books and magazines advertising resorts and sights along railroad routes, and re-imagined dining car and depot restaurant food and service. By 1902, improvements in railroad track technology and a more powerful locomotive engine set the stage for the biggest success of Daniels’ career: the Twentieth Century Limited.

Advertisement for the anniversary of the 20th Century Limited.

Advertisement for the anniversary of the 20th Century Limited.

Operating in conjunction with the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, the Twentieth Century traveled from Grand Central Station in New York City, along the Hudson River, across the shores of Lake Erie, to the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, and back each day. Advertisements touted the train’s “Water Level Route,” offering better sleeping conditions than competing trains, which cut through the Appalachian Mountains. Trains departed Grand Central at 2:45pm and arrived in Chicago 20 hours later, at 9:45am, maintaining an average speed of 49 miles per hour.

Forty-two passengers lined up for the Twentieth Century Limited’s inaugural trip. The train consisted of a ten-wheel steam engine, three Pullman sleeper cars, a dining car, and a buffet/library car, all of which were fairly standard. But it was the little extras Daniels added that made the Twentieth Century Limited so special: a barber shop, so passengers could arrive well-groomed; valets and maids; a trained secretary/stenographer to assist businessmen; and electric lights powered by the movement of the train’s axle. When the train pulled in to LaSalle Street Station, oil and steel tycoon John W. Gates stepped off and told waiting reporters that the train “made Chicago a suburb of New York.”

The Twentieth Century was an immediate success. Travel time was soon cut to 18 hours. In 1912, an advertising trade publication ran an assessment of the train’s first ten years titled Making a Train World Famous: How the 20th Century Limited Has Become a Business Necessity and Its Name an English Idiom by Advertising . The author pointed out that the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Pennsylvania Special offered nearly identical service in terms of time, cost, and comfort, but the Twentieth Century’s widespread newspaper advertising made it a household name. Albany residents “set their watches by the Twentieth Century Limited.” Ty Cobb was “as fast as the Twentieth Century Limited.”

In 1914, the New York Central & Hudson River and the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern were merged into the New York Central System, one of the largest companies in the country. Passenger rail travel peaked in 1920, when 1.2 million people rode the rails. On average, 47 million “passenger miles” (one passenger traveling one mile) were traveled each day that year.

As ridership grew, the Twentieth Century expanded both in size and amenities, adding manicurists, telephones, and air conditioning. Dinner was business formal, with freshly-prepared gourmet meals served on china and white tablecloths. Cocktails were delivered to private rooms. Mail cars were added: postal clerks sorted and stamped “fast mail” on the swaying train.

20th_Century_Ltd_StreamlinedOne could secure an upper or lower berth for the trip, which meant an open seat during the day that converted into a curtained-off bunk at night. Toilet facilities were shared and featured “dental lavatories.” Going up in price, one could get a walled off roomette with private toilet, a bedroom with upper and lower berths and private toilet, a compartment with two berths, a sofa, lounge chair, and private toilet, a drawing room with three berths, a wardrobe, sofa, movable lounge chairs, and private toilet, and finally, a double bedroom or bedroom suite with two adjoining bedrooms, each with private amenities.

The Twentieth Century became known as the “train of tycoons” and catered to the biggest names of its time: Marshall Field, Walter Chrysler, and William Wrigley, Jr. Hollywood celebrities rode the Twentieth Century. Despite all this, ridership was declining by the late 1930s, and the NYCS commissioned industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss to give the train an art deco makeover.

The new train debuted on June 10, 1938. Lighter and faster, it made the trip to Chicago in 16 hours. The train’s exterior had a streamlined shape and was two shades of gray with a blue stripe—colors chosen to match the urban environments of New York and Chicago. At night, the train’s two dining cars (which featured radios and “automatic record changing phonographs”) were converted into the Cafe Century nightclub.

After the redesign, the NYCS began rolling out a plush red carpet on the platform in Grand Central Station. This touch of hospitality is the origin of the action “walk the red carpet” and the phrase “the red carpet treatment,” both of which entered the lexicon as fans gathered to watch celebrities disembark.

After WWII, train travel in the United States went into decline as air travel and car trips became more popular. The Twentieth Century Limited made its last run on December 3, 1967.

The article is from the Education at Roundabout Upstage Guide. For the complete guide, visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, On the Twentieth Century

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