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  • Cross Country Trains, Christmas, and a Warm, Cozy Diner

    A Look Back to A Kid’s Big Passenger Train Ride, and the Always-Inviting Dining Car

    By Don Heimburger
    Photos by Don Heimburger

    With Christmas memories still in the air, I remember when, as a kid, I traveled with my train-loving father to Colorado to visit my brother who was a cadet at the Air Force Academy. We went by passenger train over the festive Christmas holiday when I was out of school. We started the rail journey in Tolono, Illinois where we caught the famous daily Wabash Cannon Ball, Train No. 1, which ran the 529 miles between Detroit and St. Louis.

    The dark blue train, consisting of perhaps seven or eight heavyweight passenger cars including a couple of headend baggage cars, pulled in at Tolono (where the Illinois Central main line from Chicago to New Orleans crossed) at 12:51 p.m. Boarding a coach with reclining seats, the Cannon Ball also carried a dining-lounge car, which I needled my father to let me at least walk through.

    We arrived at Delmar Station at 4:05 p.m., walked up a few steps, then down a few steps, and caught the Union Pacific (UP) City of St. Louis Domeliner (outfitted with all lightweight cars) for Denver Station, arriving there at 7:50 a.m. the next day. Then we caught the flashy chrome Denver & Rio Grande Royal Gorge at 9 a.m. for a short trip along the Front Range—through a blinding snowstorm—to beautiful Colorado Springs.

    Christmas Decorations a Highlight

    Besides seeing all the multi-colored Christmas lights and decorations peeking out from the snow up and down the cross-country Union Pacific line, especially on the main streets of the dozens of small towns in Missouri and Kansas back in the early 1960s, I remember the warm, inviting dining cars.

    Christmas time on board was extra special, because the dining car served special menus for the season. On the Milwaukee Road, a very early 1880s Christmas menu consisted of a selection of Hunter’s soup, roast beef, English ribs of beef, turkey with cranberry sauce, suckling pig, potatoes, green peas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mince pie, plum pudding, cake, ice cream, and fruits.

    It was here—in the dining car as a guest—you sat back and took your time for a good meal. The waiters took care of your needs in a timely and efficient manner. Good-tasting, delicious food—including desserts—had been either stocked on the train before departing, or were prepared fresh on-board for every meal. Decorated railroad china, well-polished silverware, and imported white Irish table linens, were used by the railroads.

    Dinner Chimes

    Prior to the dining car opening for lunch or dinner, often a waiter designated by the Steward, would come through the cars with a dinner chime. To summon passengers, he’d strike the bars in the center, directly over the resonator opening with a quick blow of the mallet. Many of these melodious chimes were made by J.C. Deagan, Inc. of Chicago. Many railroads played the famous “NBC” notes (G, E, and C when this practice started in the 1930s).

    For baked goods, the Northern Pacific (NP) supplied breads, rolls, pastries, and pastas from their food shops at each end of the line. The NP’s special toast bread, baked in 2½ pound loaves, was stocked in commissaries in sufficient quantities to last an entire train trip over several days. During Christmas, the NP presented slices of NP Fruit Cake to dining car patrons, and even gave out holly corsages to every woman passenger on the North Coast Limited, all complimentary.

    On our Colorado trip, I remember the UP’s inviting and friendly diner, with heavy silverware, a fresh flower at each table, and fine white linen napkins. For a kid, this was big-time railroading. This was a Christmas adventure to remember. This was riding in style.


    For more information, contact Don Heimburger at

    A typical lightweight dining car, where the savory smells of good things to eat emanated from the galley section, was an important car on long-distance trains.

    This New York Central Railroad color illustration from one of the railroad's early ads promotes the fun and convenience of eating on board one of the railroad's "King-Size" dining cars.

    The dining car menu from an Atlantic Coast Line (Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad) menu includes soups and appetizers, breads, desserts, beverages, specials and a luncheon menu with 10 separate items listed.

    The Wabash Railroad ran the Cannon Ball between St. Louis and Detroit; the railroad's motto was "Follow the Flag."

    The Union Pacific followed a cross-country route between St. Louis and the West Coast. Its sleek yellow passenger trains included the City of St. Louis.  

    The Seaboard Railroad diners often had a Head Steward and as many as 10 cooks, assistant cooks, waiters and helpers assigned to a long-distance train.


    Article Details

    • Original Author Don Heimburger
    • Publication Date December 22, 2010

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