historian, author, film producer

On the Union Pacific Steam Excursion

We set off yesterday on the Union Pacific’s historic route from Omaha station to North Platte. We were pulled by Engine No. 844, built in 1944 and the last steam locomotive constructed for the Union Pacific. This special excursion benefitted the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Along the route to Elkhorn, Grand Island, Gibbon, and Kearney, spectators lined the nearby roads to watch the 844 steam past. Everyone waved, took pictures, and cheered. “Train chasers” followed along nearby highways and state route 30, racing ahead to shoot video over and over again.

In North Platte, the 844 was detached and several E-9 locomotives from the Streamliner era hauled us back home to Omaha. The 844 is a massive, black beast of a machine, and its steam power to this day remains awe-inspiring.

The locomotive, though the principal actor in this drama, was no more impressive that the Union Pacific’s fleet of lounge and dome cars, beautifully maintained and restored. We were in the City of San Francisco. Its burnished wood and etched glass suggest opulence and grace. The City of San Francisco’s lounge was arranged for conviviality, conversation, and exclusivity. Its beautifully appointed fixtures and upholstery speak of graceful restraint and sophistication.

On the Union Pacific's 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010, near Elkhorn, Nebraska

One is struck immediately by these objects–the locomotives, the old depots, the gorgeous lounge cars, and the dining cars. Their designs were both functional and high modern. The U.P.’s old depot is now the Durham Museum, the Burlington’s old depot sits empty across the tracks from the Durham in Omaha.

The railroads created beautiful material objects across the landscape of the United States, often at great cost both to their owners and their builders. But the landscape of high modernism was carried in these cars too, moving with the City of San Francisco across the Great Plains through places such as North Platte, Nebraska.

This was especially apparent on the dining car, where the Union Pacific set a full service lunch and dinner with Union Pacific silver, china, and glass wear.

The Overland's bar and mural, Union Pacific 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010

The mural here behind the bar on “The Overland” depicts the distinctive yellow of the Union Pacific passenger streamliner locomotive and its long line of cars, racing across the great West. But the mural in the “Walter Dean” showed an earlier era of excursion, one featuring Native Americans shooting bison from horseback and excursionists shooting bison from the train windows.

Such scenes were meant to be iconic, and they of course reduced the history of these events, ignoring the past in many cases. Yet, the iconic nature of these objects and their place in high modern architecture, art, design, and social life cannot be ignored. They worked in the 1930s and 40s, and earlier, to create a world of separation–the past from the present, the natural from human, the physical from social. The world of machinery and design did not compete with history, it suggested a history all of its own.

We might long for a resurgence in such graceful designs. We certainly today could not be blamed for wanting a less impoverished form of public transportation (compare airports with the grand depots). But we often mix up nostalgia and history.

The Overland Diner/Lounge Car on the Union Pacific's 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010

Perhaps we can recover the high values of design represented so eloquently in the Union Pacific’s cars while at the same time not repeating the discriminations and inequities in some of modern America’s spaces. The restricted roles black Americans faced in the railroads of yesteryear are often forgotten in the soft glow of the dining car, its alluring silver setting, and its clubby bar meant to be manned.

We should be inspired by the elegance of the cars, and we are. We should be inspired by the steam locomotive, and we could not be otherwise. But we also should look at the empty spaces behind the bar, and think who stood there and what their world was like. Who built these objects and maintained them. And who traveled in them.

This trip was an adventure back in time, and truth be told a wonderful one. The Union Pacific could not have been better organized or helpful–the trip was a delight in every way. We passed through the great Platte valley, skirting along what is today highway 30. The bluffs visible in the distance gave everyone a subtle indication of this historic nature of the landscape and the journey.

One of the President’s of the old Louisville and Nashville once remarked that his railroad had not made a “d —– cent” out of passenger traffic. Indeed, many railroads in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tolerated passenger traffic as a necessary part of the business in order the mollify the public while they made money on freight. One wonders why the railroads invested anything in passenger service.

But the earliest railroads in the 1840s and 1850s were envisioned and operated as passenger lines. They opened up a vastly important new mobility for Americans. And this idea persisted; despite many a railroad executive’s skepticism, passenger travel continued to mark the railroads as a key force in America’s modernity. It’s easy to see why this was so, when you are sitting in the lounge car of the Union Pacific’s City of San Francisco pulled by the massive steam-driven Engine No. 844, and flying across the broad prairie of Nebraska west into the sunset.