Railroad Stories: Riding the Rails Was Adventure

In the 1930s, riding the rails was an adventure to children.

Old train and depot

Old steam trains and railroad depots are a thing of the past, but they will never be forgotten.


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We were to take a trip to California on the train! In the 1930s, riding the rails across the Unites States was as thrilling to children then as a voyage into outer space might be today. From our home in Detroit, we eagerly looked forward to this exciting adventure.

My older brother and I had just recovered from bouts of whooping cough, and our parents believed a visit to the sunny West Coast would work its magic on us. In addition, we would meet several relatives. Of course, we also had heard a lot about Hollywood and certainly hoped we would see some stars.

It was fun packing our suitcases and going down to the old Michigan Central Station in Detroit for our train trip to Chicago. Our papa had to stay home to work, but he was there to wave goodbye as we left with our mother and grandmother on the first leg of our journey.

Arriving in Chicago, we were shuttled clear across town from one huge railroad station to another even larger station, where cross-country train trips began.

We enjoyed sitting on benches in the huge waiting room, hearing trains being announced and watching passengers lining up and hurrying off to their trains.

Then the loud, squawky public address system announced our train, and it was time for us to board the Santa Fe Super Chief for our 40-hour, 2,000 plus-mile trip.

We hurried down the concourse to the track where our sleek train was waiting, while the sturdy red cap brought along our luggage. The conductor, with his cap and brass buttons and big watch, placed a metal step stool on the platform and helped us climb up into the train. It appeared very large and imposing to us children. We found our seats in the Pullman car and eagerly awaited departure. The conductor checked our tickets, and we were on our way at last. We felt very comfortable. Ventilation in our car was good as were temperature and humidity. There was plenty of room, and large, soft pillows were provided. The ride was clean, quiet and smooth. We spent a lot of our time looking out the windows, of course, and we also read and played games. When we became tired, we would nap.

Fellow passengers fascinated us. After spending so much time together, we got acquainted. There was a very stunning-looking girl on her way to Hollywood to get in the films. Card games were very popular. We only watched. One gambler turned out to be a card shark. We heard that one night after winning from several people, he got off at a stop in the middle of the night and never came back.

To this day, many highlights and experiences stand out in our minds. Passing over bridges and trestles, along grades and through tunnels was exciting. When the train went around a big curve, we could look out the window and see our own engine up ahead.

A great way to see more of the country was to return via another route. The conductor would tell us when some unusual sight was coming up so we could watch for it. On the Northern Route, we went across the Great Salt Lake Cutoff, which became monotonous as it involved the largest bridge, 12 miles long. The great desert and sights like El Canyon Diablo were fascinating to look for in the Southwest.

Conductors and porters changed at division points. They all were very courteous and pleasant, as were all the dining car waiters. The conductor called out station stops where passengers could get off briefly. When we pulled into a station for a brief stop, the candy butcher would come aboard the train with a large tray slung from a cord around his shoulders and sell candy, nuts, newspapers, magazines and small souvenirs. Some of the Native American silver jewelry was lovely, often set with turquoise stones and Mexican "fire opals."

If we wanted to stretch our legs on the train, we would go get a drink of water from the fountain at the end of each car. You pulled a little paper triangle from the dispenser and pinched it open into a small cup. It was tricky trying to drink while the train car swayed and jiggled.

Passenger rail service in the United States between the two world wars was never more luxurious, and meals in the diner were excellent. We would walk through the cars to the diner and were always thrilled as the connecting metal floor plates would shift and rattle while we tried to pull open the heavy doors.

The diner was just like being in a fine restaurant with elegant appointments, china and silver, and fine linens complementing delicious food ordered from a large menu. For example, a glass of tomato juice was served surrounded by a huge bowl of cracked ice. We were certain the famed Orient Express had nothing better. Of course, this was quite costly, as a full breakfast was 25 cents, lunch was at least 30 cents and a three-course dinner could cost as much as 50 cents. They had special "teas" for children on their own menu.

When it was time for bed, we never grew tired of watching the porter make up the berths. We could call the porter with a handy bell by our window. He took a huge key to open up and let down the upper berth, which was used in the daytime for storing the bedding. The ingenious design quickly transformed daytime seats into double-decker, comfortable beds with crisp white sheets and warm blankets. Our bags went on a shelf and we put our clothes into a little woven hammock. A safety ladder was provided for the top passenger. There was only one problem - if you forgot and suddenly sat up, you would bang your head. For extra cost, one could ride in a private drawing room or compartment.

It sometimes was hard to go to sleep right away. Once we were buttoned in behind the thick curtains, it was such fun to run up the window shade over our berth and look out at the night. We would see gates and flashing lights at intersections as cars waited for our train to rush by.

One night, we woke up when the train was backing up very rapidly. An inquiry revealed that we were on the wrong track and were trying to get on a siding, out of the way of the Limited before it rushed through.

One evening, our train paused for just a few minutes at Albuquerque, N.M., and there was our Aunt Clara and Uncle Bert waiting for us on the platform.

Our return trip was equally thrilling. When we arrived home at last, Papa was waiting on the platform to greet us. He said we had grown and were the picture of health and full of sunshine. Now we considered ourselves seasoned travelers, and we were eager to share all our interesting experiences with our friends, neighbors, relatives and schoolmates.

Many years and many train trips have not erased our fond memories of this first luxurious train ride.

George and Mary Green
(Brother and sister)
Dearborn, Mich., and Toledo, Ohio

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.